Is It Really So Bad to Use a Zoom in Street Photography?

Almost universally, experienced street photographers advise beginners to use a prime lens rather than a zoom. But are they right? Zoom lenses are great for travel photography — flexible, convenient, single-lens solutions that allow you to vary the focal length without any danger of letting dust into the camera. What’s not to like?

Plenty. Let me say straight away that I’m with the majority view on this issue. In most situations, zoom lenses are quite unsuitable for street photography. Here’s why.

The art of street photography relies on split-second timing. If you have time to zoom in and out to find the best focal length than you’re probably not taking a real street photo. You’re being indecisive at the very point in time when you should be getting the “decisive moment.”

Beware the Travel Zoom
I sometimes meet keen travel photographers who become serious about street photography when they discover the joy of turning their cameras away from landmarks and on to the inhabitants of the cities they visit. Typically, their equipment includes a standard zoom lens or even an expensive zoom that delivers near-prime quality throughout its range.

“What do you think of this?” they ask. “This man is looking towards that girl on the park bench, but the woman with him has her hand raised in disapproval. Maybe I could have zoomed in a bit more but I think I’ve taken a real street photo with this shot.”

What can I say? I feel like cupping my head in my hands, rolling my eyes — and doing all those things that destroyed the career of TV chef Fanny Craddock when she disparaged a beginner’s attempt to make a complicated dish.

The photo taken by the travel photographer with his zoom may be classified as a street photo, but the method he used to achieve it is unlikely to yield many other successful results, for the following reasons:

  • Zoom lenses place you too far away from the action.
  • Lightweight “kit zooms” are poor quality.
  • Expensive zooms are big and heavy — and make you very noticeable.
  • All zooms encourage indecision, causing you to miss the shot.
  • Their variable focal length stops you from “seeing” in terms of a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm (etc.) frame.
  • By making you prioritise the task of choosing a focal length, they downgrade the more important tasks of focus and timing.

If you’d like to see my recommendations for great street photography lenses (three of which are shown above), please check out the article on PhotoStartSheet.com – “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?

Back in the Day
Years ago, street photographers who shot on film always looked as if they were zooming, but they weren’t. They were using manual focus, desperately trying to make the subject sharp in the split second available to them. Today we have auto-focus, but there’s no advantage if we burden ourselves with zooming instead.

Zooms have added a level of complexity to photo technology which, in many ways, is a retrograde step. Just consider the number of elements in a typical zoom lens. There’s likely to be twenty or more pieces of glass, each one adding to the bulk and weight of the lens. What’s more, each element has its own imperfections, making the purchase of a zoom very difficult because each copy has its own unique characteristics.

Roger Cicala, the founder of Lens Rentals, described this very well in a widely read and highly technical article called “Things You Didn’t Want to Know About Zoom Lenses.” In summary he wrote: “Put more variables into a lens, and the lens varies more. Can they still be very good? Absolutely. Can they be as good as the best primes? Nope.”

Upping the Quality
Some years ago I extolled the virtues of the Nikon/Canon “Nifty Fifties” (50mm lenses) as offering a huge leap beyond the quality of standard “kit zooms” and many people got in touch to say the image quality of their photography had vastly improved as a result. That made me very happy. A 50mm lens is usually the best value in a manufacturer’s whole range, unless you opt for ultra-high speed, like f/1.2. (Please don’t use one of those for street photography: they’re far too unwieldy).

The argument for using primes instead of zooms is compelling. I can think of only one occasion when it may not apply. If you’re going to a public event, like a carnival or festival where everyone will have a camera, you can use a zoom with impunity.

Perhaps you have an expensive zoom that can (almost) match the quality of a prime. I took my featured image (at the top of this article) with my Canon 24-70mm f/4 zoom, pretending it was a prime by not changing the focal length too frequently. There was an event in progress in the High Street (people abseiling down the Town Hall!) and the lady had no idea I was taking her photo. However, I think the rest of the crowd knew. I got very few other good shots that day.

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