For the last four or five weeks I have been shooting exclusively with a wide angle prime lens. The lens focal length is new to me (28mm on a 35mm film equivalent), and I am having a really hard time shooting with it. It's frustrating not to be able to shoot the way that I normally do. I’m missing shots. I'm shooting too loose, too tight, my framing and composition are out of whack. It is a big change.
At the same time however, I can feel how much it is starting to change the way I see the world, what I look for in composition and most importantly, I feel like my photography is creeping forward towards a new and interesting place. I know from experience to stick it out, because once I get to grips with that new prime lens focal length, I will have another tool in the story telling kit.
Prior to these few weeks of frustration shooting with my 28mm prime, I have spent the last 2 or more years shooting exclusively with a 35mm prime, and when I started I had the same difficulty and frustrations, but I stuck it out. So I want to talk about prime lenses, and why I think if you stick with them they are a great way to challenge and improve your photography in general, and especially your street photography.
Prime lens for street photography
One of the most popular questions on the photography internet is “what is the best lens for street photography?”. Whilst this is of course a matter of taste, and depends totally on individual preference and style, it is fair to say that there are a few standard responses from most street photographers when you survey them for their thoughts on what lens to use.
Regardless of focal length, the majority of shooters will tell you that a prime is the best way to go. Prime lenses have one, fixed focal length. Unlike zoom lenses, prime lenses don't allow you to get closer to a subject or to capture a wider area of the scene in front of you by simply operating the zoom ring or buttons on your camera. The only way to achieve this is to "zoom with your feet" - that is, walk closer or further away from your subject. Although this may sound inconvenient to many new photographers, I think a prime is the only lens that you should use for street photography. In fact I would say shooting with a fixed focal length lens is the best way to improve your photography period.
So what are the benefits of shooting with a prime lens?
Prime lenses are lighter and smaller
Because apparently it takes less glass to make a prime lens, especially at wider focal lengths, they are generally lighter and easier to carry around all day. Zoom lenses also need to build in all of the apparatus that makes them zoomable, further adding to size and weight.
Prime lenses are faster
Prime lenses tend to have the option for a wider minimum aperture, making them a 'faster' lens. The "fast" in "faster" refers to the fact that by opening up to a wider aperture, these lenses let in more light, and therefore can be used with a faster shutter speed. They also offer the opportunity to use a shallower depth of field and generate a pleasing blurred background with the subject tack sharp. Of course as a story telling lens, you might not necessarily need to shoot at the shallow depth of field that a fast prime offers all the time. But in some situations it becomes useful, and is definitely handy in super low light or at night.
Prime lenses are smaller
Primes are generally smaller than zoom lenses. Especially on so called “crop sensor” micro-four-thirds and APSC cameras, primes can get tiny. My 18mm Fuji f/2 is almost a pancake lens and is light enough that I don’t think twice about throwing it in the bag (although lately it has been just glued to the camera).
Primes are sharper
I’m not sure about the optics and why this works exactly. It must be because of the design of zooms vs primes but generally primes are so sharp and at f/8 and above they are crazy sharp. I have a sigma 35mm f/1.4 for my Canon which is ridiculously sharp. Generally speaking, it takes a very high quality and expensive zoom to match the sharpness that your average prime lens can produce.
Prime lenses train your photographic eye
All of the above details are important and definitely come into consideration when thinking about using a prime lens, but for me the most important reason for shooting with a prime lens is that it trains your eye to see images in the particular focal length that you have chosen, and visualise the scene. It also imposes restrictions which make you more creative because you have to think about how you are going to achieve a successful photograph within those limits.
You cannot zoom to recompose to change the way a scene looks in your frame - or rather the only zoom you have is with your feet, moving closer and further away from the subject to change the composition. This simplifies your choices and frees your brain up to start making other more important decisions about the photo.
Choosing a Prime Lens for Street Photography
So if you are thinking about getting a prime lens for your setup, you might be wondering what focal length to choose. There are many different choices for lenses on interchangeable lens cameras when it comes to prime lenses, including the classic street photography focal lengths of 28mm, 35mm and 50mm, to start with.
Some good advice I have been given in the past is to go to your photo catalogue and look at your keepers, and see if there is a common focal length that is being used. You might find that they are all close to a 50mm or 35mm focal length. Avoid anything longer that 50mm to start off with just so that you get used to shooting closer to subjects.
Here are some suggested primes to try with street photography for both full frame and crop sensor cameras. I list these only because I have had personal experience shooting with each.
Fuji XF18mm f/2 R: It is cheap (especially used), light and reasonably fast at f/2. It also has a marked aperture ring on it, which lets you see your aperture setting at a glance. It's not all roses though - I find the focus by wire on this lens to be quite loose and easy to bump - a disadvantage if you are trying to zone focus.
Fuji XF23mm f/2 WR: This is a robust, modern weatherproof prime from Fujifilm that I love to use, and is generally my go to lens when I need something that is small and flexible enough to use on all occasions. Operation feels as good as any lens I have tried. It has a reputation for not being as sharp as other lenses at wider apertures, but if you are shooting street and are at around f/8-f/16 this isn’t much of a consideration.
Canon 35mm non-IS f/2: Super light with great image quality. For full frame value for money glass this lens cannot be beat in the classic 35mm street photography focal length.
Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake: Given the name pancake because of its ultra-low profile, this lens makes even a DSLR look small (ish). Very lightweight and inexpensive - it is a great option for those just dipping the toe into street photography. I personally found the focal length frustrating - not wide enough and not tight enough. Similar thoughts on the Fuji XF27mm f/2.8.
Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art Canon mount (Also for Sony and Nikon): A large piece of glass and hence not the go-to for street work, but for documentary shooting this lens is sharp, built like a tank, and focuses accurately and quickly. It comes in at a fraction of the cost of the native Canon and Nikon equivalents as well.
Conclusion: Develop a consistent style
I think that you will find that after a period shooting solely with a prime, at your chosen focal length, your photography will start to show a certain consistent style. You will be able to anticipate images more quickly, and you will know the exact distances to stand from your subject to start to compose your frame, allowing you to position yourself more easily to capture what is unfolding in front of you. Regardless of all of the physical attributes, regardless of brand and focal length chosen, I think this is what shooting street photography with a prime lens can bring you.
Let me know in the comments what focal length you have decided to choose and shoot with, or let me know if you are doing this already and how it is going for you.