Never again! Use a telephoto lens for street photography

I traditionally use a Fujifilm 35mm f2 lens when doing street photography. On my Fujifilm X-T2, that’s about a 53mm full-frame equivalent. It works well for me and helps me achieve the photos I want. I would say most street photographers use a similar lens. We tend to use lenses ranging from 23mm to around 70-80mm. Many would deem anything beyond that “unsuitable for street photography”. So, to break some trends and ruffle some feathers, I released a Fujifilm 55-200mm to see if I could use a telephoto lens for street photography. We’ll take a look.

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As this is a field report, my intention is not to show my best work. (You can see that here.) On the contrary, the photographs below are there to portray a transparent and real experience. The truth is that I had a hard time using a telephoto lens for street photography. I was out of my comfort zone and the user experience felt foreign to me. I would say it took me three or four photo walks before I started to feel more comfortable with a 55-200mm, especially when shooting between 100-200mm.

Managing distance with a telephoto lens for street photography

The first hurdle I encountered when using a longer lens was knowing where to stand. With a 35mm, I’m usually close to my scenes and my subjects. This was not possible with a telephoto lens. Rather than analyzing scenes in the foreground, I had to judge what was happening in the background. The problem with this is that it’s hard to anticipate your subject’s next move. In turn, I had a hard time judging the best time to frame it and ended up missing a lot of shots. Also, by the time I’m done judging the right focal length, the subject had left the scene and the photo I wanted was gone. I spent most of my time frustrated.

Stand out with a telephoto lens for street photography

A big hurdle that most street photographers face is worrying about being noticed when taking photos. You’d think you’d be more likely to be spotted up close than far away. It was not my experience. Maybe it was paranoia on my part, but I felt the subjects I was focusing my lens on knew this was happening. The 55-200mm isn’t too big of a lens by telephoto standards, but it’s a lot bigger than my 35mm, especially at 200mm. The truth is, for the first time, I felt a bit scary doing street photography. That’s not to say that using a telephoto lens is scary. That’s just the feeling I got while using it.

Difference in size between a 55-200mm and a 35m. lens.

The technical aspects of a telephoto lens

By using a small f2 lens, blurry images due to camera shake are rarely a problem. However, when using a telephoto lens for street photography, blurry images seemed to be something I had to consider with every shot. The lens I use has built-in stabilization, but it still felt a bit shaky when shooting between 135mm and 200mm. I constantly forgot to think about my shutter speed. For beginners in photography, the general rule to avoid blurry images is to take pictures at shutter speed equal to or greater than your focal length. For example, if you’re shooting at 125mm, your shutter speed should be 1/125th of a second or faster to avoid blurry images. You can break this rule for creative reasons, but if you want sharp photos, you have to enforce the rule.

Since this is something I had never thought of, I experienced soft and blurry photographs when using the telephoto lens, which was not my intention. When I remembered to set my shutter speed, the subject had already moved on by the time I did. There are thin margins in street photography and you need to take the shot as quickly as possible. If you’re doing street photography with a longer lens, I’d recommend shooting in shutter-priority mode to avoid wasting too much time adjusting exposure.

Real world experience

For me, doing street photography is not just about the final images. The main reason I practice the craft is to enjoy the process. Using a prime 35mm makes me feel like I’m part of a scene, immersed in my subject’s story. I also like the risk of getting caught. It’s a buzz. And the camera and lens combination feels nice in my hands and light around my neck!

With a telephoto lens, the experience was not the same. I felt detached from my scenes and more like a paparazzi photographer rather than a street photographer. Playing with the zoom ring, remembering my shutter speeds, and sticking out like a sore thumb ruined the experience for me. I will probably never use a telephoto lens for street photography again. That doesn’t mean you can’t use one. Many photographers achieve great images with longer focal lengths. But for me and my experience, it’s a primary mid-range lens all the way.

What lens do you use for street photography? Do you like using a telephoto lens? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Stewart C. Hartline