Asian markets have long been a popular draw for photographers, particularly street & travel photographers. It’s easy to see why – they’re a riot of colour, shape, and activity, full of people who are too busy working to worry about that weirdo pointing a camera at them.
And yet a lot of the market photography we see online tends to be samey and cliched – piles of fruit, smiling stallholders (a staple of any photographer’s visit to a market in SE Asia in particular), price tags etc. I spend a lot of time shooting in the markets of Bangkok with my photo walk clients, and always try to get shots that are a bit different to the norm. Here are my tips for making sure your next market shoot produces the goods!
Robert Capa‘s “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough” is probably the most famous bit of photography advice of all time. It’s a particular issue for beginner photographers or those who haven’t done much street photography, and have yet to overcome their fear of approaching strangers (which is why Bangkok, with its friendly locals, is a great city to learn in!). Many photographers overcome this fear with long lenses, but these create a distance from the subject. I like to get right up close to people and, if they have the time, interact with them. It’s the only way to get intimate, engaging people shots.
Embrace the Blur
When shooting in markets you don’t always have time to perfectly compose the shot and adjust your settings – there’s simply too much going on. I usually shoot in A or P mode at an ISO of around 800, and don’t always care if there’s a bit of motion blur, as it helps convey a sense of movement and activity. As the great Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept“, and that’s particularly true of street photography. Don’t get hung up on having a super-fast shutter speed – embrace the movement of chaos of the market and add some dynamism to your shots.
Markets are a great place to find framing devices, some more obvious than others. Stall frames, hanging produce, awnings and so on all make great natural frames for your shots. It’s a case of having an eye for geometry, finding the right frame, and then waiting for someone – or something – to come along and fill it!
Look at the Hands
Too often, photographers focus on faces without paying attention to the rest of the body – a particular lapse in markets where the hands are invariably doing interesting things! So when you’re photographing market workers, look at what they’re doing and, if it’s interesting, focus on the activity rather than the person.
Also, markets are home to people who work hard and have gnarly, wrinkled old hands to prove it! I met the old lady in the picture below at Mapusa Market in Goa, & as I was shooting her I noticed she had amazing hands, so they suddenly became the focus of the picture.
Don’t just think about people & produce shots – look for unusual, quirky or humorous shots. In the picture below, taken at Khlong Thoey Market in Bangkok, I spotted the advertisement and waited a few minutes until someone walked behind it, to get the perfect shot…
If you’re not too squeamish, the meat section is a goldmine for unusual shots. I squatted down next to this pig’s head, also at Khlong Thoey, & waited for something to happen, and this girl very obligingly came and stood next to it to make a phone call!
Layering – ie combining multiple subjects in the foreground and background (and, if you’re really good at it, or lucky, the middle ground) is a difficult but very effective photography technique. You’ll need a very narrow aperture to ensure maximum depth of field – F10 or narrower if the light permits – and be patient, but pictures with multiple layers invariably make the eye linger longer and convey a very dynamic atmosphere.
Light & Lines
Photography is, of course, all about light – the name literally means “drawing with light”. And markets, with their indoor and outdoor areas, and narrow beams of light shining down between awnings, are a real playground for light-aware photographers. This picture, using spot metering to expose for the chopping boards and the seller’s hat, creates a real atmosphere of mystery in an otherwise busy market (again, Khlong Thoey in Bangkok):
An awareness of lines, and how they draw and direct the viewer’s eye, can be used to create really dynamic images and markets are full of them. In this shot, the guy’s muscular arms, flying hair and visible effort already create a dynamic photo, and the lines of the shutters behind him and the umbrella in front of him really enhance the sense of movement.
Every Picture Tells a Story
A good picture doesn’t just capture a moment – it tells a story. When composing, think about what you’re seeing through the lens. Are you just taking a portrait or an action shot, or is there something more going on? Look for context, look for emotions, look at what else is happening within the frame and try to capture a picture that either tells a story, or leaves unanswered questions as to what is going on or what the subject is feeling.
In this picture, the guy at Mapusa Market is clearly having a quiet, boring day, & even the arrival of the photographer can’t cheer him up…
This one is my favourite ever market shot! This guy is trying to weigh some chickens and has just been pecked in the face by one of the birds in his left hand. I love the strain on his face, the blur of movement to his left, and the chicken resigned to its fate sitting on the scales.
…and in this one, taken at Phutharet Market, we’re looking at two guys who’ve probably been working all night & have finally got to the end of their shift.
…and this guy has also clearly come to the end of a long day:
You can also think about taking a series of photos to tell a story or create a photo essay.
I hope you find these tips helpful when it comes to shooting in markets! Always remember, people working in markets are too busy to pay much attention to you so don’t be shy, get in there and shoot – and don’t forget to smile!