Contrarian View: 35mm or nifty-fifty for street work
Ask any group of street photographers what lens they prefer working with and the overwhelming answer will be a 35mm. Although the great exponents of the art, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, mainly used a fifty, considered to be the "normal" angle of view, in recent years the thrust has been towards the wider-angle thirty-five. The modern street tog needs to get friendly with strangers, preferably right in their faces.
Last year when I walked up Oxford Street with Eric Kim and Charlie Kirk I had my 35mm Summicron focus set to 70mm, the minimum distance possible, and was encouraged to get really close to subjects. It worked, to a point, but I was not entirely comfortable. This was surprising. I have been using 35mm almost exclusively for street photography for the past two years. I love my Fuji X100S where I have no choice but to use 35mm. Most of the time it is fine.
A bit longer
Recently, though, I've had a hankering for something longer: The traditional "standard" lens, the nifty fifty. On balance I think I prefer to be just a little detached from the action and the 50mm focal length is pretty damn ok. I've even tried a 75mm APO Summicron and, unsurprisingly, this is capable of producing some good street shots. But I now tend towards 50mm (full-frame equivalent, of course) as the ideal go-anywhere walk-around lens.
But which lens to choose for a Leica owner? In the modern lens lineup there are two common choices, the f/2 Summicron and the f/1.4 Summilux. The Noctilux (f/1.0 or f/0.95) is an esoteric beast which can also produce stunning results. But it can bring focus problems and it is a large, heavy lens and by no means unobtrusive for street use.
Most people believe the Summicron is the best go-anywhere choice, whether in 35mm or 50mm form. I like the small size and low weight but I certainly do not like the lack of a focus tab on the latest 50mm Summicron. This is a deal breaker for me and, until I can afford the new and fabulously expensive APO Summicron (which does have a tab among other attributes) I much prefer to use the faster 50mm Summilux. It is truly a lens for all occasions and it is one of the sharpest and finest optics in the Leica collection.
Where there's brass....
For the past four weeks I have been using a magnificent chrome example of the nifty fifty on my M and enjoying it immensely. This is one good looking lens, even on a black camera, but comes into its own on a silver M of any age. While I seldom use the fastest f/1.4 aperture for street work--I usually work between f/5.6 and f/8―the Summilux is such a joy to use that I can overlook its added weight and length over a Summicron. I can overlook its weight up to a point. But the lens I have been using is on the heavy side because of the solid brass build. At 460g it is even heavier than the APO Summicron seventy-five.
I love this lens so much that I have borrowed a black version which is a full 125 grams lighter than the brick-outhouse chrome lens. It is a revelation. The M feels much better balanced with the lighter version of the Summilux and, all round, the ergonomics are superb. I have taken to carrying around the M and Summilux fifty plus the much lighter and nimbler Fuji X100S, the archetypal street tog's tool, and I now have the best of both worlds: Close and friendly thirty five and one of the best 50mm lenses ever made.