I have lived in Asia for 5 years now, and the more time I spend here, the more I am fascinated by the people. As a humanitarian photographer and filmmaker, it is my job to find characters in ordinary circumstances and bring them to life in an interesting way.
One of my favorite places to look for characters is in the local markets of Asia. These markets open early and are filled with characters worth contemplating and photographing. Each market is different, some open early and are closed by noon, others open in the evening and serve customers late into the night.
Figuring out when to show up for each market is a matter of making multiple trips and learning from trial and error. I like to work on the fringes of the day. I love to be up and photographing before the sun comes up in the morning and work for a couple of hours. I also like to start an hour or two before sunset and work for an hour or two after sunset. I find that these hours bring the most cinematic light.
I also find that in terms of photographing people there is a more authentic feel, especially early in the morning. I arrive and do my work before the tourists begin to appear. As soon as the tourists arrive I know it is time for me to leave.
These images to me speak to the beauty and value of each person. It is amazing to me to that I can walk into these market spaces and be assured that I will find characters already deeply imbedded in a deeply cinematic scene. All I have to do is stay out of the way and wait for the right moment to appear.
Working these scenes and markets to capture the characters and moments I am looking for is always a balance between staying on the move and picking a spot and waiting for things to happen. I tend to start by walking through the area and looking for characters that I want to capture. If an image presents itself while I am doing my initial walkthrough I will always take it, but I often find that the images I end up keeping take more patience to find and capture.
As I am walking, I look for characters I want to include and for places I can stand that are out of the way and easily dismissed, where I can have access and a good angle to one or more of these characters. Then it is a matter of waiting for the right moment, the right supporting actor to enter the frame, or the right gesture that makes the image complete.
Technically speaking my process has changed somewhat over the years. Until about a year and a half ago, I generally set the camera on aperture priority and fired away. But recently, I have moved to manual exposure because I felt I the automatic exposure was not capturing the cinematic feel of the lighting conditions in many of the markets I was shooting in and especially in the hours before sunrise and after sunset.
I really like my blacks and shadows to be real and deep. Cameras are not made to understand those lighting conditions. The camera wants everything to be an even exposure. I want the light to fall off very strongly and accentuate the subject, an even exposure across the frame for me is boring and leaves the image without true focal point. I feel that my job as a photographer and storyteller is to set the scene and create an image the audience can understand and relate to instantly. There should be very little doubt as to what the subject of the photo is.
Often for me, especially in street photography, the subject is the character themselves and the way they blend into their environment. When you walk through the markets of Asia it is a very real possibility that they people you see working in the stalls and stands have been doing the same thing, working in the same market, in the same stall for years. In time, it becomes an extension of them or they become an extension of it, either way it feels to me that these spaces and the people who work in them just fit together. They say that people that have been married for years start to look like each other, in a strange way I feel the same is true for the people in Asia’s markets and the stalls they work in.
I tend to work the extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to focal length. I prefer to work either very wide and very close with a 20mm prime lens, or to stay back outside of the bubble of acknowledgement and use a 70-200 zoom. When I am using the zoom lens, I tend to operate in the 100mm to 200mm range. I love the compression and intimacy it brings to the images.
For the wide angle work, I find it allows me to not only include the surrounding elements, but it also allows me to not point the camera directly at the person I am photographing. At 20mm it is quite easy to look like you are photographing something in the shop and really be photographing the person. It produces images that are incredibly close and intimate without the intimidation of having a large lens pointed at you. Since I prefer the candid moment to posed images, it is a great way to get close and not lose the authenticity of the candid moment.
While it is not a common street photography lens because of its size, I really love the 70-200mm lens. It allows me to pick a spot outside the space where I am outside the subject’s sphere of consciousness and wait for the candid moment to present itself. The cameras I have been using over the last few years have an articulating screen, which allows me to shoot this lens from waist level. I have found that using a 70-200 with the viewfinder at eye level is really noticeable, even to people who are you think are not paying attention.
The ability to use live view and shoot from waist level with this lens has 2 main advantages for me. The first as stated above it that it is less obvious and easier to blend in. The second is it changes the perspective that I am photographing the person from. As a humanitarian photographer I am always trying to help my audience look up to the people I am photographing. I want them to see the subject as beautiful, valuable and as an equal, for that reason I try to make sure that I use a perspective that is at eye level or is even below their eye level and forces the viewer to look up to the person in the image. Holding the camera at waist level or below and using live view to compose the shot makes this much easier when I am doing personal street photography projects.
For me this is an ongoing project that I pick up again whenever I have the opportunity to visit the market.