Pro tips for photographing street markets

Story highlights

  • Automatic white balance helps quickly adjust for mixed lighting of markets
  • It helps to ask for permission before snapping a photo
  • Turning a color image to black and white can add impact

Few places provide a condensed, in-your-face snapshot of human life, in all its colors, like a street market.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, Seattle's Pike's Place Market, the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, the Otavalo Indian Market in Ecuador, Bogota's Paloquemao market -- these are experiences that can define a trip.

Or at least a day out.

I've visited all of them, in some cases skipping monuments and museums to explore them.

I visit them to get a window into the culture, find the perfect souvenir, practice my language skills or have a meal to remember.

And I love to photograph them.

But it's not just a case of seeing something bright and colorful and snapping away.

    I've picked up several tips for getting the best results in what are often crowded, hot, uncomfortable places to shoot.

    1. Ugly is interesting

    Gutted fish can make for a more interesting photo than flowers.

    Gorgeous flowers and luscious fruit are always beautiful to look at.

    But sometimes "ugly" subjects make more compelling pictures.

    A butcher in a bloody apron or a fishmonger gutting a large snapper are examples of scenes you might normally shy away from, but look great in photos. .

    A teacher of mine once used the term "ugly beautiful."

    I keep that phrase in mind whenever I shoot.

    2. Focus on faces

    All those exotic fruits and lush flowers make awesome subjects.

    But don't forget about the men and women selling their wares.

    I encountered some of the most expressive faces in all of Bogota at the Paloquemao market.

    It always helps to be friendly and ask permission before snapping a photo -- some people will mug for your camera, though others will quickly wave you away.

    And never forget to focus on the eyes of your subject.

    3. Get close and fill the frame

    The blue of the bucket makes the color of the corn stand out.

    Distill a scene to its most basic elements and you end up with more powerful images.

    Wide shots can help you set the scene, but at the sacrifice of details.

    Getting close to your subject -- from a vividly colored bucket of corn to a group of wooden spoons -- can make your photographs more interesting.

    Watch your focus when you're filling the frame, and avoid oversaturation in the post-production process.

    Turning a color image into black and white can add impact.

    4. Explore and plan

    I recently visited the astonishing Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao in Bogota, Colombia.

    Thousands of Bogotanos do their daily shopping here, buying everything from fruit to seafood to other goods.

    You won't find the place in most guidebooks, but I recommend a visit.

    Doing preliminary reconnaissance allows you to find the most interesting stalls at what is a gigantic market.

    Mapping out a route helps you prioritize, so you have more time to shoot.

    5. Learn to use automatic white balance

    Mixed lighting is easily managed with automatic white balance.

    Markets can present real challenges with lighting.

    You might be shooting outdoors, indoors or both.

    Here's a tip: it's much easier to deal with mixed lighting (tungsten, fluorescent, natural, etc.) on the front end than struggling to edit out those weird pink streaks on your pictures when you get home from your vacation.

    My recommendation: choose automatic white balance on your DSLR camera.

    Many point-and-shoot cameras also allow you to adjust the white balance manually.

    The automatic white balance setting will allow you to shoot freely without worrying about changing lighting.

    6. Buy something

    A small purchase goes a long way toward making friends with vendors.

    Buy something first, establish a rapport, then ask for permission to take a picture.

    You'll find subjects are more relaxed and often more willing to do you a favor (pose nicely) after you've done something for them.