Phil Page Photography | Latest Souk Photo Walk

Latest Souk Photo Walk

October 09, 2012  •  2 Comments

Whenever I go for a photo walk I tend to stick with a single lens.  The dusty conditions in Dubai mean that this reduces the chance of getting dust spots on the camera's sensor while changing lenses, and it makes me feel more focused.  When walking around familiar areas you have different composition possibilities with different lenses and it insures that no walk is the same as before.


I'm now starting to get the hang of looking for interesting light.  Outside there is always harsh flat light in Dubai which it not the best for photography - 'golden hour' doesn't really happen, unless it's in the 30 minutes before sunset in the winter months.  By moving to covered areas of the city and the narrow alleyways the quality of light becomes much better, softer and diffuse.  Shooting around 10ft or greater away from the harsh light outside, and you find soft directional light which give images a lot more depth.


On my latest photo walk, I started by walking through the backstreets of the Gold Souk area of Dubai, continuing through to the Spice Souk and Textile Souk areas in Deira.  In the early morning shops are opening and porters are moving goods from wholesalers to stores - there is a lot of day to day activity going on which is great for street photography.  I chose my Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon for this particular walk mainly because the focal length is wide enough for street scenes, conveying more of the environment.  Also, with the air quality being clean and clear, I could make the most of the micro contrast and detail that this lens records in scenes.  It is a bit 'retro', being manual focus, but the image quality is awesome.  Manual focus does not prove to be a hindrance at all and it is very easy to use.


Morning inactivity - D700 & Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon


Generally in this area of the city in the mornings you find people on their way to work, preparing for the day, and no shoppers.  Most of the people that work in this area are Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, with a scattering of Omani and Yemeni people as well.  The Emiratis that come to shop generally arrive in the later morning.  Still there's a lot of hubbub, and with the shops barely opening you don't get preyed upon by eager store keepers trying to sell their wares which can irritate after a while!


Indian Barbershop - D700 and Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon


After walking around the more open side streets and alleyways, where you're never far from harsh light, I made it to the older souk areas.  Here the alleys are fully covered and the tunnel effect really softens the light.  Letting the ISO on my camera ride anywhere up to ISO6400 with a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th or 1/50th I could concentrate on shooting rather than worrying about my exposure.

Firstly I came across a Pakistani porter in a small side street.  I couldn't see him as I walked into the alley due to the bright sunlight outside.  His friend didn't want to be photographed, but he was more than happy.  He was lit from over his right shoulder by light streaming along the alley.  The light was perfect if a little dark, his clothes were traditional Pakistani which meant lots of drapes in the fabric to pick up light and shadow, and some of his hair was dyed red with henna.  For once, a perfect candidate for a colour street portrait - I love it in black and white but the colour shot, for once, is right up there with it or nicer in my opinion.


Pakistani Porter - D700 & Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon


Manual focus in the dark alley was easy, I dialled in f2.5 to separate the man from the background, one click and I was done.  It's very difficult with these guys to get them to pose.  I generally ask with a thumbs up or thumbs down and a waggle of the camera to see if it is alright to take their photograph.  If I get a yes, there's a quick appraisal of the scene and light to estimate the best location for me to take the photograph from, and then these guys just stare straight through the lens.  Within 30 seconds and generally a single click I'm done as I don't want to impose.  If I get a good shot, I'll return with a print and find the subjects to give them the final image.


On viewing the camera LCD and checking for clipped highlights I realised I'd got a good image recorded and was more than happy.  Moving on to an area of the Spice Souk I came across another man, this time with a headdress on.  I had harsh light streaming in from behind my right shoulder and bouncing off the floor of the souk, softening it and lighting his face light a giant reflector.  Perfect for accentuating his weathered face and lifting his eyes out of shadow.


I couldn't move any closer to him due to the way he was sitting, cross legged, on the floor.  If I'd asked him to move then I would have lost the light and moment.  Ideally I'd have stepped back and used an 85mm to blur the wall behind the man and not need to crop.  As it was, I only had my 35mm lens and had to do the best I could with an idea of cropping later.  Below is the original image, shot at f8, 1/50th and ISO720:


Issues?  Plenty of them, but it was the best I could do with what I had available.  The bright alleyway off to the left had to go, as did the electrical cable over the man's left shoulder, as did his hands, arms and legs.  So with quite a severe crop, cloning out the electrical cable, reducing the exposure by one stop on the RAW  file and adding a little tonal contrast with Nik Software Color Efex I ended up with this image:


Pakistani Porter - D700 & Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon


The problem with the background was gone, which was fortunate as there is generally so much going on.  There's always rubbish lying about and people getting into the image - it's very difficult in these souks to get a clean background.


I then looped back towards my car via the Fish Market.  Here there is one main covered thoroughfare which always has nice light, whatever the time of day.  It's dark in the alley, but it's lit from both ends by sunlight softly being bounced around the walls.  Near the middle of this alley is a clean background where there's no distractions and occasionally a porter or two is hanging about waiting for a customer.


I got lucky with another interesting face, and perfect light which really give the image some 'pop'.  I asked the question if it was OK to take his photograph, got a yes, dialled in f3.2 and shot at 1/100th and ISO2000.  f3.2 gave me just about enough of his face acceptably in focus and slightly blurred the background for  separation.  The light hitting the man's face on both sides, coupled with the catch light in his eyes, really give the final image some character.  I'm amazed by these porters - no direction, but an instant connection through the lens to the viewer.  One click, check histogram, show the man his shot - done.


Pakistani Porter - D700 & Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon


So in half an hour or so I had three nice new street portraits, all with interesting and different light.  It definitely pays to search out the darker covered areas of markets with openings to the harsh light outside, rather than purely avoid the shadows altogether.  The best light, at least in this neck of the woods, is to be found in the shade.


Hi Phil,

I was wondering if you provide a small tip to the people as you take their pictures? or do you find that people are simply happy enough to participate with no regard for money?

Ricard Torres(non-registered)
First time here Phil. What a discovery! I loved this portraits.

How do you engage the subjects?

Cheers from Spain.
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