I’ve photographed markets from Cuba to Myanmar, and from Tanzania to Hungary, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of them. Photographing markets is definitely one of my favourite types of photography.
Markets are so buzzing and vibrant, there’s so much going on, so much activity and colour. Seeing who’s selling and buying, and what’s being sold and bought, gives you a unique insight into a country’s people and culture.
And more often than not, market traders are pretty friendly – after all, they deal with the public on a daily basis – so they tend to be much more open to having their picture taken.
But if you don’t approach it in the right way, it’s all too easy to wander aimlessly around a market taking potshots from a distance. Do that, and you’ll end up with a series of images that are too dark, too far away from the subject, or are simply unsatisfying.
So here are my top tips to help you build confidence and take your best ever photos of markets.
1/ Choose the right one
Smaller towns may only have one central market, but larger towns and cities will have several, so don’t always just go for the main market. You will still get fascinating insights and colourful characters at the smaller markets, and they tend be less crowded, the traders friendlier and more relaxed, and the chancers and scammers fewer and less persistent.
Think about what they are selling, too. Smaller local food or animal markets will probably offer a more authentic view of the place, while some markets, like Christmas markets in Europe, are squarely aimed at tourists. These might not feel so authentic but are still great for photography, and are fun to visit if you’re backpacking round Europe in winter.
Photographing markets which are smaller or more niche will still give you plenty of opportunities to bring home eye-catching images.
2/ Go for a wander without your camera
When you first arrive, have a look around without getting your camera out. Scope out the different areas, look for things and people you might want to photograph, and generally get a feel for the place.
Are people friendly? Is there a shady-looking character on your tail with his eye on your backpack? Do you feel safe? Make eye contact with people, nod and smile as you pass, so that the market traders become accustomed to your presence.
Once you’re settled in, get your camera out and and start taking photos – nothing special at this stage, just photograph a few wide shots of the market. You might want them anyway, and it’ll help you warm up and get used to have your camera out in an enclosed space where people may be staring at you.
3/ Look for characters
Once you’ve got comfortable with having your camera out and you’ve taken a few images of the general market area, it’s time to get stuck in.
Look for colourful characters, expressive faces, anyone who looks like they might be friendly and open to having their photo taken, and anyone sitting by an interesting stall or in an attractive location.
There are no rules, just see what catches your eye! And once you’ve spotted a target, be confident, approach with a smile, and go for it.
Read more: Myanmar’s Marvellous Markets
4/ Look for details in the market
Markets, while full of fabulous characters, aren’t just about the people. Take a closer look at what’s being sold: you can learn just as much about a country and its culture from the sorts of products that are being traded. From fish markets in Sicily, to camel markets in Tunisia, to the twinkling lights of Christmas markets in Europe, I think photographing markets is just as much about what’s on sale as it is about who’s selling it.
Close up photos of market details can really bring the experience to life when you get back home. Can’t you almost smell those fish?!
5/ Ask permission
If you have a telephoto lens, it’s entirely possible to take great images of stallholders and shoppers from a distance. But when you know you are likely to be noticed, it is always better (and much more polite) to ask people’s permission before taking their photo. If you don’t speak the language, a simple smile and gesture towards your camera is enough.
If you’re a bit nervous about approaching people for a photo, markets are one of the best places to practise. The traders are used to talking to people, so they’re likely to be friendly. They don’t have anywhere else to be so you’re not wasting their time. If you’re nervous, you can pretend to look at the stuff they are selling, and slowly work up the courage. They’ll be there all day, so you’ve got plenty of time!
6/ Take the photo, and then take another
Often posing for a photo can make people very stiff and unnatural. Take a couple like this, and then act as if you’re done. At this point they’ll relax, and that’s when you can get the winning image.
Another trick is to take a couple of posed shots, show them the images, say thank you and walk away. Then, when they’ve relaxed and started doing something else, pop back and take a couple more, non-posed, natural ones.
You know they’ve already agreed to a photo, so they almost certainly won’t mind – and this is an excellent way of getting candid, documentary-style photographs without offending anyone.
Some people enjoy the attention and will happily say yes to having their photograph taken, or may even jump in front of you and ask you to take their picture. Some are simply not interested and will give a firm and definitive no.
But there are many who will say no, but in such a friendly way that you can tell that they can be persuaded. If I can sense that they’re interested but just a bit shy, that’s when the flirting comes out. Smile! Flatter them! Even if you don’t speak the same language, a cheeky expression will still be understood.
Get their friends and neighbours involved – smile and chat with them too and they’ll often get on board, joining in the persuasion. If you make it fun and a bit of a laugh, it’s amazing how many initially reluctant people will agree.
Another top tip is to show them a few of the photos you’ve already taken on the LCD screen. That way they can see that other people have already agreed, and get an idea of what the photos look like.
Often that makes them more interested in seeing a photo of themselves – so don’t forget to show it to them after you’ve taken it!
8/ Be patient
Sometimes, if I see a market stall or a person that I like, I’ll hang around for ages waiting for the right moment to take a photograph. It might be waiting for a customer to leave, or for the vendor to stand in a certain place, or to perform a specific action.
These sorts of things can make all the difference between an average photo and one that has come to life. And waiting around for a while has another advantage: when you first appear with your camera you’ll attract attention, but after a while people will get used to your presence and go back to whatever they were doing before.
And that’s when you can get the most natural shots. Of course it does mean that you can end up being there for hours – even all day! – but it’s totally worth it.
9/ Buy something – but don’t pay for photos
If you spot a vendor you think is interesting, but they don’t seem that friendly, a good way to engage with them is to buy something. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but buying a small item will allow you to interact with the stallholder and establish a relationship. Then, when you ask if you can take a photo, they’ll be far more likely to agree.
This is a much better way of compensating them for their time than by paying for photos. You (and they) may feel that you shouldn’t be getting something for nothing, and it’s only fair to give them a small payment in return for that perfect photo.
But while very admirable in theory, this is a dangerous approach in practice. Teaching locals to expect payment for photos will make photographing the market a much less friendly experience for the next person: the stallholders will jump on anyone who appears with a camera, and anyone not offering to pay will meet with a frosty reception.
It’ll work out badly for you too: as word spreads that you are paying for photos you’ll be mobbed by anyone and everyone trying to get in front of your lens. At this point you can kiss goodbye to any chance of taking photos of the most interesting faces in the market in their natural surroundings!
10/ Take their details
Another way to give something back to the person you’ve photographed is to let them have a copy of the photo. Some photographers like to carry an instant camera and take a photo to hand over then and there.
These days many of your subjects will have a smartphone with WhatsApp, or an email address, which you can take down so you can send the photo to them later. I note these down in my phone with a description of the person so I know who is who when I go back through the photos later.
11/ Watch out for scam artists and pickpockets
Especially in the more touristy markets, there will always be a few opportunists looking to make a quick buck. Anyone who approaches you saying that you need to pay for a guide, or for a permit to take photos in the market, is almost certainly lying.
At the central market in Arusha, Tanzania, I was approached by a man who said he was the ‘master of the market’ and that no trader would allow me to take their photo unless I was accompanied by him (for a fee, naturally). I declined and walked away.
A short while later a different guy approached me and said exactly the same thing! So unless the market had two masters, it was definitely a scam! A polite but firm ‘no thank you’ is normally enough to get rid of people like this.
It’s common sense, but in crowded places like markets, make sure you keep your money in a money belt, put your camera strap round your neck or wrist, and don’t have any valuables in your backpack if you can help it. You won’t be able to take any pictures at all if your stuff gets nicked!
12/ Bring the right gear
It really doesn’t matter what camera you have – if you follow these steps you can still take great photos of markets with a smartphone if need be!
But if you are a camera nerd like me and you’re never too far from your SLR, then I recommend taking at least two lenses: your standard wide-to-mid zoom for taking wider scenes, and a telephoto lens for getting closeups of people and details.
The telephoto in particular will allow you to take lovely close up shots of people without being in their face, and will also enable you to ‘pap’ them from a distance without being noticed, giving you much more natural shots than you generally get if they know they are being photographed.
13/ Check your settings
The light in markets can be fabulous, with beams of sunlight and colour, but covered and indoor markets can also be pretty dark and gloomy places. So make sure you’ve got a fast enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur (unless that’s the effect you’re going for).
To do this you need a wide aperture and a high ISO, and if you’re using your camera’s automatic mode you should turn off the flash if you can, to avoid getting a harsh flash effect that will ruin all that lovely light.
Turning off the flash will also make you less noticeable, so you can take candid photos without being spotted.
Another trick for getting your best photos of markets as a beginner is to use your camera’s portrait mode – this will usually give you a nice wide aperture and that soft background that looks so great in portraits.
So now you’re ready! Grab your camera, head to the most interesting-looking market, and get stuck in!
Do you love markets? Which is your favourite? Where do you think I should go next?
If you liked this, why not try my other guides: