One of the most exciting things about travel photography is the opportunity to interact with and get to know different cultures. Our craft is unique in the sense that it allows us to stop and be more observant rather than run from place to place. So if we want to convey a sense of place in our travel photos we need to live it as much as possible.
To achieve this successfully, your images need to be able to tell a story. That's why markets are an essential part of travel photography. No travel story is complete without a visit to a local market.
Every culture is different, but usually, these places are hives of activity, are colorful, and full of customers and traders hustling around. I think that this is one of the best ways to capture the daily lives of locals, as markets are where they shop for essentials, groceries, and food. All these things make it a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture and overall, it’s a vivid and fun experience.
So, let's talk about the best way to photograph markets.
About the Gear
Since you'll be wandering around a lot, I usually suggest using a medium length standard zoom lens, something like a 24–70mm (full frame) focal range (or equivalent if you are shooting with a cropped sensor) so you can cover from wide to short telephoto.
I also recommend carrying a small flash in case you want to fill shadows a little bit.
And that's it!
Simpler is better in these environments since you don't want to draw much attention to yourself.
If you prefer to be even more inconspicuous, the best option is a 35mm lens (or 23mm which is equivalent to cropped sensor cameras). This focal length allows you to work wide and is also very good for environmental portraits.
Now that the basics are covered and you know the importance of shooting markets when you travel, let's discuss camera settings, how to approach it, and what to shoot.
1. Camera settings
Shooting in markets is not complicated, but things happen and develop quickly around you, so it is imperative that you are ready to press the shutter at any time. Here are some of the camera settings I recommend using.
Many of these places are either indoors with low lighting or outdoors covered by tents, which leads to constant changes in the lighting conditions.
For example, you could be shooting a vendor under a canopy, then turn around and photograph a person walking by on a path that isn't covered.
This is why it's better to have your camera set to Auto-ISO; that way, you don’t have to worry about changing it in such various conditions.
I recommend using Aperture Priority shooting mode.
That way, the aperture is the only dial you'll be changing depending on your needs. This will give you the ability to decide in a pinch what type of depth of field you want.
Shooting a close-up portrait? Open the aperture as wide as you want and have the background go soft.
Set your camera so you can zone focus.
What that means is pick a set distance, say eight feet, and focus there. Then lock it by switching to manual focus (turn autofocus off).
Normally you'll want to make the center of the frame the primary zone focus; that way, you can quickly focus and recompose if needed. You can also use back button focus if your camera has that option and you are familiar with using it.
Continuous Drive Mode
Set your drive to continuous shooting mode or multi.
In continuous drive mode, you can fire a series of images by keeping the shutter button depressed.
This is important as you have more chances of getting a more stable photograph, and also of capturing the right moment if you are photographing a person.
I find more keepers this way, as shooting in bursts means you have more opportunities not to miss because of eye blinks or funny non-compelling expressions.
You can also use continuous drive mode to get a particular mood or scene.
Let’s say people walking by in front of a stall. Just time it so that when someone approaches, you shoot. Chances are one of the many frames will work for you with the person in the position you desire.
2. Ask for permission when approaching people
Making photos of people is different in every place.
There are cultural and social beliefs in some areas where taking a photo of someone without consent could lead to a bad experience. So it is not a good idea to take photos without asking permission first.
This is one of the topics most frequently asked about by beginners and photographers that are somewhat shy.
This is totally understandable.
Here are some tips you can use to deal with approaching people and asking to photograph them.
Understand the culture
This is perhaps the most important consideration on this topic.
Before you leave for your travels, as part of your research try to understand the cultural barriers or differences of the people and place you’re going to visit.
There are locations where religion or beliefs make locals more sensitive to being photographed and it is essential that you understand this before attempting to photograph them.
Ask questions and smile
Simply saying hello and smiling will take you places.
It is always better to engage in a conversation and get to know more about your subject before making a photo. Consider that they are people too.
How would you feel if a stranger stood in front of you without even saying hello and just started to take photos?
Would you ask yourself why, or feel your privacy was being invaded?
That’s why it is important that you at least learn a couple of words in the local language. Say hello with a smile, and ask questions if you can. Build rapport, and then just ask permission to make a photo.
If I can I try to learn their name, what they are selling, etc. I can guarantee you that when you are back home and look at those pictures, you’ll have instant nice memories, not just a meaningless photo of a stranger.
Get help from a local guide
If you don’t speak the language, try to get the help of a local guide to translate for you; that way, you still can engage in a conversation.
Obviously, this is not always possible so in that case, just try to at least say hello in the local language, smile, and show your camera. More often than not you will get a positive response.
Blend in, stay put, and make yourself invisible
Believe me, you want to look normal and not draw attention.
Try to blend in as much as you can, and use your everyday normal stuff.
Yes, I know you want to look cool and trendy, but wearing a cowboy hat and lugging two camera bodies is certainly not the best way to approach markets.
Also, if you stay put for a few minutes in the same place, taking a photo once in a while, people will get used to you being there.
Soon enough they’ll stop paying attention to you and get back to their normal routine, giving you an opportunity to make more natural photos.
3. What to photograph
Now that we have covered the basic settings and how to approach the people, I want to leave you with some ideas of what to photograph in markets.
Photograph details, lots of them.
What I mean is to get close and photograph details of the goods being sold. Make close-up photos of the food, fruits, etc.; these are generally very colorful and in most cases, merchants arrange them in nice formations to catch the buyers’ attention.
Focusing on this first will also help you to blend in, as I suggested above; people will see you taking close-ups of their products and will quickly forget you’re there.
You can also shoot details of working hands, utensils, and any particular elements that are unique to the area.
These kinds of photos are always nice and visually help to tell a story.
Always make wide photographs in markets.
Shoot the stalls, the crowds, and the hectic atmosphere. This is the best way to put your viewer in the middle of the action and give them a better idea of what the particular place looks and feels like.
Include the corridors; shoot the tents, if any, or any particular feature that makes the market different or unique.
Sometimes markets are set on the streets, covered by tents or tarps, and sometimes they are set in huge warehouses. There is always something different that makes the location unlike any other.
The Environmental Portrait
Lastly, markets are about the people, both the merchants and the shoppers. So you should try to make evocative images of them.
Of course, you can make a traditional portrait here and concentrate on faces and features, but the essential portrait in a market also includes the environment.
A regular traditional portrait can be made almost anywhere, so if you do a close-up and then you throw the background out of focus you will be making a photo that could be taken in any place.
This is not to suggest that this kind of image can’t be taken in markets; in fact, I always try if I can, but it should also be accompanied by an image that shows the surroundings.
For this type of photograph include the sellers and their shops, their customers, and the interactions between them.
Now remember as well that this is a portrait and not a wide establishing shot, so you need to make the people being photographed somehow prominent and at the same time capture the environment in which they are working.
Photographing in markets is compelling and fun.
If you follow these recommendations, I am pretty sure you’ll get amazing photos and enjoy the process.
I always take pleasure in photographing markets. How about you?
Have you ever shot in markets as part of your travel photography? If so, please share your images in the comments section below; I’d love to see them.
Daniel Korzeniewski is a Miami-based travel photographer whose work has appeared in several publications. He contributes to various stock photography outlets and leads photo tours here at Digital Photo Mentor. Find more about his work, travel adventures at his website here. You can also follow him on Instagram.