Mirrorless camera systems have gotten a lot of attention recently, especially from street photographers.
They’re smaller and less noticeable than DSLRs while still keeping all of the creative functionality.
If the key to street photography is being inconspicuous, then mirrorless cameras like the new Nikon Z lineup are the future.
Best Native Normal Prime — Nikkor Z 50 mm f/1.8 S
A “nifty-fifty” is the classic starting point for any list of street photography lenses.
Fifty-millimeter lenses are called “normal” because they produce distortion-free images. The debate rages about whether or not 50 mm lenses are “The Best” lens for street shots.
Nikon’s 50 mm offerings are a little limited, however. They make two S-series versions, both with nice wide apertures of f/1.8 or f/1.2.
These are new lens designs, native to the Z-system, so they make full use of the mount’s wider footprint.
They’re beautiful lenses, but they’re awfully big and heavy for the street photographer.
If you want the best 50 mm prime you can get for your Nikon Z, this is it. It will have the best autofocus response, and all of the exposure, aperture, and EXIF data toys will work correctly.
If you want the most compact option, however, you might have to keep shopping or wait for Nikon to release their upcoming pancake-style 40 mm.
You could use the Nikon FTZ adapter to mount an F-mount 50 mm to your mirrorless camera, but I’m not sure why anyone would go that route unless they already own the older 50.
You can pick up the AF-S Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8G for less than $250, but the adapter sets you back another $250 or so.
In the end, I think you’d be better off to splurge on the Nikkor Z 50 mm f/1.8 S, which will wind up being about the same size anyway.
Native Z-mount Wide-Angle Prime— Nikkor Z 35 mm f/1.8 S
If you don’t like 50 mm lenses for street photography, then chances are you are in the 35 mm camp.
As with the 50, Nikon has made a beautiful S-series f/1.8 for their Z-mount cameras.
If you want a 35 mm prime and need autofocus and all the other bells and whistles, this is the one.
If your goal is to shoot any video, then this is the lens you want to get.
If you’d like to shoot even wider, Nikon also makes the Nikkor Z 24 mm f/1.8 S or the Nikkor Z 20 mm f/1.8 S.
Both of these options are very wide for street use unless you work with very wide scenes or in very tight spaces.
As can be expected from these focal lengths, distortions are high near the edges as the lens warps the image perspective to fit it on the flat sensor.
The 35 mm weighs in at about 0.82 pounds and measures just under 3.5 inches long. To give you an idea of how big this lens is, it accepts 62 mm screw-on filters.
There are smaller 35 mm’s available if you’re willing to go fully-manual, but this one is tough to beat.
Best Native 85 mm Prime — Nikkor Z 85 mm f/1.8 S
While it’s difficult to call an 85 mm portrait lens a “street lens,” some photographers use these to capture detail images or scenes when they can’t get very close to their subjects.
This focal length is outstanding for head-and-shoulder portraits, and the Nikkor Z 85 mm f/1.8 S is an outstanding example.
Compared to other 85’s options, it’s not particularly large or bulky, either.
In short, this lens is an outstanding one to have in your camera bag no matter what and where you shoot.
I would not recommend it as your one-and-only street lens, but it certainly comes in handy enough to warrant owning it.
It’s just under four inches long and slightly over one pound in weight; it takes screw-on 67 mm filters.
Smallest Native Zoom Lens — Nikkor Z 24-50 mm f/4-6.3
Zoom lenses aren’t traditionally in the repertoire of the street photographer for a few reasons.
Usually, size is the first argument against them.
Well, in the case of this lens, size is on its side. It weighs only 6.9 ounces and, when retracted, measures only 2.9 inches long, and it takes tiny 52 mm filters.
The range of focal lengths provided is also perfect for street use, giving an excellent sample of wide-angles up to a normal 50 mm.
But that’s about all of the positives I can list. It’s a slow lens.
F/4 at 24 mm isn’t terrible, but f/6.3 at 50 mm is…well, it’s not good.
This lens is for bright mid-day sun use. Even with the Z’s built-in image stabilization, this lens will struggle with hand shake and motion blur at all the wrong times.
Another detractor for this lens is its entry-level quality.
Unlike most of the other lenses on this list, this one is a plastic-bodied kit lens.
If you own a DX cropped-sensor Z camera, you know you have more small lens options than full-framers do.
For cameras like the Z50, Nikon makes a 16-50 mm similar to the full-frame 24-50 mm above, but even smaller.
On an APS-C sensor camera, that makes this lens a 24-75 mm. This one takes a 46 mm filter and measures less than two inches when fully retracted.
It’s one of the smallest lenses Nikon makes, and it’s even got built-in vibration reduction (VR). You can use this DX lens on an FX Z-series body, but you’ll have to use it in cropped sensor mode.
This lens is inexpensive and tiny. Even on a full-frame body, it’s an interesting walk-around lens when you want zooming possibilities.
It’s slow, but it makes up for that with its diminutive footprint.
Best All-Around Zoom Lens — Nikkor Z 24-70 mm f/4 S
It’s probably apparent by now, but all lenses represent a compromise.
When shopping for new camera systems and new lenses, the compromise that usually gets us first is the sticker shock.
Occasionally, you have to give up the idea of having the perfect lens for each type of photography and settle on the best lens for you.
If this is where you’re at, and we’ve all been there, then you need this lens.
This S-series lens, or its faster sibling the f/2.8 S, is the backbone of any multi-genre photographer’s camera bag.
They’re amazing lenses, and you’ll never regret paying for a constant fast aperture.
Both lenses are also from Nikon’s S-line, meaning they have the best optics that Nikon offers, plus the highest built quality and best weather-sealing.
If you can afford the price and are okay with the extra size and weight, the f/2.8 is the way to go. If not, go with the f/4 and live happily-ever-after.
The f/4 is 3.5 inches long, 1.1 pounds, and takes 72 mm filters. The f/2.8 is five inches long, 1.8 pounds, and takes 82 mm filters. Neither is a discrete street lens, but both produce outstanding images and are the lens to have if you plan to shoot other things.
Budget Manual-Focus 35 mm — 7artisans 35mm f/1.4 Full-Frame Manual Focus for Nikon Z
The classic setup for a street photographer is a fully-manual rangefinder camera with a manual-focus prime lens.
The mirrorless digital camera provides an excellent 21st-century update, but there’s not much reason to move beyond the old-school glass.
Many photographers love playing with classic lenses using adapter tubes.
There are also many third-party companies making bare-bones lenses for the Nikon Z. More and more come out every few months.
7artisans is a Chinese manufacturer that makes fully-manual lenses for most mirrorless systems.
Their lenses aren’t fancy, but they also aren’t expensive. They have the look and feel of an honest, old-school rangefinder lens, but at a fraction of the price.
They focus sharply, they’re fast, and they’re fun to shoot with. The 35 mm takes 46 mm filters and weighs 10.5 ounces.
Several other companies make lenses of this type.
Another great option is the Meike 35 mm f/1.4 APS-C for Nikon Z.
Best High-End, Manual 35mm Lens — Leica 35 mm f/2 Summicron-M for Leica M (adapter required)
If you want to shoot with manual lenses for the gritty feeling of street shooting, of course, you want to know what the best is.
There are many Leica M- or R- mount lenses on the market from third-party manufacturers, so picking up a simple, fully-manual adapter tube is worthwhile.
Then, it’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open for when deals pop up or interesting lenses appear at the second-hand shop.
Leica lenses have a reputation that is nothing short of legendary. They’re sharp, but they’re also unique.
Many street photographers are looking to recreate a vintage feeling, which is one way to do it. It’s fun for the enthusiast to compare how these old lenses and designs perform on the new mirrorless cameras.
Many other brands make lenses for the rangefinder mounts. Check out the Voigtlander Nokton 35 mm f/1.4 II Single-Coated for Leica M (adapter required), or the Zeiss Ikon C Biogon T ZM 35 mm f/2.8 for Leica M (adapter required).
Both can be picked up for a third as much as the Leica, and both have optics that will put the SLR/DSLR brands to shame.
Best Budget Manual Nifty-Fifty — Meike 50 mm f/1.7 full frame for Nikon Z
Meike has made a name for themselves by making bottom-dollar fully-manual lenses for many mirrorless cameras.
They’ve added a few Nikon Z lenses to their lineup, and one of the first was a reasonably fast 50 mm.
At under $100, you’ve got a lens that is just as fast as the S-series Nikkors. It’s manual focus but has decent optics.
It’s a great choice if you aren’t sure if you want a manual focus lens or not and want a beginner lens.
If you asked for one street photography lens to rule them all, this would probably be it.
Leica made many 50 mm lenses over the years, but the Summicron f/2 hits all the right notes. It’s small and portable and looks sharp on any body you mount it on.
Z-mount Street Photography Lens Guide and FAQ
How Do You Choose a Lens for Street Photography?
Many call street photography “candid photography,” which is a good summation of the intent.
Street photographers endeavor to capture the world as they see it. Like scientists studying an undisturbed land, they know that the bigger their footprint, the bigger their effect on the outcome.
So one objective of the street photographer is to be a little stealthy, but not to the point of being creepy.
If people see your lens aimed at them, they will act differently. The more obvious you are, the more likely they will change their demeanors.
Is that what you’re after, a posed and premeditated photograph?
Most serious street photographers would balk at this. So the goal of successfully shooting street photography is to blend in to ensure that your subjects act naturally around you.
Historically, the street photographer’s favorite camera has been a rangefinder body, like a classic Leica, with a fixed focal length prime lens. These produced terrific results on 35 mm film, and they were minimal and portable.
The thing about interchangeable lens cameras is that they can be either big or small; that’s part of the beauty.
A mirrorless can have the same form factor as an old-school rangefinder or a point-and-shoot with a pancake lens. With a big telephoto zoom attached, it’s just as bulky, awkward, and conspicuous as any DSLR would be.
So the primary criteria when I pick street photography gear is its size. Small bodies and lenses mean it’s more portable, easier to carry, easier to conceal, and all-around less conspicuous.
Strangers are now used to seeing people shooting pictures with their phones all the time, so much so that they don’t give it a second thought. The difference when you pull out a small, trivial looking mirrorless isn’t much different.
Should You Use a Prime or Zoom Lens?
Prime lenses are hands-down the favorite of every street photographer I know; the raging debate is which focal length.
Why can’t you use a zoom lens for street photography? Of course, you can, and lots of photographers do.
But zoom lenses are usually larger than primes, which means they’re more likely to make your setup and you look like a professional photographer. They tend to be optically less perfect than primes, with soft edges and more distortion. And finally, they tend to be slower, with higher low-end f-stops.
But the biggest drawback of a zoom lens is one of style. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I find that zoom lenses constrain me more than prime lenses do. With the ability to zoom in and out to improve framing, I tend to forget that I can move my body.
With a prime, I’m free to move around and find new perspectives. Everybody approaches photography differently, but if you’ve never shot with a prime lens, I highly recommend you pick up an inexpensive copy and give it a whirl.
How Do You Pick the Right Focal Length for Street Photography?
Every photographer has their style, so pinning down the perfect length lens takes some doing.
There are three primary focal lengths used in street photography, but there’s certainly no reason you couldn’t use others.
The lens everyone thinks of first for street photography is a 50 mm “normal” lens. These lenses have the least distortion of any other.
They’ve historically been the go-to lens if you need just one simple one to get the job done.
They can be found inexpensively, and they come in every possible configuration from super fast to slow but diminutive. Of all the lenses you’ll find, 50 mm fit the size profile that a street photographer is looking for. They can be fast and still very slim on the front of your camera.
The next lens in question is the 35 mm “wide-angle” lens. These lenses have a broader field of view than at 50 mm, which I find perfect for street photography.
They can still be found cheap, and they can still be pretty small. But being able to get a little closer to my subject makes these lenses my favorites for this type of work. When I find myself in crowded areas or busy, narrow streets, a 50 mm lens is just too tight.
It’s okay if you’re shooting portraits or working with just a few people, but if you’re trying to include buildings and more of the environment, I find them too constraining.
The 35 mm, on the other hand, allows you to get more of the scene without creating crazing distortions. It enables you to get close to your subject and fill the frame while still allowing you to tell the complete story. Many people also like to use 28 mm for an even wider point of view.
This is handy if you are in really tight spaces, like subways or nightclubs, but generally, I dislike the perspective distortions that begin to happen towards the frame’s edges.
Some street photographers like to get tighter. They use an 85 mm lens, commonly called a portrait lens, to accomplish this unique look. It’s useful for capturing details, but it is far too tight to capture classic street scenes.
It’s important to realize that the focal length you choose isn’t just about how much you can find in your frame. For example, wide-angle lenses like the 35 mm tend to make things appear farther apart.
They add a sense of depth to the image. In contrast, 85 mm lenses tend to make everything look packed together and flat. A 50 mm has the least distortions and looks as close to the human eye’s perspective as you can get.
What Aperture Lens Do You Need for Street Photography?
The standard advice is to buy the widest aperture that you can afford. You can always close down the iris of a lens, but you can’t open it up any more than its physical limits.
So what is the disadvantage of having the fastest lens you can buy? Well, the street photographer answers this question a little differently than others might.
Big apertures require big lenses. If you want the most compact lens, you aren’t going to get the fastest lens—it’s a give-and-take.
For example, the beautiful Nikkor Z 58 mm prime lens. With an f/0.95 aperture, this is one of the fastest lenses around.
But it’s also the biggest. It weighs 2,000 grams, or just under 4.5 pounds, and takes 82 mm screw-on filters.
Compare that lens to the Nikkor Z 50 mm f/1.8 S, which weighs only 415 grams (14.7 ounces) and takes 62 mm filters.
By my tastes, the 50 mm f/1.8 S is still a big lens for a 50 mm, but it’s much closer to being a street lens than the f/0.95.
Are Nikon S-series Lenses Worth the Money?
Like other manufacturers, Nikon uses unique branding to denote their “professional” level lenses.
These lenses are where they put the best of the best.
They have the best optics and are made to the highest standards. What does all of that mean?
Usually, it means they’re the best lenses for any job.
The advantages of the S-series lenses are that they are built for the Nikon Z-mount system.
Everything will work perfectly. They’ll have the fastest autofocus of any lenses you could put on your camera.
They have outstanding optics. While you may be able to find third-party manufacturers selling faster lenses, those lenses aren’t going to be autofocus or aren’t going to be made to the same quality that the S-series units are.
But it’s not all good news. S-lenses are the fastest ones that Nikon makes for their cameras. That means they are heavy and that they’re expensive. The S-series lenses are fabulous pieces of glass, but they aren’t always great for street photography.
Some models are just too bulky.
Can You Mount Other Brands of Lens on a Nikon Z-Series Camera?
There’s no doubt that any Nikon Z family member has the potential to make a great street photography machine.
At the moment, their lens lineup lacks some luster for the genre, however. The good news is that new lenses are being announced all the time, so keep looking for better, smaller options.
Pretty much any type of lens can be mounted to the camera with the right adapter. Adapters range from simple tubes with no electronics to ones that will control focus and aperture.
Suppose you already have a family of F-mount lenses, for example. In that case, you can mount these and get the full functionality of all the goodies—autoexposure, autofocusing, and vibration reduction—with the Nikon FTZ adapter. The Techart adapter is a popular choice if you want to use Sony E-mount lenses on the Nikon Z.
Other companies make many other options to get any make and model of lens working on your Z camera.
The ones of particular interest to street photographers, though, are the ones that can convert older rangefinder or SLR lenses.
If the lens is fully manual, all you need is a properly sized and well-built adapter tube.
Manual adapter tubes are an inexpensive way to try older manual lenses on your Z.
But keep in mind, even if your lens has some electronic functions, they won’t work. The camera won’t pick up any information about the lens, so that all files will default to some standard EXIF metadata. You’ll have to set up everything manually.
Street photography is a specialized area of photography. No one will tell you that you can’t shoot street images with a kit lens or a nice zoom. It’s just easier and more comfortable with the right equipment.
The Nikon Z cameras are an excellent body for the task, but the lens selection is a little lacking without getting creative.
Do you like trying manual lenses on your Nikon Z5 or Z6, Z7? Let me know which ones in the comments below.