Photographing Johannesburg, The City of Gold

Guide books often praise Johannesburg – also known as Joburg, Jozi, or the City of Gold – for its pulsating energy, its diversity, and the warm openness of its people. But Joburg’s physical beauty is one of its best-kept secrets. Despite its reputation as drab and grungy, Joburg is actually a gorgeous, photogenic city.

Joburg’s beauty takes a bit of effort to capture though. Here are a few tips for taking great pictures in the City of Gold.

Find the skyline. Joburg’s skyline is its most iconic feature. The densely packed buildings of downtown Joburg include the Hillbrow Tower, a needle-like phone tower that is the highest structure in Africa, and the avant-garde, cigar-shaped Ponte City, a 50-story residential block once known for its notorious crime.

One of the best things about the Joburg skyline, besides its striking uniqueness, is the striking number of vantage points from which to view it. Joburg is a hilly city, built along the Witwatersrand ridge, and the leafy surrounding suburbs provide skyline views at countless different angles and elevations. Some of the best places to see and photograph the Joburg skyline include the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve, James & Ethel Gray Park, the Northcliff Ridge Ecopark, Langeman’s Kop in Kensington, the Troyeville Hotel, and Yeoville Ridge on Highland Street in Yeoville.

Pim street

Pim Street, Johannesburg (Photo by Heather Mason)

Follow the light. With its ultra-fast pace and moderate weather, it’s easy to forget that Joburg is in Africa. To be reminded, look up at the sky. Joburg skies are spectacular in summer, with wild cloud formations lit up in every color of the rainbow. In winter the Joburg sky is stark and cloudless, with the smudge of pollution along the horizon creating unusual light conditions at sunrise and sunset.

Joburg’s dramatic light is perfect for landscape photography, but only when the sun is low. Joburg is one of sunniest cities on earth and the bright midday rays create harsh shadows that make photography challenging. So get up early or stay out late. Bring a tripod for long-exposure shots as day melds into night.

Aim high. Joburg is home to the tallest buildings in Africa; take advantage of them. The Carlton Centre, right in the heart of town, is the continent’s highest office building. Even with its perpetually dirty windows, the Carlton Centre’s “Top of Africa” skydeck provides 360-degree views that are perfect for late-afternoon photography.

Other buildings with a view include Randlords (check the website for public events), the Elevate venue at the Reef Hotel, and the Living Room café at the top of the Main Change building in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct.

Get down to street level. Joburg is a great place for photography on the ground, too. Joburgers are known for their friendliness and are usually open to being photographed. Book a walking tour, get out onto the streets, and talk to people. Strike up conversations and ask to take a photo. More often than not, the answer will be an enthusiastic yes. Just be courteous and ask before clicking.

In addition to photogenic people, keep an eye out for photogenic graffiti. Joburg has a thriving graffiti and street art scene, both downtown and in the suburbs. Graffiti murals provide the perfect backdrop for street photography.

For great street photography, try Braamfontein – one of Joburg’s top hipster hangouts – on a Saturday morning. Or explore the graffiti-covered walls on Pim Street and Gwigwi Mrwebi Street in Newtown, just around the corner from Museum Africa.

People shebeen

People outside a Johannesburg shebeen (Photo by Heather Mason)

Be safe. But also be bold. Photographers in Joburg, locals and visitors alike, are often afraid to take to the streets with their cameras for fear they will become victims of crime. But Joburg is as safe as any other big city if you exercise a few simple precautions.

First and foremost, be aware of your surroundings. Even while taking pictures, take note of what’s happening around you and make friendly eye contact with passersby. Don’t carry too much equipment or a flashy camera bag, and leave other valuables at home. There’s safety in numbers so gather a group together for your photowalks. Don’t walk the streets at night and store your camera out of sight while driving, preferably in the trunk.

Crime can happen any time and anywhere in Joburg – from the posh gated complexes of Sandton to the frenetic city streets of Yeoville and Hillbrow. So have your wits about you, no matter where you are.

Most importantly: Be cautious but not afraid. Relax and have fun. Great pictures are born from great experiences and life is too short to live in fear.

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