Food markets are a joyful assault on the senses. Every one — from a petite, once-a-week, village market in the hills of northern Sumatra to the daily affair known as Merced that sprawls over a subway line in Mexico City — is a visual feast, an olfactory cornucopia, an aural bounty. Markets are where I go to find my bearings in a new destination and to get a heads-up on what to expect in the local cuisine. They’re where I find inspiration in towns and cities that I know well. Every market has endless stories to tell, and as a photographer who loves to eat as much as he loves to shoot, I never of tire of bringing it all to life in the images I make.
Markets are lively, so photographing them should be easy. But all that color, action and food can make the task of coming away with clean, bold images overwhelming. Capturing what is inimitable about the market that you want to shoot will make your photographs tell a compelling story. Here are some photo tips:
Make it bite-size
Initially a market is one big undifferentiated festival for the eyes. But walk around a bit and details will gradually come to the fore. You want anyone who views your photographs to feel that they’ve been there with you, faced the big picture and been immersed in the details. You can do that by aiming for four types of images:
- Overall shots give the viewer a solid impression of the markets size, how many vendors it has and how active it is. Height is a great way to achieve an overall shot, so look for doorways, passageways or public balconies that place you above the vendors and shoppers. The overall shot is rarely the first photograph I make of a new market, because only after walking through once, twice, even three times does the ideal vantage point become clear to me.
- Mid-range shots give the viewer a closer look at the activity. Here’s where differences among markets begin to become evident. Turkish vendors, for instance, almost always men, arrange their produce meticulously, sometimes placing bows on top of carefully stacked watermelons or tomatoes. By contrast, on the east coast of Malaysia vendors are almost always women and the produce is simply jumbled in bins, as is the custom throughout Southeast Asian markets. Pay attention to how goods are moved around the market — Are they pulled in wheeled baskets by porters, as in Thailand, or carried on workers shoulders as at Mexico City’s Merced? These are the sort of mid-range details that will make your photographs say something more insightful than “this is a market.”
- Detail shots draw the viewer into the nitty-gritty of a market. Start to focus on produce. Look for interesting specimens — not just colors but texture, patterns and contrast — and clean backgrounds. Always ask vendors whether they mind your shooting. Most of the time they are happy to have you photograph, but asking is the right thing to do. Give a sense of place by asking a vendor or a passerby to hold a piece of fruit or cup a bunch of vegetables in his or her hands (Bonus: this will clean up your background too). Look for non-food details: How do sellers store their money? Is there a shrine or good-luck talisman in evidence? Are the vendors cooking or eating in their stalls?
- Moments — Focus on action and interactions between people: a fishmonger cleaning fish, the exchange of money, a subtle sales pitch or a round of contentious bargaining, a seller arranging his/her produce, friendly interactions between vendors, the hustle and bustle as a market sets up and the waning activity as it breaks down at the end of a business day. Learn to be a fly on the wall; find a quiet place to stand and wait for action to happen.
Light is your frienemy
Nothing is nicer than shooting in early morning and evening light, especially in markets, where side lighting adds color, richness and texture to produce, seafood, meats and dried goods. But as the sun gains height the light becomes harsh, washing out colors. If you are shooting a morning market, force yourself to get out of bed to arrive as early as possible.
If you are photographing a covered market, look for areas illuminated by natural light — skylights can provide excellent low-contrast light — and work on mid-range shots and details. Stake out pockets or shafts of light through which people might walk. Once you’ve spotted a place, take a meter reading and wait for something to happen in that space. Try to avoid shooting under awnings; they may let in light but will cast their color on your photos.
If light conditions present a great deal of contrast, then you must decide whether to meter for the bright parts or the shadows. Exposing for the highlights means you will have little detail in the shadow (it will go to almost black). Exposing for the shadows means that you might “blow out,” or lose, the detail in the bright areas. Used properly, both can work to your advantage, resulting in especially interesting images.
I often study the way the light moves through a market and note where it might work in my favor for future trips back.
Go with the flow
Plan to circle through a market several times. Light changes, new items appear on display, shoppers arrive and everyone gets more comfortable with you and your camera. Reverse your pattern a few times and you’ll see things you didn’t on previous passes.
It’s not your office
Markets are first and foremost places of business. Imagine someone sitting on your desk while you’re trying to write a memo and you can understand how vendors feel when a photographer hogs the space in front of their stall awaiting the “perfect” image. Before you ask a seller for permission to take a photo, make sure you are ready so that you can move fast once you get it. Have your exposure set and a composition in mind before you move in. Work quickly, then step back out of the way and thank the vendor.
Stop taking photos
Sometimes the best way to see and feel a market is to put the camera down for a while. Pick an out-of-the-way corner, or grab a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit and just hang out and watch. Look for interactions, moments and details and visualize how you might photograph them. Then when the camera is at your eye you’ll have a better idea of what to shoot and when to release the shutter.
Tell a market’s back story by taking your viewer behind the scenes. Explore alleys, storage areas and back rooms. Again, be respectful, for in many non-western markets people rest and even live in these pockets. If you’re not sure about going into an area, find someone to ask.
And the last of the photo tips … travel light
Don’t try to carry too much and keep equipment handy so you can grab what you need quickly. I’ll carry a single camera with a medium wide (usually a 35mm) and a longer (usually 85mm) lens. I pack them in a waist belt (easier on my back, as I’ve learned the hard way) along with a screw-on close-up filter for detail shots. Extra memory cards fit in a pocket. Take a cloth for cleaning — if you’re going to get in close, you will probably get splashed with something unwanted at some point.
Markets the world over are similar in many respects, but by paying close attention you can create photographs that capture the defining characteristics that make each one a unique and culturally insightful phenomenon.
Top photo: An overhead shot of a chile vendor shows color, action and detail. Credit: David Hagerman