Prime lenses for street photography

Hello again! This idea of an article related to street photography using prime lenses (in my case, Fujinon lenses, built by Fujifilm, because I am using a Fuji X-T1), just came out during my curation for some street photographs I have made during my journey to the Sunrise Country (Japan).

Train2

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @16mm

It was an amazing journey and this country holds many secrets and many beautiful things to reveal, that you really need a lifetime (and it might not be enough time) to deepen most of them. About my pilgrimage to Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and Fuji-san I have dedicated a special personal travel blog, which is a work in progress (sorting some thousands of pictures, getting the spare time to write my memories), made for those who feel captured by the Japanese culture and civilization and to remind me of an exceptional time in my life.

Kiyomizu Dera38

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

While sorting some photographs following the timeline of my trip and trying to categorize them for my editorial use, I have come to a final (somewhat final) selection of street photography. Well, I should call it Street & People Photography, but the title is not so relevant here. What is important now is what kind of photography gear I did use and what were my Focal Lengths that I have been using to capture the images classified into the street & people photography category.

Girl In The Train

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

For those pictures, I have been using the Fujifilm X-T1 with the Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 pro-grade standard zoom and the little Fujifilm X100S which delivers the pictures through a small Fujinon 23mm F2.0 lens. The X100S was rarely used, because I needed the versatility, the optical performance, the AF speed and the weather sealing of a new standard zoom lens (which I just bought there from Map Camera store in Shinjuku, Tokyo – so eager to test it).

Shibuya Night56

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @39mm

There were times when I really enjoyed working with Fujifilm X100s, described here, on a previous article, for its small size, elegance and lightweight. And there were times when I wished I had some Fujinon primes, instead of a zoom, for their compact construction and faster apertures. Do not get me wrong, the XF 16-55mm F2.8 is a marvelous lens, but there are times, especially in low light, when, instead of an F2.8 maximum aperture, you would like to get your shots at F1.4 (and why not F1.2). This whole story with zooms versus primes seems like a never-ending debate; there are pros and cons for both sides.

Gion128

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @36mm

Anyway after selecting the photos, I ended up with 120 pictures, where people were my main subject; a person, or a group of people, on the street, inside the train, or a building, a portrait – this is the area where I would like to find out which prime lenses I would like to use. So what did I do to find out?

Shibuya Night3

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

I have examined the EXIF data for each of the 120 selected pictures to see at what Focal Lengths they were captured. But I have to mention that the 16-55mm zoom was used at over 90% of the time and less than 10% it was for the 23mm lens from the X100S. It is good for this approach, because this is what you have to do, when trying to find out the right focal lengths for prime lenses, based on your focal length needs when you use a standard zoom. There results were far more interesting than I ever expected !

Roppongi Hills49

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

From 120 pictures (and I know it is not enough, but it could get you a general idea), those were my focal lengths that I have used : 55mm – 69 times, 16mm – 16 times, 23mm – 7 times, 44mm – 3 times, 40mm – 3 times, 29mm – 2 times, 48mm – 2 times, 46mm – 2 times, 27mm – 2 times, 22mm – 2 times and 1 time for each of the following FL : 20, 43, 32, 26, 47, 36, 50, 38, 34, 35, 31 and 39mm.

Fushimi Inari3

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @46mm

I have to remind you those are APS-C sensor sized cameras, you have to multiply those focal lengths by 1.5 crop factor to get the results in Full Frame format.

People1

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

Knowing the focal lengths of my 120 pictures, I could compare them to the list of prime lenses manufactured for my camera, lenses that fit into the 16-55mm range. In this case, for my Fuji X-T1, there are 7 prime lenses, made by Fujifilm :

A. XF 16mm F1.4 WR

B. XF 18mm F2.0

C. XF 23mm F1.4

D. XF 27mm F2.8

E. XF 35mm F1.4 and the new released XF 35mm F2.0 WR

F. XF 56mm F1.2

G. XF 60mm F2.4 Macro

Osaka Castle People6

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

Now, for those atypical focal lengths that I have found on my selection, like 29mm, 44mm, 47mm and so on, all I have to do is to see what prime lens could be the closest to that focal length. For example, a photo made with a zoom lens at 29mm, could be also made with XF 27mm F2.8 (but for the same F2.8 aperture as my zoom lens provides, the only advantage here is the compact size), or with XF 23mm F1.4 (and crop the image a little in post processing, but then I will have the great advantage of 2 full stops of light).

Osaka Castle People1

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

If all my 120 pictures would have been made with prime lenses only, instead of a standard zoom, the results would look like this :

XF 56mm F1.2 in 73 pictures;

XF 16mm F1.4 WR in 16 pictures;

XF 23mm F1.4 in 15 pictures;

XF 35mm (the F1.4 of the F2.0 WR) in 16 pictures.

Osaka Castle Outside1

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @40mm

I have eliminated from the list the XF 18mm F2.0 (very compact lens which I have own and used a lot, but not such a fast aperture and the least sharp lens in the XF line), the XF 27mm F2.8 (a pancake lens, but without the aperture ring, quite noisy AF and at F2.8 maximum aperture it brings no optical advantage over the pro-grade XF 16-55mm F2.8 standard zoom lens, excepting the lightweight) and the XF 60mm F2.4 Macro (very sharp lens, launched right at the beginning of Fujifilm mirrorless interchangeable lens system, together with the amazing X-Pro1, but maybe the slowest in AF speed and with a maximum aperture of F2.4, knowing that now the outstanding XF 56mm F1.2 in out there – not so interesting for me, excepting some studio use and especially macro work, if bought on the second-hand market).

Kyoto75

Fujifilm X100S @23mm

Knowing those results and knowing that + could be too wide for street & people photography, but some photographers use the “king of sharpness” XF 90mm F2.0 for this type of photography, I should come to some final results, but it is not so obvious. If only 3 prime lenses should be selected, what would you chose?  If the budget is really tight and only 2 prime lenses should be chosen, what would you do?

Kyoto23

Fujifilm X100S @23mm

I cannot move forward without noticing the high rate of usage for the 55-56mm focal length in my photographs. Do you have similar focal lengths in this type of photography? Why? Let’s try some answers :

Bus Station1

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

A. Shyness. The lack of courage to get closer to your subject will force you to use longer focal lengths. Distance is safe, right?

B. The physical difficulty to get closer to your subject (a fence, a wall, some sort of physical limit) will also make you use a longer focal length.

C. Your interesting subject, action, story, happens on a distant plane and you do not want to miss the moment. A very wide lens will not be good to highlight your subject enough, so you need to go to 50mm FL or beyond.

D. You get a better optical compression, better bokeh and subject isolation when using a longer focal length, especially when dealing with portraits and you really need to emphasize on your subject emotions. I know this last answer was my main reason why, out of 120 street photographs, I have so many pictures made at 55mm.

Kiyomizu Dera60

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

It is a well-known fact that for street and people photography, the most used focal lengths are the 35mm and 50mm, in terms of 35mm film photography. Of course, there are no rules, each photographer will use what lenses he likes most (or has in the photo bag).  It is alright to go wider than 35mm, to get a bigger, more epic story, or go narrower than 50mm, to get the full focus on a special, isolated element.

Arashiyama1

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @16mm

A professional standard zoom, in terms of full frame aspect, is mostly a lens between 24mm and 70mm and mostly at F2.8 constant maximum aperture. My Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 is somewhat the equivalent of a 24-70mm, but designed for APS-C sensors with a crop factor of 1.5 X. It is a stunning lens regarding the optical performance, AF speed, weather resistance and build quality. But, what prime lenses would be worth the investment, to deliver better results at faster apertures, with the advantage of a more compact design?

Akihabara33

Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 @55mm

In this “game” of selling / buying lenses, where most of us had (or still has) play(ed) a part, we try to reach the optimal solution, or get the best compromise between a lens and its cost. And for the most of us, the budget with its limits is one of the most important factors that dictate the content of the photo bag. This article was about the need for prime lenses in the wide-angle to medium tele range of focal lengths. All for a better optical performance, faster shutter speeds, lower ISO values, better subject isolation, nicer bokeh and a compact design, easier to carry. So feel free to post your comment with your recommendations and opinions. And for the record, the Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 is no more in “the game” I have mentioned above. This gem is here to stay!

All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / www.sebastianboatca.com

You may also like

5 Comments

  1. An excellent report with great information. I moved over a year ago from Nikon D810 and heavy lens’s and this was an excellent decision now Fuji have so many excellent cameras and a lot less weight to carry.

    Although I originally had most prime Fuji lens and at some point several zooms, I now sold off a lot of kit, well you can’t use all the lens at one time. I also carried out a check of the focal lengths I most used and decided to leave primes behind except for the new 35mm although I don’t know how long I will keep it although it is a fine light weight carry around solution.

    At one point I really wanted the X100T but decided on a second X-T1 due mainly to it not being wide enough for city architecture. It was the right decision for me! I did like the 18-135mm and if I could only have one lens then that would be it.

    I find the 16-55 f2.8 to be a great all round lens and it never leaves one of the X-T1’s. this purchase helped me make the decision to ditch primes.

    My current kit consists of two X-T1 bodies the 16-55 f2.8, 50-140mm, 1.4 converter, 35mm (new) 10-24mmm.

    Web: http://www.pbase.com/mjlamoon

    1. Martin, very nice work on your website. I, too, have the great XF 16-55mm F2.8 (a great choice) and this lens is a must-have, especially when the budget is kind of low and you can’t have the XF 16mm F1.4, the XF 23mm F1.4, the XF 35mm F2.0 and the XF 56mm F1.2 all together. Of course, the pro-grade standard zoom that Fuji did manufacture at such high level of quality will not really replace, let’s say, the XF 56mm F1.2 (it is 2.5 stops far behind), but it is a very good all round lens.
      I also have the X100S and this is a very controversial love/hate relationship.
      I think I will wait to hear more about the rumored XF 33mm F1.0!

  2. When I use my nikon1v1 I use the 10mm for stret…that is equivalent to 28mm on a full frame camera…I do not have a problem getting close to people to get a dhot…on the xt1 I have been using the 23 for street…it has a god wuick auto focus….and now I am thinking about the new 35 2.0….the wr and quicker focus wil be great….nice article Sebas

    1. Indeed, the new XF 35mm F2.0 is very sharp, super quick in AF and really silent. A good addition for street photography. I guess in the future to come, there will be a new XF 23mm F2.0 WR.

Leave a Reply