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In An Asian Night Market

by JC Wilson

The Human Statue
Canon 60D, Canon 15-85mm @ 55mm, F5.6 @ 1/320, ISO640

One of the joys of living in a multicultural city like Vancouver is that there’s no shortage of “new experiences”. Having a large resident Asian community, for the last 20 summers we’ve enjoyed the delights of an “Asian Night Market”. Imagine a giant outdoor food fair (seating optional) full of more goodies than you could sample in a summer, plus hundreds of vendors selling knick-knacks, souvenirs, and knock-offs - all packed with thousands of people having a fun evening out.

The food is fun and tasty (if a tad expensive), but the real delight is that this is a street photographer's paradise. It's compact, full of people having a good time, camera-friendly and the action in and around the food booths is endless. The hours are usually 7pm to midnight on weekends and holidays from May to October, so in the peak summer months there’s still enough daylight to get people shots in the midways. After sunset, that goes away quickly as most of the light is from low wattage fluorescents that illuminate the booths. 

East Meets East
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 16mm, f11 @ 1/40, ISO 1000

I’m attracted to the action around the food booths. It tends to be fast and varied – there’s always something going on – whether it’s the staff action in the booth, or the staff-customer interaction. The merchandise booths tend to be slow, static and a tad boring for my taste. Shooting moving subjects under low watt fluorescents at night can be tricky, but the rewards are worth it. At first glance, the tendency might be to shoot from the midway where the light isn’t into the booths where the light is, but that gives everything a sameness. There are alternatives. 

Chef James and Associates
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 9mm, f11 @ 1/20, ISO 1600

One trick I discovered by accident is that in the first or last months of the season there are often vacant booths.  Simply stepping into an empty booth puts you behind the action in the adjacent booths. You can then shoot through the adjacent booths into the midway and easily incorporate both vendor and customer in the shot against a dark background. 

Barbecue Guy
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 8mm, f8 @ 1/13, ISO 1600

Some booths may have a few feet between them for the vendors to get stuff in and out; stepping into these spaces works just as well (no one’s kicked me out yet) as long as you respect their space and stay out of the way. There are also corner booths open on two sides that can make for interesting perspectives. 

Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 8mm, f8 @ 1/25, ISO 1000

Another approach is to stand at the end of the booth away from the cashier and shoot along the face of the booth. This is where people will be checking out the goodies and lots of interactions take place


Number 18
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 10mm, f8 @ 1/60, ISO 1000

What I Shoot For

Content, gesture, expression, interaction, presence and atmosphere are the elements I’m looking for. Foreground-background relationships, are also important. The dominant subject will usually be in the foreground. The action in the background must support what’s happening in the foreground; not compete with it. I’ll adjust tonality and detail to emphasize the action in post processing. 

Its Hot In Here!
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 13mm, f5.6 @ 1/60, ISO 1600

Beware … these are working mini kitchens with people moving around in them … there’s going to be stuff everywhere. They will always be complicated and messy, so since you’re not going to be able to “lose it”, you might as well “use it”. Sometimes you will get it “just right”; most of the time not … something unpredictable will mess it up for you. I spend a lot of time in post and some images may include pieces from two or three other images of the same scene.

The Gear Question

For gear I travel light. I’ll be on my feet bumping into people for several hours. I carry one body, an 8-16mm (13-27mm on my 60D) wide-angle zoom and a 17-85mm (24-135mm) zoom with a single belt case to hold the lens not in use. Both are small aperture lenses, but I’ve gotten sharp images with the wide angle as low as 1/10 of a second hand-held. I shoot hand held only and with the available light. The tripod stays in the car. It would be a serious liability and a cause for injury suits in a crowded midway. It would also draw unwanted attention to me and the camera. Given that most of the booth lighting is low watt fluorescent, working ISO is in the 640-1600 range. With the crowded and tight shooting spaces, the majority of images are with the wide angle … which is odd, as I’m not normally a heavy wide angle user; but necessity dictates.

Flippa Fish
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 15mm, f8 @ 1/25, ISO 1600

As you’ve probably guessed by not, final images are mostly black-and-white. That’s a personal esthetic choice. Color works just as well in many cases.

It's In The Post

I’ve often been told that my B&W prints have a “different” look to them. I haven’t sold my soul to the devil and I’m not related to Dorian Grey. So here’s the secret.

  1. Initial processing is done in Lightroom – basic adjustments only. The final “keepers” are converted to B&W in Silver Efex Pro.
  2. These images were shot at night and I wanted to retain the “pools of light in the dark” feel. To do that I decide to use dark backgrounds with light foregrounds. I made two duplicates of the original, under exposed one in Silver Efex and the other usually as High Structure. After sandwiching the layers and creating a new working image I start the tonal adjustments.
  3. A few years ago I read an article here on Lula by George DeWolfe, B&W Master Print, in which he explained in detail how he uses a Photoshop tool called “History Brush”.  It didn’t take much playing around with it to see the potential for controlling local area brightness in an image. Most of the adjustment is brightening and darkening specific areas of the image to achieve the desired effect. If necessary the final step is shift to Lightroom and adjust local clarity, contrast and sharpness.

Its All Done With Steam
Canon 60D, Sigma 8-16mm @ 16mm, f8 @ 1/50, ISO 1000

A Word On Shooting Style

Part of “growing up” as a photographer is learning to trust your vision and photographic instincts. You KNOW what’s right for you photographically without having to think about it. Somewhere back there, I came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time trying to control reality by attempting to ram it into the mold of my expectations. These days I park the expectations of what I’m going to do/see with the car and let reality show me what’s on offer today. I pack as light as possible for the conditions I’ll be in and go with whatever is happening in a state of readiness to react to whatever my photographic instinct says is right/good/expressive of how I feel. That works for me. Go with what works for you.

So, if you’re ever in Vancouver between May and Thanksgiving, DON’T miss the Night Market. I guarantee you a fun time shooting or eating … or hey, why not both.

JC Wilson

I’m a retired federal civil servant, writer and high-tech manager. I’ve been interested in photography for over 50 years. I bought my first 35mm camera in 1962 and have never been without a camera since. Over the years I’ve owned or used everything from a Minox to a 4x5. Currently I own a couple of Canon bodies and 5 lenses, but most of my work is done with an Olympus XZ-1 that continues to astonish me with what it can do. Vancouver has been my home since 1965.

Published on January 28, 2015
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Concepts: 2005 albums, Photography, Light, The Action

Entities: Vancouver, Silver Efex, Canon, Photoshop, Night Market, High Structure, Thanksgiving, writer, J C Wilson, Dorian Grey, Lula, George DeWolfe, 50 years, 135mm, 16mm, 27mm, 35mm, 85mm, Asian Night Market

Tags: food booths, adjacent booths, low wattage fluorescents, Asian Night Market, low watt fluorescents, vendors selling knick-knacks, giant outdoor food, resident Asian community, wide angle, wide angle user, low watt fluorescent, personal esthetic choice, small aperture lenses, single belt case, merchandise booths, new working image, Silver Efex Pro, B&W Master Print, tight shooting spaces, corner booths, federal civil servant, local area brightness, people shots, good time, available light, staff action, booth lighting, new experiences, final images, real delight, multicultural city, light foregrounds, fun evening, Foreground-background relationships, peak summer, tad boring, street photographer, fun time