Skip to main content

Pro tips for photographing street markets

By Nadia Lancy, CNN
updated 11:15 PM EST, Sun February 16, 2014
CNN senior writer and globe-trotting shutterbug Nadia Lancy explains the best ways to capture street markets. Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao in Bogota, Colombia (pictured), isn't found in most guidebooks, but it provides a chance to document Bogota's real flavor.
CNN senior writer and globe-trotting shutterbug Nadia Lancy explains the best ways to capture street markets. Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao in Bogota, Colombia (pictured), isn't found in most guidebooks, but it provides a chance to document Bogota's real flavor.
HIDE CAPTION
Tips for photographing street markets
Ugly is beautiful
Ugly is also interesting
Focus on faces
Buy something
Get close, fill the frame
Get close, fill the frame
Watch your lighting
Learn to use automatic white balance
Get the lay of the land
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
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

(CNN) -- 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.

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

1. Ugly is interesting

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.

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

3. Get close and fill the frame

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.

Mixed lighting is easily managed with automatic white balance.
Mixed lighting is easily managed with automatic white balance.

5. Learn to use 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.

Nadia Lancy is a senior writer for CNN International. She also specializes in portraiture and fine art. You can see her portfolio at nadiaslens.com and follow her on Twitter @NadiasLens.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
From Maastricht to Melbourne, these itineraries make bookish travelers look stylish.
updated 2:24 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Good cocktails combine with spectacular views across rivers, cityscapes and oceans at these bird-level drinkeries.
updated 2:09 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
A California homeowner's nightmare has become a cautionary tale for those who rent their homes to strangers.
updated 10:26 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Cinema loves portraying the lives of expats. Sometimes it gets it right. Sometimes it casts Nick Nolte as a jungle king.
updated 9:17 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Don't be intimidated, says a local expert. Here's how to do China without the hassles
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
When your city has an unenviable reputation for insulting tourists and fleecing them for every cent, inviting hotel guests to pay what they want could be a risky move.
updated 3:10 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
1937 Auto Union V16 Streamliner, Audi Museum, Germany
With factory tours and collections of stunning vintage prototypes, southern Germany is petrolhead paradise.
updated 9:44 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Every tourist destination has a flip side, a season when prices go down and savvy, flexible travelers can score big savings.
updated 3:11 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
A Marrakech lamp bazaar
Morocco's Red City is crammed with stunning gardens, shaded souks and steamy bath houses.
updated 12:52 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Santo Stefano Island, Italy
Pristine beaches, unspoiled nature and few tourists -- a stretch on these former penal colonies is no longer a punishment.
updated 5:23 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Life in Joburg can be stressful. Luckily there are some exceedingly non-stressful places close by.
updated 5:07 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Istanbul skyline
CNN's Ivan Watson pays homage to the city he's called home for the past 12 years.
China notches up another superlative achievement as a Nanjing-based artist creates the world's largest and longest anamorphic painting.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
In what is undoubtedly the world's "coolest" surf video, photographer Chris Burkhard endures freezing temperatures, blizzards and injury to capture Arctic waves and their riders.
updated 11:39 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one that travels between London and New York. It is the world's busiest route and there are few lengths airlines won't go to in the hopes of getting a piece of the action.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT