local women walking through hoi an market

Photograph markets in Asia: change your point of view

When travelling through Asia, our photography tends to be focused more on people and human activity. And what better place than local markets to show us the bustling daily activity on this area? Markets are great to photograph because there are a lot of things happening, a lot of moments to capture. But because of how busy they are, markets are also hard work, difficult to photograph.

Here are our tips to help you get better photos from markets in Asia.

Simplify your composition

Markets in Asia are by definition messy. They are busy with people moving around, they have a great variety of lights, from very dark indoor markets to outdoor ones. They are filled with colourful baskets and plastic bags that can easily become distractions. This is the reason why one of the first things we recommend for you to photograph markets is to simplify your composition. And for that, there are several ways.

By the way, we have already written extensively on Pics of Asia about dealing with messy situations for your photography. Check it out.

conical hats in hoi an market

Find a simple background

When taking photos in busy markets in Asia, we want to show how the place is busy without creating a messy composition. We need to show that it is busy but we do need to organize our composition. The elements in our frame must be correctly placed so that we create a flow through the image, making it easier to look at and understand. And one of the easiest way to do that is to start with a simple background.

Once we are faced with a simple background, it is easy to add layers of information without making the image over-complicated. The goal, when doing that, is, of course, to avoid juxtaposition and separate all our layers to come up with a cleaner composition.

And think about what are the cleanest backgrounds around us most of the time? One is the ground and one is the sky.

woman eating breakfast in hoi an market during hoi an photo tour

By trying to define what background will be the best for your image, it will instantly generate a new breathe of creativity in your images as you will try and work from different angles, the angles that lead to a simple background.

Get close

Getting close to our subjects is the easy trick, the easiest way to simplify your composition. The bigger your subject is, the less room you have for distracting backgrounds. Also, the closer you move to your subjecte the more shallow your depth of field will be, allowing you to blur and thus simplify the background.

Getting close also allows you to get to know more about your subject, to see more elements around it.

Close up of hands cooking banh trang taken during hoi an photo tour and workshop

Only work with the best light

Photography is all about light. And only the best light creates the best pictures.

Working with the light on your side while exploring markets will help you simplify your approach. Instead of rushing on everyone you see, try to find the best spots in the market where the light is more interesting. That will already rduce the number of things you have to look at. Then, among these spots of good light, select the ones having a cleaner background. You are now only looking at a few potentital frames.

Also, the light can help you isolate your subject and clean your backgrounds. By exposing for your highlights, you can make your background less of a distraction when faced with the right situation. If your subject is in the light but your background isn’t, you can make it disappear

taking photos in hoi an market during a photography workshop with hoi an photo tour

Tell better stories

In our opinion, markets are so interesting because of the amount of activity that is happening there. It would be a pity to take photos in a market for just doing close up portraits, right?

By adding more layers into our image we are able to tell more interesting stories. Think about everything that happens in a market: people arguing for prices, exchanging money or simply touching the merchandise. All these actions are potential “moments” for your photographs. Once you have found a good frame, meaning an interesting light and a simple background, wait for the action to happen in your frame and you will know when to take the picture.

people exchanging money in a makrket in Vietnam during hoi an photo tour

Work on details

Because of how busy a market is, working on details will make everything more simple. Either using a macro lens simply by getting closer, we can remove a lot of distractions by focusing on a single element.

Then comes the time to play with leading lines or colors, and to balance the image using the rule of thirds.

Approaching people to take their photo in Asia

Apart from camera settings and composition, one of the most difficult to deal with when taking photos in Asia is your subject. Because we want to photograph people in a respectful way, we need to approach our subjects the right way. This will also allow our compositions to improve as we will spend more time understanding what or who we photograph.

If you walk in a market like the central market of Hoi An, for example, it is a little more complicated to approach your subject. The fact that hundreds of tourists pace the market streets every day has made the people more reluctant to be photographed. In many cases, tourists take photos of what they see without really trying to interact with their subjects. This can create frustration with the people in the market and this is something we can feel in any heavy tourist location.

We have already described extensively the way to approach people to take their photo in Asia in this article, but here is a quick summary:

What we really try to do when photographing people is to show interest in what they do. Doing that is basically telling them that, because we are interested in what they do, and we are not familiar with it, as a visitor, we want to photograph it. For this reason, we always try to visit locations where we can find activities. It is easier to photograph someone doing something tha someone just sitting on a chair staring at you. We can ask them about what they do, how they do it, and at the same time photograph the whole process.

By showing genuine interest, the people open their doors to this curious visitor willing to learn more about them and their culture. This is the smartest way to travel and take photos, allowing you to access more photo opportunities while showing respect to the people you photograph. It creates better pictures and a better travel experience.

If you’d like to improve your photography skills in markets in Asia, we suggest you join our morning photography tour in the old town of Hoi An, or a private workshop in Hoi An central market.

We also have an advanced photography tour that is focused on taking photo in extremely busy situations.