We all love street photography in one way or another; it allows us to capture the world around us as only we can see it, highlighting the cities we live in, travel to and explore in! We are all artists, and the camera is our tool so we can express our feelings and thoughts via our photos.
As a professional photographer based in Hong Kong who has been running quite a few street photography workshops and tours, I often receive questions such as "What are the best lenses for street photography?" and "Which lens should I get for my days out in Sheung Wan, Central or Wan Chai?"
Take a look at my recommendations of popular street photography lenses and how to pick one!
Best Lens for Street Photography - Quick Summary
In case you are in a hurry, here's a quick sum-up of my recommendations:
- Best 50 mm lens - Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM
- Best 35 mm lens - Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM
- Best zoom lens – Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8 L IS USM
- Best lens for mirrorless cameras - Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
Who Should Read This?
Anyone keen on capturing impressive photos on the street and who loves to record their daily lives and travel would benefit from this article.
You will also understand some useful insights and tips when it comes to selecting a lens suitable for your needs. The lenses I am recommending here are great lenses for portraits and everyday use as well.
Why Should You Trust Me?
I have also worked in Hollywood with Oscar winning artists, as well as being the go-to photographer for major international brands such as LVMH, Four Seasons Hotels, Dom Perignon and Moet & Chandon.
Street photography is a big passion and hobby of mine, so I usually stay behind for a few days after a destination wedding in order to check out the local towns and markets. As mentioned, I've been running street photography and social media workshops for a few years already, so I am going to share my tips regarding choosing the best lens with you.
Why do we need to get the best lens for street photography?
Street photography can be a mixture of documentary, portrait and even motion photography. Therefore, we will need to pick a suitable lens for these photography types to produce the best results.
Another reason is that we need something small and light enough to carry around so we won't get too tired after shooting for the whole day.
A compact "lens + camera combination" is excellent for street photography because there is less chance your subject will notice you, which is always great if you want to capture a specif scene.
Best Lens for Street Photography - What to Consider?
Ability to shoot under different lighting conditions
Street photography involves shooting in ever-changing light conditions, and sometimes, you will need to capture a subject under low light conditions for something cool and moody!
In such a case, a lens with a wider aperture would be great because more light can enter the camera sensor, resulting in a faster autofocus and impressive details in the pictures.
Usually, a prime lens comes with a larger aperture like f/1.4 or f/1.8, while most zoom lenses go as low as f/2.8 or less. Therefore, zoom lenses have more limitations of shutter speed and focus speed!
Note: Another significant advantage about having a large aperture lens is, you can produce a great bokeh, i.e. excellent blurred background effect, which is a big advantage if you want to take street portraits.
Ability to produce excellent image quality
For sure, prime lenses can produce crisper, sharper images. One of the main reasons is that a prime lens usually contains fewer "moving parts" because they have only a single focal length. However, the drawback to that is that you have to use your 'leg zoom' or in other words, walk physically closer to your subject!
Small and Light
Most of the time, street photography involves a lot of walking, obviously. Having a small and light lens is very important because you can carry them every single day for long hours without getting neck and back pain!
Best Lens for Street Photography - 50mm, 35mm, Zoom Lenses and Why
I highly recommend anyone who wants to purchase the best lens for street photography to get the following: 50mm, 35mm and a zoom lens.
Reasons for getting these 3 lenses are as follows:
50mm Prime Lens
When it comes to street photography lenses, 50mm is the first lens to pop up in my mind. Among most street photographers, there's a consensus that this may be the perfect street photography lens. The nickname for this lens is the 'nifty fifty'
I love using the 50mm for shooting because it is pretty small and has an overall 'thin presence,' which is a significant factor in street photography. Because you want your setup as compact as possible when you spend the whole day on the street or traveling around a new city.
In addition, the 50mm focal length gives a field of view that is very close to what our eyes see, which leads to an outstanding balance between the subject and the environment.
Another advantage of 50mm lenses are that they come in a wide range of brands and apertures, not to mention the very affordable price.
I would suggest you go for a 50mm with at least f/1.8 aperture to guarantee image and bokeh quality.
It makes me very happy to see that over the years, 50mm lenses have improved a lot, and newer versions tend to be more efficient and sharper than their predecessors.
35mm Prime Lens
Besides the 50mm prime lens, I highly recommend a 35mm for street photography; in fact, many photographers are divided between the 50mm and 35mm as the best lens for street photography.
Most 35mm lenses come with a low aperture too; hence it is perfect for any night-time photography. They are usually lightweight, compact, and have unparalleled focusing speed.
Other than that, a 35mm lens can capture the classic frame width, just like the old classic 35mm film cameras. There's an intimacy of the surroundings which can be captured with this lens, therefore allowing for a more layered composition if the photographer wishes to do so!
I love that the 35 mm lens can avoid a lot of distortion issues as well, yet it's still wide enough to capture the whole scene and portrait images with a beautiful bokeh.
The most remarkable feature of a 35mm lens is that it's super fast while preserving the shallow depth of field, making it a compelling lens.
Besides street photography, we can use a 35mm lens widely for portraits, weddings, and landscape photography. According to my experience, an f/1.8 is more than enough to produce exceptional snaps.
A zoom lens is less popular for street photography, mostly because it’s bigger, heavier, and slower than a prime lens.
However, a zoom lens can provide a chance of capturing something interesting which happens further away from you.
The disadvantage of a prime lens is obvious: just like what I suggested in my article “mobile photography tips,” – we need to walk closer to the subject, and sometimes, we just don't have not enough time to do so, and a zoom lens can solve this problem immediately.
I still remember once I was walking on the streets of the Tai Hang area of Hong Kong, and it just happened there was a fire dragon dance celebration (one of the intangible cultural heritages in Hong Kong) was going on in the street. Due to the large crowd and narrow street, I lost the shot!
Sadly, I couldn't capture anything nice because all I had was a prime lens, and I just couldn’t get any closer to the subject. At that moment, I wished I was carrying my zoom lens with me.
Best Lens for Street Photography - My Recommendations
Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM is the successor of 50mm f/1.8 II, which left many opportunities for upgrades, and STM (stepper motor) addresses a substantial number of them.
The lens at this price delivers more than what it promises. I also love it because it captures silently without being too conspicuous.
Nikon delivers a great 50mm lens too: the quality of Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is excellent, however we have picked the Nikon version as the best mirrorless lens for street photography, you can take a closer look at the below section.
Best 50 mm lens for street photography - Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM
- The most outstanding factor for this lens is its weight. It's minimal and yet delivers extraordinary background blur, which is very close to what we see with our eyes
- Less weight means you don't have to carry around so much weight, and that would save your back and spine after an all-day-long wandering.
- Improved overall build quality compared to the last version: it comes with a metal lens mount! (there are some reports that the predecessor of this lens was too fragile; hence Canon made sure the STM is sturdy)
- A much improved manual focus ring (Allows manual bokeh)
- STM (Stepper motor) allows less auditory noise to be produced during snaps and videos, which is a massive plus for the discreetness factor
- Accepts standard bayonet- it comes with a mounted lens hood which enables more room for compatibility with existing peripherals
- Super Spectra Lens Coating, which was developed to meet the strict color reproduction standard translating into less ghosting and flaring
- This product at this price point with this many features and build quality is a steal. It may have had its problems in the past but right now, no doubt it's one of the best prime lens for street photography
Best 35 mm lens for street photography - Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM
The Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM is conveniently compact. Its stepping motor AF system means there is no focus distance scale or depth of field markings.
The image quality produced by this lens is simply stellar. A small amount of vignetting is slightly noticeable at f/1.8 but mostly disappears when narrowing the aperture to f/2.
Overall, this lens serves its purpose and is undoubtedly an all-rounder lens for street photography, which is often preferred for 'zone focusing' in street photography. It also offers a minimum focus distance that enables 0.5x magnification.
- Going just above 300g, this product is an excellent example of the sweet point between weight and performance
- The most significant advantage of this lens is that you can travel light and relieve your neck of the strain that builds over time
- This super-fast f/1.8 lets us shoot in darker conditions at lower ISOs at faster shutter speeds, beating any other zoom lens out there regardless of the price.
- It has a 5-stop image stabilization, thus giving ultra sharp results with minimal chromatic aberrations. This relieves a lot of work in post-production.
- It has an extra programmable control ring that allows you to take control of many functions without taking your eye off of the subject.
- The lens sharpens up well, even though it may be a bit hazy when wide-open, yet it delivers the uniformity of sharpness across the frame.
- It produces a beautiful bokeh with negligible noise
- This Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM delivers a lot considering its price point. Very affordable yet offering an unprecedented range of features - quickly making it the best bang for the buck
The Canon RF 24-70mm f2.8 L IS USM comes built with an impressive RF (fast data transfer) system.
A lens with “RF” generally means they come with an improved cameras to lens communication, resulting in excellent autofocus, image stabilization, and general image quality optimization.
The lens is small and light, specially designed for the Canon EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera system.
I suggest this lens because one of the main ideas about choosing the best cameras and lens for street photography is to go for the compact combination. And honestly, nothing beats a “Small lens + smaller camera” combo!
- Comparing with the 50mm and 35mm lenses, the Canon RF 24-70mm f2.8 L IS USM is heavier
- However, as a zoom lens, it is probably the smallest and lightest choice you can get; considering the image quality and performance it delivers, this is perhaps the best lens you should have in your kit
- The autofocus is super-fast with a world class image stabilization
- Image quality is sharp and crisp
- The lens is solidly built, and it comes with a control ring so you can change the settings directly
- The lens is excellent for both video and stills
- As a zoom lens with such quality, the Canon Canon RF 24-70mm f2.8 L IS USM is a value of money option
Best mirrorless camera lens for street photography - Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
The Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is an all-rounder lens for street photography as it gives excellent results, works well in low light and results in an attractive blurred background when you use a large aperture. It is not too big nor bulky, making it very easy to carry.
The price of this lens is slightl higher than Canon's 50mm lens; but it's still a very budget-friendly lens.
- The lens is very lightweight (just near 200g), facilitating ease of travel
- The small form factor doesn't take much space, giving room for extra camera gear
- Autofocus is fast, easy to use, and accurate
- Out-of-focus backgrounds are always soft and never distracting. In short, the bokehs are creamy and amazing
- No flare or ghosts in captured images, which reduces a lot of time in post editing
- It delivers utmost quality sharpness with shallow depth of field, capturing stellar images
- Large aperture size helps take fabulous pictures in low-light situations
- The focus ring located at the front of the barrel makes it easier to manually focus with a thumb and index finger while shooting images or video
The lens is an excellent value for money because it delivers the performance expected out of its small form factor, which makes it affordable for a large number of people.
Best Lens for Street Photography - Additional Tips
Here are some tips I would like to share with you, which I hope you find useful for your street photography:
- In some countries or cities, it may be illegal to photograph governmental buildings, therefore it is an excellent idea for you to check the regulations before shooting in those places
- A friendly and polite spirit, plus a smile on your face, is a great weapon on your street photography shooting day
- Try shooting from the hip sometimes, it can provide a different perspective and make your photos more interesting
Best Lens for Street Photography - FAQs
What is the best mode for shooting street photography?
If you are not comfortable with Manual mode, then consider Aperture priority (Av mode on Canon and A mode on Nikon) with a starting point of f/5.6 in daylight. Another way to get the best camera settings for street photography is to start with P mode and see what the camera chooses, then use those settings in Manual mode and adjusting them to your situation.
Is 24mm a good focal length for street photography?
24mm is ok for street photography, but it's less favorable than 35mm or 50mm lenses because the view is too wide and we need to be close to the subject for creating impressive images. However, being too close to the subject may make some people uncomfortable.
Best Lens for Street Photography - Final Words
To choose the best street photography lens, you should consider these factors: size, weight, features, build quality, performance, and price.
I have listed out my choices of the best lens for street photography and would love to know your opinion. Drop me a message and let me know your favorite lens for street photography!
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All photos are © Ali Ghorbani and Ali G Studios