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A Photographer's Guide to Cape Town

by Philip Greenspun, March 2008


Cape Town is the oldest true city in southern Africa, home to more than 3 million people, most of whom are non-white, and yet it is not conventionally African. Cape Town was founded by the Dutch in 1652 and taken over by the British in the early 19th century. Nearly all of the families who live in Cape Town emigrated from Europe, India, or some other part of Africa.

Like San Francisco and Sydney, Cape Town combines a dramatic oceans-and-mountain physical setting with a vibrant culture and some impressive architecture.

When to Go

Cape Town's climate is very similar to San Diego's. The land is hot and the sea is cold. The nicest months are the African summer, September through early May. The winters tend to be comparatively cloudy and rainy, but the weather can be pleasant at any time of year.

V&A Waterfront

You're probably staying near the V&A Waterfront development, essentially an indoor-outdoor shopping mall with private security guards everywhere. There is no shame in spending a morning taking photos of fellow tourists and locals here. As you're in a comprehensive shopping mall, complete with supermarket, mass market camera shops, and an outdoor adventure store, this is a good place to purchase anything that you might have forgotten. Americans should be forewarned that prices are comparable to Europe; it is best to bring absolutely that you might conceivably need from home. The waterfront remains a working port facility as well, so if you need some barnacles removed from your trawler, you can get that done while visiting the multiplex cinema.

Two Oceans Aquarium

Located at the V&A waterfront, the Two Oceans Aquarium is the largest public aquarium in Africa. The photos below were taken a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (compare prices) on a full-frame camera. If possible, bring a rubber lens hood so that you can place the front of the lens up against the aquarium acrylic and avoid glare. If you left the hood at home, shield the acrylic from glare with your hands.

Get Back Up in the Air

After a 12-hour flight from Heathrow or Amsterdam, the thought of getting back into an aircraft may be daunting, but it is the best way to appreciate the geography of the area. Cape Town is spread out like Southern California. Cape Town is not at the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Nor is Cape Town at the Cape of Good Hope. Only from a helicopter or small airplane can you appreciate how the city is built and how it relates to the stunning geography.

Helicopter tours are available from the V&A Waterfront, probably close to your hotel, and light airplane rides can be obtained from the flight schools at Cape Town International Airport.

Downtown

Downtown Cape Town is architecturally undistinguished, but a pleasant enough place to stroll around and shop for crafts in the central market. People with money prefer to live on the beach or up in the hills. Look for local characters such as the Egg Man.

Cape Point

A classic day trip from Cape Town, covered in every guidebook, takes you to Cape Point, the actual Cape of Good Hope, which happens to be a beautiful and dramatic place to hike. On the way down and back, you'll drive through quaint coastal towns, see penguins, and, if you stop, have your car ransacked by baboons. Stop in Kalk Bay for breakfast or lunch.




Lion's Head Hike

Ready for some exercise? A 15-minute drive from downtown puts you at the trailhead for the hike to the top of Lion's Head, a hill in front of Table Mountain. The guidebook lists this as a 45-minute walk to the top. Carrying a digital SLR and any extra pounds this would qualify as a death march pace. Allow three hours round-trip. There is some scrambling over rocks and climbing with the aid of chains. Locals do the trip in flip flops and stay at the top until sunset. "How do you find your way back down?" I asked a woman. "By taste and smell," she replied.



When you're done, come back via the beach road through Camp's Bay, which has some excellent open-air fish restaurants.

Signal Hill Drive

If after the Lion's Head hike you swear that you will never climb over rocks again, the short drive from downtown to the top of Signal Hill will be a nice contrast.

The classic lazy photographer's trip, of course, is cable car to the top of Table Mountain. Allow a few days and some flexibility with the weather; the mountain is often covered in a cloud (the "table cloth").

Slumming

Part of what tourists coming to South Africa want to see is the black/white economic divide. This is hard to photograph in any part of Cape Town that your hotel concierge would permit you to visit. In fact, if you look around at the V&A Waterfront, within the good restaurants, in the clubs, and along the beaches, you'll see mostly white faces. The solution to seeing a township and not getting mugged or killed is via an organized half-day tour, available from your hotel or the sightseeing booths in the V&A Waterfront. There are white folks who go into the townships regularly to do business. Nonetheless, before you consider leaving the organized tour, do a Google search for Amy Biehl (also read a CNN story that does a bit of follow-up on Amy's killers, who were pardoned after a few years in prison, and were back on the street: "Manqina was found guilty last year of raping a disabled teenager").

West Coast National Park

A 90-minute drive up the coast takes you to West Coast National Park, notable August through September for the wildflower display know as fynbos.


Wine Country

The Stellenbosch wine country starts just a one-hour drive east of Cape Town. The towns of Stellenbosch and Franschoek have some attractive old architecture and the terrain is similar to California's Napa Valley. Unfortunately, the area has been over-photographed and is too similar to wine-growing regions in other parts of the world. A pleasant day trip, but could be skipped if you want to concentrate on more photographically interesting areas.


Equipment Recommendations

Cape Town does not have the reputation for violent crime that Johannesburg does, but statistically it is similar, which makes it one of the most crime-plagued cities in the world. This is not the place to be carrying a big camera bag and changing lenses, unless you have two burly assistants or are intimately familiar with the neighborhoods. Carry a smaller body, such as the Canon EOS 5D (review), and a wide-to-telephoto such as the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM (review).

Getting There

Cape Town is in the same time zone, more or less, as Western Europe. There are no direct flights from the U.S. The easiest way to get to Cape Town is plan to spend one or two nights on each end of the trip in London or Amsterdam. The flight to Cape Town will then be an easy overnight non-stop. Expect to pay dearly, unfortunately. Africa is the most heavily regulated air travel market in the world and consequently the most profitable for those lucky carriers who have obtained government permission to fly there.

Getting Around

Plan on renting a car for trips beyond the city center and waterfront. Taxis are efficient and reasonably priced, but the locals all drive themselves everywhere. A quasi-organized parking racket operates in which a person in a bright orange vest, often a recent immigrant from the Congo, will watch your car and collect about US$1 when you're ready to depart.

A rental car will cost roughly double what you would spend in the U.S. for a comparable vehicle.

Getting Around (uh, in the evening)

Cape Town has a lively party scene, especially in the summer, and is known for an abundance of attractive single women. The clubs that are listed in guidebooks will serve a mostly white crowd. The HIV infection rate among South African whites is approximately 1/20th that of South African blacks, but that is still much higher than the prevalence of the disease among middle class Americans. Having sex with an African permanently disqualifies you from donating blood in the U.S.

It isn't particularly safe to be walking or driving around at night in any case. "Remember that all over Africa, the predators come out at night," a local reminded us. Car jackers attempted to prey on him only once in the last few years and it was around midnight. South Africa has the highest rate of violent crime in the world. Robbery and rape are very common. The murder rate in South Africa is approximately five times that of Brazil (source). Statistically, it would be safer to serve a combat tour as a U.S. soldier in Iraq than to live for ten years in Cape Town.

Communications

A GSM mobile phone from the U.S., e.g., T-Mobile or AT&T, will work fine in Cape Town. Expect to get charged at least $1 per minute and also to pay handsomely for data services. If you're going to make a lot of calls, it is probably best to purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card.

South Africa is hooked up to the Internet via a fiber optic cable to London. From a technical point of view, they could have the same Internet speeds and fees as the U.S., China, India, Senegal, Mexico, Singapore, and Western Europe. Some good friends of the government, however, have a monopoly on backbone telecommunications services. These well-connected folks, with whom it would be illegal to compete, have decided to charge literally 100 times the world standard prices for Internet. Your hotel will have a terribly slow connection to the public Internet; it would bankrupt them if you watched a streaming Netflix video. A top university with 30,000 students will have a 500 kbit connection, 1/60th the bankwidth that an American household would get with Verizon FiOS. In 2007, only two percent of the nation's public schools had Internet access.

Don't expect to upload your photos from an Internet cafe; you'd be there for a month if you wanted to transfer a few hundred RAW files. A simple task, such as purchasing an airline ticket, that would take a minute or two on a U.S. broadband link, will take more than half an hour from a typical hard-wired South African connection.

Recommended Hotels

  • Business hotel with a very competent staff: Cape Grace ($500+/night); in the waterfront area so that you can walk around at night
  • Table Bay Hotel, same area as the Cape Grace, much larger, with convention facilities, much better views of the water.
  • Breakwater Lodge, same location as the preceding at a fraction of the price.
  • Radisson Cape Town, right on the ocean front with great views, but a substantially longer walk to the waterfront mall than the preceding.
  • Twelve Apostles, probably the nicest experience, but not near downtown.
  • Ellerman House, favorite of many sophisticated travel agents.

Recommended Restaurants

Cape Town is home to some of the world's better restaurants, at prices about half of what you'd pay in big American cities and one quarter those of Europe. Try to make all of your reservations at least two or three weeks in advance, especially in the peak summer season.

  • Ginja. Downtown. Best food.
  • La Colombe. In the Constantia Uitsig winery on the other side of the mountain. Best environment and experience; make sure to book lunch or an early enough dinner that it will still be light out when you get there.

Guidebooks

More


Text and pictures copyright 2007-8 Philip Greenspun All photos taken with a Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review), typically with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (compare prices) lens.

Article created March 2008

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



John Meyers , March 23, 2008; 07:34 P.M.

I lived in South Africa for two years, 13 months in Cape Town. There is not a better place to visit for amazing shooting! I have never found anywhere more beautiful than the sights I saw there. I would say that a life is not complete, nor a portfolio, without visiting and shooting in SA. The isiXhosa (is-he-cosa) will say "hamba kakhuhle" (go well).

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Frank Moody , April 14, 2008; 07:36 P.M.


Table Mountain, Taken from the N2 on the Airport off-ramp. Next to the "Informal Settlement"

As a Capetonian I love reading from an outside perspective about my home. Beautiful place it is, pity about the down side of things like price and crime. Well worth the visit though, you wont forget it.

Lowell Litten, Jr , April 25, 2008; 07:28 A.M.

Robben Island. I really enjoyed the tour to Robben Island, the island prison that held Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters. The tour was led by past inmates, very moving.

great photo opportunities as well.

Joe Jameson , April 29, 2008; 03:21 P.M.

What a wonderful city! Please don't be put off by reports of crime. If you take the usual precautions you should be OK. Start by finding a reliable, trustworthy driver and guide. I used Mr Barbaros who has a website at www.southernroutes.co.za

This guy knows his way around Cape Town and surrounds.

Marilyn Zimmermann , May 01, 2008; 11:00 P.M.

What a wonderful post. My daughter is going to be doing a medical school rotation at the hospital in Capetown. I forwarded the site, since she loves to travel and photograph everywhere she goes. It also helps us to see where she will be and have a good idea of what the city is like. Thanks!

Dave Holland , May 01, 2008; 11:28 P.M.

As usual, your travel log makes me wanna go there! Way better than any lonely planet text, certainly more specific advice for the photographer. Thanks.

Phil, I looked at the EXIF data on some of your photos. It seems that you are using Adobe 1998 colorspace. Do you convert to sRGB before you upload? To do that, in PS CS you go (image)(mode)(convert to profile)(sRGB). I have found that when I forget to convert to sRGB, most internet browsers will open the files, falsely assuming sRGB. Unconverted Adobe RGB colors may appear slightly washed out as a result.

Dave

Chris Malcolm , May 16, 2008; 07:17 A.M.

Some more tips

I'm an expat who's been based in Cape Town for 6 years. Here's a few additional location suggestions and opinions to compliment Philip's well researched guide.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens - nestled at the back of Table Mountain it's justifiably claimed to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Best to allocate at least an hour there, or a year if possible! If you visit as part of a Cape Point day tour, they may not give you enough time. Early morning's are best. For the fit and adventurous, there are lovely walks and clambers over and around the mountain that start from or finish here. Just ensure you take the recommended hiking precautions.

African Penguins at Simonstown - To elaborate from Philip's brief mention, I think Penguins are very charming, photogenic creatures. Seek out the beach nearby, where tour groups dont go for a better chance at eye level interaction. Early morning's best in high season to avoid crowds. Late afternoon however, is generally when most penguins return from the sea.

Winelands and beyond - Personally I think the region is worth a visit. Areas stretching north and west into the mountains via marvellous road passes are quite spectacular. The town of Franschhoek (90 km's from CT) is a wonderful spot for an overnight stay. Picturesque with a selection of Class-A restaurants.

The West Coast - If you have time and would be here during August and September, then seeking the spectacularly diverse flower blooms shouldn't be missed. Further North past the West Coast National Park, the areas around Springbok and Niewoudville are places of note. Hotspots vary each year depending on rain, etc. Do your research

Bloubergstrand - a beach about 20 kms north of the city. This area is where you'll get the classic Table Mountain photo with sand & surf in the foreground. Sure there have already been a billion photos taken from here, mostly by locals. But the skies are rarely the same at sunset or sunrise (if there's clouds in the sky) and it's worth going there just for the view anyway.

Township Tours - An essential experience. Try to get a licensed guide who is from one of the township areas, it will ensure a more genuine interaction with residents, whom you'll invariably find to be welcoming and warm hearted. Be cautious of hotels and private agents organising a tour, they may only use large (white owned) operators, providing little benefit to Township residents. Best to approach Cape Town Tourism (at city and waterfront), they should be able to refer you to community conscious operators. Alternatively, the District 6 Museum (usually the 1st stop on a township tour) may be able to help. An operator I'd recommend is Our Pride Tours. Family run, licensed and knowledgeable, they can provide extended excursions if you'd like to spend more time in the Cape Flats (+27 21 531 4291).

Time to come - Summer is King, but not necessarily ideal. Between 8am - 5pm the sunlight is usually harsh, photographically. Expect to get up very early (say 4.30am) for sunrise pics. Tourist crowds can be overbearing by 9am at most popular destinations. I would suggest Autumn and Spring as better times. Because accommodation and airfares are cheaper, the light is nicer and the crowds have blissfully gone home. Personally I love winter, with low sun and imposing clouds, meaning of course that Table Mountain might not be visible for a week!

Crime - During the last 11 years I've been robbed 4 times and assaulted twice in London (lived in the east end), robbed at knifepoint twice in one night at Barcelona and witnessed a fatal stabbing in Frankfurt. In my 6 years at Cape Town, I've not been a victim of any threatening crime. Sure it's a serious issue here, but don't let the often contorted crime statistics and fear dwelling stories deny you an opportunity of visiting this beautiful place. The risk of crime here is actually low, if you use common sense and take reasonable precautions. Not to say you need to hide in you hotel either, there are a number of busy areas where you can safely be til the wee hours.

Shopping for photo gear etc - True things can be expensive and I agree with Philip that you should come well packed. There are however bargains to be found. South Africa's weakened currency is good news for Visitors armed with a strong currency. Particularly considering that you're entitled to a 15% VAT Refund and prices are negotiable. For example, I can currently buy a new Canon 1Ds Mark III for R67000. Less 15%, this equates to US$7530, Adorama's list price is $7999. Not bad eh? Just keep in mind that prices can vary dramatically, inflation threatens and businesses can be fickle. There is only one reputable pro photo store in Cape Town (Orms www.orms.co.za), the rest are mainly in Johannesburg. If you are serious about potentially picking up any gear, maybe try negotiating prices before you come.

Oops did i really write this much!? Just a little too enthusiastic, Cheers

Thakur Dalip Singh , May 18, 2008; 01:41 P.M.

I want to photograph this city from air , pl tell how much it costs for small plane and a helicopter ride.

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Frank Moody , June 01, 2008; 02:48 P.M.

If you want to take photo's from the sky I recommend the Cape Town Flying Club. You can contact them via www.capetownflyingclub.co.za

They have prices on the website

Marc Hermann , June 02, 2008; 03:25 P.M.

Friends took my girlfriend and me to the beach in Hout Bay (where they live) for a swim and later we went up Chapman's Peak Drive to have a picknick and watch the sunset. A highly recommended addition to all the "classic" sightseeing.

Chris Malcolm , June 07, 2008; 05:22 A.M.


Waddling friends at Simonstown...

GEORGE OSBORNE , June 20, 2008; 12:55 P.M.

I really appreciated all of the comments and tips. I will be spending two weeks in SA commencing 9 Jan 2009. I will be spending 4 nights in CP, then spend 10 days driving through the garden route etc to Port Elizabeth and tips on photo shoot locations would be much appreciated.

John Finkelde , June 27, 2008; 05:38 A.M.


Cape Town train

I was in Cape Town a few months ago & the opportunities for photography are stunning. Clouds were hanging off the mountains on the day & provided some rich pics The coast road on the bay side has some ideal spots Check out my Cape Town pics @ FLickr if you like http://www.flickr.com/photos/finkelde/sets/72157604893692709/

Zara Bowmar , September 07, 2011; 06:09 P.M.

If you are in Cape Town and interested in photography I would recommend taking a day trip with local photographer James Gradwell as he does excellent tours, knows all the locations intimately and will offer local insight - http://www.photographytours.co.za/about.php


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