I love photographing markets when I travel, even though people there must think I’m really strange. I have been known to spend a considerable amount of time photographing people unloading trucks or carving up chickens much to the delight and confusion of the workers. Artists are often misunderstood.
Markets are great places to get interesting travel photos, especially if you want to photograph local people. The workers at busy markets are often used to photography and are too busy to think about tourists. Even if they notice you with a camera, they have to go back to work eventually.
Here are a few things I have learned over the years that help me capture the color, activity, and life in markets.
Market Photography Tips
1. Make friends, or let them know you are not a stalker
If the locals make eye contact, I usually smile, say hello, and try to be as open and friendly as possible. If the shopkeepers see that you are genuinely interested in them, they likely won’t mind if you linger and take several photos. If I find a colorful scene or interesting person, I like to stay and shoot the changing activity and light. By making an initial contact and getting their trust, they know I’m just a regular, wholesome guy interested in taking photos and not a creepy sex-pervert.
2. Think Background First
I am always seeking a clean, organized, and colorful background. If they background is bad, there is no photo. If I see a woman selling flowers in front of a weathered, colorful wall, or a man carving a pig with a monochromatic background, I fall to my knees and thank the photo gods. Even if there is nothing happening in front of a good background, I’ll sometimes wait to see if someone interesting walks by.
3. Think About Perspective
If vendors are sitting on the ground, I try and crouch down and shoot them at eye-level, but sometimes I hold my camera up high and shoot down especially if I want to put the face of the subject in an uncluttered spot. It takes some experimentation with angles but it can be worth the effort to get the right perspective.
Pro tip: Avoid climbing on top of crates of fruit or baskets of fish for the right angle. Vendors frown on this.
4. Seek Dramatic Light
When the sun is high in the sky, vendors set up umbrellas or tarps to block the harsh light. The contrast from bright sunlight to the dark interior of a market can be quite severe. Use this to your advantage. I like to wait at the edge of the light, expose for the highlights and shoot people as they come and go. This has a spotlight effect that illuminates the subject, blacks out the background, and is an easy way to get a clean, simple image.
The ill-lit interiors can sometimes have interesting artificial light. Don’t be afraid of the dark interiors that most photographers overlook.
5. Go Behind the Scenes
The front of the market with the vendors, products, and customers is usually the focal point, but some of the best action is behind the scenes. Venture to the loading docks and side streets to photograph men on smoke breaks, women sewing clothes, and butchers carving chickens. This is often where the best action is located.
6. Experiment With Layers
If you really want to challenge yourself, try and take some layered images with people in the foreground, middle ground, and background. At markets, there are typically stationary vendors who are waiting for customers. These people make great starting points. Set up the shot with those stationary people in the foreground or background and wait for people to come and go to create depth.
Shoot a lot of photos when trying to make layers because the success rate will be low, but when you get it right angels sing from the heavens.
Click here for a detailed lesson on shooting layers.
7. Look for Quiet, Simple Scenes
In a completely opposite approach to shooting layers, try and photograph some simple scenes. Look for moments with vendors quietly working or pondering life while on break. These simple shots when combined with the photos of activity tell the story of the market.
8. Get Creative
Try and think beyond the standard market shot. Look for mirrors, natural frames, juxtapositions, and unusual actions that might make an interesting photo.
9. Stop for a Drink
Markets can be smelly, hot, crowded, and overwhelming. Don’t forget to take a break and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea at a local stall, or have a beer in the afternoon. Heck, have a beer in the morning in you want – no judgement! Taking a break allows you to decompress and observe. You might also get a hot tip from the shopkeeper on where to shoot. At the very least, you can inquire about the location of the bathroom so you aren’t running around later trying to find it in the maze.
10. Help me finish this post
Do you have any photography tips for markets? Do you think these tips will be useful? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
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Some really useful tips and some great photos! I’ve started to try and take more photographs of people in normal situations (just with my iPhone) and it’s good to hear from someone who knows what they’re doing 😄
iPhones can be a good way to take people photos becuase we are so used to them being everywhere. It is also a good camera to practice with since it is wide-angle and everything is in focus. Thank you for the feedback.
Thanks for the great tips and photos. I especially like the one of the three women that has the man reflected in the mirror.
The women with the man in the mirror was a fun place to shoot. There were great mirrors and colors all around. Thank you for the comments.
Jeff, these are seriously beautiful shots! I want to add one more thing I learned after years of taking travel photos: use the market’s structure for different vantage points. I did this in Bali when I took a shot of a flower vendor on the ground level from the upper level of the market, and also in Bhutan. Whenever you see a staircase, climb it (as long as it is allowed).
That is very good advice on perspective. You can sometimes get some really cool shots from that high angle and even if the photo isn’t great it can still give a cool view. Heck, even if the staircase is off limits just climb and it pretend to be a dumb tourist 🙂
You amazed me when you were a quiet little guy in my 6th grade geography class. Here you are now, a confidant young man still doing astounding things. I love your photos and the fact that you share your knowledge and adventures. Teacher learning from the student!
Thank you Mechelle. I always had a curiosity about the world but I never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to get to travel and see the world. Thanks for the comments!
I love markets but am almost always disappointed with my photos. I think what happens to me is that I get intimidated (especially in chaotic markets) and then quickly take photos without enough thought. Your tips and photo examples are super helpful, and for me the overall theme is just to slow down and don’t be afraid to make contact. I’ll get a chance to practice this in Colombo’s Pettah market, among other Sri Lankan markets, when we visit in March.
Colombo markets are great – people there are really open to being photographed. It is easy to get intimidated, so maybe tip #1 should have been to slow down. In truth, that is probably the first thing I learned. Slow down, observe and wait a minute before diving right in.
Beautiful photos and use of them as examples to your astute points when photographing markets (and in general). Thanks, Jeff for a terrific and well organized post.
Thanks Jane, I appreciate the feedback and comments.
Great article, Jeff. I love your layer photos. They have many stories and perfect to fill the frame. Maybe, I should go to neighborhood local market soon. Of course, they feel strange and curious why local man (similar face, I am Indonesian) take their photograph in wet market 🙂
Speak to them in Bahasa Indonesian and they will realize you are a tourist! Thanks for the feedback and happy shooting if you go out.
Sure, that is the only trick I have 😀
I don’t do much street photography, but your tips can be applied to almost any type of photography. I think another tip might be to plan your gear ahead of time. No sense lugging around a tripod or extra lenses if you aren’t going to use them. And practice, practice, practice. My favorite is the man in the mirror – awesome!
Very true, these tips could be used just about anywhere. Planning your gear is a great tip. Nowadays, if I’m shooting while in a market or traveling I often take one camera + one lens. But if I were Rv-ing in national parks like you I’d want a lot more gear. Thanks for the comments and feedback!
Terrific post Jeff. Lots of good tips here. We both love going to markets and in fact it is the first place that we head to in any new place…. And the tip you mention about making contact with people is the one that I use most frequently. I too have found that if you stand still and smile and make a connection even if a small one, it makes them more likely to be positive about your photographing them.
You are way more patient than me. i commend you. I am definitely not good at getting or waiting for the best light even though I know I should be…. And I totally agree on the back ground tip as well. I love a colorful wall or interesting texture which makes a subject pop.
And by the way, the markets in Myanmar were amazing for photography…. !
Terrific post. Full of wisdom.
Thank you Peta. I remember you saying in other posts that you head to markets first thing. It is a great way to start a trip.
If I have the time, I really like being patient, but it is something I’ve learned recently. In the past I walked a lot more through cities and fired away as I went. Now, I tend to linger if I find a nice spot. I find that my best photos are taken when I am patient and keep shooting because I rarely get it right the first time!
Good points, which apply to most forms of candid and street photography. Buying something every now and then makes getting a portrait shot a bit easier too.
Very good point. Depending on the situation, I’ll try and buy something as a thank you. Of course, when I go to a wholesale fish market my purchasing options are limited 🙂
These are some beautiful photos, and thanks for the tips on taking photos. I love visiting local markets when I travel but am always afraid of a negative reaction should I ask take photos of strangers.
Fear of negative reactions is a natural and normal feeling. Sometimes people get angry, but that is very rare. It depends on the country and region, but as a general rule most people react positively or don’t react at all. I just smile and remember that no one was ever hurt by a photo in a market.
This is a fantastic post, Jeff, very good advice and #2 is something I think is something easy to forget when amid market chaos. Patience is an important key in a market. What makes this post so good are your photos and explanation behind each of them to match the points you mention. Great post to read and to dream about my next market encounter with my camera 🙂
Cheers, and happy trails.
Really enjoyed this comprehensive and informative post, Jeff. Clearly you have been taking your own advice for a long time, as these photos are spectacular. I especially like the one with the young boy carrying boxes on his back, with all the boxes in the background. I love to go to food markets when I am traveling, your photos made me feel as if I just did that.
Thank you, this was super cool and helpful; something I’ll come back to for sure! Your pictures tell stories, and it is amazing! Keep it up man! 😀
Thank you for the feedback – I really appreciate it.
Finally catching up on your posts Jeff. This one’s a beauty. Many of these tips I already do, but there are some ideas that are new to me that I’ll think about more for the next market. Like you I always seek out the local market for a glimpse of ordinary life.
I went to a market near my house in Bangkok the other day and was reintroduced to Thailand. I live in a suburb and forget I’m in Asia sometimes but visiting a market as you say is a great way to see ordinary life.
Excellent tips. I really enjoyed so much. Hope it will help
Thank you Robert.
You’re most welcome