Markets offer a real insight into the local way of life. At times they can be overwhelming – the loud chatter among shoppers, the constant cries of hawkers, the overflowing stalls and the onslaught of odors are enough to put off visitors from venturing into a market. But for those who love cultural immersions (and food), nothing beats taking a stroll through a bustling market and mingling with locals.
Markets are also a photographer’s paradise. There’s so much to be captured at markets, from colourful displays and impressive heaps of food to lively interactions between shoppers and vendors. However, taking good photos at markets can also be quite challenging, especially in countries where locals don’t like being photographed without their consent.
Here’s how to take good photos of markets, including tips for capturing colourful displays without upsetting vendors – or gorging on too much food.
1. Study the displays
As you’re navigating your way through a busy market, you might feel tempted to just start shooting away and hope for the best. You might even take a few quick, surreptitious photos to avoid being harassed by vendors (I’ve done this many times, particularly in Marrakech). But if you want to make sure that your photos are beautifully composed, you should take some time to study the items on display.
If you want to experiment a bit, look for interesting patterns in the stall displays and shoot the same display from different angles.
Use the arrangement of products, such as rows of fruit boxes or shoes, as leading lines. These are lines that attract the viewer’s eyes to the main subject in the photo. Diagonal leading lines make for an interesting photo.
If a stall is cluttered with trinkets or random objects, choose an item that stands out from the rest, and use it as an entry point into the picture.
2. Strike up conversations with vendors
Every avid photographer is familiar with the glares of annoyed sellers at markets. Some of us have also been chastised by vendors for hogging the space around their stall with our camera or taking photos without their permission.
Well, the market vendors are just trying to make a living from their stall, so you can’t really blame them for getting angry at tourists who flock to their stand with fancy cameras and walk away without buying anything. On the other hand, you can’t exactly purchase something from every stall you stop to photograph, otherwise you’ll end up returning to your hotel with a month’s worth of groceries. So what do you do?
I find that striking up conversations with vendors, or simply asking them how they’re doing, is an effective way of breaking down that barrier. Don’t treat the stall owners as just another subject in your photo. Chat with them. If you’re at a food market, ask them about their farm or produce. Farmers, butchers or fishmongers don’t expect tourists to buy anything from their stand – they’re normally there for locals – but they’ll probably appreciate you showing an interest in their products.
Be friendly and polite, and most vendors will happily let you take pictures of their stall (if not, say goodbye and move on).
3. Be ready and patient
Markets are normally bursting with activity, so it’s always a good idea to have your camera ready to capture fleeting moments, such as interactions between shoppers and vendors. It’s also a good idea to just stand in the same spot for a few minutes and observe your surroundings.
Taking photos at crowded places can be quite tricky. Don’t get frustrated if there are too many people walking across your shot or gathered around the stalls. Just be patient and keep your camera handy so that you can start snapping away when the place clears up.
4. Get close to the products
This one’s quite simple – fill the frame with vivid colours and interesting patterns. Taking close-up shots is especially fun when you’re at a food market. It allows you to capture the details and texture of particular foods.
Instead of zooming in from a distance, get very close to your subject (remember to follow tip #2 to avoid awkward encounters with vendors).
Switch to the macro setting on your camera to make your main subject stand out against a blurred background, or use a wide aperture to create the same effect.
5. Pay attention to light
Another challenge when photographing markets is light – or lack of. If you’re at an indoor market, raise your ISO setting and shutter speed for crisp, well-lit photos. However, do experiment with different settings to make sure that your photos are neither too dim nor overexposed.
Also, you might need to use different ISO settings for different shots as light conditions may vary from one stall to the next. Just avoid using the flash to make up for the lack of light – it will only make your photos look flat and ugly.
You also need to pay attention to light when taking photos outdoors, particularly if it’s a bright, sunny day. Since most stalls at outdoor markets are shaded by umbrellas or awnings, there is a harsh contrast between the stalls and the space around them that is exposed to the sun. This contrast will be reproduced in your shots, making the stalls look much darker than they actually are.
To avoid having the stalls look underexposed, move into the shade when taking photos or get closer to the stands.
The photos in this blog post were taken with my Canon EOS 1200D, which I bought in 2015 and is still going strong, despite having been dropped in snow and mud multiple times. This is a great beginner camera for hobby photographers.
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