There is plenty of debate and loud opinion about the ideal focal length for a Street Photography lens. I thought I would put two to the test during a recent walkabout in the city of Swansea in Wales. I’ll be considering the merits of a 27mm and a 90mm prime lens, both on a 1.5 crop factor sensor. Let’s start, as I did, with the 90mm.
Camera and lens setup
On a picture perfect day in sunny South Wales I met up with a mate to stroll about our home city of Swansea. After sorting out the awkward parking meter, our first conversation was about which focal length lens to use. Ralph had a 10 – 24 f4 and a 35mm f1.4, I think, and was not sure which to start with. I had already decided that I was going to attempt to channel Saul Leiter, who favoured the longer focal length, so was opting for my 90mm f2 on a Fuji X-T4.
Saul Leiter was a painter by training and liked the longer focal lengths as it compressed the scene into distinguishable shapes and frames, often creating a more abstract vision of the street scene. Another photographer I admire who makes similar use of shapes and frames is Alex Webb. With visions of their work at the back of my mind we discussed lenses and Ralph opted for his 35mm.
Of course, before we set off decisions were needed about camera setup. On the street you need to be able to respond quickly to the scene and have a clear vision of what you want your photos to look like. Do you want depth of field with a sharp subject and background? F8 maybe. What kind of focus set up are you using? Pre focused at a certain length and move yourself to that distance with at least an f8 aperture, or auto focus with a fixed or tracked point? What about the shutter speed? At least 1/500 helps to freeze the action and on a sunny day that probably means you can use ISO 400 or 800 (in sun or in shadow). I opted for f8 ISO 800 in aperture priority, which generally got me at least 1/500 of a second.
Using this lens on my camera is equivalent to a 135mm on a full frame camera. As I am used to using a 35mm (52mm equivalent) it’s a lot closer. Now, there is a street photographers’ school of thought that suggest the ideal focal length is 35mm (full frame camera). This provides a ‘normal’ view of a scene – similar to our eyes, and does not distort or compress any scene. This is true, it also often requires you to be quite close to people, and that’s what makes some photographers uncomfortable.
Fear of being confronted by someone who does not want their photo taken is something most of us do not like. Using a 35mm you need charm, positive body language (a smile), quick and confident shooting style and a ready apology should offence be caused. Of course using a 90mm you can be 3 times further away to get the same sized person in your frame. However, your lens is far more obtrusive and some believe can create an avoidable distance between you and your subject.
I’m not so sure about that. The photo above, created in an alleyway, still has great eye contact and the distance I was away from the pre focussed subject meant that I could use the reflecting bricks, on the left, for colour and to point at the subject. For me, it’s all about the final look you want to create, as well as capturing the decisive moment. Let’s take a look at some more of my favourite 90mm shots, before we compare this to the 27mm and consider whether black and white or colour is the way to go.
This is a great example of my preferred compositional style. I deliberately moved to place the angle of the rising concrete wall in the right corner, to point the viewer’s eye towards the guy on his phone. He’s also framed by the continuing wall, on the left, and the contrasting horizontal steps. It’s in B&W for the reason I’ll explain in a mo.
Which version do you prefer here? I believe that the B&W one is more aesthetically pleasing, but that it could be construed to be racist. I was concentrating on people walking right next to the coffee bean background, to have both them and the background sharp. I’d set up the green contrasting tree to cover roughly the right hand third. So, I focussed on the woman on her phone, the guy on the right came into shot as I pressed the shutter. They certainly have a different feel to each other.
After a while I decided to change from my 90mm to my 27mm. I hadn’t really found any scenes with the kind of depth, shapes and frames I had in mind. Perhaps I need a busier, bigger city to play in?
The Fujifilm 27mm f2.8 is a pancake lens, light as a feather and equivalent to 40mm on a full frame, and that’s about as close as you can get to the human eye’s focal length. I am more used to this lens and immediately stood in places to get close enough to people for them to react or avoid. Here’s my first attempt.
I have an anthology book of Alex Webb’s fabulous street photography. He fills his frame with frames, shapes and people. This is the closest I got to creating an homage! I stood pretty much in the middle of a street corner, had my shutter on multiple shots, focussed on the guy on his phone and created a burst of 5 or 6 photos. In this frame there was great separation between the people, people in masks to root it in the now, and a humorous pair of hands appearing out of someone else’s chest. I also like the manikin calmly surveying the scene.
I then sat down, on street brickwork, near floor level, and opposite a row of male naked manikins. Initially, I framed the ‘Topman’ word, plus single manikin, I waited for men on their own to walk past. For contrast I then re-framed the shot to what you see here and waited for a female to walk past. I like it, and the B&W works for me.
Colour or Black and White?
Street photographers tend to be quite vocal about which is best, colour or B&W? Perhaps B&W is more gritty, more urban. It certainly accentuates pattern, shape, texture and lines. I shoot in colour then convert to B&W in certain circumstances. The question I ask myself when looking at the original colour photo, is would B&W enhance this photo? That enhancing may be about the colour being a distraction, or colour being a key part of the composition – like this one.
In this photo red is the theme that links it all. The woman is even framed by the red and white advertising posters, creating a frame in the frame. It would probably work well in B&W too, but the red is there for a reason – to catch your attention – and that’s good enough for me.
Now, this final photo would definitely work in B&W too. I lined up the reflections in the phone booth on the left hand third to frame the women larking about, and then just as I pressed the shutter one of them, looked at me. Perfect timing. Lucky too, but then as Gary Player said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Back to the streets then!