How to photograph busy situations

5 tips to deal with busy situations when doing people travel photography in Asia



As a travel photographer based in Asia, I frequently find myself in the midst of very busy situations. Because I am drawn to people photography, I spend significant time in hectic markets and places where there is plenty of human activity. Though these situations offer many photo opportunities, they can also present challenges.

While taking groups of students on photo tours through some of my favorite fishing villages outside of Hoi An, it is not uncommon for them to inform me that they feel momentarily overwhelmed. For example, this morning our class visited a market where more than 300 people were haggling over fish. Because my students are usually new to experiencing this scenario, they often require an adjustment period in order to fully absorb what is going on. For many, immersing them amidst a chaotic, unfamiliar situation, and then emerging with a nice composition, can pose a significant challenge.

Thus, I wrote this list of tips in order to assist travel photographers who are having trouble composing quality photos while in the middle of busy and chaotic circumstances.  

#1- Look for a simple background

Though the most exciting scene could be happening in front of you, if you include the trash and plastic bags strewn on the floor in the foreground, your composition will be ruined. As it is with design, less is more in photography. The simpler, the better.

The sky is one of the most simple backgrounds that are available for most any photo. If your subject happens to be in the right light, position yourself so that they are between your camera and the sky. You can also use the ground as a background, which tends to have a neutral (greyish) tone, and will help your subject pop (especially if they are dressed in vibrant clothes).

2 women selling bananas in the streets of Hoi An


Personally, I find the background to be nearly as important as the rest of my composition. If I am initially attracted to a nice background, I will wait for the scene to play out before me. So next time you are walking through a busy market, instead of looking around at the hundreds of potential subjects and feeling overwhelmed, focus on finding and composing for three or four striking backgrounds.


#2- Create Silhouettes

Yes, good old silhouettes are timeless and can be your best friends in very messy situations. Though they’ve been done, redone and overdone, silhouettes remain pleasant to the general population’s eye.

If you’re photographing on a cloudy day, expose first for the clouds and then compose your frame to work with the shapes of the people in front of you. Of course, this requires moving your body low to the ground (which is definitely easier if you have a tilt screen) and potentially getting dirty. But dirt is always worth it if it helps you to position your subjects away from each other and come out with a powerful composition.

Vietnam men silhouette

Another tip is to use one of your silhouetted subjects to frame your picture. Try filling a third of the image with their silhouette and wait for the moment when the other side of the image is filled with other interesting silhouettes. This will establish complex layers, all the while simplifying your composition.


#3- Move in closer

This is what I call the “easy trick”, one that can drastically improve your composition in any situation.

Physically walking toward a particular subject will naturally remove a lot of the mess around them. Even better, if you have a prime lens, composing for a shallow depth of field and moving closer will, guaranteed, simplify the background around your subject. Though this is one of the easiest ways to tighten up your composition, it won’t necessarily help you improve your portrait photography skills – portraits tend to all look the same if taken from close up. Try to play with the things around your subject for more creative portraits, but remember: keep it simple!


If you’ve spent any time traveling in Asia, you are aware how easy it is to get close to people. So before you write an angry comment about how rude I am to stick my camera in people’s faces, understand that not all people require the same amount of personal space. Generally speaking, Asian people require far less personal space compared to Westerners.  


#4 – Expose for your highlights

Take a minute to imagine that you are photographing in a cluttered factory. Everywhere you look there are plastic bags, pieces of broken machinery, and wooden scraps littered across the floor. As the photographer, it is your duty to find the beauty, the captivating composition in this situation. Then you look up and see spots of light caused by the sun filtering through some holes in the ceiling. The light appears to create an eery atmosphere and gives the factory a moody, dramatic feel.

Noticing this light, you decide to expose your frame for the highlights! By doing so, everything in your frame that is darker will appear to be a smooth, black gradient. All the mess you initially saw will no longer exist. Now, all you have to do is wait for your subject to walk into the very light.

There are several ways to expose for the highlights. I prefer to point my camera to the sky using the exposure lock button. The camera will lock the exposure of the sky, which is most of the time the brightest thing around, and will only expose for these bright lights.  I find that this is the most efficient method. Another option is to find the right exposure on manual mode or simply underexpose by two or three stops on shutter speed or aperture mode.


#5- Use your foreground to hide your messy background


Proper use of the foreground is one of the most efficient and effective ways to compose for a messy scenario.

When entering a busy situation, your goal may be to show that the place is busy. The problem is that composing for such a scene is difficult to do perfectly. The more elements you include in your frame, the more you need them to be in the exact right place. Doing so will create direction, lines, or shapes in to lead your viewer’s eyes.

A perfectly composed image will be able to simply capture the feeling that the location is chaotic. A tip: try hiding a lot of the unnecessary elements in your background with a foreground that tells a more profound story. A piece of someone’s hand in the corner and/or a blurry face in the other corner can give the viewer the perception that the location is busy while covering up some of the messy backgrounds. Properly utilizing the foreground can also create a natural frame that directs your eyes to the main subject. Again, the more straightforward and simple your composition, the better.


Remember, you don’t have to avoid messy circumstances in order to get a clear composition. Work with the light, move toward your subject, get on the floor, expose for the highlights and utilize the foreground – then you will be an adaptive and resourceful travel photographer.