Myanmar Street Photography

9 Tips for Photographing Markets When Traveling

14 comments
Photo Tips, Street Photography, Travel

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. 

Yangon street photography

At this market in Yangon, there were several women sewing clothes and even though they were all giggling as I took their photos, I gained their trust by being open and friendly.

 

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.

Bangkok street photo

I found this great background of boxes and waited for workers to walk by.

Yangon street photography

The woman and the colorful fruit are great, but the clean background are what makes the shot.

 

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. 

Street Photography Yangon Market

By getting down at eye level I was able to capture the expression of the lady.

Yangon Street Photography Market

For this photo, I held the camera up as high as possible so I could see the man’s face.

 

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.

Yangon Street photography

Even though the midday light was very bright, by exposing for the people I was able to spotlight the subjects and blackout the rest.

Danyigon Market Street Photography

 

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.

Dhaka Bangladesh street photography

These men haggling over freshly caught fish in the back of the market made an interesting photo and cultural experience.

 

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. 

Danyigon Market Street Photography

At this market along the train tracks, I had stationary vendors in the foreground and middle ground, and while the train was in station, interesting subjects in the background.

 

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. 

Street Photography Yangon Market

A quiet moment in an otherwise crowded market.

Street photography 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. 

Market Street Photography

It is easy to focus on the obvious shot, but by looking around and experimenting you can make creative compositions.

Travel Photography Clothes

 

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.


You can follow me on Social Media on Facebook and Instagram. I have photo prints available on my portfolio site.

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Currently living in Bangkok, I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

14 thoughts on “9 Tips for Photographing Markets When Traveling”

  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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 🙂

  3. Mechelle Andrews says:

    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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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