When one thinks of street photography, the lenses that come to mind are rarely fast, short telephotos. Rather, the medium-wide end of the spectrum is a more common choice for those wanting to explore the streets. That’s not to say we can’t use a so-called “portrait lens” for street photography!
Lenses like the classic lengths of 18mm, 23mm, and 35mm on the Fujifilm X system are the go-to lenses for many street photographers. They allow you to get close to your subjects and render images that have a sense of inclusion and proximity in them. If anything, lenses like the XF 56mm f/1.2 or today’s topic, the GF 110mm f/2, have the opposite effect. They take you out of the action and give a distance between you and your subjects that can be felt in the resulting images. Let’s examine the effects of a longer lens on our images and, more specifically, the way they affect our street photography.
It’s important to note that while these images were made with the 110mm and a GFX 50S, an X-E1 with the kit lens zoomed to it’s fullest will present you with all the same challenges and benefits. I’ll include equivalent focal lengths for the Fujifilm X system wherever necessary in this article. Let’s look at how we can exploit the characteristics of a long lens.
What is often referred to as the compression of longer focal lengths is actually caused by the relative distances of the photographer, subject, and background. Using a wide-angle lens results in needing to get closer to the subject, whereas a lens such as the 110mm requires the photographer to be much further back in order to keep the subject the same size. This has the visual effect of flattening or “compressing” the image. In street photography, we often want our viewers to feel like they are right there with us. However, by using a longer lens we often remove that feeling and will need to bring it back in different ways.
In this simple example, the man appears to be standing behind two thin piles of onions and potatoes. It feels this way because I have had to step back away from them to make the image. With a 45mm lens (23mm on the X system), I would have needed to step much closer to the vegetables to get the same framing. This would have resulted in them appearing larger and more distant from the man as the distance between us changed. Here the scene appears to lack a lot of depth. You can use this to your advantage or detriment in all types of photography, but here I feel like it serves to isolate the man while giving you some context about what he does. I have many frames where he was working or looking off camera, but I re-established that sense of “being there” when he noticed me and gave me this scowl. As with most places in the world, a quick smile after I made the image turned his scowl into a laugh.
One of the more difficult, but also fun, aspects of using the longer focal length 110mm f/2 for street photography is arranging the elements that appear between you and your subject. It can be tricky when there’s a lot of movement going on, but if you’re up for the challenge, it can be quite rewarding. You can create the sense of having picked someone out of a crowd.
For the image below, I was working in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. With a wide-angle lens, you can almost dance left and right to alter your composition and fit the elements the way you want as they move around the scene. With a longer lens, small movements make drastic changes to your image, so the process can be much more about settling on a composition and waiting for the elements to align. I made about 20 images of this gentleman sitting and smoking on his rickshaw before he got a customer and sped away into the distance. Here you can see layers at work, giving you the sense of how busy Chandni Chowk is.
Another way to use layers with a longer lens is to bring disparate elements together. With a wide angle lens, the relationship between things closer to the camera and farther from it is exaggerated. With a longer lens, this is not the case. Exploiting this allows you to bring elements far away visually much closer together. In the image below, the priest is around 20 metres beyond the temple pillars. If I had used a 45mm lens (23mm for Fujifilm X) and attempted this same composition, the pillars would be large in the frame, the gaps between them wider, and the priest no more than a dot in the frame. The longer lens allows me to move back and render the elements to a more realistic size and spacial relationship.
The first thing that the tighter field of view forces you to do is be physically further away from the subjects you’re photographing. This physical distance is also present in your photographs. You may notice that photographs made with a long focal length lens can feel more voyeuristic than those made with a short focal length lens. I talked about this in more detail in my video on wide angle portraits.
If I had made the image below using a more “traditional” street photography lens like the 45mm, I would have needed to be much closer to my subjects to keep them the same size in the frame. This would have removed a lot of the foreground elements from my composition and made the background behind the men seems much further away. It may also have alerted them to my presence. All of these things together would have reduced the sense of peeking into a moment that you get from this image.
Sometimes in street photography, it can be difficult to isolate the subject you want amongst the chaos. The tighter angle of view afforded by a longer focal length can help with this by cutting out the clutter around your subject. We can easily remove things like the sky, surrounding walls, or other people from our compositions.
I found this especially useful when working in the busy streets of India. I was able to use the narrow field of view to pick out one subject and just focus on them without having too much cluttering the background. In this image, the man carefully stacking his fruit in the marketplace was what I wanted. With this crop and the GF 110mm f/2, I was able to isolate him and take you into his world for a moment. The only challenge then was waiting for people who walked between my camera and the subject as I had to be so far away to get this composition.
The GF 110mm f/2 may not seem like the ideal lens for street photography, but it can provide an interesting new way to approach getting images of daily life. By exploiting its characteristics, we’re able to make images that would be impossible with more traditional street photography lenses. What’s your favourite lens for street photography? Have you experimented with long lenses for your street work? Let us know in the comments below!