When it comes to grabbing photos on the streets, there are plenty of opinions out there on the best lens for the job. Many urban photographers like working with zoom lenses in various ranges, to “be prepared for anything.” Still others swear by prime lenses, particularly in “normal” focal lengths of 35mm and 50mm. There are good arguments for both sides and I won’t be going into that debate here.
(Opening image ©Pixel Hobo)
Does this approach present some challenges? Absolutely, and that’s part of the reason I like it.
Instead, I want to discuss an idea outside that box. Although I’ll ultimately be talking about using a prime lens, I’m going to be exploring shooting at 15mm. Why? Because this and similar short focal lengths actually offer some advantages that are often overlooked by street photographers. Does this approach present some challenges? Absolutely, and that’s part of the reason I like it.
What’s the Difference?
Let’s start with the more obvious, physical differences. This won’t take long:
Wider field of view: The 15mm focal length means your field of view will be expanded beyond the normal range of vision in humans.
Lower magnification: You’ll have to get close to any subjects you want to be prominent in your frame.
So, how do those two simple differences translate into advantages? I’m glad you asked!
An Improved Sense of Environment
The general idea behind urban photography is to record life within the street environment. That can mean a lot of things. Your photos may be a cultural experience, a journalistic look at the plight of the less fortunate, a glance at celebrations of life and in some cases, death – there are dozens of interesting things to share.
…you’ll have the opportunity to fully immerse your viewers in the location.
Most of those things can benefit from the enhanced sense of the surroundings an expanded field of view can provide. Whether it’s the crisp, clean lines of metropolitan architecture, the stark reality of crumbling neighborhoods or the color and commotion of a popular tourist spot, you’ll have the opportunity to fully immerse your viewers in the location.
Opening Up Interiors
From the smallest shops to the most expansive cathedrals and other interior locations, a wide angle lets you capture more of the structure and the action. You can include more of that shopkeeper’s merchandise in her or his portrait. You can show how the mall shoppers go on about their hustle and bustle while that shoplifter is handcuffed and escorted out. You get the picture. (Pun unapologetically intended.)
Becoming More Engaged
For many street shooters, this won’t be seen as an advantage. Breaching personal space can be an issue, so many photographers simply keep their distance and shoot with a longer lens. This detachment can be easier, but in many cases it can eliminate the personality of the subject.
Engaging with your subjects and asking permission to move in closer can open a lot of doors. Eye contact with the camera can connect viewers to your shots. You may be pleasantly surprised by an invitation to shoot something the subject takes pride in. You might even sell a few prints to an artist or vendor. It’s not always easy to take the first step, but it can be worth it.
Working Harder for the Shot
Both limiting your reach and expanding your view can pull you more into the creative process. You may find yourself concentrating harder on composition, subject isolation, lighting conditions and most aspects of creating an image. You’ll probably find yourself automatically exploring different camera angles, subject-to lens distances and generally spending more time involved in creating the shot before you release the shutter.
Expanding the Genre
Working with a wide-angle lens can provide opportunities to shoot outside of the urban genre while you’re out there. You might find yourself in the middle of an event that affords opportunities to generate a little side income from the attendees. You might have a chance at some awesome architectural shots for your fine art gallery. Hang around for some sunset shots and on into the night. There’s more to the world when you see more of it.
I believe that using a good wide-angle lens in your urban shoots can go a long way toward telling more complete stories with your images.
Okay, so Which Lens?
I’ve provided a quick overview of why I like to include wide-angle photos in my street portfolio. I haven’t yet pointed out why I think the Irix 15mm f/2.4 is the right choice for those photos. The reasons are almost as simple as the differences in wide-angle and normal lenses:
- Zero distortion: Barrel and edge distortion can be interesting. It’s kind of hard to judge their effects when you’re out on the street, though, and they can quickly detract from the story you’re trying to tell with a photo. The rectilinear projection of this lens eliminates that problem. Yes, vertical lines will still converge, but if you don’t like that effect, it’s much easier to correct.
- Incredible sharpness: The Swiss-designed optics in this lens deliver astounding edge-to-edge sharpness. Check out the review here.
- Wide Aperture: The f/2.4 maximum aperture means better low light performance, less noise from higher ISO settings and shallow depth of field when you want it. With its 9 rounded diaphragm blades, you can get awesome bokeh, too.
- Easy Focusing: This is a manual focus lens. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that focusing is difficult. The hyperfocal scale and infinity click-stop make focusing fast and easy in most situations, even at night. There’s even a focus lock to avoid accidental changes.
- Price: You get all this performance at about a fourth of what the closest competitor costs, or less.
That’s a Wrap!
With all the hype about the “right lens” for street photography, the choice comes down to personal preference and the purpose of your photos. While I don’t think there’s a single answer to the question, I believe that using a good wide-angle lens in your urban shoots can go a long way toward telling more complete stories with your images. Of the wide range of lenses available, I believe Irix delivers the best quality and value with their 15mm f/2.4. Find out more about both models and what they offer today.