Part II – Photo Technics
No matter where I travel, I immensely enjoy visiting markets. Many of them, especially in Africa & in Asia, but also in the Middle East & in South America, are an assault to your senses: colorful and at times disorientating, aromatic or even intoxicating, vibrant and eventually hectic places… But this is where “the real life” can be found, so different from touristic highlights (though some markets have turned extremely popular in the last years, even amongst tour groups…)
In my first years as a Travel Photographer, markets were a really frustrating experience, and the result was almost always far bellow my actual experience and even further from my expectations. Sounds familiar? Nonetheless, step by step, my technique improved, and the results tremendously changed… Now markets often represent some of the best photo opportunities I experience while traveling.
Here are 29 tips to significantly enhance your photo-taking at markets, based on the challenges I identified & experienced and the solutions I have worked out. I do not pretend to cover every aspects of such a broad and difficult subject, but only to share with you some ideas. Nevertheless, I wish I had known a few of those points earlier. If you have other tips, feel free to share them in the comments below!
I split the recommendations into 3 main categories:
- Organizational Aspects,
- Photo Technics,
- Editing / Post-Processing Your Pictures in LightRoom
Part I – Organizational Aspects
Check my Post from February 17th, 2016
Part II – Photo-Technics
- Take Your Pictures in RAW
This will only make a difference when post-processing your pictures, but what a difference! I will never repeat it enough: only take your pictures in RAW! Here are 11 reasons why you should take your picture in RAW and not in JPEG!
- Make Portraits
One of the biggest challenges when photographing at markets is the amount of different subjects that you can have and will have on one single picture, if you do not focus on one person or one item… Markets are indeed very busy, sometimes crowded and even chaotic places, with a large number of people on a very compact area. Not mentioning the many colorful stalls all around the place, with so many different items and colors… As a consequence, most of the pictures you will take, if not precisely focused on one person or one item, will turn confusing, “unreadable”, with no guidance for the eye of the observer. So my most sensible advice will be to focus on one single subject, and only one:
- One person, of which you make a portrait;
- One item or a small number of similar items sold, of which you make a close-up;
- One stall to catch the variety of colors…
- Wider pictures, not focusing enough, are more often than not very disappointing! Believe my experience, I deleted hundreds of those over the years…
- Use A Tele-Lens
Of course, you always should ask permission before taking pictures of someone, especially if this is a portrait. Nevertheless, since many people feel compelled to pose seriously for the picture, these portraits are very often deadpan… This might not be what you want! Moreover, in busy markets, people might simply refuse to be photographed… This is exactly when you should sit down and get forgotten. Take a few steps back, actually ideally 5 to 10 meters, and use a Tele-Lens. There are several advantages for doing so:
- Soon enough, people around you will simply have forgotten you are there and will go back to their business. This is exactly when you have the best opportunity for some unique portraits, as people will be “natural” and not posing for the picture…
- A Tele-Lens will enable you to make very good close-ups, even with 5 to 10 meters distance, and have very nice portraits of local people in their “everyday life environment”.
- And last but not least, a Tele-Lens reduces the depth of field if you have an opened aperture, and consequently put the background completely out of focus. People observing your pictures will therefore concentrate their attention on the most important subject…
I personally use the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. Yes, this is an expensive toy (and quite heavy to carry around), but I think it is ideal for such pictures (and very adapted for wildlife photography, by the way). If your budget allows it, also consider the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which is even more expensive and heavy, but one of the best objectives on the market for portraits (Nikon surely has equivalents to these Tele-Lenses).
- Use the “Aperture Variable” (Canon) or “Aperture Priority” (Nikon) Mode Of Your Camera
There are many possible settings for your camera. I personally mostly use “Aperture Variable” for Travel Phortography, as the aperture controls the most important element of picture composition (in my opinion): the Depth of Field. For more information on camera setting, check the Basics of Photography. My default setting is f 5.6, as with such an open aperture, I have the ideal settings for portraits (the background will be blur and therefore out of focus). The reason why I chose this as a default setting is that pictures of people are the ones for which you have the least time to get ready, so most probably you will not be able to change settings. A building won’t look in another direction, or go away: there, you will have sufficient time to have a quick check, and to change to the aperture to f 7.1 or even f 9.0, depending on the building and the angle you choose…
- Work With An Open Aperture
As mentioned above, the aperture controls the most important element of picture composition (in my opinion): the Depth of Field. With an opened aperture (“f” value low, like 4.0 or 5.6, even 2.8 or smaller if your lenses allow this), the background of your main subjects will turn blur and hence out of focus. Especially in crowded markets, you have much “noise” around your main subject, i.e. elements that will also “call for attention” of the viewer in your picture, making the very picture chaotic, confuse, “unreadable”. But if the background is blur, and the main subject very sharp, then you have a clear message on your picture. This is what you are looking for!
- But Beware Of The Field Depth With A Completely Open Aperture!
Nonetheless, you should be extremely careful when working with a Tele-Lens and a completely open aperture: the wider open the aperture, the narrower the field depth! With a 200 mm tele-lens and an aperture as small as f 4.0 or even 2.8, your field depth will only be a few centimeters. Which means that if you haven’t been extremely precise on the point where you focused, your picture will not be sharp! I personally tend to make portraits with my Tele-Lens with an aperture of f 5.6, and with my standard lens (Canon EF 24-105 f/4.0 L IS USM) with an aperture of 4.0, so that the depth of field is narrow but not too narrow, allowing for small mistakes in the point of focus but making the background blur. Do not forget that in a market, you will not have the capacity to focus at length, and that you might do small mistakes (I do, and quite often actually). With a completely open aperture, those small mistakes can turn fatal for the sharpness of your picture…
- Focus Only With The Central Point of Focus
Most cameras do the auto-focus with a number of Captors (also called Points, the exact number depending on the quality of the camera). How do you recognize which Point is actually being used by your camera? When focusing, the dots or small squares in your viewfinder will turn read or blink. Unfortunately, as the camera doesn’t know on which precise subject it shall focus, often it takes a “medium value”, or focuses on the wrong part of the picture if you have too many elements. If this is nothing disturbing for landscape photography, with a partly close aperture (like f 8.0 or f 11.0), it can be fatal with an open aperture for a portrait (like f 5.6 or worse, f 4.0 or even f 2.8). Select the modus when only the central Point is being used for focusing, and only focus with the central Point / Captor. That way, you are sure that the camera will actually focus on where you want it to focus, and not somewhere else… I will come back later on the implications for picture composition and the respect of the “Golden Rule”.
- Focus On The Eye Of A Person
As mentioned above, with an open aperture, especially with a Tele-Lens, the depth of field will be extremely narrow, making that only a few centimeters will be sharp, and the surroundings blur. The most expressive part of someone’s face, in a portrait, is its eyes. So you should always focus in the eyes, not the nose / ears / hair or whatever…
- Only Take Pictures At Eye Level
You should always take a picture of any person or of any leaving being at eyes level. Yes, this can be very challenging for ants or spiders … Why?
- It makes an image more intimate: the camera sees the person or animal the way he or she sees you;
- It helps creating a more relatable picture: it is easier to recognize, as this is the perspective we are used to;
- And last but not least it shows respect: when shooting down on a subject, you diminish its power.
As a consequence, especially in a market, where sellers often seat on the floor (at least in Africa, Asia & South America), it means that you have to get down to your knees. Of course, as any good rule, it can be broken, and sometimes pictures from above or from bellow can create interesting, new perspectives. But that should rather be the exception than the rule. To close this subject, this is also true with children. You might have some very funny situations there, with children mimicking you and going on their knees when you do, having a great time at doing so! This is when sharing roles with a fellow traveler / photographer can turn especially rewarding…
- Beware Of The Lack Of Light
There are two reasons why you might not have sufficient light at a market: you are there very early morning and the light is still dim and / or the market is a covered market, with insufficient light getting in. Remember that you should have a shutter speed greater than 1 / Focal Lens. What does it mean? If you have a 200 mm Tele-Lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1 / 200 second (1 / 320 second for an APS-C camera, considering the Crop Factor of 1,6). Else, your picture might be blur… If you don’t reach those values due to the lack of light, you have three possibilities:
- Open even more your Aperture, if your lens allows you to do so. But beware of the very narrow Depth of Field with a completely open Aperture!
- Increase the ISO sensibility. You must be very careful though, as this massively reduces the quality of your picture. If you have an APS-C camera, you should ideally not exceed 400 (eventually 640), and with a full-frame camera ISO 800 (eventually 1600).
- Use the “Manual” (M) Setting of your camera and fix the shutter speed at an acceptable level, accepting to underexpose your picture (do not underexpose by more than 1.5 Stop with an APS-C camera and by more than 3 Stops with a full-frame camera). You can then correct the exposure in LightRoom. I do this quite often, with much better results than compromising on ISO high values…
- Do Not Zoom Too Much In…
Even if you make a portrait / close-up of a person, keep in mind that you should have some elements of the surroundings, even if they are blurred thanks to the open Aperture. But remember that since you probably won’t have the time to perfectly compose your picture when you take it (things go fast on a market, you have people passing by…), you will probably enhance the composition of your picture in the post-processing part (cropping your picture). Nowadays, with cameras taking pictures with 20 Mega Pixels, there is no problem doing so… If you have zoomed too much in, you will not be able to do so!
- Remember The “Golden Rule” Or The “Rule Of Third”
Pages and pages have been written on the “Golden Rule” and the “Rule Of Third” in Photography. Let me try to keep it short & simple: a picture centered is more likely to be less exciting and intriguing (dare I even say boring?) than one that is not. Divide your picture with a grid of equidistant two times two lines (vertical and horizontal), and put the main subject on one of the intersections of those lines:
- At the 1/3 on the left or on the right of your pictures,
- And in the meantime at the 1/3 on the top or at the bottom of your picture.
You will discover that your pictures are much more lively that way! Now wait: I said that you should focus with the central Focus Point / Captor only… Yes, indeed! You have two ways to use only the central Point for focusing and respect the “Golden Rule”:
- On all cameras, if you slightly press on the shutter button, but do not fully press, the camera only focuses, but do not take the picture. Keep the finger pressed, do the picture composition and then press the shutter button to take the picture.
- And if you do not have enough time, you can always crop the picture in the post-processing in LightRoom (see Part III – Editing / Post-Processing Your Pictures In LightRoom)…
- Take Enough PicturesWhen photographing at markets, you are facing major challenges:
- Markets can be chaotic places, with a lot going on… You will hence face a lack of time to properly focus and frame your pictures.
- When you “sit down and try to get forgotten” and take pictures with a Tele-Lens, you have great opportunities for portraits of people in their normal environment, but this requires some luck, as the person is not posing and might for instance look decidedly in the wrong direction…
- Last but not least, you have a lot of interference between you and your potential subjects, like people just stepping between you and your subject just at the right moment… Yes, this happens A LOT…
Therefore, you should be ready to make a greater number of pictures if you want the “harvest” to be satisfying… I personally quickly reach 250 to 300 pictures for a few hours at a market, and much more at spectacular ones.
- Tell A story
While taking portraits, always think of the story your picture will or might say… Of course, a clear picture of someone looking straight into the camera can be really nice. But if you can combine the effects of the behavior of the person you photograph (gestures, direction of his / her gaze, physiognomy…) and the composition of your picture, you might end-up telling a story: if the person looks to the right, then the person should be on the left of the picture, to encourage the imagination of the viewer of your picture (what is that person looking at?) Of course, again, this can be also achieved in the post-processing of your picture, in LightRoom, for instance by cropping your picture.
- Do Take Short Films
Some situations simply cannot be photographed. Or at least, it is extremely challenging to give back some atmospheres through a picture. At a market, this can be true if you try to suggest the density of people or the number of people passing by, if you try to catch some areas of commotion, if you try to catch some lively negotiations, … A short film, on the other hand, might very well do the trick! But remember: prefer short sequences focusing only on one scene, and neither move nor zoom in, as the resulting film (your camera probably won’t be on a tripod, so the image will not be perfectly stable) will be very uncomfortable to watch. I must acknowledge that I didn’t film enough in the past, and this is an area where I surely can tremendously improve things…
- Do Take A Few Ambiance Pictures
No, those pictures will most probably not be award winning ones, except if you are an outstanding photographer! What you see in National Geographic is very, very, very difficult to achieve! I took hundreds of them, and only a few turned out to be somehow acceptable. Nonetheless, a few overall, ambiance picture will be a good complement to your portraits, as you will want to put back those portraits into their actual environment. So also have a “regular lens” at hand when visiting a market, so that you can take such pictures.