Nowhere encapsulates the bustle and excitement of North Africa like the Moroccan souk. And the colors, characters, and carnivalesque chaos of the Medina can lead to some pretty stunning photos. This makes a Marrakesh Medina photography trip an absolute must for all photographers visiting this fascinating part of the world.
But can you successfully capture the sights, sounds, and smells of the souk in a photographic image? It’s not easy, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying. To be sure, even photos that fall far short of this goal can turn out pretty impressive.
But with it’s tricky lighting and constant commotion at all hours, the Moroccan souk presents photographers with some fairly unique photographic conditions. Not only in terms of your camera’s technical settings, but even just with regards to more practical considerations – such as not getting trampled underfoot by a donkey or bitten by a snake.
There’s nothing I like more than shooting in local markets and souks though, and over the years I feel like I’ve acquired some pretty good skills and knowledge in this area. Here are some of my favorite tips and advice for getting the most out of a Marrakesh Medina photography trip.
Tips for Better Marrakesh Medina Photography
Exposure – Daytime
The Marrakesh Medina makes a great subject for photography at all hours. However, shooting in the daytime can present some particular technical challenges. Especially when it comes to achieving good exposure.
Much of the souk lies in the shade provided by simple roofing: sometimes made of corrugated metal, but in many places just basic thatch or, more commonly, thin tiles with gaps between them. As this latter type of roofing provides shade while also letting the breeze circulate, clearly it’s very practical and convenient for those who spend their lives in the souk. Unfortunately though, it’s a lot less convenient for those of us who just want to photograph it.
What makes the Medina uniquely tricky to shoot in is the enormous contrast between the strength of light in covered areas of the souk and those in direct sunlight. So although the dappled lighting created by the strips of tile can be very beautiful and atmospheric when viewed with the naked eye, the fact that there may be a difference of several stops between a correct exposure setting for sunlit and shadow areas can make Marrakesh Medina photography quite a challenge.
Even if you are not shooting in a part of the souk that lets strips of light in through the roof, you may well have areas of strong sunshine visible in the background – for example, when looking down a long covered alleyway that becomes uncovered in the distance. In this case, choosing a correct exposure for the foreground would likely lead to ugly burnt-out areas of flat detail-less white in the the background.
With a digital camera you can usually pull a lot more information out of the shadow areas in post production, but not do a great deal about missing highlight detail (if you are shooting on film, the opposite is true of course). So the solution to this particular problem is to work out what would be a correct exposure for the shadows, and a correct exposure for the highlights; and then choose exposure settings that fall somewhere between these two extremes. Veering much closer to a correct exposure for the highlights. You may need to experiment somewhat before you find the best compromise though.
As the issue here is one of exposure latitude, shooting early in the morning or later in the day – when lighting contrast is lower – will help to reduce this problem considerably. Often though, some of the nicest light will be found not in the direct sun, but in the reflected light of the shade. Shadowy areas of the souk can be the best spots for portraits, with soft, diffused light being bounced in off the walls, rather than your subject being lit harshly by the burning sun.
Exposure – Nighttime
Evening is when the Medina really comes alive though, and this too presents the photographer with certain challenges. Once again, there can be some problems caused by the degree of contrast between shadow areas and the bright neon lights of the market stalls. As above, you’ll need to look for an exposure setting that provides a good compromise between the lightest and darkest areas of the scene.
As bright as the fluorescent lights may seem though, they are unlikely to be anywhere near as strong as the midday sun, so you’ll likely want to work at a faster ISO when shooting at night. Pay close attention to your White Balance too, as although the mix of neon and incandescent bulbs can make for some colorful and atmospheric lighting, choosing an inappropriate White Balance setting could create some problems when it comes to post-processing the image.
A big zoom will attract a lot more attention than a little prime lens. Best to go for a 50mm standard prime for portraits, plus either a 28 or 35mm for when a wider field of view is required.
If you can find a nice vantage point at a rooftop cafe or looking down from your guesthouse, you may get a few nice shots with a long lens to vary things up a bit. But too many shots of this kind and it’ll soon become repetitive. Shooting with a zoom also leads to photos that feel a lot less intimate and personal, so it isn’t really a viable longterm alternative to getting in close to your subject down on the ground.
As with any trip, the way that you behave towards local people will not only influence how you are treated by them, but the quality of their lives too. And as the guest, it’s largely your responsibility to make the effort. Bear in mind, too, that if you find people unwelcoming it’s probably in large part because they’ve become jaded by their experiences with those travelers who came before you. Try to make such a good impression that anyone who comes after you is treated better, not worse, than you were. A simple smile can go a long way.
Nonetheless, most of the people you are likely to meet during your Marrakesh Medina photography trip will be very friendly. Still, not all of them will want their photo taken though (indeed, why would they?). Meanwhile, others may be happy to do so, but may expect some money in return.
Ask permission before taking a portrait, or at least be ready to stop immediately if it’s clear that the attention of your camera is viewed more as an annoyance than as flattery. And if someone does notice you taking a picture of them, don’t just feign innocence: acknowledge them with a nod and a smile, and have a pocketful of change at the ready in case your chosen subject does expect a few Diram in return. Also be prepared to send people copies of their photos if they let you take their portrait (and be sure to actually make good on your promise).
Part of what makes Marrakesh Medina photography so much fun is the sheer number of interesting people you’ll encounter in one place. Just bear in mind that many of these people will likely get in the way of your shots, and you in theirs. It’s hot, noisy, and busy in the souk. Stay cool, stay calm, and take regular breaks. In any case, hanging out in a cafe can be a great way of watching (and photographing) the world go by.
Carry water with you at all times, and as few valuables and as little camera gear as you can get away with. If you really must carry your camera in a backpack, strap it to your front so that you can keep an eye on it. And place a hand on your camera at all times: it only takes a skillful flick of a knife in a crowd to sever a camera strap and spirit your camera away for good.
Realistically though, the biggest hazard you’re likely to come across when shooting in the Medina is fast moving traffic: scooters, bicycles, perhaps even a horse and cat. Even if you’ve got a camera up to your eye for 50% of the time, try to remain well aware of what’s happening in the environment around you, or risk becoming a nuisance – both to yourself and others.
Want to photograph snakes in extreme close up? Remotely controlling the shutter release via app is undoubtedly the safest way to go about it.
A vacation in Morocco is an amazing experience, and despite the unique challenges of photographing the souk, it would be hard to come away from a Marrakesh Medina photography trip without grabbing at least one or two really stunning shots. Hopefully my tips will ensure that you come away with many more than just a couple!
Alternatively, if you are looking for Marrakesh Medina photography for business or personal use, be sure to check out my gallery pages of fully licensable photos of Morocco.