Street Photography With A Telephoto Lens. by Alpha...
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Street Photography With A Telephoto Lens.

  • Jul 25, 2017
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Street Photography With A Telephoto Lens.

Or at least a longer focal length than conventional wisdom suggests. I'm always reading that so-called street photography is best undertaken with a prime lens within the 35-50mm range and I understand the merits of this range for reasons I will elaborate on further down. But convention is naturally a gauntlet that Alpha Whiskey cannot ignore. So before meeting my date I decided to kill an hour in town the other night shooting with a telephoto zoom and mostly at the maximum focal length. 

Jul 25, 2017

Street Photography With A Telephoto Lens.

This post has 25 photos Jul 25, 2017Comments (7)3145 views
Or at least a longer focal length than conventional wisdom suggests. I'm always reading that so-called street photography is best undertaken with a prime lens within the 35-50mm range and I understand the merits of this range for reasons I will elaborate on further down. But convention is naturally a gauntlet that Alpha Whiskey cannot ignore. So before meeting my date I decided to kill an hour in town the other night shooting with a telephoto zoom and mostly at the maximum focal length. 


'So-called street photography' because it often has vague definitions, typically settling around an observation of random incidents or encounters in public places, either with or without people. 
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'So-called street photography' because it often has vague definitions, typically settling around an observation of random incidents or encounters in public places, either with or without people. 

Jul 25, 2017
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A lot of what is posted online as street photography, its artistic merit notwithstanding, seem like a lot of random shots of nothing in particular. Call me Mr Picky but I prefer my images to have definite point or subject and, if possible, reveal something as well as make an observation.
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A lot of what is posted online as street photography, its artistic merit notwithstanding, seem like a lot of random shots of nothing in particular. Call me Mr Picky but I prefer my images to have definite point or subject and, if possible, reveal something as well as make an observation.

Jul 25, 2017
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Now 35-50mm is understandably the favoured range, allowing for a capture of one's subject as well as a decent amount of its environment. That range is wide enough to show a scene or person and offer plenty of context too. Some would suggest it fits the human eye's field of view and is thus more faithful to our observations. Furthermore, prime lenses that fall within this range are usually fast, allowing greater separation of one's subject from its background whilst also allowing in more light to keep the ISO low. They are usually sharper than zoom lenses and the fixed focal length forces one to think more about composition and framing rather than lazily zooming in and out. They force you to learn greater spatial awareness and to discipline yourself into getting into better positions to take your shot. Primes are small and virtually weightless around your neck, barely noticed by you or your subject, allowing you to discretely make your images. 
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Now 35-50mm is understandably the favoured range, allowing for a capture of one's subject as well as a decent amount of its environment. That range is wide enough to show a scene or person and offer plenty of context too. Some would suggest it fits the human eye's field of view and is thus more faithful to our observations. Furthermore, prime lenses that fall within this range are usually fast, allowing greater separation of one's subject from its background whilst also allowing in more light to keep the ISO low. They are usually sharper than zoom lenses and the fixed focal length forces one to think more about composition and framing rather than lazily zooming in and out. They force you to learn greater spatial awareness and to discipline yourself into getting into better positions to take your shot. Primes are small and virtually weightless around your neck, barely noticed by you or your subject, allowing you to discretely make your images. 

Jul 25, 2017
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Shot with the Panasonic 20mm F/1.7 (equivalent to 40mm FoV).
An even wider angle will capture more of a scene, emphasising the location or perhaps some interesting architectural geometry. The following 3 images were taken with the Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 at 12mm.
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An even wider angle will capture more of a scene, emphasising the location or perhaps some interesting architectural geometry. The following 3 images were taken with the Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 at 12mm.

Jul 25, 2017
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Jul 25, 2017
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Jul 25, 2017
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Furthermore, the strike against the telephoto or zoom lens, apart from fostering laziness in composition, is that they provide you with the comfort of distance so that one does not have to engage with one's subject. This can, of course, alter (read: lose) your relationship with your subject or scene and risk the viewer being more indifferent to it. This distance also arguably make the photography more voyeuristic, acquiring shots of unsuspecting people with greater ease. 
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Furthermore, the strike against the telephoto or zoom lens, apart from fostering laziness in composition, is that they provide you with the comfort of distance so that one does not have to engage with one's subject. This can, of course, alter (read: lose) your relationship with your subject or scene and risk the viewer being more indifferent to it. This distance also arguably make the photography more voyeuristic, acquiring shots of unsuspecting people with greater ease. 

Jul 25, 2017
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I completely appreciate those criticisms of telephoto lenses and believe me I would ordinarily not choose to cart a heavier lens around town. I'm in the gym regularly enough that carrying weight is not a problem for me but I prefer a lighter load when out shooting. I just like my spine to keep the shape and length that nature intended for it. Having said that, the Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 is still a much smaller and lighter lens than its DSLR counterpart. (For most of the images in this post I also had the tiny MC-14 teleconverter attached, giving me a maximum focal length of 210mm (or 420mm equivalent field of view). 
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I completely appreciate those criticisms of telephoto lenses and believe me I would ordinarily not choose to cart a heavier lens around town. I'm in the gym regularly enough that carrying weight is not a problem for me but I prefer a lighter load when out shooting. I just like my spine to keep the shape and length that nature intended for it. Having said that, the Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 is still a much smaller and lighter lens than its DSLR counterpart. (For most of the images in this post I also had the tiny MC-14 teleconverter attached, giving me a maximum focal length of 210mm (or 420mm equivalent field of view). 

Jul 25, 2017
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The Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 attached to the Olympus E-M5 on the left. The Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 attached to a Nikon DSLR on the right.
But that does not mean that longer focal lengths cannot play a role. I would argue that all street photography is voyeuristic to an extent as you're opening an uninvited window into people's lives. Whether you open that window from near or far is largely academic. Longer focal lengths have the effect of compressing your subject against its background and thus may actually help isolate the subject within your frame. 
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But that does not mean that longer focal lengths cannot play a role. I would argue that all street photography is voyeuristic to an extent as you're opening an uninvited window into people's lives. Whether you open that window from near or far is largely academic. Longer focal lengths have the effect of compressing your subject against its background and thus may actually help isolate the subject within your frame. 

Jul 25, 2017
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A longer focal length also provides a shallower depth of field at any given aperture than a shorter focal length, so this may enhance the subject separation and bokeh. 
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A longer focal length also provides a shallower depth of field at any given aperture than a shorter focal length, so this may enhance the subject separation and bokeh. 

Jul 25, 2017
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Singer Susana Silva.
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Singer Susana Silva.

Jul 25, 2017
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Speaking of frames, yes, the longer focal length is tighter with the potential for greater intimacy. You may find yourself capturing more portraits than environments and from a greater distance those portraits are easier to capture in a more authentically random fashion.
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Speaking of frames, yes, the longer focal length is tighter with the potential for greater intimacy. You may find yourself capturing more portraits than environments and from a greater distance those portraits are easier to capture in a more authentically random fashion.

Jul 25, 2017
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Perhaps it's also easier to take shots from within the crowded mass of bustling pedestrians with a telephoto. Couple it to a flip-out touchscreen and you have no excuse not to get your shot.
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Perhaps it's also easier to take shots from within the crowded mass of bustling pedestrians with a telephoto. Couple it to a flip-out touchscreen and you have no excuse not to get your shot.

Jul 25, 2017
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If you're shooting architecture or structures a telephoto will enable you to consider more details and perhaps more abstract shapes. This may not strictly be street photography but it is still an urban observation.
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If you're shooting architecture or structures a telephoto will enable you to consider more details and perhaps more abstract shapes. This may not strictly be street photography but it is still an urban observation.

Jul 25, 2017
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How long do I mean by a longer or telephoto focal length? It's debatable, of course, but for my money anything past 90mm would count. On many photo walks I have used just the Olympus 45mm F/1.8, which has a 90mm equivalent field of view. Despite being made of plastic and looking like a toy, that lens is super light and small and takes some pleasingly sharp shots. 
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How long do I mean by a longer or telephoto focal length? It's debatable, of course, but for my money anything past 90mm would count. On many photo walks I have used just the Olympus 45mm F/1.8, which has a 90mm equivalent field of view. Despite being made of plastic and looking like a toy, that lens is super light and small and takes some pleasingly sharp shots. 

Jul 25, 2017
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The Olympus 45mm F/1.8 mounted on the E-M5.
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Taken with the Olympus 45mm F/1.8.

Jul 25, 2017
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Taken with the Olympus 45mm F/1.8.
I think I would normally draw the line at my Olympus 60mm F/2.8 (equivalent to 120mm FoV), but only because that lens is also very small and part of my light travel kit. I deliberately used the telephoto zoom on this occasion to debunk the conventions. I may not have been entirely successful but it was fun trying.
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I think I would normally draw the line at my Olympus 60mm F/2.8 (equivalent to 120mm FoV), but only because that lens is also very small and part of my light travel kit. I deliberately used the telephoto zoom on this occasion to debunk the conventions. I may not have been entirely successful but it was fun trying.

Jul 25, 2017
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I think the take home message is that even if street photography is not your particular poison, and it isn't particularly mine, don't be confined to shooting with focal lengths that are deemed to be the norm for your chosen subject. Of course conventions are established for good reasons but be willing to venture outside the box and inject a little extra juice into your creativity. 
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I think the take home message is that even if street photography is not your particular poison, and it isn't particularly mine, don't be confined to shooting with focal lengths that are deemed to be the norm for your chosen subject. Of course conventions are established for good reasons but be willing to venture outside the box and inject a little extra juice into your creativity. 

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Comments

Cheryl BennettAug 26, 2016 05:40 PM

Wonderful shots. Just wondering if you asked permission of the subjects prior to taking their photos? Thanks.

Alpha Whiskey PhotographyAug 26, 2016 11:57 PM

Thank you Cheryl. Most of these were taken from a distance with a telephoto lens. I think if I had asked the subject's permission it would have changed the nature of the shot from being incidental to being posed, which is not what I was going for.

KarlAug 28, 2016 03:33 PM

You made me rethink my decision about what lenses I will take on my two months trip to Europe next month. My camera will be the Pen F and I have more than enough lenses to choose from. I enjoyed your pictures and, most importantly, they inspired me.

Alpha Whiskey PhotographyAug 29, 2016 12:31 AM

Thank you Karl. Have a great trip.

TomAug 29, 2016 10:10 AM

Nice photos - in case you haven't heard of him already, check out Saul Leither's photos - http://www.gallery51.com/index.php?navigatieid=9&fotograafid=15

He tended towards using telephotos for street photography.

I typically use my Olympus 45mm 1.8 - remoting the viewfinder and control to my phone. I can take photos of people without them knowing, as I appear to be texting. The 45mm is just about perfect for this, as you do not have to be too close to the unsuspecting subject :)

NooneSep 5, 2016 11:25 AM

These remind me of my own, more than 35 yrs ago, using EK400 slide film and a russian MTO500/8; uneaqualled bokeh & grain!

Karl BlessingSep 6, 2016 09:35 AM

In terms of carting a heavy lens around, that had not been particularly an issue for me, since my telephoto lens on the street had generally been a Jupiter 11 135mm f/4 fitted with a Leica thread mount to micro 4/3rd adapter, it's quite small in comparison and it's sharp as a tack at f/4

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