Marketplaces are great fun for undisturbed portraits of people, especially women. I say this not as some chauvinistic stereotype of the female shopper, but the simple fact that in most exotic cultures around the world, women are doing a better job of maintaining their traditional colorful dress than are the men. In markets, shoppers often are so intent on examining the wares that they’re oblivious to the photographer. In Jaipur, India, these brightly dressed women had no sooner dropped off their heavy, head-carried loads of produce before they directly crossed the street to spend their few newly earned rupees on silk. Open shade under trees tempered midday contrast, but provided enough light to shoot handheld with a telephoto. Without benefit of distance, the same proud women likely would take some offense at being focused on as a curiosity. In Guizhou, China, a Gejia shopper inspects bundles of porcelain bowls. Without this distraction and a telephoto lens to provide separation, it would not be possible to capture such a genuine moment. In both photos, the shallow depth of field of the telephoto adds the pleasing effect of placing the key subjects against an out-of-focus background to limit clutter in the image, a primary function of a portrait lens.
Most of the time, the objective of the travel photographer is to be inconspicuous, and as that’s hard to do as a completely conspicuous Western tourist, the next best thing is to look unassuming, which is why I like to use as small a lens/camera package as possible, avoiding the large ƒ/2.8 pro lenses that, when pointed in a subject’s direction, are about as subtle as a cannon barrel. This young mother in Varanasi took notice of my interest and directed her gaze into the lens. A medium telephoto has always been the preferred portrait lens, since the natural compression effect of the lens tends to flatter facial features. It’s not uncommon for fashion photographers to use 300mm or longer on location shoots (models on a beach), both for that effect and to make use of such lenses’ extremely shallow depth of field.
The advent of the smaller-sensor (APS-C) digital cameras has actually enhanced the possibilities of this zoom range. The 70-300mm range that added magnification to the high end when it became popular for film users has become a bit too strong for everyday use (though stabilization tempers that comment somewhat). Still, handholding an effective 480mm lens without camera movement is a daunting task, and such a telephoto isn’t commonly useful for most travel photography.