Part I – Organizational Aspects
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 24 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
- Come Early Morning
Many of the most beautiful and traditional markets have turned increasingly popular, and now large tour groups are not an uncommon sight, even in remote places… But the good news is: generally, the masses arrive after breakfast, and eventually after a (long) bus ride, that is between 09:00 and 10:00 am! Therefore, it is crucial that you arrive amongst the first ones there! Actually try to arrive as early as the people selling, that is to say latest at sunrise (yes, you will sleep in another day…). That way, you will have one to three hours alone or with only a few fellow independent travelers. This makes a tremendous difference, both in the actual experience as in your photo-taking.
- Arrive The Night Before
If you want to be at the market at sunrise, the best option is to sleep in the (small) town where you have this market. First, that way you avoid any transport time in the morning, and very early options are limited to non-existent or very expensive. But even more important, you will have time to do some “spotting” the evening before and hence be more familiar with the place and arrive at the right time at the right place… Think for instance about having enough light early morning, or the direction of the sun!
- Buy Something Local, If Possible
Local people will be much friendlier if they identify you as a buyer or a potential buyer than if you look like “another tourists. If possible, try to find something traditional for the area and buy it! This might look weird on you, but people will be busy commenting on what you are wearing and how you look rather than the fact that you are actually taking pictures… I first experienced this in Colombia, in Silvia near Popayan, at the “Guambiano Indigenous Market”. Purchasing the traditional woolen shawl that Guambiano women wear, we triggered a sensation… And were able to take some amazing pictures! If you cannot find such a thing at a reasonable price, just buy some fruits, it’s good for health!
- Make A First Round Through The Market
First localize the better spots and doing so, get the locals used to your being there. Only in a second step, take your camera out of your bag and start taking pictures. Especially if you are very early, you will not miss any good shot, as the light might be too low for pictures anyway at the wee hours…
- Talk To Local People
There is nothing like engaging with local people and then asking permission for taking pictures… The more you will know about the people you photograph, the better your picture will be! Moreover, those pictures will tell a story, and a personal one at that! Nonetheless, this is not always easy, it takes a significant amount of time, you might not speak the local language (the further afield, the less likely people speak English) and it will not always work anyway. But if you can, this is definitely the best way to create unique photo opportunities! If there is no common language, buying a little something often does the trick, and in my experience, you can not only take pictures from the person from which you bought, but also from people around, as you suddenly change from tourist to customer in their eyes.
- Sit Down And Get Forgotten
This is probably one of the most important points! When you identify an interesting spot for taking pictures, just sit down in a corner and wait a few minutes. 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 amazing portraits, as people will be “natural” and not posing for the picture… Of course, one can argue that 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!
- Have A Coffee With Locals
At some point, locals will go for breakfast or just a cup of tea / coffee / matte or whatever they enjoy drinking in the morning. There are often food / coffee / tea stalls at markets, and those are generally very lively, sociable places where you can take some other great shots if you seat down and relax a bit, both from the people sitting around you and from the people passing by…
- Use A Second Person To Circumvent The Attention
When I do not travel alone, I try to share roles: one person attracts the attention (asking if we can take pictures, inquiring about the price of something, or whatever works…), the other quietly stays aside, observes the scene and takes pictures… This is also true in the countries where local people enjoy having their picture taken with visitors, like India, Myanmar, China, Iran… While one is posing with one or several local people, the other has great photo opportunities, both of his travel companion and of the local people around.
- It Won’t Always Work…
Unfortunately, you will have to accept that in some places, no trick works… Sometimes light is simply terrible (covered markets, very early morning, or midday light), no matter how hard you try… Or people simply refuse to have their picture taken. I remember even discussions for photographing buildings in Malawi and almost always, people refused to be photographed there!