What’s the Perfect Focal Length for Street Photography, 28mm or 35mm?

Street photographers have had a wealth of great lenses across many different systems to choose from over the years. Two of the most common lenses available for this are 28mm and 35mm lenses, often the preferred tool for many. But, which one is better?

The answer is, as it often is in photography, "it depends." Coming at you from street photographer and YouTuber Doriyan Coleman, he takes a look at the 28mm focal length and the 35mm focal length and how they've affected his street photography.

Much of what he talks about comes down to your comfort level as a photographer. The wider the lens, the closer you have to be to your subjects, and sometimes, that means with a 28mm lens, you're really invading someone's personal space, whereas with a 35mm, that may not be the case. Coleman talks about how you can easily layer a scene with a 28mm lens, but that it also makes things difficult to compose. He noted that he himself often cropped in on the wider images shot with a 35mm because such an already wide lens can be hard to create clean compositions with, let alone when you're going 7mm wider. Furthermore, if you're in an area that's not a densely populated city, getting interesting backgrounds and compositions can be very difficult with such a wide focal length. There's also some value in having a lens where people might not notice you versus one where they definitely will, depending on what you're going for.

We know where I stand on the issue. For me, 40mm is that "Goldilocks" focal length, whether that's achieved through an equivalent focal length on a Micro Four Thirds camera (via Panasonic's excellent Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH. lens or on a full frame with something like the sadly discontinued Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Lens). I've forced myself over the years to love my 50mm, but it's just a bit too tight, even on a full frame body.

Coleman doesn't make a solid recommendation, because for each person, lens selection is a very personal choice. What lens do you prefer to use for street photography? Leave your thoughts and photos in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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For me, the wider, the better.

I hear you about "invading someone's space," but with tiny lenses and cameras, you can do "grab shots" with a super-wide, without even looking at the EVF or screen.

I'll set the Laowa 7.5mm ƒ/2 for a comfortable depth-of-field for what I'm doing — usually ƒ/8 or smaller — slap it on a Pen F (with silent shutter), then just walk around with it dangling from my finger loop, surreptitiously firing off shots without anyone noticing.

(Won't let me upload an example for some reason…)

Eh?? Another pointless article?

Tbh, and to travel light its hard to beat a fast short zoom...20-35, f2.8 comes to mind. High iso is trivial with modern dslr's so f2.8 is perfectly fast enough?

Great work by Doriyan and you as well. I see people are already complaining about the article and then adding completely nothing to the topic; that means this was a hit.

28mm forever for me. Cheers.

Wider the better for me, can always crop in later.

Street lenses often come in pairs ;-) I find myself using the classic combo of 35 and 75 on many occasions. A dedicated 28 goes well with a 50. As many new photographers struggle with coming close, I often recommend a 50 to start with.

The perfect combination for street photography is of course a 23mm F2 and a 800mm F11. Wide or compressed and the girls are impressed when you come walking down the street with your long tube.

Photography is about seeing. The 28mm lens closely resembles the field of vision of the human eye, minus the periphery. Nuff said.

Not even close. The high resolution part of your retina covers only a 2 degree angle of view. The rest is constructed by your brain in "post".

tight neighborhoods - 28
major city downtown - 35

Can you elaborate? Very curious about this logic.

40mm. That’s my go to street photography focal length. I also prefer a manual lens. So simple to zone focus and not having to rely on autofocus.

I feel sorry for younger photographers who have never known life without autofocus!

Especially with candid street shooting, I tend to either hyper focus or zone focus. When I mention that to a young photographer, their eyes glaze over.

Over the years I’ve met novice photographers who rely too heavily on the camera technology to do things for them and never really understand what they are doing. Those people have sadly never experienced photography with a manual film camera and actually having to know what you are doing.

Although, I must admit, I'm truly in love with "focus peaking." You can "sweep" the manual focus across the scene, and see the effects of changing ƒ-stop, and "sweep" your focus across the scene, putting your subject in the middle or on either edge of the range of acceptable focus. Fun stuff!

But yea, understanding why you'd even want to do such things is the first step

Neither. 50mm in most circumstances, with 35 or 130 in a few settings (FFE)

I took a 100-400mm into NYC the other day just to see how that did as a street photography lens. It was not ideal.

I think it comes down to what you are used to. I have been doing street photography for about 10 years and started with a 35mm equiv lens on a Fuji X100s. I am now used to that and am familiar with the field of view and how close I need to get. However, I recently purchased the Ricoh GRlllx which is 40mm equiv. For me it's a bit tight but still useable. I don't like 28mm but know that if I used it a lot I'd get used to it and enjoy it. I just don't like switching, it makes the job harder.

Like the author, I too love the 40mm FOV. With higher MP cameras it's a breeze to crop in and maintain details as well.

An A7RIV (or III) with a Zeiss Batis 40 is a great combo. Beautiful rendering and the close focus capability is a great bonus.

There's a thing called 24-70...

Cartier-Bresson, arguably the greatest street photographer, used a 50 mm Elmar lens on his Leica.

But photographers of 2022 have to go into John Nash-mode to get that extra oumph. Even if it means going schizo.

This is like asking what the perfect sized screwdriver is, a #000 JIS or a #2 Phillips head? Well, it all depends on what kind of screws you want to turn, doesn't it?

Lenses and cameras are tools. Pick whichever tool is most appropriate for the job at hand. Sometimes that will be a 28mm, sometimes it will be a 35mm, and very often it will be something else entirely.

Who needs a screwdriver when you got a power grinder?

It’s possible to have a perfect focal length for street photography but the answer to that is going to be different for each individual. Some people may use more than one focal length and others use just one. I prefer one focal length for street photography

I went with 35mm for the longest time. The common wisdom being it is the best for street and candid.
What I was told by some older photographers years ago is that 35 is close to the human field of view.
I guess I prefer an unnatural FOV.
Since my favored lenses are 85mm and 24mm.
85mm just does faces so great. And the slight tele is prefect for shooting a street mural across the street.
24mm (actually 16mm on Xmount these days) I like because of the drama of wider angle. Works really well on low angles stopped down to capture a lot of layers of action.
I used 28 for a bit on my old Canon full frame but found it kind of boring.
Not tight enough or wide enough.

I vote for 28mm. You can always crop to 35mm. My favorite lens now is a 21mm 2.8 Zeiss Distagon. I can crop
to 24, 28, and 35 especially with my 45MP DSLR.