Tips for Shooting Cuba: A Photographer’s Guide

Photographers have no excuse not to capture Cuba’s unique character and its people before they change. Cuba is now open to Americans. A steady stream of tourists is arriving on the Caribbean island, which is less than an hour from Miami. The stream is expected to soon become a torrent, with the possibility that this beautiful island will be awakened and transformed by globalization as well as the forces of homogeneity.

Here are my recommendations for serious shutterbugs, having led three Cuban photography tours in the past year.

Street scenes

You’ll find fascinating subjects on almost every street in Cuba. You’ll see people fishing in Havana at dawn, young people enjoying the cool evening air, and boys jumping into the Caribbean on warm days. You’ll see the old glory of Havana’s grand old buildings. Some are currently being restored. You’ll also find stunning examples of colonial architecture outside of Havana in Cienfuegos and brightly painted houses on the streets of Vinales. Also, some of the most well-preserved early architecture on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad. Look out for street art and murals, which is a Cuban specialty.

These street scenes can be captured with one lens. A zoom lens is preferably 24mm to 200mm. This will allow you to easily frame your composition. It is best to start with an overview shot, or establishing shot, that conveys the location. Next, you can add vignettes that highlight a specific aspect of the scene. You can’t make the buildings or streets disappear so take your time and evaluate the lighting conditions. You can also choose to walk on the dark side of the street.

People:

You’ll find people of all ages everywhere you go. These people are often very charming and you will want to improve your social skills. People are generally very friendly and willing to help so get close. You can ask permission if you wish or point at your camera with a smile to ensure you have a willing subject. You can find a short list of Spanish phrases that will help you.

People will be seen walking along the streets performing different tasks, such as sitting in doors or on steps. You should try to get a variety shots. Take photos that show the people in their environment and close up. Make sure you are aware of the background so that it doesn’t distract your subject. You might want to blur out busy scenes so that the subject is clear.

While you can take candid shots of people, don’t be afraid to pose them. You may need to position your subject slightly to one side or the other to create a more dramatic background or evocative lighting. You don’t have to do this. Another option is to create a backdrop or setting that allows you to capture people walking or riding by. It’s amazing how many subjects you will see and you’ll be ready for them.

Motion

You don’t have to stick to stationary subjects. There’s so much to photograph in Cuba. You’ll see many people walking and children playing on the streets of Havana. There are also bicycle rickshaws, big cars, and old cars going down the street. Horse-drawn carts will be seen whizzing down Vinales’ streets, as well as ox-carts and caballeros riding on horseback in the surrounding countryside. You’ll see motorbikes and bicycles cruising along the cobblestone streets in Trinidad.

Cuba is well-known for its creativity and sporting activities. There will be musicians at many street bars and restaurants. So take a photo and enjoy the sounds and rhythms. You can capture the graceful movements of ballet, or the expressive gyrations and folk dances. To channel your inner sports photographer, you can visit a boxing club or watch a baseball game.

These types of motion can be captured using a fast shutter speed (at minimum 1/500th second) to freeze it. Or a slower shutter speed (1/60th seconds) to capture partial blurred or pan-with your subject’s movements. You can experiment with these techniques to find the best results.

Landscapes

You should visit Cuba’s amazing World Heritage landscapes if you travel by car. You can find a beautiful valley just outside Vinales, right by Los Jazmines resort. It is particularly lovely at sunrise and sunset. You can see the limestone formations in the valley if you are able to get inside. If you spot a stunning landscape in beautiful lighting, you can stop your car and get out of the way. Keep in mind that light is what creates the landscape. Pay attention to the way the clouds affect the scene and incorporate them into your composition.

Interiors

My groups were able to visit artists’ studios, farmers at their tobacco sheds, as well as families in old Havana buildings. These are great opportunities to see Cuba’s real side and have informative conversations. You can also look for unusual compositions if you’re staying in a casa particulares (like a bed and breakfast). If you are in these situations, I suggest working with the available lighting and setting your ISO to adjust if needed rather than activating your flash.

Get ready to embark on an unforgettable photographic adventure in Cuba.