The Keys to Better Travel Photography at Local Markets


Markets are the melting pots of culture – a foreigner’s gateway into a locale’s unfamiliar, indigenous lifestyle. These community centers allow us to peek into the daily lives of locals, enabling us to interact with the once, mysterious strangers we observed from afar.

The tight, labyrinthine alleyways, the frantic hubbub, the strong pervading energy, the exotic stenches and the luminescent colors make markets a photography and travel nirvana. In these crowded and cluttered city streets, how can you make an intriguing and engaging photograph?

1. Get to the market early. In many far-flung nations, markets are in full swing before the rooster crows. Therefore, in order to have the best possible photographic encounters, you too may need to arrive before dawn. There are many advantages to getting to the markets early. For one, there is a much smaller chance of encountering curious tourists. What this means is that you can really focus on the local characters that work and frequent the area on market day. Additionally, you’ll be able to get photographs of the market being set-up. You can often get unique glimpses of elderly men and women lugging their heavy loads on the tops of their heads on their way to humble and decayed stands. If you’re at an outdoor market, another advantage to making the early morning trek is the vivid dawn lighting. Furthermore, if you're there early in the day you will find that there’s a higher quantity of colorful, eye-catching products to photograph.

Dawn comes upon the Santo Thomas Church on market day in Chichicastenango.

In Chichicastenango, Guatemala the start of market day is marked by the trail of incense that seems to resonate on the steps of the famous Santo Tomas Church. The Mayan ritual is performed as the sun begins to rise.

2. Be an explorer. In order to get captivating market photography you need to be a little adventurous. Before you take out your camera, walk around and scout out the hidden gems and wander down the mysterious alleyways and narrow corridors that seem safe. In these nooks and crannies, you can usually find the most visually rewarding images.

Girl with pet birds in the meat market of Granada, Nicaragua

Tucked within a concealed building and deep into the meat market I discovered this little girl playing with her pet birds. Without an adventurous attitude I probably would not have stumbled upon her. Granada, Nicaragua

3. Hang-out where the locals congregate. Sometimes, by going where it’s most frenetic, you can catch the excitement, energy, and ferver of the market. Here you’ll have the best opportunities to capture movement and witness powerful emotions.

A group of market-goers awaiting the bus toward the end of the market day at Solala.

Once I came upon this group of people dressed in locally knit clothing, I stayed a while to work the scene. Solala, Guatemala

Men conversing at a market on Lake Atitlan.

Two men talking politics at a market on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

4. Photograph what’s culturally relevant. If you’re in a developing nation, you shouldn't be photographing Western products. A general rule of thumb is to stay away from the dry goods. Instead, go to the meat, fish, spices and fruit sections where you're more likely to see the most lively characters and the most graphic scenes.

A lambs head sits in a Moroccan market.

Sometime photographing local “cuisine” can be a challenge without having a gag reflex. Nonetheless, as a travel photographer it's important to focus on more local items. Marrakesh, Morocco

5. Be lighting conscience. Always look for the best  lighting situations. Try avoiding areas of the market that are half in shade and half in sun but rather, seek out flat and even light. Sometimes when the sun peers through just right you can get exquisite lighting conditions.

Beautiful lighting in Granada market in Nicaragua

When I saw this streak of light come through a crack in the ceiling and add a florescent glow to the turquoise colored walls, I knew I had to stick around to pursue a worthwhile photographic subject. Granada, Nicaragua

6. Strike up a conversation. Get involved in the doings of the market to ease  the tensions of your potential photographic subjects.

Moroccan frame maker at a market

When you become friendly with strangers they will be more willing to pose for you (and give you a toothy grin). Marrakesh, Morocco

Local man in front of a turquoise background in the markets of Granada.

Getting in close to your subject can make for a more engaging photograph. Granada, Nicaragua

7. Be unobtrusive and shoot candidly. Remember those at the markets make their living there. Be sure not to get in their way. One effective way to get the best shots is by shooting candidly.  This way you can get natural, reportage style photographs that have a spur-of-the-moment feel.

Fruit saleswomen in

By acting unobtrusive I was able to wait for an interesting facial expression and get some of the market activity in the background. Solala, Guatemala

8. Anticipation. Prepare and anticipate so you can grab moments of photographic splendor.

Tanneries near the market in Fez Morocco

As I watched these barefoot men dye cow hides in various, horrid concoctions, I anticipated the moment in which the dyes would splash into the air. Fez, Morocco

9. Good things come to those who wait. The old proverb seems to be right.  By waiting patiently for key moments, you're guaranteed to get the best photographic opportunities.

A women carrying goods in the market at Solala.

Church in front of Chichicastenango market

As I watched this market-goer leave the church to resume her duties in the narrow paths of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, I noticed the can of incense in her hand. I patiently waited until she swung the can in front of a black backdrop, making the smoke visible in the scene.

10. Play it safe. While markets hold great potential for photographers, they also hold the potential for thieves and pickpockets. So make sure to watch your belongings and use common sense.

In conclusion, even though markets are one of the hardest atmospheres to nail photographically  — with a keen eye and a little bit of patience you can produce stellar imagery.

About Author

Chase Guttman is an award-winning travel photographer, whose love for travel and adventure has allowed him to photograph his experiences in over 40 countries. You can reach him on his website.

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