Around the wet markets

If you have been following my articles for a while now you may have noticed that I shoot a lot in local Malaysian wet markets. Even my mum finds it hard to believe that I spend so much time in actual markets though I go not with the intention to buy fresh meat and vegetables but to hunt for photography opportunities. Almost every new camera or lens review has featured a few sample photographs taken at various wet market locations in Kuala Lumpur. I want to explain my fascination with the wet market and why I keep returning to the similar spots early in the mornings.

The abundance of photography subjects is the main reason that draws me to wet markets. There are so many things happening that are worth shooting: from the slaughtering of chicken, old folks doing their morning market shopping to general market workers going about their daily routine. The variety of subjects available and photography opportunities are practically endless. This creates an ideal shooting ground for me to test new cameras and lenses. I can shoot portraits of strangers, fresh colorful vegetables under golden morning glow and a man cutting the head off a baby shark.

People in the wet market are generally friendly and approachable. The logic is simple, a market place is where people crowd at such close proximity with each other. The comfort zone is smaller and people are less likely to reject having their photographs taken. Some of my portraits of stranger shots are taken at wet markets but I generally do not like shooting portraits here due to the inability to control what happens in the background and also poor lighting conditions. Nonetheless, with the right planning and timing, some interesting environmental portraits can be achieved and keeping an open mind is the key to getting successful keepers. I particularly like the natural facial expression on the wet market folks being completely themselves, beaming with genuine smiles and not being too self-conscious on how they look in front of the camera, because let’s face it, you are in a market, not at a hipster cafe or a luxury shopping mall.

It is not easy shooting in a wet market, and the challenges I face are the motivations for me to keep trying and to improve myself. First timers to wet markets will be overwhelmed with overpowering pungent smell, overbearingly loud human shouting, the difficulty moving around the congested crowd and generally unpleasant splashy wet floor. The generally poor lighting (under canopies) and messy condition are not easy to work with. It takes time to acclimatize to the surrounding conditions and once you are used to the discomfort to the senses, you will start to notice the numerous photography opportunities happening at every corner you turn to! It is so hard to put the camera down because there are just too many subjects to photograph.



I generally work with wider focal lengths for wet market shooting. My usual lenses are either Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.8 or 25mm F1.8, providing just enough coverage without being too wide to include unnecessary and unwanted clutters in the framing. I do sometimes use the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 but that is specifically for close up portraits only. Wider lenses are favored here for environmental portraits, being more inclusive of the wet market surrounding to support the main portrait. Working with a wide lens like 17mm also means the images are susceptible to unwanted perspective distortion. In order to prevent that, I normally would center my human subjects and not go too close to maintain a natural proportions (head not looking larger than the body, no elongated hands, etc). I admit sometimes perspective exaggeration may create interesting effects but I personally prefer a more natural looking outcome.

Here are some tips I can give for those who want to explore wet market photography. Wear simple, plain cloths (T-shirt and shorts would be ideal) to blend into the crowd. Always be polite and be generous with your smile, and people will be more likely to respond positively to you. Do not carry large bags, a backpack will hinder movement in a congested narrow walkway. Instead, carry a small shoulder bag or pouch. Having said that, your choice of gear should be minimal and small in footprint. Carrying a gigantic DSLR with a 70-200mm f2.8 sized lens will have you constantly accidentally knocking and bumping into people unnecessarily. Choose a smaller lens and learn to work with wider lenses. It is perfectly ok not to have good shots in your first few sessions at a wet market, get yourself familiarized with the environment and you can always come back to the same spot for better shots. Always be respectful to others, never obstruct the on-going business or disturb the workers doing their chores. Be mindful of your surroundings, dirty water may splash onto your hair and shirt anytime, and it is perfectly fine. You won’t get far in any kind of photography if you are not willing to get yourself submerged fully into the real life scenario.



If you are visiting Kuala Lumpur, I highly recommend that you spend one morning at a local wet market and you might just have some interesting shots to add to your travel photo series. These locations are void of tourists and you will not find them in guides or travel websites. From one photographer to another, I welcome your emails asking me for locations and I am willing to share them with you. Let’s just hope the local authorities won’t be shutting these locations down anytime soon due to hygiene and health related issues.

 

The Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8 and M.Zuiko 17mm F1.8 are available here from B&H

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Great images and advice. I especially like the shot of the chickens – live and dead.

  2. As a 50 year old guy turned vegan in the last 3 years ( and being much healthier because of it ! ) I find the wet markets of Asia and the attitude to animals difficult to handle. I am not someone to lecture other people, so I must stay away from these places.

    • I am genuinely surprised that Avian Flu and other diseases are not more rife given the shocking lack of hygiene and appalling conditions in most markets, abattoirs etc across Asia.

  3. Nice shooting, processing and writing, Robin! I love photographing at farmer’s markets (as they are often referred to in the US) and often seek them out when travelling. We have a number of neighborhood farmer’s markets where I live and I try to visit several year round. Unlike you, I tent to focus on fruit and vegetable “portraits” as I love the color and texture they provide. I usually bring the Olympus 12-40 and/or 60 macro (or sometimes my D500 w/60mm macro). This allows me to get close, get the shot and get out of the way of customers. And I would agree that a smile goes a long way with the merchants (and buying after shooting always helps).

    –Ken

    • Hey Ken,
      oh yes, I love vegetable and fruit portraits too! I agree with you, the color and texture were something I look forward to when I go to wet markets here. They are my staple when it comes to new camera or lens reviews. Always, always be respectful to anyone at the markets!

  4. I’ve always admired your wet market candids and portraits. It’s been obvious that you have taken the viewer’s sensibilities in mind while selecting what’s presented. I’ve never been in such a setting but I’m fairly sure “pungent” would be an understatement. Most of your readers who’ve grown up in the U.S. and similar environments (and who don’t live on farms) are convinced that poultry comes tightly shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam tray, sold only in heavily air conditioned stores. The idea that anything they eat might turn its head to look back at them causes at the least a slight shudder. Even motion blur on the knife about to descend on the head of a thoroughly dead fish is liable to induce queasiness. Keep on shooting this scene while it exists. Your level of taste in presentation is right up there with your level of skill as a photographer.

    • Hey Michael,
      I am impressed by your observations. Yes, I am very conscious of what to show my readers and the curation process was not easy. It is a work in progress and I am fortunate to live in this part of world where there are many interesting scenes that may not be available at the US or European countries.

  5. Alex Carnes says:

    Nice photos, but animal welfare seems to be low on the list of priorities in Kuala Lumpur…!

    • I am pretty sure that these animals lived a life 5x healthier than what he US food chain produces and 2x healthier of what one can buy in Europe.

    • Alex, thanks! Well, Chinese restaurants here serve Shark Fin soup which is a popular dish, soooo…..

      Retow, I am not sure how healthy these animals are, I doubt they are any better than other farm animals elsewhere in the world.

  6. Yes, I was thinking the same thing.

  7. The article says this one is by Ming, but is that you, Robin?

    • It’s definitely Robin and shows as such for me, but on an un-logged in browser for some odd reason it’s not correcting. Time to delve into the code…

      • nicholas barretto says:

        Hi Robin I love your photography and been following you awhile now. You indicated you love the 25 mm perspective and now recently the 17mm… (naturally the 45 mm 1.8 for portraiture)
        I was wondering why you do not use the 12 to 40 mm pro? Is it the Bokeh rendered on the 1.8 lenses? I can’t think of any other reason. Markets are generally bright and you probably don’t need the extra stop, weight isn’t really an issue if you don’t have to carry a bag with a few prime’s in it.
        Creativity; You can force yourself to stick to a specific focal length during the entire shoot if you feel it makes you lazy having a zoom for the composition. Cost of the 12-40 is dropping, perhaps due to the 12-100mm…Sharpness and autofocus seems on par with these primes…

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