As you might already know, when I run a photography tour in a country, I like to arrive some days before and to leave some days after. This allows me to visit new locations, adjust the tour itineraries, meet local photographers and work on my street photography skills. Because these few days are basically the only time I’m alone and can shoot purely for myself.
This year was no exception. After a fantastic tour of Sri Lanka with an amazing group, I had a few days to myself – and I used them well, practising my street photography in the capital city of Colombo. After many hours spent wandering around with my camera in hand, I found a few locations that were absolute gems. Spots that I highly recommend to anyone who’s into street photography.
Side note: The people of Colombo (and Sri Lanka in general) are incredibly friendly, very open to being photographed and really easy to approach. This makes it simple for someone to improve their photography skills quickly, as it requires much less time to approach and “charm” your subject as it might in some other countries.
But back to those hidden gems…
6 of the best places for street photography in Colombo
Forgive me that I didn’t scout out more! But I only had three spare days in Colombo and I used a lot of this time to catch up on sleep, to write blog posts and to finish editing my photos from the previous photo tour. Time-consuming stuff.
But I did discover these great spots for street photography in Colombo:
1: The Pettah & Manning Market
If you go to Colombo and you don’t get completely lost in the maze of streets known as the Pettah, then you simply haven’t seen the city.
Close to the Old Fort area, the Pettah is basically a sprawling market that extends over an entire city block. It’s a mixing pot of ethnicities and religions with churches, mosques and temples all coexisting side by side.
At the south end of the Pettah is Manning Vegetable market, which is the go-to place if you want to pick up a metric tonne of cabbages or bananas to take home to your loved ones. Or to take some busy market shots. Which is what I was there for.
It’s a bustling place, with lots of things happening, plus the workers are super friendly… but it can be hard to shoot as most of the action takes place inside warehouses with almost every angle facing the light that filters in from outside. Overall, I’d rate it as a good spot, but not a great one.
2: 4th Cross Street
Located right across the road from Manning market is 4th Cross Street. My word, is this street crazy! I loved it.
This is where trucks, cars, tuk-tuks (and lots and lots of people) come to load, unload, buy and sell wholesale products like beans, rice, corn, spices and newspapers. To be honest, it seems like absolutely everything is being loaded and unloaded here. It is a very, very busy street, especially at the crossroads.
There are tea shops all around the place selling sweet Sri Lankan tea – so it’s easy to take a rest and re-energise before getting back out to compose, layer and wait for that perfect moment. (And you are going to need that sugary boost because the photo opportunities are endless!)
The workers on 4th Cross Street are extremely friendly and very happy to have a random foreigner hanging around photographing them in action. This street is so good that it became my second home – I spent a lot of hours there, 3 days in a row!
Early risers, please note that the activity here really only gets going after 9 am, when the light is already harsh. But because of the narrow streets and the shadows the buildings cast, it is still a great spot to shoot in the middle of the day when the light is strong. Overall, it’s a great place to play with high contrasts and colour combinations.
3: Colombo Central Bus Station
At the south end of 4th Cross Street is Olcott Mawatha, one of the busiest streets in Colombo. It’s on this road that you can find Colombo Central Bus Station, another crazy busy market area and the central train station. All within 4 or 5 minutes walk from each other.
The streets are jam-packed with passers-by, and the buses creep past slowly with the conductors calling out their destination. This street offers a lot of different layers to play with and it can be great fun trying to catch the moment the last passenger leaps onto the colourful buses.
4: Colombo Fort Railway Station
One of the best things about Sri Lanka is that it’s still possible to walk into train stations and take photos. Simply buy a ticket for a local train, as someone may ask you for your ticket in order to let you out of the station. (Don’t worry, a ticket to the next stop isn’t going to break the bank!)
Trains come almost every 5 minutes, and people rush from platform to platform to reach their carriage before leaping up to grab the best spot. The walls of the station are bright yellow, and the food stands cast their lights on the shiny floor. Even on a rainy day, the central station is a great location to spend time on the hunt for street shots.
5: Old Moor Street
This is the Muslim merchant street, specializing mainly in spices. It is a little bit like 4th Cross Street but much less busy. The people are, once again, extremely friendly and all the walls are colourful. Your main job is just to hunt out a clean background, let your subjects come to you and wait for a special moment.
For coffee lovers, or just for anyone who wants a break from sweet tea, there’s a fantastic coffee shop on Moor Street. It is called the Beans Coffee Factory, a place where you can sit and enjoy an aromatic brew between photo sessions. The guys are very welcoming, and their coffee is really good.
6: Galle Face Green
For sunset, there is no better place in all of Colombo (if not the world) than Galle Face Green for street photography. Everyone and their granny comes to Galle Face Green at sunset!
Because of the sheer number of people walking around it makes it a very easy location for street photography. Using the setting sun as your backdrop, it’s a great place to once again practice your layering skills.
With your back to the sun, there are more amazing photo opportunities. The Green is full of people flying their kites and it’s great fun trying to capture these with the brand-new skyscrapers of Colombo as a background.
Then, once the sun has set, Galle Face Green has food and drink stands galore. It’s the perfect spot to end a busy day of street photography by refuelling on a slap-up fish dinner and a cold beer.
Top tip: When shooting around Galle Face Green, be aware of the few scams going around. Don’t get suckered in by people offering you to take you to a “great festival” when there is absolutely nothing happening and their tuk-tuk friend asks you for a huge fare. And please avoid giving any money to the men walking around with sad-looking monkeys on a leash, making them fight with cobras for tourists to take photos. It’s cruel and sad, and why would you want a photo of that?!
There are many reasons why anyone remotely interested in street photography should head to Colombo. The people are super friendly, the streets are busy and the city is bustling. Plus, a lot of the really great locations are quite close to each other – and the others you can get to easily by a short (and fun) train, bus or tuk-tuk ride. You can easily spend an entire day getting lost in the Pettah… or three days, like I did!
I’m so happy that next year I’ve made the decision to add an extra Colombo day to the Sri Lanka photo tour, so I can show these great spots I found to my fellow photographers. Roll on, 2020!