50mm Street Photography: What Makes It Great (+ Tips)

50mm Street Photography: What Makes This Great (+ Tips)

50mm street photography: what makes it great

There’s a longstanding debate about whether or not 50mm street photography will be the right way to go, or if wider lenses are a better choice. Most people who practice street photography prefer lens with a broader field of view like 35m or 28mm, but that does not mean 50mm is useless. Far from it, in fact.

There are many reasons to choose this focal size when shooting photos on the street. Shooting with a 50mm lens also unlocks lots of photographic possibilities – along with adding some creative restrictions – and the results you will get just might be among your all-time favorite pictures.

Reasons to use a 50mm lens for street digital photography

The first zoom lens I ever purchased regarding my DSLR was a 50mm f/1. 8, and I still use that same lens today. It’s kind of a jack of all trades option, plus it lets me get great shots in a variety of situations, especially when shooting with a full-frame camera .

I have since picked up a variety of other lens but find myself time for the classic “ nifty fifty ” time and again, specifically for street photography. It has an elegance and sense of character to it that other lens can’t match, and it’s a great option for beginner street photographers who want to step up using their kit zoom lenses.

In other words: There are many reasons to use a 50mm lens for street photography. Not really convinced yet? Here are some associated with my favorite reasons to stick with the 50mm lens when taking pictures on the street, starting with:

1 . 50mm helps separate your subject

Streets are filled with activity: pedestrians, vehicles, tourists, animals, and much more. Shooting with a wide-angle lens makes it easy to capture an entire scene – but difficult to isolate a single subject.

On the other hand, when you use a 50mm lens, the field associated with view is constrained, so your subject is often isolated around the chaos, hustle, and bustle of daily life.

While you could get a similar effect with a wider lens simply by moving nearer to your subject, you may feel like you are imposing on your subject’s personal space. Shooting using a 50mm lens is a great way to make your subject be noticeable while also maintaining a comfortable distance.

2 . 50mm lenses have incredible depth of field

two students in conversation
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/1. 8 | 1/3200s | ISO 100

Every lens adjusts the depth of field , but it’s much easier to manipulate DoF on a 50mm zoom lens compared to a wider zoom lens. To get pleasing foreground or even background blur on a 28mm or 35mm lens, you need to close the distance between you and your subject or shoot using a very wide aperture , which has a tendency to get expensive.

Moving near to your own subjects is fine if you are comfy getting close to strangers, but plenty of street photographers like to keep a bit of distance. Thankfully, the top f/1. 8 or f/1. 4 aperture on most 50mm lenses lets you get sharp subjects and beautiful back ground blur even while standing straight back a bit. This depth of field can be the difference between a decent photo and an excellent one, and it’s an excellent tool to have in your back pocket for once you really need it.

Of course, longer focal lengths like 85mm or 105mm give you even more get a handle on over depth of field, but these options can isolate your subject only a little too much. Whereas 50mm hits the sweet spot; it lets you get enough in the frame while also offering fine get a handle on over depth of field.

3. 50mm helps you capture fast action

50mm Street Photography Skateboard

Some might cry foul with this one, since any lens can capture fast action as long as you can get a quick shutter speed – but yet again we find that a 50mm lens hits the sweet spot. As long as you have lots of light and good autofocus, you can freeze a moment over time with any lens, but if you want to do this in a street setting, 50mm may be the way to go.

With a wide f/1. 4 or f/1. 8 aperture, it is simple to get a shutter speed of 1/500s or 1/1000s in many lighting conditions, which is plenty for stopping movement and eliminating motion blur. And the midrange focal length is perfect for honing in on one subject while not interfering with the movement that you are attempting to capture.

If you want a bit more reach, you are able to shoot with a 50mm lens on a crop-sensor camera, which will put you even closer to the action when photographing, say, musicians or street performers. The 50mm focal length is great for freezing motion on a single subject and focusing your viewers’ attention, which is tricky when shooting with wider focal lengths.

4. 50mm gets you near to your subject

50mm Street Photography Sorority Rush
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/2. 8 | 1/1250s | ISO 200

Here’s one of my personal favorite aspects of shooting with a 50mm lens:

It’s not really a wide-angle lens, but also not really a telephoto lens. It exists in the gray middle ground between those two extremes, and as such, lets you tap into the energy of both. This means you may get up close and personal with subjects on the street without having to be too close, especially if you shoot with a crop-sensor camera. You can also stand back and give yourself some breathing room while getting near enough to make a personal image.

I’ve shot street photos with many different focal lengths and consistently found that 50mm strikes the most effective balance. Wider lenses capture entire scenes, while telephoto lenses are great for portraits. But 50mm lens enables you to capture scenes that also feel personal by bringing you just close enough to your subject, and the results can be amazing.

5. 50mm gives you an unique perspective

Sidewalk Lamp
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8 | f/4. 8 | 1/640s | ISO 200

While some people think the 50mm focal length is boring, I have found the opposite to be true, especially for shooting street photos.

When capturing the image above, I was on top of a three-story parking garage and shooting along to get a shot of the pathway light. While I was framing the shot, a pedestrian happened to walk through the image, and I got a picture that wouldn’t work at all with a wider or longer lens.

I frequently come across situations like this with 50mm lenses, where a wider focal length would ruin the shot. It’s this unique perspective which makes 50mm so good for street photography. You get a perspective that takes ordinary scenes and turns them in to interesting, creative photo opportunities that can ignite your curiosity and inspire your imagination.

50mm street photography tips

When venturing out with your 50mm lens, it’s crucial that you keep a few tips in mind. While each individual photographer has to find their own style, practices, and approach to photography, here are a few lessons I have learned that will help you get better photos, consistently:

1 . Don’t always shoot wide open

50mm Street Photography Sunrise silhouette
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/4 | 1/6000s | ISO 200

Wide-aperture lenses are outstanding photography tools, but when not used carefully, they can cause problems.

It’s tempting to shoot wide open at f/1. 8, f/1. 4, or even f/1. 2 if your 50mm lens has that capability. But while the results could be sublime, there are a lot of reasons to stop down to f/2. 8, f/4, or even smaller, especially when doing street photography.

For one, a smaller aperture provides you with more wiggle room with depth of field, and it also results in better overall image sharpness. Street photographers often use zone focusing , that will be extremely difficult when shooting at very wide apertures, especially on a 50mm lens.

Also, shooting wide open can occasionally give you too much background blur, to the point that it’s distracting or downright ugly. My rule of thumb is to use my 50mm lens one or two stops down from its widest aperture for most street shooting, then open it up completely for those situations where you really need it.

2 . Capture action through panning

bicycle panning
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/13 | 1/15s | ISO 100

If you genuinely wish to take your street photography to the next level, try some panning shots . This is a great way to recapture motion using long shutter speeds, especially with a 50mm lens.

Start with a small aperture – try f/8 – and a relatively slow shutter speed , such as 1/30s. Then put your camera in continuous high-speed shooting mode , set your autofocus to AF-C instead of AF-S, and fire away as a cyclist, pedestrian, or automobile zooms past.

It might take a few tries to get the shot you want, but with a little practice, you will soon create works of street art that you will be proud to print and hang on the wall or share on social media.

3. Look for light and shadow

50mm Street Photography Fountain
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/4 | 1/800s | ISO 100

This tip isn’t specific to a 50mm lens, but in my experience, it’s easier with one. You see, the constrained field of view at 50mm makes situations of light and shadow easier to find, since it forces your eye to look at an inferior portion of the world compared to a wider lens.

When shooting on the street, look for unique photo opportunities that use light and shadow in creative ways. Try shooting silhouettes or using backlighting to generate interesting photo opportunities. Pay attention to the time of day and adjust your shooting appropriately. I really like going out in the early morning or late evening when the sun casts long shadows over everything; it is possible to create amazing photos which you can’t get at other times.

4. Capture moments, not people

50mm Street Photography Free Hugs
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/2. 8 | 1/1250s | ISO 200

This is another tip that’s beneficial to any street photography situation, but one that is often enhanced when shooting with a 50mm lens. Try to capture moments in time that display singular elements of humanity: purpose, decisiveness, intention, drive, etc. Don’t just get shots of people standing around, wandering aimlessly, or sitting and staring at their phones. Try to find emotions like love, caring, compassion, happiness, or fear.

Just take pictures that tell an account, such as the one above, that i shot on a college campus on Valentine’s Day. A 50mm lens is great for these human moments – you can stand back somewhat, get your subjects sharp and focused, and create a sense of three-dimensional space through careful use of aperture and depth of field. This elevates your street photos from flat, boring images of random passersby to slices of life that showcase the best of what humans have to offer these days.

50mm street photography: conclusion

50mm Street Photography Bicycle
Nikon D200 | 50mm f/1. 8G | f/16 | 1/20s | ISO 100

Street photography is all about personal choice and finding a style that works for you. As the 50mm street photography isn’t the first option for many people, it has some distinct advantages and unique qualities that will help you create impressive images and develop your own artistic vision.

If you have never tried shooting street photos with a 50mm lens, give it a try. I believe you’ll like what you see!

Now up to you:

What do you think of 50mm street photography? Have you tried it? Do you have any pictures you’re proud of? Share your thinking and photos in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth

Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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