A photographers's guide to Street shooting in Havana, Cuba.


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 way.

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.
Food

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.

Money
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.
Plug type

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.
The people

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 colours.
 


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 speed.
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 most days.

What lens' to take?
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 this later.

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 to shoot?
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 opportunities better.

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 speak Spanish.

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 fine.
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 pianist.

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 this trip.

 
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.
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 at speed.

The colours of the buildings are beautiful. Either because of the natural effects of decay and age or because they have painted them bright colours.
 
If you have any questions then do ask and maybe I can cover something further here but I strongly recommend a visit.

Mark
www.markfiddian.com