Exploring the Chaotic Markets of Kolkata
My (monochromatic) guide to navigating tight spaces with a camera
If you’ve been following Church & Street for a while, you’ll know that I love shooting in markets around the world. There’s a beauty to the chaos that I can’t get enough of. Seeing the exchange of goods and the social dynamics happening in such confined areas really lends itself to a style of photography that I enjoy.
This week, I wanted to break down the basics to my approach in these spaces. What am I looking for? Where do I position myself? How do I choose the right lens? I’m gonna touch on all these questions and more.
Unless there’s a very specific reason where I need to be as nimble as possible, I’ll look to bring two cameras for a market walk. One that’s strapped to my hand with a wide perspective and another on the shoulder or in a sling with a tighter lens. I’ll use the wide about 90% of the time and it isn’t until I see a portrait opportunity that I’ll bring out the second body.
I’ll look to hit the markets early and walk the periphery. I’ll stay on the outside where I’m trying to get a feel for the people that are visiting the market. Who are these people? That’s what I’m trying to understand. It’s during this time that I might be able to land a street portrait like the one above. There’s a style and conviction to this individual that stood out from just about everyone else that morning in Kolkata. I had to stop him for a picture.
This place is the known as the Koley Vegetable Market and it turned out to be the most chaotic market I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to many across India but this one was different. It was tighter, busier, and darker. With this is mind, I tried my best to lean into the chaos and establish layers around characters of interest.
Given how dark this environment was, the available light would dictate where I could stand and shoot. There were a few breaks in the roofing that would allow the sun to really cut through. I would treat these beams as my key light and hover around them like a moth, searching for a story to illuminate.
In some ways, this is tougher than an open market but in other ways it can be easier. Since I knew where the beams were, I knew the places that I had to focus on. I would just find a beam and maneuver around it. The best spots are mostly pre-defined. With an open market, you can find yourself walking a lot more and not maximizing the available light.
I’ll look for interesting faces or poses, and then position my wide lens in a place to really exaggerate the depth. I’m looking to angle myself in a way where viewers can almost “feel” the environment. For me, this is done well when I can introduce a series of layers into the frame.
Further, I’ll often look to backlight the subject to introduce more drama. The image above is a great example of this. You can see these rays of light that spotlight our subject and outline him in a more theatrical way.
I’ll sometimes refer to moments in photography as the “eye of the hurricane.” It’s these pockets in the chaos where I can isolate a single subject and block out the noise around them. This is where a second, tighter lens can prove to be valuable. I saw this vendor sitting in a corner of the market being illuminated by a single tungsten bulb and I knew I had a shot waiting for me. All I had to do was find a little elevation to stand from, frame the shot, and be patient. As soon as we made eye contact, I hit the shutter.
If I can leave you with one more thing, it’s to be dynamic with how you position yourself. Get inside the chaos. Get higher if the opportunity presents itself. And get low often. It’s easy to stay eye-level when you’re in a new, intimidating environment. It feels safe. But it’s also criminal. It’s a disservice to your storytelling.
Make a routine of having some self-talk during your walks, asking yourself how else can you frame the scene. Personally, I love getting tight and low with a wide lens. It’s enveloping. Anytime I’m with someone that’s a little fresh to street photography, I encourage this technique and it’s like they just realized that they have knees! Again, be dynamic with your lens.
Roam around the periphery of a market and get to know the locals.
Look for the beams of light that’ll guide you to interesting stories.
Focus on striking faces or poses and frame them for depth.
Try to find the “eye of the hurricane” to challenge yourself.
Get tight. Get high. Get low. Be dynamic with your perspective.
January Contest Winner
Congratulations to the winner of the Moment Ultimate Cinebloom Bundle:
The amazing team at Moment will be connecting with you to ship out your prize.
New February Contest!
Each month, I run a contest for the Church & Street community and try to feature something that I think people will appreciate.
For February, I’ll be giving away a one-year subscription to Capture One Pro. Yes, an entire year of Capture One Pro on me! This is the image editor that I’ve relied on for years and the one I recommend for active photographers.
How am I picking the winner? All you have to do is be a member of this community and leave a comment on this post. As with every contest, I’ll be randomly picking one person, confirming they meet the requirements and then contacting them directly before announcing the winner publicly.
Once again, this contest is void where prohibited by law. Good luck!
Reader Question: Can you explain this paid version of Church & Street?
After a year of sharing photography stories from around the world, I'm introducing an additional option for those that want more. But let me remind you, the core Church & Street newsletter, show, and future podcast will remain FREE.
If you really enjoy the material being shared and/or want to directly support my journey as a photographer, you can become a paid subscriber of Church & Street. I’ve curated some unique benefits to deliver incredible value for fans of my work.
Monthly Subscriber Benefits
($4.99 per month)
Weekly posts (vs. bi-weekly)
Archive access to all previous posts
Exclusive themed Q&A sessions and interviews
20% off Moment branded gear at Shopmoment.com
10x entries to monthly contest
For those that opt for an annual subscription, you’ll get all of the above as well as the following benefits:
Annual Subscriber Benefits
($99.99 per year)
Signed limited edition 5x7” print ($150 value)
One exclusive print to be shipped for first time annual subscribers. This print will be from my private collection and not be offered to the public.
Online Studio Photography Workshop ($50 value)
Immediate access to my commercial studio photography workshop created in partnership with Moment.
Capture One Pro Styles Pack ($50 value)
Immediate access to my Capture One Pro Global Styles Pack which contains the Styles that I use to start my photo editing process.
Recorded access of Q&A sessions and interviews
Access to all of the previous Q&A sessions and interviews curated under the Church & Street banner.
Exclusive meetup invites
I can’t cover your travel but I may end up in your city. My work takes me all over the world and I’ll look to host private meetups for my annual subscribers. Stay tuned for more details.
Coming off the heels of Mexico City, I’m already packing up for the next trip. I’ll be visiting Chennai for a massive concert that a friend of mine is headlining. But I’m also gonna try and squeeze a few days in Sri Lanka. I haven’t been to the homeland since 2011, which also means I haven’t experienced it as the photographer I am today. If this pans out, I can assure you it’s gonna make for one of the most personal stories for Church & Street readers. Fingers crossed.
Anyway, that’s enough for this week. See ya next time!