I should say first of all that I am a studio and commercial
photographer and not previously a street shooter. Having seen the work of some
great street shooters I really fancied giving it a go and Cuba seemed like a
great place to start. For this reason we thought we'd spend a week mostly in
Havana it's self and that there would be more than enough to keep us busy for a
week or more.
Why Havana? Well it's a unique environment with a particular
history. Interesting mix of people, architecture and of course music, and it's
one of the safest places in the Caribbean. Like many of my age I knew something
of the Cuba missile crisis and how close we all came to an end, but I knew
little of the Spanish colonisation and the original revolution long before
Castro. There is masses of material on youtube if you want to do some research
before you go.
First lets get some non photography practicalities out of the
How to get
there and where to stay
We booked a flight with Virgin from Gatwick as I had enough airmiles and
then worried about where to stay. You won't find hotels on Hotels.com etc at
all and after looking nervously at unknown Havana hotels web site we found that
Virgin Holidays offered hotel bookings in Havana and went for that. Of course
you could book the whole thing from Virgin and then they might take care of
your transfer from airport to your hotel. If you need to take a taxi then
agree the cost first. 25 CUC at time of writing. The taxi will be knackered and
you may get gassed on the way but it's only a 20 min journey. Open the window
and then you'll only be partly gassed.
I would recommend that you stay in or on the border of the
old part of Havana. It's a world heritage site. We did see some larger hotels
out on the newer side of the city and they looked awful and were too far from
things interesting. This is somewhere you need to walk and the old town is
built like many on a grid and mostly surrounded by the harbour and Malacon sea
wall so it'd difficult to get lost. We did not use a guide.
We looked at review on trip adviser and ended up staying at
the Hotel Telegrapho which is smallish, very well located near the Capitolio
and the Prado. It was clean, comfortable and safe and not too expensive.
Here is a rooftop snapshot of our hotel 'Telegrapho' with the Opera house/Theatre behind and the Capitolio building behind that. A great location. There is a smarter hotel across the road (Park Hotel) that would be good for a bigger budget or just reasonably good restaurant.
Eating in your hotel or elsewhere will not be a great
experience. Service is OK but the food is very so so and you won't find great
supermarkets or a seven eleven. If you want to have any luxuries food wise then
be sure to take them with you and enough to keep you going. You are not going
to Cuba for the food but don't worry as everything else will make up for it.
This looked good and was in one of the very few beautiful restaurant but unfortunately it tasted not so good.
There are two currencies in Cuba, the CUP and CUC. You will
only be interested in the CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency) as CUP are for
locals. You can only get your CUC at the
airport when you arrive or later in some hotels or Banks. You should get the
same rate everywhere and of course you need to change some at the airport so
that you can at least pay for your taxi or tip someone in your hotel. Don't
change money anywhere else or be suckered by Cubans offering a good rate. You
may get CUP in return and they are only worth about 25 CUP to one CUC. American
linked cards such as Amex or even MBNA won't be accepted in CUBA so take cash
and keep it in your hotel safe.
One CUC at time of writing is worth 75p. Everywhere we went
we got back CUC in exchange but there are warnings to watch out for being given
CUP in return to I checked out the look of the notes on line before we went. In
the end it was no trouble.
Havana has both 110v and higher but chargers cope with this
of course. I took both two pin round and two pin flat adaptors and found that
our hotel room had a couple of each socket type.
Cubans are a great people and mostly proud of Cuba and the
revolution but relatively poor. They have free education including University and
medical care too but not so much else. There are still ration books of a sort
and you may find a few asking for money but no worse than many other places.
Cubans are an interesting mixture of Africans, Spanish and
even Chinese. The climate is great and the dress reflects this but with bright
We did get bothered by people offering taxi rides of various
sorts or advice on where to go etc but this is normal is many places in the
world for tourists and I just have a policy of smiling and waving my hand in a
sort of 'No thanks' way. I hardly ever respond to the 'Where are you from' or
'Happy holidays' as this only results in getting drawn into a possible unwanted
situation but it's really not a problem and we always felt safe and these
people are in a minority of course.
Kit to take
for Street Shooting
I had recently changed my Nikon D3x and back-up D700 for two
D800s. There had been a lot of initial reaction and chat about the camera being
a studio and landscape photographers camera and best used on a tripod. I guess
coming from the D3x and being predominantly a studio photographer this did not
phase me but i seldom use a tripod as my style is quite fluid and I did
experience some camera shake issues in early use. This is partly i decided as
it's less noticeable with less pixels previously but the problem seemed to go
away with some slight shooting technique changes and more care with shutter
There was also concern that it would not be good enough for
high ISO work under low light but this proved to not be a problem and even
pushing up to 64000 when required was good.
So for me taking a D800 was easy and it being so much lighter
than the D3x was great. Of course I took extra batteries but I didn't need to
take the spare out each day so I could have just got by without if I had
charged each night. If it had been a paid job I would have taken the second
camera but it wasn't.
I took a carbon fibre tripod which stayed in the hotel room
This is a struggle to decide for all of us I guess unless you
are happy with a 28-200 or 28-300 type of zoom. I can't do this. A good while
ago I had a Nikon 28-200 or whatever it was on a D300 before the D700 came out
and it was quite a shock when I decided to dump it and go for the 24-70 f2.8
when I moved to full frame. The shock was the increase in quality and detail
and who wants to go back from there? The increase in quality can not be traded
for the flexibility of the zoom I am afraid.
So what to take if you have the choice to chose from? The
24-70 f2.8 is an easy choice for me but what about the 70-210? Bigger and
heavier and I want to have ALL my camera gear as carry on luggage and Virgin
insist on weighing your carry on luggage and not being over. I think that the
answer to should you take the 70-210 is to first answer the question of what
sort of street shooter are you?
Some very noted street photographers seldom engage with their
subjects and I would say that they may be shy or just not want to engage. There
is a problem too that if you do engage with subjects that you get unnatural
smiley expressions without the character and mood you first saw and attracted
you. It can also have the side effect of breaking the strong link between the
subject and the environment that you were ideally after.
If you are the sort that is going to work in a more anonymous
way and not engage with your subjects much then the 70-210 or longer may be a
good idea as you can stay relatively remote and unnoticed. I decided to be
braver and be noticed if need be and engage. It's difficult for me to do as I
am a little shy myself but the results can make it very work while. More on
I decided that I would take only one other lens (other than
the 24-70) . There are many times travelling before that I have taken more lens
only to find that they stayed in the hotel room as I didn't want to carry them
walking all day and these was the added problem that you can only get so much
in the small hotel safe. My 14-24 being a good example. Fantastic lens and does
what's needed when the 24 end of my 24-70 does not cope with small spaces but
it is big and heavy.
In the end I decided between my 50 or 85 1.4s so that I would
have something fast and not take a flash. Since I love portraiture and had only
just recently got the Nikon 85mm f1.4 I took this as my second lens.
What you want to shoot is obviously your own personal
interest and taste. For instance, lots of photographers are attracted by all the
old American classic cars that have been around from before the revolution and
keen getting repaired one way or another.
Some will find the few best examples
and shoot them as the complete subject but I prefer the slightly rougher ones
that are either moving or at least in their classic Cuban street look
environment. Also lots of photographers are not comfortable shooting people and
certainly not if they are going to be noticed. Some photographers will stick to
architecture and there is lots of old and often decaying beautiful architecture
to be had.
I love photographing people but shooting strangers as you see
or meet them is very different from shooting professional models. The whole
relationship is different and of course with the professional model you all
know why you are there even if you don't quite agree on style. But as I said at
the outset I was determined to be brave and go for shots with interesting
subjects. I still took some candid shots when it was easy and the opportunity
came but also i did not shrink back from being cheeky or asking subjects if I
could shoot them. Inevitably I still wished after an opportunity had gone that
I did not push ever further in and take more time to think and exploit the
On the whole, Cubans don't mind being photographed but in
many cases a one CUC tip afterward or in the middle of shooting keeps things
extra friendly. Tipping one CUC now and again easies access everywhere. If you
are going to make yourself seen or ask before hand then you have to be ready to
go further if required. The last thing you want is a lot of inane smiles. You
may need to move your subject out of the sun into the shade or under something
so that you can change the direction of the light and like me you might not
In my experience, not speaking the local language is not a
problem. All you need is a smile and a bit of a demonstration. While shooting a
ballet dancer briefly who had a gummy grin I used my fingers to show my own
face smiling to a more serious look and it works mostly. Maybe not completely
if you have her fellow students behind you trying to get her to laugh though.
Of course you can't completely avoid shooting your partner in
front of the cathedral and getting more touristy shots but as long as you know
whether you are doing good tourist photographer or creative artist then that's
So for me I love the old city of Havana and the whole
environment , but better still to shoot the people within that environment and
then throw in a bit of portraiture as well.
Where to go
Of course you can look in the guide book and see the top 10
places to visit in Havana and surprise surprise they are mostly in the old part
of the city apart from Revolution square which is best driven through without
wasting too much time.
What we found is that while the top 10 is good we found a
means of access to many more and sometimes even more interesting buildings that
had no other tourists at the time and did not have museum guides bothering you
for tips. Buildings in use with interesting furnishings and surprises. In one
case we were shown up to an open top floor to find a world class orchestra practicing
and us able to sit and listen or take photographs as preferred.
Generally we were not told that we could not take photographs
or use a tripod as is the case in so many parts of the world. We did find that
instructions occasionally to not take photographs or go to a certain place were
a bit arbitery and trying again later proved to be no problem.
The real trick is hang around at the door of interesting
buildings that are not on the list or just go in and wait till you are stopped.
Often we found the most spectacular and interesting places this way. Often the
door guard would beckon us in and show us around at our own pace and encourage
us to shoot as we wanted. They would even take us up on a roof for a fantastic
view. Then we would tip them the one CUC with a smile and thank you and
generally feel lucky.
We wanted to get into the building where the ballet and
theatre are staged. A spectacular old building and were denied access. the next
day we tried again and was told we could get a ticket for two CUC to see
around. We were then taken around by a guide into the spectacular theatre with
no one else present. We were then taken into this part of the building to our surprise.
I thought that I recognised parts of it from the scene from the Buena Vista
Social Club film where the young ballet students surrounded the practising
I had then one of my better moments as I heard the sound of
what I guessed was ballet students practising and went to investigate in what
was otherwise a very large and deserted building apart from my wife and our
guide. I found some students and asked if I could shoot them.
I wished afterwards that I had asked them to dance for me a
bit while I shot them. Very poor light but otherwise a great opportunity and of
course i gave them politely a few CUC.
Tours and getting out of Havana.
I generally avoid tours. We looked at them and they tended to
take you around Havana to places you could easily walk to yourself and they
were still expensive. Also I like to move at my own speed and take time
shooting when I want and the tour does not help this. If you want to photograph
is an official cigar factory then you can't. It's not allowed. There are
factories for cigars and rum in town but you need to get into the countryside
if you want to see this.
We took one tour out of the city and it was surprisingly
good. IT took us to a cigar factory in
the country, a tobacco plantation and various other sites and we weren't continually
sold to or stopped off at shops as so often happens. I got some great images on
We also took on one of our last days the hop on open top bus.
Often a recommended thing to do on the first day. This bus is interesting but
only if you have seen the best parts in the old town as it won't take you there
and it is more like a circuit of the outerparts and newer parts of the city and
These three guys were happy to have thier photograph taken. I guess the rum they had been drinking kept them nice and relaxed. Cool. I saw them from a distance and had to run to head them off and ask them.
The colours of the buildings are beautiful. Either because of
the natural effects of decay and age or because they have painted them bright
If you have any questions then do ask and maybe I can cover
something further here but I strongly recommend a visit.