How to Capture images of Cuba with Your Camera

Cuba is one of the most photogenic locations on the planet. With a unique, gritty atmosphere, welcoming people and a colorful, pulsating culture, Cuba is truly a photographer’s dream destination. It is a street photography heaven. While we’ve all seen images of Cuba full of the old American cars there is so much more: the magnificent architecture, the history mingling with the present and the faces of its people. Because Espiritu Travel focuses on the real Cuba, I was able to get places in the Caribbean nation that few other tours visit.

In 2017 Espiritu Travel will launch photography trips to Cuba.

How can you best tell the story of your journey and capture the most excellent images of Cuba possible?

Photography Trips to Cuba

Equipment

First of all, go light on equipment. You don’t need much for great photos and lugging around expensive, heavy gear isn’t fun. I suggest a digital SLR with an optical viewfinder. Both my Nikon D3000 and D7000 served me perfectly while in Cuba but I’d make a strong argument for small and discrete compact cameras that help you blend into the crowd. I honestly love many of the shots from my smart phone.

For lenses you will want a fast-focusing wide-angle as your main lens. The wide angle has a greater depth of field so that more of your capture will be in focus. Fixed lenses are also good to have on hand. They focus much faster than your zoom lens and they are good in low light situations. And batteries. At times it may be challenging to find a working outlet where you can charge your camera battery so having a backup or even two is a must while in Cuba. Finally, bring a giant stack of memory cards and change them out frequently. The chances of your camera being stolen in Cuba are very small but if it were you wouldn’t want to lose all your images.

Photography Trips to Cuba

Settings

While I have nothing against the automatic setting on cameras you will be able to get your best and most creative images if you take your camera off of manual. I promise. But then what? Well, the light in Cuba is incredibly strong so you’ll want to set your ISO to 100. The ISO sets the amount of light you want in your picture. A lower ISO will also eliminate the amount of “noise” in your image. Some street photographers suggest setting your camera on shutter-priority mode in order to avoid any blur in your pictures. Others suggest going aperture-priority mode and letting the camera choose the shutter speed. I prefer setting both shutter and aperture myself. Without a doubt that means that I miss some shots while I’m messing with the camera but it also means I have far more control over my shots and I’m much happier with my captures. Experiment with this and see what works best for you.

Photography Trips to Cuba

Dos not Don’ts

There are so many “rules” for street photography it borders on ridiculous. Many of them are contradictory and many just don’t make sense. Everyone has an opinion and my opinion is this: break every rule you can. Having said that I offer you this DO list to help you start out:

  • Remember that you’re capturing ideas and emotions.
  • Take your camera everywhere. Period. Cuba is one of those places where there is a surprise at every turn.
  • Be on your toes. What is going on around you? What is coming? Be observant and prepared to act quickly. Cuba is always on the move and the scene changes by the second.
  • Simple compositions. Consider what elements are necessary to convey the message you’re trying to capture in your image.
  • Get close.
  • Sit still. A café or park bench offers you the chance to observe the scene and people watch. Let the picture come to you. Cubans are so friendly you have the opportunity to meet people by just sitting there.
  • Move around. Go find your image.
  • Shoot all day. And night. Without a doubt the light just before and after sunrise and sunset is best but life doesn’t stop in the middle of the day or at night. Take advantage of the arc of the day and all the changing scenes that come with it.
  • Be creative. Think outside of the box. Given that there are no real rules to street photography try to evoke ideas and emotions in new ways. Shoot from behind, from below, from above, without people, out of focus, with flash.
  • Have fun. Photography is fun. Don’t lose that.

images of cuba

No Fear

Ok. I’ll be honest. I’m freaked literally every single time I step out on the street to take pictures of people. I would even argue that being a good street photographer has much more to do with guts than it does with skill. While on the Nature of Cuba tour with Espiritu Travel’s expert guides I was able to see just how friendly Cubans are. Take the time to strike up a conversation with someone. Compliment them. Be curious and ask questions. Most people love to have their picture taken. Those that don’t will generally just wave you off and walk away. You’re not going to die.

Finally, never fail to consider that at times the key ingredient to great street photography is just a bit of alcohol to take the edge off. Cuban rum works nicely.

Photography Trips to Cuba

Permission

As with the supposed “rules” of street photography there is a ton of debate around getting permission when taking photographs of people. I prefer getting permission if I can. You can’t always but it is the respectful thing to do. One thing to consider is how you would feel being photographed. Would you want your photograph taken without permission? In Trinidad I stuck my face into a hair salon and asked if I could take a picture. The hairdresser didn’t mind but the woman having her hair done did and wanted face covered. It was good thing I asked first – and it actually made the image even better.

If I think the moment might be fleeting I will take the photograph and then go ask permission. There is often a benefit to asking permission. People are often stunned by the request and the looks on their faces priceless. Other times they will pose in a manner that reflects very deeply on who they are. Have your settings ready so you don’t miss the shot and simply ask.

One way to break down barriers and build a rapport with someone you want to photograph is to first ask them to take a picture of you. The back-and-forth of it can be outrageously fun and the results surprising.

As a parent, I’m very sensitive about photographing children. If I caught some dude from China or France snapping shots of my kids I’d fly off the handle. So I am sure to ask the parents of kids before I ever pull out the camera. There are special cases to be sure. For example the photo below of boys on the street in Old Havana. They begged me for a photo. They wouldn’t let me go. So I took it and showed them. I loved the shot as much as they did. Then I asked them if I could talk to their mom. They led me home where I showed her the photo, told her what I was doing and asked for her permission. I told her I’d delete it if she wanted. Luckily she didn’t mind because it is a great shot.

Be honest with the person you ask, hand them your card, make eye contact….and remember that no means no.

Photography Trips to Cuba

Ethics

For me, street photography requires some give and take. You’re not only capturing moments, you are taking something from the people in the photos. So it is important to give back. In Trinidad I took a number of images of some fantastically photogenic musicians. I paid them back by purchasing their CD.

More and more Cubans have email so offering to email them a copy of the photo you took is increasingly an option. Actually using snail mail to do the same is also an option.

A friend of mine from Canada suggested taking a Polaroid camera, something I will be sure to do next time I go to Cuba. That way, when I’m asking Cubans to give something to me in the form of a photo I can give them something back, an instant image of themselves.

Patience and Experience

In the end remember this. Good photography is a skill you develop with time and practice. Go easy on yourself. Develop your eye. Grow your confidence. And have fun.

There is no place better for this than Cuba.

Contact Espiritu Travel for more information on the upcoming 2017 photography trips to Cuba.

Photography Trips to Cuba

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Freelance journalist and photographer Jim O’Donnell lives in Taos, New Mexico. Visit him at Around the World in Eighty Years and Jim O’Donnell Photography.

Upcoming Photography Trips to Cuba – Custom Tours

How to Capture images of Cuba with Your Camera
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