Photographer’s Guide to Dubai
Dubai. The name alone conjures images of fantastic feats of engineering, insane cars and unimaginable wealth. You can find all those of course but the city and surrounding region offer an incredible opportunity for photography.
Why visit Dubai?
Over the last 15 years or so, Dubai has made news in the Western world as stories of their shockingly ambitious engineering feats spread. From construction of man-made archipelagos and the self-declared only seven-star hotel in the world the world began to notice Dubai. They continue to build and the sites are incredible to see, the list of ‘biggest and most expensive’ now a very long list. Not all the news is positive though and the rapid construction has left stories of oppression and poor labor conditions in its wake.
A perceived absence of culture or boycotting countries with poor human rights records are the most common reasons I hear cited for avoiding Dubai. But there is so much more to Dubai than you may realize and I’ll highlight some of those here in my Photographer’s Guide to Dubai. In addition to photography opportunities the man-made wonders provide (and they are amazing) there is plenty else to keep a photographer busy.
Dubai is increasingly becoming a major airline hub. If you find yourself transiting through Dubai en-route to another destination it’s worth stopping for a few days to explore!
Places to go
As the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa is impossible to miss dwarfing every other skyscraper in Dubai. The tower, fountain and Dubai Mall have many great photography opportunities but finding a good angle can be tough. If you want to shoot the fountain, my advice is get high above the crowds from one of the restaurants with a view. Shooting from the observation deck of Burj Khalifa can offer tremendous views of the city but unless you visit in winter or summer, haze may obscure your shots. No tripods are allowed inside the Burj Khalifa or the mall but outside around the fountain you shouldn’t have any trouble.
If you like to shoot architecture, the interior of the Burj Al Arab has the most incredible design of any modern building I’ve seen. Gaining access to the building is restricted, only for guests or patrons of the restaurants but once inside you are free to walk around and take photos. The least expensive options for afternoon teas start at 400AED ($110USD) per person. The nearby Jumeirah Beach is open to the public and has great views of the exterior of the hotel and often great chances to photograph the mix of traditional culture and dress with modern architecture.
My favorite part of Dubai, this is a re-built area of Dubai near where Dubai was founded that was made to look like it did several centuries ago. Not only is there great, traditional food in the area but the narrow walkways of the neighborhood are great to shoot. Nearby you will find the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding which has tours and information centers for the public at specific times, photography is allowed inside. The Dubai museum is also nearby and the while the exhibits inside don’t offer many photo opportunities, the exterior is interesting.
One of the newest parts of Dubai, a small peninsula jam-packed with high end hotels, restaurants and shops. There are endless architecture photography possibilities and two walks with great people-watching and photography.
A very interesting part of Dubai, try to visit here in the evening. The boat taxis are only 5AED per trip and you’ll pass many photogenic sites, particularly as the sun sets and the sky turns colors. On the west edge where the boats leave there is a working textile market where you can photograph workers doing the grunt work that powers the city.
The most famous of the souks in Dubai (a market or bazaar) are the spice and gold souks East of Dubai creek. The spice souk is easily the more interesting of the two and I found the vendors friendly and willing to be photographed.
Take a tour out of the city to go ‘dune bashing’ where you take a ride in an SUV or Jeep way out of the city into the desert. There are many tour operators and options, look for a tour in the evening and that uses a Jeep for the best light and photo opportunities.
Other nearby trips
It’s well worth a day-trip to visit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. The tourism industry is not as built up as Dubai but they are quickly catching up. There are some great cultural sites here but the #1 attraction is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the $545 Million mammoth mosque that was recently completed. If visiting the mosque, don’t worry about what to wear when you go there, if your clothing is inappropriate they have traditional garments you can borrow and you won’t need to carry specific clothes with you the rest of the day.
Gear, luggage & clothing, what to bring?
Lens Choice: Looking back at my metadata from my trip, I used my Fujinon XF 14mm F2.8 R and Fujinon XF 35mm almost exclusively. You can certainly find reasons to use longer lenses but unless there is something specific you are looking to shoot, leave the telephoto lenses at home. Dubai is a place you could get away with just bringing a fixed-lens camera such as the Fujifilm X100T, maybe with the wide-angle converter.
Accessories: I’m a complete Mefoto tripod convert and brought my MeFoto Roadtrip Travel Tripod but in hindsight, I wish I had brought the tiny but capable Mefoto DayTrip Tripod as lugging around the full-size tripod didn’t seem fun while shooting before or after nice meals for instance. Most parts of Dubai are very nice, even in the cheaper parts of the city where many immigrant workers live you’ll see most people dressed nicely and looking sharp. A nice looking bag such as the Think Tank Retrospective 5 Shoulder Bag is perfect for Dubai and I never felt out of place with it in Dubai.
Unsurprisingly, Dubai and the rest of the UAE is really, really hot. If you’re travelling in the winter you can easily pick appropriate clothes and be comfortable (bring a jacket for the evenings.) But summer is challenging. While shorts aren’t exactly banned you may attract some negative attention or prohibited from entering certain restaurants and other locations. For men, it’s best even in summer to stick long pants (t-shirts are fine,) I like to use pants such as the Royal Robbins Men’s Global Traveler Stretch Pant which are both stylish enough and cool enough for places such as Dubai. Women can wear dresses or skirts but be sure they go past the knee, tops shouldn’t be revealing. In the UAE there isn’t a need for women to scarves or other head coverings outside of specific religious institutions. Both men and women can wear sandals anytime.
While you can rent a car in Dubai, unless you are venturing outside the city on your own there is no need. Parking is expensive or hard to find and taxis are fairly cheap and easy to find outside of rush hours. All the beige/red official taxis will have the same rates. Beware the black taxis leaving the airport as they will charge almost double the price for an ‘upscale’ ride that really offers a nearly identical experience. Dubai also has a fairly extensive bus system to complement the very useful metro system. Bus rates are 2AED (~$.55) and metro tram rates range from 2-8AED (~$.55-$2.20) and for both you use pre-paid cards that can be purchased at any bus/metro station. Details and a great app can be found on the RTA official site.
Where to stay
This is where Dubai can get expensive, really expensive. But it doesn’t have to be, there are some other options. In the section North-East from Dubai creek, the Deira neighborhood, you will less expensive hotels starting from around $50 per night that can be booked online. This portion of Dubai is connected to the rest very conveniently by the metro and also is a more interesting area to shoot photos in my opinion. If you have a larger budget there is an endless list of hotels to choose from, I’d look for something near the Burj Khalifa which is in the center off Dubai. Airbnb.com has a very large selection of apartments available. I think due to being primarily occupied by ex-pats, couchsurfing.com also has a very large community in Dubai which is how I stayed and it worked out great.
What to eat
As the number of tourists has increased, Dubai has begun to cater to every type of appetite – fresh food from around the world is flown in daily. Lebanese food has become the de facto national food in the UAE and one of my favorite restaurants is Wafi Gourmet. A reasonably-priced restaurant where you can eat delicious ‘meze’ outside while watching the Dubai Fountain, it’s a great place to spend an evening. For sushi, I found Bentoya to be the best and it’s also well-priced, located near the Burj Khalifa. Many inexpensive foods can be found in the area around ‘2nd of December Street.’ In the Bastakiya District, you can try fresh camel burgers or the delicious XVA Cafe which has unique items and many vegetarian options. All the major hotels in Dubai have several restaurants to choose from. Prices are much higher but these are also the only places you are permitted to buy alcoholic drinks.
Before you come, know this
Dubai is a very safe city. Violent crimes are very rare, the most common problems being pick-pockets or scammers. Stay away from drinking or being drunk in public, making negative comments about the UAE or any of the rulers of the Emirates. Common prescription drugs where you live may be illegal in UAE so carry a note about your prescription with you. Avoid public displays of affection, especially with partners of the same sex, all of which is illegal in public spaces.
Visitors from most industrialized countries receive a free 30-day visa on arrival. Check the Wikitravel article below for a complete list.
A few links you may find helpful