Advice on taking photos in markets and souks

Spice Square Souk, Marrakech, (photo by Ming Tang-Evans)
Spice Square Souk, Marrakech

With the magical souks of Morocco in mind, here is a piece from the Insight Guide Travel Photography guidebook focusing on getting the best from your photos in a market or souk.

THE ANONYMITY of crowded places is a gift to the photographer. A video clip can fairly swiftly sum up the scene, but a six-foot tourist laden down with several thousand pounds’ worth of shiny camera equipment is liable to create a stir even amid the hustle and bustle of the most hustling and bustling of markets and bazaars. Photographing markets properly means more than just a few clicks and away: they need time. Remember the 30-minute rule: it takes half-an-hour before people begin to forget your presence. Only after this can the serious photos start to be taken. Exotic colours, Aladdin’s caves, all manner of food, fabrics, kitchenware, clothes, bric-a-brac, frenetic action and haggling… all around the world these animated scenes are waiting to be snapped. 

Market traders, especially in tourist areas such as Barcelona’s Boqueria, can get a bit fed up with the continuous influx of photographers who not only don’t buy anything from them but also impede the arrival of customers who might. Purchasing 100 grams of olives or nuts is a small price to pay for their co-operation.

Stand off a way at first, and use a mid-range lens. The play of light on price tags sticking out of sacks of coffee in Saigon’s Ben Tranh market makes an abstract image. Other traders will light up candles to bring good luck to the day’s commerce. After catching the eye and gaining the confidence of a particular trader, move in closer and wider.

Most bazaars are divided into sections. The “wet market” area will be split between meat (sometimes “exotic” meat like dog and endangered species), fish, vegetable, fruit and spice traders. Hardware sections will include areas for cooking utensils, clothing and shoes, toys and electronics products. 

Black market traders will be more evident at the fringes of a bazaar, selling knock-off watches and DVDs, ready to scarper the moment their lookouts signal the police – be careful not to be mistaken for a snooper. 

Dark interiors

Often business is conducted beneath umbrellas or inside purpose-built sheds, so get used to the idea of using your flash to help bring out the colour and characters within. In cases where the interior is dark but you don’t want to give your position away using a flash, you are left with two choices; a low-light lens (the 50mm f1.4 is ideal) or pushing the film speed up to a higher ISO setting.

Limitations are that the depth of field when shooting at f1.4 is very shallow and it’s easy to get results where the subject moves a fraction and the whole thing is out of focus. With high film speed you’ll get increased grain (noise) and contrast. These can be fine if you are looking for a certain effect, but general commercial usage prefers more fine grain images and balanced exposures.

Isolating scenes

If you are shooting in a particularly congested market, it may be best to isolate a particular area of action or person, for example someone weighing vegetables on scales in the foreground. In this case try using a very shallow depth of field (f1.4–2) to help draw out the individual from the crowd.

Or try panning in the general direction of crowd movement to create an atmosphere of energy and uniformity of purpose and direction. Alternatively you may desire to show the vast area and diversity of a market, in which case try a wide-angle lens, a greater depth of field (f8 and above) and shooting from a vantage point above the top of the front row.


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