On using long lenses for street images

In a couple of weeks my wife and I are going to Japan again for our third trip on a couple of years and I have been struggling to define my look and style. I really want this body of work to be coherent over the three trips, so I want investigating. Looking at the previous collections, trying to reverse engineer my work method and compare it to my favourite images. I also have the problem of weight and endurance as I am still recovering from a case of Swine flu/Pneumonia that put me in hospital for 2 weeks. 

If you ask the all knowing internet "what lens is best for street photography?", the majority of posts will lead you to the debate between 35 or 50mm (full frame) focal lengths, although the smarter ones will promote thinking outside the box or point out that the difference between two focal lengths so close together is a pointless argument. Some shooters go wider and accept the distortion that will be part of their images and a smaller minority will admit to using the odd longer focal length.

It occurred to me recently that I am in that minority.

There is a stigma involved when talking about long lens users and I am going to look at this in some more detail now.

"Early in your street shooting journey you may use long lenses to combat your fear of peoples reactions". This is in some cases true. The problem with statements like this is that it robs the photographer of a powerful tool in their creative arsenal, especially if you want your images to look a bit different to the flood of images coming down the internet "pipeline".

When my wife recently asked me for some prints of Japan to put on our walls (she is a blindly supportive and beautiful person), it occurred to me that our mutual favourite ones were all taken with longer lenses. Is this because I have not matured yet as a street shooter? How do I measure that anyway?

I suppose part of the story here is the in the definition of what makes a street photographer or photograph. What frame work do street shooters confine themselves in and why do they feel the need to? I am a bit sick of the "you must use this lens" or "mono only" crowd. This type of thinking helps to define a genre, but also tends to limit it.

 OMD 75mm lens

OMD 75mm lens

Personally I have always responded most to the tight, semi abstract and emotionally charged detail shot. My favoured photos from classic image makers are often that very tight detail shot. Examples of early influences are McCurry's "Afgan Girl"  and many of his India images or William Albert Allard's "Benedetta Buccellato Sicily" images. Even Sam Abel, who produced the bulk of his work on a 28mm made some images on portrait lenses that are amongst my favourites and Saul Leiter admitted to using a longer lens on his medium format camera with "some interesting results".

I also find myself drawn to the painterly quality of the slightly compressed perspective of longer lens. They show all things on the same plane as equals and background or foreground elements as a soft and naturally blur creating distinct layers. This is something that I have done in landscape photography also. Never being a big fan of sweeping valleys and big skies I selected out details, both large and small. Often when I like a wide angle or normal lens image, it is a tighter and slightly compressed looking image. 

All of the above were taken with the OMD and 75 or 45mm lenses

Do I hide in the shadows with my long lens? No I don't. Some images are taken from as close as 2-3 feet, but with a shorter lens would require permission to invade the subjects personal space for the detail I am after, not to mention the distortion rendered by the lens.

This brings us to two of the most contentious philosophical questions in street photography. Privacy and spontaneity. 

Privacy, or the ability to intimately connect with your subject without annoying or upsetting them by going unnoticed. Street photographer community is divided on this one. Some believe you should be seen to be doing what you are doing, sometimes going to the extremes of grabbing the "surprise" moment the photographer creates. Other image makers (old school?), of which I am one, would rather get an image that passes quietly and anonymously, a part of life as seen, but not disturbed, as Sam Abel said "I believe in the staying power of the quieter image". This divide is probably the result of circumstances, your formative time in photographic history, your mentors and inspirations (mine were NGS story tellers, while more recent equivalents are social media driven) and your surroundings or subjects. I am a set up portrait photographer by trade, but not when shooting street.

Spontaneity is part in parcel of this. Why introduce yourself and set up a photo when what you are looking for is the natural interactions of life watched and remembered. There is a growing movement of street portraitists, and that is perfectly fine, but it is only one way of skinning the same cat and not for every one. Don't feel you must "get over your fear of approaching people" and start setting up images if you don't want to photograph them that way anyway!

All of the above images were taken with the 75mm Olympus (150mm equiv). 

The reality is, if I went to Japan with just a semi wide or normal lens, I would be removing my most personally creative and to large extent most fulfilling side of my photography. Sure I need a wider lens for busier and more complicated street compositions, but there (for me) must be a longer lens option handy.

Follow your gut over your head. Do what comes naturally and don't let the opinions of others make you second guess yourself.