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.
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.