A Photography Guide to Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap Neighborhood
There is plenty to see and to photograph in Bo-Kaap. Located in between Cape Town city centre and the foot of Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood was first developed in the 1760s by Dutch colonialist Jan de Waal, who built a series of small rental houses to provide accommodation for the city’s Cape Malay slaves. These days it is better known as the most Instagrammable place in the country, thanks to its pastel and primary coloured houses and picturesque little side streets.
The oldest existing building in Bo-Kaap was built by Jan and now houses the Bo-Kaap Museum, an obvious starting place for any new visitor to the neighbourhood however it is also located on the busiest street (Wale street) which can make photography tough.
People are going about their daily lives, rushing around (or not in many cases) and won’t “just move” for you, so being patient is key to taking good photographs in this colourful suburb. However, there are also many tour buses and visitors wanting “that photo” for their Instagram feed as well as locals, so bear this in mind.
With Bo-Kaap being the oldest Muslim community in the country, residents have consistently called for the area to be given heritage status as the nearby high-rise developments clash with the area’s traditional history. You can read more about the appeal and the on-goings talks here.
Whilst in Bo-Kaap recently I was approached by the kind guys over at “I love Cape Town” who kindly pointed out that the area is NOT always as safe as you initially think and that you need to remind yourself this if you plan on visiting the area.
The suburb is a former township, which still plays host to some extremely poor residents and crime in the area is still common place but only if you are not keeping your wits about you and looking after your gear.
During our visit many of the kind residents also made us aware of this - pointing out not to do things like leave the camera on a tripod one side of the road while you are on the opposite path (whilst shooting on a timer mode for a selfie for example) so to make sure you have one person on the tripod/camera all the time - this means if you are alone, asking another tourist to take your photo - or simply don’t bother!
If you decide to explore Bo-Kaap independently, bear in mind that this neighbourhood (like most areas of the city) is safest during the daylight hours. If you plan on being there after dark, it’s best to go with a group. Ladies should dress conservatively in Bo-Kaap, in line with Muslim custom.
Here are some of the tips that “I love Cape Town” shared with me:
BEST TIME OF DAY
I visited Bo-Kaap twice, the first time was just after arriving in Cape Town in late January and I assumed the best thing to do to avoid the cars and people was to go early, sunrise for example. However, I am informed now that honestly, it makes no difference especially when it comes to cars as they will still be parked in front of houses and on pathways.
However, if you have a while in the city try heading for your day out here under cloud or on a bad weather day (possibly even a rain threatened day), by doing this you will avoid harsh light and shadows on the buildings, which was a feature of my first visit. The second time I visited it was a day that was bright but with a lot of cloud cover available which I think greatly assisted me.
STRAIGHT LINES WHERE POSSIBLE
If you see something that you like the look of take your time and try to keep your lines straight as this makes the image more appealing, nobody likes leaning buildings. This keystone effect is to be avoided where possible, unless used creatively.
The term “keystone effect” is used in photography to describe the apparent leaning of buildings towards the vertical centre line of the photo when shooting upwards - this does not tend to look pleasing (all the time).
I have placed an example below to help you know exactly what I am talking about:
Try to avoid shooting upwards towards buildings, it does create a somewhat “falling away effect” - similar to that shown here.
Despite cutting the roof out of the frame - shooting straight at the next building makes for a much more pleasing image. Natural to the eye.
LOOK FOR COMPLIMENTARY COLOURS
The thing to look out for whilst photographing Bo-Kaap are the lines, shapes and colours that complement one another in and around the streets - keep an eye out for these all the time.
For those of you that don’t know, complementary colours are two colours that are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. You can read more about this on a great article that I found online here.
As a photographer in Bo-Kaap understanding this will instantly help you attain better shots, as complementary colours can make each other appear brighter, and cleaner. In the film industry for example, producers use blue and orange tones a lot as these colours complement one another (although they tend to lean on the teal and burnt orange tones - but the same technique applies).
I also found using a dark colour next to a light or bright colour worked particularly well also, as you can see in a few of the examples on this post.
SHAPES & PATTERNS
I was always on the look out for shapes and patterns around the streets of Bo-Kaap. However getting images that are pleasing sometimes required a little work in camera or through post-processing, as mentioned below.
I cropped this image in post processing to eliminate the “ugly” door below in my shot. Thus creating a nicer image overall.
Shooting the details is a great idea in Bo-Kaap. No need to get the huge wide angle shots in all the time. I liked this subtle shot.
I liked the zig-zag pattern on each of the left and right staircase, this lead to an even image and it becomes pleasing on the eye.
A FEW MORE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
I would say 75% of my images were shot hand-held. Sometimes the streets are just too busy to get a tripod out and you must be quick to grab some shots that look better without the people in (such as face or square on).
Take some images with the residents in the frame if possible, use the fact they are around to your advantage. I even asked one lady if she could return to her doorway to “pose” for me to make the image seem somewhat more authentic. She obliged, for the small price of 10 South African Rand, I think it makes the image better.
You can decide as I have placed both below:
Without the resident.
With the resident in the doorway.
I loved the kids playing in this image taken outside the museum on Wale Street. I was trying to compose though without the gentleman on the left in the frame - but things change quickly in Bo-Kaap.
WANT A BITE TO EAT?
We grabbed a burger in Batavia, and it was decent but more importantly, allowed for yet more photography opportunities just outside.
Batavia is a collaboration between chefs, coffee drinkers and many human beings (according to their website), Batavia is where Cape Town pays homage to Cape Malay cuisine and the menu varies based on conversations with local farms so expect to see new surprises whenever you visit.
There is one shot, or two depending if you like to capture portraits as well that is VERY famous in the Instagram circles. It is a shot that that has a lime green and a pink house behind a stunning old blue car - trust me, if you look on the social media platform you will find it. It has been parked outside the same houses since early 2018.
However, the locals know this is a popular spot, and occasionally use this to their advantage. Some of the tricks used to abstract cash from tourists including parking vans or cars right in front of the blue car so that you ask them to move - which they of course will do, for a fee. Also you need to be on high alert around this area, this is situated on the main street, Wale Street and beggars, touts and a lot of theft does occur here.
To save you looking for the car, I have pinned it for you through Google Maps, so if you are wanting to save time on location you can find the exact location by clicking here.
I did pay a guy 30 rand to move his van for us, and that gave me around 20 minutes of shooting time before the area was flooded with tourists who then spotted the car was “visible”. To be honest I didn’t have to get the gentleman to move his van, I liked a shot I managed to grab prior to the van moving which was shot at an angle.
You can see this image below:
MY FAVORITE 3 DETAIL IMAGES
I thoroughly enjoyed shooting Bo-Kaap and really loved my images once looking through them back in the apartment. One of the main reasons I love photography is to show colour, nearly all of my images are shot with colour in mind. But I also loved to shoot the details, this is something that I fail to do often.
There were plenty of options to make this final cut of three that I liked, but these are the three I have chosen and why:
I love the tones of this image, oh and the plant is cool!
I love the colour combination once more here, easy to tell apart and really complement one another.
I spotted this image just before leaving to head to the coast. I liked the red leading through to the green and the street sign in the left on brown.
FROM THE AIR
To compliment the set, I undertook a little drone mission using my DJI Mavic Pro 2 to get over a safe area, towards the back of the district there is a very dirty park. I used this as a launch pad to send my Mavic up over my head, to get two or three shots and to get in back down again. My real concern here was to avoid being seen and showcasing more kit to the locals, thankfully this all went to plan.
These are the two images I shot from the air which show the surrounding development to its full extent, keep an eye out for my Youtube content to see some video clips in the coming weeks:
I shot these images with the following gear: (please be aware that these are affiliate links , by using them, if you purchase equipment or goods it costs you nothing more but I do receive a little kick back which supports me and my work).
Two Lenses used for these images:
Don’t forget I used a drone:
And my NEW gimbal: