Should You Use a Prime Lens or a Zoom for Street Photography?

Punta Arenas, China


It may be difficult to know what lens to take on a street photography shoot, especially if you only have a vague idea of what you are going to take photos of. Quite often you are waiting for your subject to present itself to you, especially if you are new to a place and have little idea of what to expect from it.

In this situation you need a walk around lens – a single lens that will handle the majority of photographic situations you might find yourself in.

Some photographers will use a zoom – indeed the 18-55mm lens that most entry level interchangeable lens cameras come with as standard is a very useful walk around lens (albeit one with significant shortcomings), and the one I used to take the photo above.

An 18-55mm zoom lets you shoot with a moderate wide-angle at the 18mm end and a short telephoto at the 55mm end. I took an EOS Digital Rebel XT (EOS 350D in Europe) with an 18-55mm kit lens on a trip to South America in 2007 and some of the photos were eventually published in Practical Photography. However, I would like to think that if I repeated the same trip I would get better photos with my current setup of primes, and that some of that would be due to using better tools as well as being a better photographer.

San Antonio de Lipez, Bolivia

Above: I took this photo with an 18-55mm lens at 18mm. The wide-angle focal length let me photograph the children and show them in their environment – a small village 4200 metres above sea level in the Bolivian Andes. Probably not what some people would call street photography, but not all streets look like the ones we are used to in the west.


Zoom lenses are versatile, and if you have a good one that retains an aperture of f4 or f2.8 throughout the entire focal length range then you have a very good tool indeed. You can set the focal length you need at will, react quickly to situations, and avoid the risk of dust getting on your camera’s sensor when changing lenses. Many zooms also have Image Stabilisation (for models where it isn’t built-in to the camera) which is useful for taking photos in low light or for experimenting with slow shutter speeds and blur.

San Antonio de Lipez, Bolivia

Above: A photo take a few seconds later, also at 18mm. I moved closer to the two children, with the zoom set to 18mm to include the buildings behind them.

San Antonio de Lipez, Bolivia

Above: The same lens, but set to 55mm. Now you can see far less of the buildings in the background. Using a zoom allowed me to change focal length without having to remove the lens from the camera, saving time and reducing the risk of dust reaching the camera’s sensor.


However, zoom lenses have limitations. One is size – zooms tend to be larger and heavier than prime lenses. If you are trying to keep in the background, then using an EOS 5D Mark III with a 17-40mm or 24-70mm zoom is not the way to do it.

Another is the maximum aperture. The wide apertures on prime lenses come in useful for shooting in low light at shutter speeds fast enough to freeze movement (something that is much easier at f1.4 than f5.6). They also allow you use selective focus to isolate the subject.

Some photographers use superzoom lenses – optics with an obscenely wide focal length range (such as 18-200mm) with the idea that they never have to change lenses. However, these lenses tend to have questionable optical quality and are also fairly large and have relatively small maximum apertures. What you gain in convenience you lose in most other aspects.

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t carry a lightweight prime with you as well as a zoom lens, to cover all these situations.

Primes have another advantage – the constraint imposed by a single focal length makes you think more creatively about the image. It encourages you to move around when framing the subject as you can’t adjust the composition by zooming in or out. You also learn how that focal length works in terms of perspective and framing. You’ll grow to appreciate what happens when you move closer to the subject, or further away, and to anticipate how that lens sees. Your eye for a photo – your ability to see photographic potential in the subject – will improve as you do so.

I had chance to think about this on last year’s trip to China. I took my Fujifilm XT-1 and two lenses with me – 35mm and 18mm primes – while walking round places like the Forbidden City in Beijing. Most of the time I used the 35mm lens, and switched to the 18mm lens where required. Weight wasn’t an issue as both lenses are small and light. But – switching is awkward and takes time. It’s much more convenient to use a zoom ring to change focal length. So, while I used the widest apertures of the 35mm lens a lot for selective focus and in low light, there were times when I was wondering whether I would have been better off with a good quality zoom lens.

Muslim Quarter, Xi'an, China

Above: Photo taken with 35mm f1.4 lens on a Fujifilm X-T1.


My wife was using a Fujifilm X-M1 with the supplied kit lens – a 16-50mm f3.5-5.6mm zoom. It was interesting to see her shot selection. She was zooming out a lot and taking photos of the entire scene using the 16mm focal length, where I was concentrating on using my 35mm prime and not even seeing the wide-angle photos.

I learned that sometimes using primes concentrates the mind a little too much into seeing with that specific focal length, and perhaps not being open to other possibilities.

Xintiandi, Shanghai, China

Above: Photo taken at 45mm with 16-50mm zoom lens on a Fujifilm X-M1 camera. Using the zoom allowed me to frame precisly without having to move.


The answer to the question of whether you should use a prime lens or a zoom for street photography is intensely personal. It depends on the way you take photos and the way you see as much as anything else. Ultimately, the points raised here are things to think about, and you have to find the right solution for you. That may take some experimentation and you may even get it wrong at first – choosing one lens yet ultimately realising that another lens is the one you work best with.

Muslim Quarter, Xi'an, China

Above: Photo taken with a 56mm f1.2 lens in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, China. I set the aperture to f1.2 to blur the background. This wouldn’t be possible with a zoom lens.



Further reading: Mastering Lenses: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Beautiful Photos with Any Lens (ebook)

Further reading: How to Use a Wide-Angle Lens for Street and Travel Photography

Further reading: Why Your Photography Will Improve if You Use Just Two Lenses

Further reading: Lenses I Have Owned




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