5 things to think about when photographing markets


One element of your photography you can capture when travelling abroad, is a flavour of the place and its people. Markets are a unique draw for this, bringing together all kinds of characters as well as goods on sale, which are unique to the location.

Most likely they will be busy places and your senses can be overwhelmed at first. My advice is to take a few minutes to wander around without thinking about getting any photos. Look to see how people are engaging with each other and whether they appear open and friendly or a bit grumpy. In some ways busier is better but it makes getting well designed images more difficult. Ultimately, just photographing the goods on sale will not lead to worthwhile images so it’s about getting well and truly stuck in. Here are my suggestions for getting the best from markets.

Photographing people

Increasingly everywhere the public are becoming more alert to the presence of cameras which poses ethical questions for photographers who find potential subjects are averse to being photographed. Street photography relies on figures in the scene, but that does not mean that faces have to be clearly seen. A whole sub genre of street relies on shadows and light. However, it’s unlikely that anyone having the camera pointed towards them will immediately react with that in mind. So there are a couple of choices if you dislike confrontation or rejection. The first is to establish a rapport with a seller without holding the camera to your face and using a gesture to see if a photo is possible. If agreed then you will need to shoot quickly before they feel self conscious. A second option is to think about disguising the identity of sellers or buyers by using angles that are not full on face shots. That comes up next.

Get close to your first subject

In particularly busy markets where people are constantly distracted, one strategy is to get close to a person from the side and use a wide angle lens. This allows you to fill more of the frame with the subject, whilst allowing surrounding action to come into play, creating depth and layers within your photo. The wide angle also delivers a greater range of sharpness so background interest will also be visible if it’s not too busy or distracting. This method does require shooting more quickly as you are closer to the subject and requires a bit more creativity, such as featuring transactions. By focusing on something they are doing rather than their face, will be less confrontational. Their profile will still be in your frame but your conscience will be clearer.

Simplify the frame

In colourful market locations it’s not always easy to see the woods from the trees. In this photo of the girl in the headscarf, the photographer has changed their position to balance the girl between the two bags. Don’t shy away from bright colours which you can use to good effect. It helps that in this location the overhead light is partly shuttered reducing contrast.

Identify characters

An individual who catches your eye is probably worth photographing (subject to point 1), on the basis that viewers will most likely also find them interesting. It’s not always the case that a charismatic looking person in real life will translate into a matching image. As you survey markets, be alert to who catches your eye and check what’s around them, if that allows you to create a memorable image.

Look for atmosphere

Much easier said than done, but mist, smoke, early and late light, all contain atmosphere. In this image taken in the area of charcoal burners, the use of a telephoto lens compresses space, bringing distant objects closer. Through the compressed view, the smoke becomes the subject of the photo with the figures themselves providing a prop to an apocalyptic narrative.

Darren Lewey is the Founder of Images in the Sun. Images in the Sun is a photography workshop provider offering specialist photography holidays and tours of Morocco.

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Comments (8)

  1. Graham says:

    Markets are great. Over 20 years ago I can remember raking a picture of shafts of light coming through the rafters in one of Dubai’s souks. Just before the pandemic I visited again and that picture was still there but with a lot more people than back in the last millennium. Much prefer my 20th century picture, far more atmospheric.

  2. Gaynor says:

    Helpful hints but I wonder how long it will before markets get their atmosphere back? How long before buyers are intently haggling rather than worrying about social distancing? And how long will everyone be still wearing masks as they shop? Though that will make for a nice picture telling a story.

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Moroccan buyers still haggle! They need to. Having said that, some avoidance in passing on paths is noticeable, but generally friends still greet each other in country markets if not town ones.

  3. Darren Lewey says:

    Perhaps also better picture quality. Similar shafts of light can also be found in Marrakesh and Fes medinas.

  4. Jenny Parker says:

    I went to a huge market south of the river in Cordoba in Spain. It was really tacky and full of cheap plastic but it was so colourful. My husband wasn’t impressed at all and neither of us were going to buy.

    I sat him down with a big coffee and some churros and he was happy for half an hour whilst I got some great pictures. An image of live slimy snails in a huge sunlit plastic drum was very different.

  5. Crystal Ferrer says:

    I’ve always used the rule of thirds when photographing anything. It’s the only rule I know and can remember. I’m too shy to get clode to the subject, and that’s the reason why I mostly take landscape photos. I do like turning photos into black and white shadows when my subject is in front fo the light source.

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Crystal, breakaway from the rule of thirds, otherwise all your shots will compositionally look the same. It can be difficult to get close to people, but why not include them in landscape photos as distant figures, situated on the horizon in parks or on the beach?

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