How to Improve Your Street Photography

Willem Wernsen

Over the years, street photography has become easier and more fulfilling for me when I put aside my restlessness and eagerness to score and instead just immerse myself in the dynamics of street life itself. If I were starting street photography today, these would be the top three tips I would hope a seasoned pro would share with me (and I still remind myself of these things, just to help me stay on track).

1. Forget the Urge to Score 

The biggest pitfall of the novice street photographer is the urge to have to score immediately. This compelling idea creates turmoil in your head. A rather welcoming openness and a healthy curiosity about what comes your way creates more mental space to observe the world around you. There is certainly nothing wrong with enthusiasm and passion for your photography, but it is especially important to find a good balance. My experience is that tranquillity and open-mindedness create the most opportunities to see moments and to capture them.

2. Choose a Location and Wait

To me, it has always been quite fascinating and enjoyable to work in the same place for a while, such as a park, crossroads, public square, or terrace. Life unfolds in front of your eyes, just like a movie. The idea is to be especially attentive to the most fascinating “stills” and pick these out by photographing them.

Choosing a particular spot is a bit like installing a spacious outdoor studio in which you can slightly control a number of elements, such as the setting, the framing, and/or the exposure. It’s especially important that you take the time to study all the elements you see in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen in order to build your composition. Working in the same place has the advantage that you can try out your framework. You’ll be able to make your composition faster within that familiar framework, and thus you can give much more attention to moments as they occur. You’ll undoubtedly, you’ll have to wait for the right time, however, so don’t glance at your watch too much or keep chimping between every shot. Keep focused on the spot you choose for your frame; you’ll know when you are in the flow. You’ll feel the moment you're waiting for. And take it from me: a fantastic feeling awaits you if your patience, careful observation, and a studied composition result in one hell of a photograph.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simply wandering the streets looking for your photos if you're getting good results. But staying a little longer in one place and observing what happens often offers you more photo-ready situations as well as the advantage that you can also take your time waiting for it. 

3. Get Close

Leave your telephoto lens at home when you hit the street. Instead, get in close and try to experience street life with all your senses: look, listen, smell, feel, and see what is happening on the street. Don't hide behind your camera; become part of the action around you. In the beginning, you may feel uncomfortable with the idea that everyone sees you. But if you are shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens, you’ll stand out more than you think. People may feel spied upon. However, when you walk among the crowds, even with your camera in hand, you become one of them. The smaller your gear, the closer you can get. So the less you stand out, the better. 

People on the streets are mostly busy with each other or with issues that concern them. Grab the action at close range. It’s up to you to decide what you will put in your frame. The power of the street photographer is to distill some action or a situation that nobody else pays attention to, which results in capturing the very moment that no one else sees. To be successful in this kind of observation, you have to be close.

When studying the work of the street photographers you admire, you might discover that the most compelling photographs are indeed the ones where the photographer is close to his subject. Getting close is a challenge to every aspiring street photographer, but take it from me: it is a most rewarding approach.

If you liked this article, you might also like Willem's eBook, On Street Photography.

Willem Wernsen’s keen interest in people led him into photography 35 years ago. Since then, he has come to know that humankind responds to humankind and that communication is key to making honest photographs—a belief that is evident in his work. Willem searches through cities, villages, streets, alleys, markets and pubs in an ongoing quest for engaging stories to tell with his camera. See more of Willem's work on his website 


Craft & Technique Willem Wernsen

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  • Willem Wernsen: a photographer, quiet, kind and engaging.

    In the early years of his career as a photographer Wernsen portrayed a number of man and women he knew. The images he made stood out because of an almost tangible interaction between the photographer and his models and it did not take long before people began to take notice of his work.
    Wernsen conveyed the vulnerability of man, which he emphasised to an increasing extent by depicting his models in their typical surroundings or a special meetingplace. His photos are deservedly called portraits.
    Portrait photography has been known to create a furore since the days of the industrial revolution.
    Following the elite who honoured their forefathers and important relatives with stately paintings, the less fortunate were now given the possibility to come up to their level. Especially the newly formed middle class made use of this modern device to decorate their walls with photographic images of their loved ones.
    The photographs often served as a means of documentation or as convincing evidence of their owner’s social status. And if perchance the portrait was not flattering enough tools to scratch, sandpaper or retouch could easily be used to tickle the client’s vanity.
    A photographer who was given the opportunity to immortalise celebrities could earn a great reputation for himself.
    Willem Wernsen became a ‘philanthropist photographer’ who portrayed the people he met, amicably working together, without any adornment or manipulation.
    He did not become famous overnight – after all, who were the people in the photographs? Who knew them? But today Wernsen enjoys great renown as a portrait photographer.
    Looking at Wernsen’s photo’s means sharing in the encounter, a very intense encounter. Regardless of social status or merit every person who has his portrait taken becomes very important when he is being photographed. Important for the future as well.
    The perceptible presence and, at the same time, the detachment of the artist provide an indelible, moving impression. The frog becoming a prince, Cinderella becoming a princes, the royal offspring accidentally ending up in the wrong house: fairy tales to many people – almost becoming a reality for some.
    The encounters are very real, the people portrayed have risen in esteem.
    ‘Beautiful People’ introduces Willem Wernsen, the photographer who humbly states: ‘I have only managed to photograph people’. A man with a much admired talent.
    Kees Tillema, Huissen, The Netherlands.
    Senior Lecturer Art Education. University of Professional Art Education

    Kees Tillema on
  • Willem Wernsen is a true master in black and white street photography, a master photographer of humans and their emotions in their daily surroundings. Having had the opportunity to meet and work with Willem and partner Lieve de Bleeckere several times, I feel very priviliged te be acquainted to a unique couple of human beings. The cover image of his e-book is called “Bella Vita”. A large print of this image hangs on the wall of my studio and is a daily inspiration on how to use black and white.

    Wim Stolwerk on
  • Wang Ruiqing, a Chinese painter, commented on Willem’s photos: “He saw China from the perspective of a Westerner, and took photos of China with his heart.” When many Western photographers shot the “others” in China, Willem shot “me” and “us” there.

    Chen Dadi on
  • Willem is a real master on social black and white photography. The way how he works is unique, just that makes his pictures brilliant. I had the honour of working with Willem for the realization of his book “Behind the Great Wall”. I have done the image editing (duotone). I am proud to work with him as a fellow photographer!

    Klaas van Huizen on
  • Willem is a real master on social black and white photography. The way how he works is unique, just that makes his pictures brilliant. I had the honour of working with Willem for the realization of his book “Behind the Great Wall”. I have done the image editing (duotone). I am proud to work with him as a fellow photographer!

    Klaas van Huizen on
  • Willem, one of my heroes.

    Nico Ouburg on
  • Looking at the people and their love of life in his pictures you realize nothing is black and white for this colorful photographer.

    Rob Sloot on
  • The women with the dog reaches about as far as anyone can reach with a love and compassion that pour out into my eyes. Love this shot because I love my dogs the same way.

    ALfred Kukitz on
  • Willem is a master on social black and white photography. He knows like nobody else how to interact with his subject, in a way that makes them comfortable and allows him to make timeless portraits.

    As a colleague photographer it’s a pleasure to see his work and hear him talk about it with a spirit and enthusiasm of a 10 year old boy.

    Marcel Brons on
  • Willem is a true master of photography, and gives some very useful tips on street photography!
    I’ve been on the road with Willem several times and it is always a real pleasure to see him while taking his pictures.

    Pieter Van Mullem on
  • Willem Wernsen: the Eye of the Maestro, the exact moment of pushing the button, the square framing setup, the humanity, the tacksharp B/Wness, ..and i can go on. to sum it up: MaestroWW

    louis Cauffman on
  • Willem Wernsen is a hero when its about photography. Because he is a master with getting close to people, and making pictures that reach your hart.

    Mix Art Gallery is proud that Willem is a member, and we make people happy with his pictures. Thank you Willem!

    Natasja Peerdeman on
  • The sincere interest Willem shows in humans in their specific environments occasionally takes a particular three way course: the subject, Willem and the spectator of the photograph together build a kind of interactive timeless three dimensional relationship.

    Diederick van den Wall Bake on
  • Willem Wernsen provides an enjoyable and extremely useful guide to street photography. Above all, he explains in what one can avoid the great confusion that often plagues beginning street photographers. Also, it’s an e-book — it’s less expensive, very portable, almost essentual to have on you during travels or any other occasion on which you might want to engage in street photography. The book teems with outstanding photos which may lead to heady inspiration.

    Roberty and Marijke on
  • Willem has the unique ability to see things were other (including myself :-)) just walk past them. It is amazing to see him work in the street as I often have had the privilege. He has so much patience and that combined with his sharp eye gives him the talent to make these great images.
    Next to that I admire his willingness and ability to explain and teach his way of working to others.
    Thank you Willem, for all those beautiful pictures, they make me feel a bit humble ;-)

    Ben Ros on
  • The way Willem gets close with the people, with patience and kindnes, gives photos in wich I, as a viewer, can get close to them.
    Thanks for sharing these tips.

    Klaas Slijkerman on
  • I’ve been working with Willem several times, and I’m looking forward to work with him together, and everytime he inspires me the same way when I look into his books. His patience results in 1 or 2 clicks, and something beautiful is created! A master photographer, whom easily shares his knowledge in great workshops and books!

    Hans Niezen on
  • To me, Willem’s photo’s are best discribed by the title of one of his books: Timeless!

    Herma Klein Kranenberg on
  • I am a huge fan of Willem’s photos and have all of his books (the e-book on street photography as well as the three “real” photo books) and some prints.

    I will never be able to reach his mastership, but I will try to follow his tips in order to improve my style.

    Norbert Lack on
  • Not only Wernsen’s art but now also his talent to teach are a feast for the eye and the mind.

    Eva Meijering on

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