In defense of tele lenses for street: What does good street photography mean to *you*? Share images.

Started Oct 8, 2012 | Discussions thread
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In defense of tele lenses for street: What does good street photography mean to *you*? Share images.
Oct 8, 2012

I was discussing the nature of focal lengths in street photography in another thread, but thought it was somewhat off-topic and worth discussing more.

So I wonder, what is street photography to you? How does the use of certain focal lengths affect the nature of the art?

Recently I've been more partial to short teles for street photography; my 45mm gets more shots than my 20mm does, even though some of my favorites are from the 20mm and it's obviously more versatile. Indeed, these two lenses together get almost all of my usage.

Traditionally, street photography focal lengths lie in the widish to normal range. These focal lengths look "natural" to our eyes, capture the subject's environment, and the pespective allow us to feel more intimate with our subjects, while not being as distorted as UWA lenses usually are(particularly at normal shooting distance). I think there is a reason this range is so enduring for street photography, and in many ways it probably is the most ideal.

But there is also a lot I like about using teles.

The most common reason you will hear is probably being able to keep yourself distant from your subject(s) to be inconspicuous. Some people call it lazy. And sometimes it is! But I call both of these instances lazy thinking. Distance is certainly something I appreciate, because while you can closer to your subjects by shooting from the hip and zone focusing, there's only so close you can get before your being there somehow alters a scene.

Case in point, this shot:

I originally tried to surreptitiously take this with the 20mm from the hip, but the man in the middle looked back to me, so I retreated. Then took 3 or 4 shots with my 45mm. Obviously this is only one case, but I can describe a hundred others. Just as importantly, this also allows you to relax compose more freely with a viewfinder or LCD, instead of hoping for the best and maybe cropping later. While lots of the appeal of street photography is capturing the instant, I like being able to better compose that moment sometimes.

This shot also demonstrates another thing I appreciate as a tool: compression. You lose some of the environment on a tele, at the expense of magnifying it. I was later able to get the shot with the 20mm, but I simply didn't like it as much. Oftentimes, background magnification can be detrimental, but I felt it worked for this particular picture, where it enlarges a small part of the New York skyline to make it more imposing. I think it helps tell you not only that these people are looking at the skyline, but also communicate something about the skyline as well, and perhaps what the subjects feel about it. This similar to how a landscape photographer may use a telephoto lens to add a feeling of power and overwhelming size to a mountain that you might not be able to get with a wider angle of view. It also, I feels, makes photos look a bit more like some types of paintings.

Besides the obvious zoom on the subject, the compression helps add a feeling of crowdedness here.

In the above shot, the perspective creates a great sense of crowding that would have been possible without it. Note that this was shot with the 20mm, but it was cropped so much that it was  basically a telephoto equivalent.

Another thing to consider is the nature of our format. We have wider DoF, inherently. Sure, you don't ´╗┐need´╗┐ to use shallow DoF, but I think sometimes it's good to have the option for it. There are certainly times I feel that shallower DoF adds to an image, and normal/wide angles on our format often don't cut it.

But perhaps the most interesting thing for me is that by using a longer lens, what you lose in composition in a 2D plane, you can essentially regain on the Z axis. Meaning that since you have to stand further from your subject for equivalent framing, you get more space in between to work with.

This shot cropped shot from my 45mm is one I couldn't have gotten had I not been shooting from the distance I did, for many reasons. The milk-carton golfer or lady would have looked at me, and the subjects were too far from eachother. The distant perspective allowed me to frame the lady in the shot so you could make the immediate connection that she is observing the golfer, without making her appear larger than the golfer(as she would be if I were closer, due to perspective distortion). More interesting perhaps, was how I didn't notice the pair of legs that sprouted from the phone booth

In this shot cropped from 50mm, the perspective allowed me to take my time, bring the telephone closer to the subject, and minimize the appearance of the bench. I do not think I would have been able to achieve this mood with a wide angle or normal lens.

Obviously, there are just as many shots I couldn't get because I was shooting so long, but my main purpose with all of this is just to share a differing opinion on the view that longer focal lengths can't do street. Basically what I'm saying is if you haven't tried it, or tried it and you didn't like it, perhaps try to see it in a different way.

It's a curious thing. Street photography is supposed to capture a moment of the subject in its environment. But in another way of looking at it, the more you involve yourself in a scene, the less of it is about your subject.  I suppose part of the challenge is to learn to balance this out. I also don't think the long focal length necessarily entails your photos simply being candids or voyeurism.

To me street photography, unlike candid photography, is not just about capturing a moment; it's about communicating it through your own expression as well. If you can do that using a longer focal length too, I don't see why anything is lost. You just need to approach it with a different mindset. it's not necessarily better or worse. Just different.

Not that I think my shots are particularly great. Heck they might suck to you! But I do hope they illustrate some of the points I am making. And again, this has nothing to do with taking away from the commonly accepted focal lengths for street photography; it's just about how you can maybe add some more.

Anyway, feel free to agree or disagree! I am curious as to everyone's thoughts and the images that illustrate them.

(Wow this ended up being up much longer than I thought, haha!)

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