Telephoto Street Photography: Pros and Cons

Most successful street photographers work with a 50mm or 35mm lens (including famous 50mm photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson) – but what about an 85mm lens? A 135mm lens? A 200mm lens? In other words, how about using a telephoto lens for street photography?

Telephoto street photography may not be common, but it’s not necessarily bad. And in some cases and for some photographers, it can be a great idea. In this article, I explore the pros and cons of taking street photos with a telephoto lens; that way, the next time you want to capture street scenes with your 70-200mm lens, you’ll know if it’s a good call.

Let’s start!

4 Reasons to Do Telephoto Street Photography

In this section, I share my top 4 reasons to do street photography with a telephoto lens, starting with:

1. You can shoot without being noticed

While walking through the streets of Cadiz at Carnival, I saw two teenagers walking a few meters ahead. They both had SLR cameras with long lenses. One of them behaved in an interesting way: once in a while, he would pass an intersection, point his lens around the corner and, like a private detective following a suspect, take a picture.

It seemed a little underhanded, but I don’t blame him for taking such an approach; capturing images of people on the street is hardand if you’re shy, it may seem downright impossible.

This is why many street photographers consider using telephoto lenses in the first place. With a telephoto lens, you can shoot from a significant distance and you (usually) don’t have to worry about getting in front of your subject or angering them.

You stay invisible, your subject rarely notices you, and you can avoid the discomfort of unwanted attention.

So if you’re hesitant to get closer to your subject, it might be a good idea to start with a telephoto lens. I don’t recommend you shoot like the boy did in my story – shooting around corners is a bit too much! – but you can mount a telephoto lens on your camera, take a few steps back and work remotely.

Street photography telephoto lens

2. Telephoto lenses offer a compressed perspective

Telephoto lenses force you to move away from your subjects, changing perspective and causing compression.

Compression brings subjects closer and also improves the quality of background blur.

Now, this squeeze look isn’t always ideal, but it can be artistic, and it’s a great way to add variety to a photo set. This image has a compression effect (note how the different elements feel compressed or pushed together):

street photography telephoto

Compression can also be useful if you’re shooting people from a lower vantage point (for example, if you’re on the ground and shooting towards a balcony). The further you move away from the subject using your telephoto lens, the less noticeable the perspective distortion and the more level you appear to be with your subject.

3. You can shoot distant subjects

Sometimes the streets of the city are busy and there are many crowds on the sidewalks.

When this happens, you may see images that you want to to capture, but you won’t be able to take a good shot with a 35mm or even a 50mm lens. For example, you might encounter a street performer surrounded by a crowd of people or a jogger surrounded by cars.

In such cases, a telephoto lens is often the only way to take a good picture. Working at 85mm or 135mm you can zoom in and capture a close shot of your subject, but at 50mm you’ll be stuck with dozens of distracting pedestrians or buses in the frame.

4. You can capture all the little details

Telephoto lenses are excellent for photographing details: the lines on a person’s face, the bright color of a person’s shoes, the small interactions between a parent and child.

To shoot small details with a 50mm lens, you will need to get closer to your subject. This is often not feasible, and even if it is, you risk making your subject very uncomfortable.

But with a 135mm lens, you can hang back, look through your viewfinder, and when the time is right – bam! – you can capture the details.

This next photo is a good example of the power of the telephoto lens to capture detail. I was in a village called Tarabuco, which held a market every Sunday. Residents came from nearby mountain villages, and some of them stood in a room, staring intently at a television screen.

I noticed a man’s sandal; it was worn, weathered and beautiful. If I had a 35mm or 50mm lens, I would have had to kneel down to take the shot, attracting a lot of attention.

But because I had a telephoto lens, I was able to take a picture of the man’s foot. without get noticed !

Street photo taken with a telephoto lens

5 reasons to avoid a telephoto lens for street photography

You know all about the value of telephoto street photography, but telephoto lenses don’t always work well on the streets. Here’s why:

1. Telephoto lenses are big and heavy

Put a telephoto and a 50mm lens side by side, and you’ll instantly notice the difference: the telephoto lens will be big, while the 50mm lens (especially if it’s a 50mm f/1.8) will be tiny. Of course, the difference in size will depend on telephoto focal length, maximum aperture, and other factors, but in general, the longer the lens, the bigger the whole thing.

This means that telephoto lenses are much harder to store, wear around your neck, and keep safe during the day.

Telephoto lenses are also much heavier than short prime lenses. It might not seem like a big deal when you’re heading out for the day, but trust me: after a few hours carrying around a 135mm lens, your arms will feel tiredness.

Plus, a small, lightweight lens can be surprisingly liberating. You’ll be able to move around with your camera, take photos from all angles, and you won’t feel like you’re carrying a brick.

2. You need a faster shutter speed

The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needed to keep your images sharp.

(Why? Longer focal lengths enlarge the image, which too magnifies camera shake.)

To calculate the minimum manual shutter speed for a particular lens, simply take the reciprocal of the focal length. In other words, add a “1” to the length, so that 200mm becomes 1/200, 24mm becomes 1/24, etc.

So while you can often shoot with a 50mm lens at around 1/60s and get a sharp shot, a 135mm lens requires a shutter speed of 1/160s and a 200mm lens requires a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.

Now, in good light, working at 1/200s will no longer be a problem. But as the light dips, or you move inland, or get in the shade, you’ll be forced to raise your ISO or widen your aperture to get a good exposure, which doesn’t is generally not desirable.

Bottom line: Working with a telephoto lens involves some exposure sacrifices, especially if you’re shooting in lower light.

street photography telephoto

3. Telephoto lenses offer wider maximum apertures

Check out the 35mm and 50mm lenses and you’ll notice a mix of f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2 maximum apertures.

However, the further you move into telephoto territory, the narrower the maximum apertures become. You can certainly find wide aperture 85mm lenses, but 70-200mm lenses never go below f/2.8. And cheaper telephoto zooms tend to max out at f/4 or f/5.6 (depending on where you are in the zoom range).

Now you don’t need an ultra-wide aperture for street photography. But it can be useful; if you can widen your lens to f/1.8, for example, you can create some interesting bokeh effects. You can also shoot at night and indoors without having to push your ISO way at the top.

4. It’s hard to blend in with a telephoto lens

Street photography is about staying invisible. It’s about working quickly and quietly before disappearing into the crowd.

If you’re using a short prime lens, the blending is manageable. Your setup won’t attract attention; most people won’t even notice you have a camera.

Street photo taken with a telephoto lens

But if you’re using a telephoto lens…

People are bound to spot you from a mile away. Now that’s right: Your matter may not notice that a long lens is pointed in their direction from across the street.

But other people – those close to you – will notice it and might feel uncomfortable. They may also ask you what you’re up to, which can lead to extra attention and even hostility.

5. Telephoto street images are less intimate

If you use a short lens to shoot on the street, you will feel close about you. You’ll feel like you’re part of the scene, which can lead to some very intimate immersive images.

But when shooting with a long lens, you’ll be forced to take a step back. Suddenly, you will no longer be part of the scene; you will watch the action unfold from a distance. This can result in a kind of detachment, where the viewer feels the space between you and your subject.

Note that this lack of privacy isn’t necessarily bad – you can use it to create some interesting effects – but it’s certainly unorthodox, and it will prevent you from capturing a certain type of image.

street photography telephoto

Telephoto Street Photography: Final Words

Well, now you have it:

The pros and cons of telephoto street shooting.

As you must now realize, working with a telephoto lens on the street offers many advantages, but also has serious disadvantages. Whether it’s worth dating a longer goal is ultimately up to you!

What do you think of the telephoto approach to the street? Do you intend to try it? Or do you prefer shorter lenses? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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