Firstly let me just preface this by saying that spending any amount of time shooting with a 28mm lens will make you a better street photographer. Here’s why.
When my love of photography began, I was very caught up in the search for creamy smoothy bokeh. It drove me insane, I was constantly shooting everything wide open, my pictures were soft and they had no substance.
Don’t get me wrong shallow depth of field can be used in very effective ways, it’s just that most beginner photographers get so engrossed in the shallow depth of field thing and the pursuit of faster and faster lenses that they lose sight of the important elements of photography.
Shooting with a 28mm lens means you are unlikely to get a very shallow depth of field without getting super close to your subject.
With more in focus, you will be forced to make choices on everything that is included in the frame.
If you shoot a 28mm lens at f8 pretty much everything will be in focus, meaning your background becomes important, so you have to think about what to include in the background and if that can help tell the story.
A 28mm lens is wide, wider than you’re perhaps used to. It is not a great lens for traditonal portrait photography because it distorts, but that is exactly why its perfect for street photography.
The closer you get, the more realistic the image feels. It feels more and more intimate. It feels like you are standing right there in the scene.
I found this article about Focal Length Choices very helpful.
I think it’s important that our lens choices should be part of the story we are trying to tell.
A wide lens like a 28mm may be the common choice for those classic street photographers like Winogrand and Meyerowitz, but there is a reason why they work so well.
If you can make the viewer of your image feel like they took the photo, or they were standing there in that moment you’ve accomplished something most photographs never do. You make the image feel real, not just a pretty picture or a desktop background, but an image that draws you in, where a story unravels as you study it.
If I have one goal in street photography, it is to create images that tell a story and make you feel like you are standing in that moment again.
The closer you get the more likely you will be forced to interact with your subject, say hello, smile, ask them about their day. If it’s in your character, shooting wider and getting closer will bring opportunities to talk with the people on the street and learn about their life.
The wider the lens, the more comes in focus. With a 28mm lens you can stop it down to around f8 or f11 prefocus your lens to around 1.2 metres or 4ft and use the zone focusing technique to get everything in focus without having to adjust your focus every time.
Shooting this way means you will get tack sharp images every time. If you can spend less time worrying about settings, you have more time to worry about taking great photographs.
Naturally with a wider lens, you are going to be able to include more in the frame. This gives you the opportunity to include more detail in the scene. Rather than a simple portrait where there is no context to the character, using a wider lens allows you to include background elements.
For example you could be taking photograph of a man in suit, but because you are using a 28mm lens, that extra wide angle gives you room to include the detail that he is sitting on a bus surrounded by people wearing very casual clothes, the detail in the scene has created the story, that this man is the odd one out.
Good question, I think you have to examine what your goal is with street photography.
Are you trying to document a certain story, an ethnic group, an age group or gender?
What would your focal length choice contribute to that story?
A 85mm lens for your documentary photo essay about “Women” is going to make your images feel a little bit “stalker-ish”. Simply because you are standing further away, the image background will be compressed and the potential shallow depth of field will isolate your subject.
Compare that to using a 28mm lens, the images are much more candid, there is more detail included in the scene and you are standing closer to the subject (less creepy than standing across the street).
For me if I could pick one lens to use for the rest of my life it would be a 28mm, It’s just that simple.
Are there instances where a longer lens would be useful? Of course, but I’m happy to dedicate my photography to that simple story of realism, and I believe that realism can best be achieved with a 28mm lens.
If you currently have a zoom lens with 28mm in the range, set your lens to that focal length for a day and see how you get on. Immediately you’ll feel too far away from your subject and you’ll naturally start getting closer to the action.