#1334. In an Asian Night Market

By John Wilson | Art & Creativity

Jan 03

One of the joys of living in a multicultural city like Vancouver is that there’s no shortage of “new experiences” at your disposal.

The Human Statue

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 and 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 this is a street photographers 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 Thursday – Sunday 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 fluorescent in the booths.


East meets East

I’m attracted to the action around the food booths. It tends to be fast and varied so 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 . Shooting moving subjects under low wattage 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

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 vendor and customer in the shot against a dark background.

The Barbecue Guy

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.



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

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!

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 10-24mm wide-angle zoom (15-36 on my Fuji X bodies) and a 18-55mm (27-85mm) 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. In a crowded midway it would be a serious liability and a cause for injury suits. 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.



As you’ve probably guessed by now, final images are mostly black-and-white. That’s a personal esthetic choice. Color works just as well in many cases.

Its In The Post
I’ve often been told that my B&W images have a “different” look to them … whatever that means. I haven’t sold my soul to the devil and I’m not related to Dorian Grey. So here’s the “secret”. Initial processing is done in Lightroom – basic adjustments only. The final “keepers” are converted to B&W in Silver Efex Pro.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 painting in the light areas to the underexposed areas, I’ll start the tonal adjustments.

A few years ago I read an article 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 to see the potential for controlling local area contrast and 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 to shift to Lightroom and adjust local clarity, contrast and sharpness. A final trip to Vivesa to add final contrast, brightness and structure and I’m done.


Its All Done With Steam

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 realty by attempting to ram it into the mould of my expectations. These days I park the expectations about 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. Your mileage may vary.


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Wow, just wow, John! From the fabulously atmospheric B&W street shots to the detailed advice, you’ve created a post that has something for everyone. Not a small accomplishment. I’m not the only one who’ll be inspired by your images. Kudos!

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Magnificent , each image tells a story in its own right. Great use of layering. If ever there was a case to throw away the 50mm equivalent for street photography and “go wide” this is it.

    Brilliant choice of post processing to remove the distraction of colour and bring out the essence of each scene.

    I am in envy of the manner in which you have brought out the pools of light, the framing and composition.

    Within Silver Efex which film stock and toning have you applied to your images ?

    • John Wilson says:

      Actually, I don’t use any of the film stock presets. What I will do is layer two or more of the standard preset and pick and choose which areas of the renditions I like. Once the composite is done I’ll start the adjustments using the dodge and burn and history brush tools in Photoshop and a touch of Lightroom adjustments where necessary. Lastly, a bit of brightness, contrast and structure in Viveza and it’s done.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Simply superb, John!
    As someone living partly in South-East Asia, I feel “at home” watching your images, even from the other side of the ocean 🙂
    And your processing is gorgeous… I do a lot of B&W here in Asia, but keep these images to myself until I will hopefully like the results; I use FilmPack since forever, having abandoned Silver Efex Pro long time ago, but I keep reading that SEP offers a greater “starting point”; then your steps are brilliant… I agree with Nancy, this will be quite a “booster” post, thank you sir!

    • John Wilson says:

      Thank you Pascal. I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. SEP is only the starting point and as mentioned above, I’ll often combine two or more presets to create the base image and the work from there. I envy you having that kind of access to SE Asia; my only foray into that part of the world was Singapore in the late 80s … LOVED it.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    There are plenty of other reasons to live in Vancouver, too, John – it’s one of the nicest places in North America!
    Your work in “post” has given these images a decidedly personal & impressive appearance. I love available light photography, myself (kind of fell into it, when I was a young ‘un, fooling around with my first DSLR – took a whole roll of shots at the office Christmas party, apparently they all took no notice, they none of them knew or believed it was possible to take photos in those conditions without flash – so when I produced the prints after we came back to work in January, they waited till I went out during the morning, busted open my filing cabinet, and stole the lot – prints, film, all of it! – never to be seen again!)
    Of course I’ve done tons more since – one shot, taken at midnight, is on the dustjacket of the book I published of my own photos, way back in 1967. And no it doesn’t “just seem like yesterday” – feels like it was nearly 60 years ago!
    In between – I have spent quite a bit of time in Singapore, Malaysia and (before the apple fell from the tree) Hong Kong, for several decades. So I’m pretty familiar with food stalls and markets like this. And I have to tell you, yours are better images than most people manage to get. There’s something more vibrant, more real, more “story-telling” about your photography. I’ve seen thousands of others, but few that compare.
    So now I’ll sit back and wait for the next treat you bring to the table, to share with the rest of us!
    Cheers! Oh – and happy new year! OMG, it’s ticked over again, and it’s now 2024 – no wonder my niece tells me she thinks I’ll outlive the rest of the family!

    • John Wilson says:

      There are plenty of other reasons to live in Vancouver, but the mix of cultures and the cuisines they bring with them is a treat. Within a three block radius of home I can have West Coast Fusion, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Iranian, Indian, Italian and all the other usual suspects … and I’m out in the “boonies” 35 miles from Vancouver.

      As for available light … I don’t even own a flash, other than whatever’s built into the camera and I can’t recall the last time I used that. Tried the studio thing with models and hot lights in the 60s and gave that up as a bad idea.

      I envy your time in SE Asia. It’s my favourite part of the world.

      And a Healthy, Happy, Peaceful and Prosperous New Year to you too Pete.

  • Jon Maxim says:

    First of all John, this has to be my favourite shots of yours so far. As the others have pointed out, the photos are spectacular. Loving “street” myself, I envy you.

    I also envy you because I did frequent Vancouver a lot when I lived in White Rock for a couple of years before I moved back to Toronto. Back then I only knew of the Granville Market which really is a lot more interesting than our equivalent, the St. Lawrence Market. I did not know about the Asian Night Market and maybe it wasn’t a thing round about 2000. All I wish is that we had an equivalent here. Toronto is just as diverse as Vancouver and possibly more so but we don’t seem to have an equivalent to your night market, possibly because at this time of year people aren’t as inclined to wander out in the cold. I need to do some research.

    At any rate, thank you. Please keep them coming.

    • John Wilson says:

      John – Check these out. They’re gone for this year but look like an annual shindig.

      • Jon Maxim says:

        Thanks John. Yes we do have these “festivals” in the good weather months. They only last a limited time but it sounds like your night market is year round. I will just have to plan my picture taking around those dates. When it comes to satisfying my craving for real Asian food, we thankfully do have a plethora of good Asian restaurants. Some day we can maybe have an argument as to which town has better Chinese restaurants – Richmond or Markham?

        • John Wilson says:

          Done Deal! We can do lot’s of on site research and testing, before declaring an amicable draw. Cheers.

  • John Wilson says:

    Thank’s Jon. The Night Market started in the mid 2000s in a parking lot on the south west side of the Knight Street Bridge. They eventually lost the site and were gone for a couple of years before reappearing in a huge vacant lot behind the River Rock Casino in Richmond. Since then they have been around every summer from May to October. I don’t know of another one in Canada.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    It’s great to see how you’ve distilled the essential from your files.
    And how you’ve captured the action.

    I haven’t done any real PP since in my teens in b/w in my father’s darkroom.
    And I get the impression that what you’ve done here can hardly be achieved so.

    You inspire me to begin learning digital b/w PP – but it would be a long learning curve!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • John Wilson says:

      Kristian – You are most welcome. Believe it or not, you already have a big chunk of the basic knowledge base for handling BW in digital … you understand tonality. As I outlined above I use SilverFx, but you can use whatever conversion ap you like or have handy … that’s just the starting point. The rest is realizing the you can use multiple images from the same ap and composite them and then apply the tonal adjustments that produce the image you want. There is a learning curve, but it’s not as steep as you might think. I’ll be happy to share whatever little knowledge I’ve accumulated with you.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Hi John,
        thanks for your support.
        When I need to try that I’ll certainly remember if I find myself at some big question mark.
        There’s probably a lot of how-to’s on the ‘net, on photographer’s sites and in book stores.
        Not to speak of just experimenting…

  • >