Photographing in Cuba

When I planned my trip to Cuba, I had very little idea what to expect as to what it’s like doing photography in Cuba. I posted to a couple of Flickr groups asking about photographing in Cuba, and received a few tips and suggestions, but still didn’t really know what to expect. This posting attempts to address some of the questions I had.

First of all, despite its authoritarian style of government, I never had any problem from officials as a foreigner taking pictures. The only time it was ever an issue is when I first arrived at the airport and they scanned my carry-on luggage after I arrived — a new experience. Seeing my camera and collection of lenses and accessories, the people at the scanner asked if I was a “periodista” (journalist). I replied that I was not and that the camera was for personal use. They accepted my explanation with no further issue. Cuba, like many countries, requires that journalists obtain a special visa, so entering with just a tourist card would have been a problem.

Other than that, I had no problems from authorities whatsoever. This contrasts with trips to the United States where I have been hassled, and it seems that to some people photographers are terrorists, pedophiles or worse. And Britain apparently is even worse than the U.S. for official harassment of photographers. I’m not naive, and in the unlikely event that I encountered mass demonstrations in Cuba and photographed them, I would likely encounter problems. But generally, Cuba is much more photo friendly than many other destinations.

I find that in many countries there’s an expectation that foreigners always have cameras and are always taking pictures. This was certainly the case in Cuba, and it can work in your favour as a photographer. At home, people sometimes wonder why you are taking pictures. In places like Cuba, it’s just assumed that that’s what foreigners do.

I also wondered about the safety of walking around with a camera. Here again, I felt much safer than in many other countries of Latin America. You do hear of occasional cases of snatch and grab attacks on tourists in Old Havana, but I never saw anything to suggest concern. I tend to carry the camera with the strap around my neck and shoulder, and with at least one hand on it, and I constantly scan my surroundings for people who might be problems. I saw many tourists carrying their cameras with a lot less care and attention, and though I don’t recommend that, I never saw problems.

Travelling in general, the most dangerous situations are usually when you are completely alone with your attacker, or when you are in a dense crowd (such as on a crowded bus or train) allowing someone to steal without your knowledge. Rarely in Cuba was I in either situation. There are always people around (and very often police), and I didn’t take the city buses. Thieves are less likely to strike when there’s a good mix of people around, but not so many that they can get away undetected or slip into a crowd.

I usually kept my camera in my bag when I was walking at night, but I never felt threatened carrying it during the day, even in some fairly run-down parts of Havana. There are two big advantages to carrying your camera in the open. First, it’s ready when you need it, and you don’t need to fuss around and possibly lose a shot. Secondly, the camera itself attracts attention of people, who will often ask to pose. Several times people saw my camera and suggested shots to me — sometimes because they wanted money, and sometimes not.

As for photographing people, I would say that four different scenarios come into play.

1. Professional tourist models

In tourist areas like Old Havana and Trinidad, there are some Cubans who make a living by posing for pictures for tourists. If you look at Flickr’s Cuban groups, you’ll often see the same human subjects over and over. These are generally people who pose for $1 CUC or less. One old guy in Trinidad even sits on a donkey that has an English sign on its forehead saying: “For rent. Photo 50c”.

Some of these models are great. A favourite of mine (and many other photographers) is Graciela, an old woman in Old Havana with just two loose front teeth, who poses with a big cigar. José Manuel Soto Flores was another colourful character in Old Havana. He had an album of pictures of himself, and had even been in guidebooks. He carried special ID that showed he was allowed to carry out this modeling and be paid in hard currency, and many of the other tourist models had the same credentials.

Some of the models were more contrived, decked out in colourful costumes. Some even had pets such as dogs and cats dressed up with them. I engaged some, with mixed results.

Some were pretty insistent that you only got one frame for your $1. Others let you take several shots. I generally got better results when I chatted with them for a while first, and of course I had to move some into better light.

2. Opportunistic tourist models

These people are not pros, but their aim in posing for you is to get a little hard currency. Sometimes they initiated the exchange with me, asking if I would like to photograph them or their friend. Sometimes, I first noticed them, and asked them to pose. They agreed on condition of payment. Whether you pay or not and how much you pay in these situations is always a judgment call. Some people raise moral issues about photographers encouraging dependence of these people. Generally though, I didn’t mind paying a bit if I got some decent shots from it. Some people were so delighted to earn a bit of money that they were happy to let me keep shooting them after I’d paid them. Sometimes though, people who asked to be photographed for money didn’t interest me, and I turned them down.

3. Photos for photos’ sake

Very often I had encounters with people and took their pictures without money ever being part of the equation. Often these were the most satisfying encounters, as I was able to chat with the people first and develop a bit of a bond. Very often they were delighted simply to see their images on the LCD screen. Usually, these were encounters that I initiated. I sometimes just walked up to people or walked into a shop and asked if I could photograph them doing whatever they were doing. Very often, people agreed. In one shoe repair shop, I photographed the two men working, and then one of them asked to pose with his wife. I promised to mail them copies of the pictures, but that was an offer on my part and not a condition for being photographed. Sometimes people agreed to let me photograph them, even though they didn’t seem enthusiastic. Only rarely did I get an outright rejection.

4. Candid photos

These are photos I took of people in the street without their permission. There are moral issues here, but I feel that generally if you don’t invade someone’s privacy, and they’re just doing something normal on the street, they are fair game. Still, I use some circumspection with these shots. It’s one thing if people are incidental to a street scene and are part of a larger picture. It’s a bit invasive though to pull out a long lens and do a close-up of their face without their knowledge or permission. You often get a more interesting picture if the person isn’t aware of the camera. Sometimes, I would smile and wave to a person after taking a shot of them, to see what kind of reaction I got. In most cases, people would see me with the camera taking general scenes of the street and not really care if they were in the frame or not.

While people are often the most interesting subjects, Cuba has numerous other fascinating subjects, not the least its old classic cars and crumbling old buildings. The American cars of the late 1940s and 1950s are very photogenic with their curves and art deco styling. The point of view and lighting for such shots is always important. For cars, low and close seems to work best.

The strong tropical sunlight is always a challenge. I found that in Cuba I often got my best shots very early or late in the day when the sun was low. The light was often very beautiful at these times, and the pastel colours of the buildings intensified it. In the middle of the day, it was essential to pay attention to light and shadows. With buildings of multi stories in Havana, it was often very easy to find areas of open shade for excellent lighting even in the middle of the day. Trinidad and Viñales had a lot more one-storey buildings, making it more of a challenge. I almost always carried my SB-900 flash with me, and very often when I shot in open sun, I would use a fill flash. This is essential in bright sun when there are strong shadows. I brought my tripod with me, but was less likely to walk around with it. I still managed to get some good sets for HDR photography with hand holding the camera and shooting quick frames in burst mode.

In a two-week trip to just three places, I feel I only scratched the surface of Cuba’s photographic potential. I didn’t try any locations that would have required official permission. And I didn’t try any more extensive shoots of models or other people requiring complex lighting arrangements beyond one flash. There’s a lot more for another trip, and I’m eager to return to Cuba with my camera again.

José Manuel Soto Flores is a professional tourist model in Old Havana. He carries government-issued ID that lets him engage in this business.

These two guys asked for a little change after I took their picture, but they certainly weren’t professional models, and weren’t likely used to being photographed.

In this candid picture of men arguing over baseball in Havana’s Central Park, it would have been out of the question to ask permission first and still have people looking natural. Still, it was obvious to them that I was photographing, and only one man seemed to mind (he covered his face with his hand). I just kept shooting, and tried to avoid getting the man who didn’t want to be photographed. By the time I fired this shot, they seemed oblivious to the fact that I was there, and were completely engrossed in their argument.

Although I took this shot later in the day, and the sky was partially overcast, a fill flash was absolutely necessary. Without it, there would be no detail on the man’s dark face.

About Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

Comments

19 Responses to “Photographing in Cuba”
  1. Kurt, as I am a Canadian, there are no restrictions on sending items like that to Cuba. For Americans, it looks like you should be able to, despite the fact that the decades-old embargo continues to exist. For info on what Americans can and can’t send to Cuba, see this page: http://pe.usps.com/text/Imm/ce_017.htm

  2. Kurt Westbrook says:

    All good info Richard. Question about sending a photo and note back to someone in Cuba from the U.S. when I return–Is it really possible?

  3. Ron Miller says:

    Very useful and informative. I’m heading for Cuba in a few weeks and looking forward to it very much. Thanks for the heads up.

  4. I found your articles inspiring and interesting. I am going next year and you have certainly given me some ideas of what and who I want to take photos of. thanks.

  5. Kris S says:

    AWESOME! This is just what I’ve been looking for. Going to Cuba in a few weeks and have been looking for photography info that sound’s honest!

    Getting even more excited now! Thanks for a great write up.

    Kris

  6. Annabel says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this info, we go to Cuba shortly on Honeymoon and I wanted to get the lowdown on photographing there. I’m a lifestyle photographer in the UK and my first love was travel photography.

  7. James says:

    I have been asked to shoot a wedding in Cuba! What things do I need so I have no hassle when I get there? Want all to go smoothly

  8. Alejandro says:

    Thanks for the reply! I’ll keep your suggestions in mind, I’ll probably look for a non-US insurance company. However, I’m probably as melanin challenged as you are (being a pale blond anglo-argentine I’m sure people will take me for an English speaker… it’s happened at home a couple times!).

  9. Alejandro, there are many Cubans who will pose for photos and who don’t expect payment. The “professional models” are only a small minority, but some are very colourful, so I don’t begrudge paying the odd one a little if I can get an interesting photo and help them make a living — even if hundreds of others have photographed them.

    Speaking Spanish makes a big difference in approaching people and developing some rapport that might allow a more interesting photo. I speak enough Spanish to communicate, but with red hair and pale skin, I’m obviously a Gringo. You’ll have no trouble, at all, even if people find your pronunciation of “y” and “j” a little odd.

    As for hotels and valuables, many hotels have safes in the room where you can lock some items. They might not fit all your camera gear, but I would lock things like the hard drive with my photos. Some of my camera stuff I locked in a suitcase, which isn’t completely safe, but is less likely to attract a spontaneous theft of opportunity as might occur if you left your camera in the open. Also, make sure any equipment is insured with a policy that will cover you in Cuba. Using a U.S. insurance company probably isn’t a good idea!

  10. Alejandro says:

    I’m considering a trip to Cuba in a year or so. The idea of “pro models” is a bit disheartening… I guess they are entitled to make an honest living without hurting others, but I’m not sure I’m interested in photographing the same subjects as every other tourist with a camera.

    Do you think speaking spanish would make a big difference in getting cooperation from locals? I’m a native speaker, but my looks and accent would make me as obviously foreign as any American, so I don’t mean it in a “blending in” sense.

    Another thing: safety-wise, I’ve read recommendations on other websites like “never leave valuables on your hotel or casa room”. ¿But does it make more sense to have all your kit (and cash) on yourself? ¿What about at night, when photo opportunities are more limited and streets are less safe? ¿What do you think is the better option in those cases?

    (FWIW, I live in Buenos Aires, a city that’s more dangerous than Havana, but I’m extremely careful with my kit when on the streets, and actually use an old MF film SLR as a “crash cam” instead of my DSLRs most of the time)

    Thanks for the article, it’s been of help!

  11. Jo, the bright light is exactly why using fill flash is often a good idea — because bright light means strong shadows.

    The built-in flash on your camera can be used for fill flash. In fact, that’s one of the few things the built-in is useful for. Obviously a separate dedicated flash is better.

    Two things you should be aware of when using fill flash:

    1. Don’t make it so strong you overpower the natural light. You want it to fill in the shadows, not cover the scene with flat neutral light.

    2. You should be aware of your camera’s highest sync speed and ensure either that your shutter speed doesn’t exceed that, or make sure your camera and flash are using auto FP high-speed sync, which allows very fast shutter speeds.

  12. Jo teasdale says:

    Hi, great article. We have had my trip to Cuba booked for a year, purely to get exactly what we want and now we only have to wait 6 weeks. We are so excited. It is primarily a photography trip and I found your article very relevant. I have 3 lenses I am planning to take – zoom, wide and prime 50mm for low light. I never thought of flash filling because of the bright light. Do you think the cameras inbuilt flash will do? I never use flash so some advice would be great. I’m so pleased I found your article, it’s made me even more excited. Lovely pictures, by the way.

  13. I am an author and photographer out of Vancouver BC. I am glad I found your site. I had some of these same questions, especially after talking to people that had (and had not) been there. Peace and light to you.

    Jerod

  14. Kevin says:

    Thanks, I feel the same uncertainty as you did. Your article has put me at ease for my upcoming trip in April! Thanks for the insight.

    Kevin

  15. James, you should be OK with either camera. I’ve heard of people having problems taking lighting equipment like Alien Bees and going to a resort because they figure you’re a paid wedding photographer taking work away from locals.

    One piece of equipment that’s a definite no-no for Cuba is a GPS. They will confiscate it if you try to bring one in.

  16. James says:

    Thank you so much for this clear and concise article, its exactly the sort of info I was desperately looking for. I’m leaving for Cuba in a week and hadn’t really given this aspect too much thought until a buddy mentioned all of the restricted items etc that he encountered when he went a few years ago. The more I looked the more disconcerted I became, while escaping a Canadian winter is a big reason for my trip the photographic opportunities are equally important to me. I’ll still probably leave my 5DMKII at home and just bring my t2i to be safe but at least now I know what to expect. Great shots by the way!

  17. Antoine says:

    Thanks! Can’t wait

  18. Thanks, Antoine. As long as you use common sense, I would not worry too much about changing lenses in public. I felt much safer in Cuba than in many other countries.

    You don’t indicate if you are using a full-frame or cropped frame camera, but I’m guessing you’re using the same Sigma 10-20 that I have, and so are using cropped frame. I found that lens very useful, though the lens I use the most is my 17-50 f/2.8 Tamron VC. A longer lens comes in handy too, and I found use for my 85mm prime portrait lens as well. I didn’t use a 50mm prime, as my Tamron covers that focal length. It all depends what you’re willing to carry. I sometimes would leave certain lenses behind in the hotel or casa particular and only carry one or two on walks unless I thought I would need more. I also took a speedlight which I used mostly for fill light.

    In Old Havana, streets are narrow and buildings are close together, so the 10-20 is handy for buildings. In the larger plazas or for shooting people, you won’t need anything that wide.

  19. Antoine says:

    Excellent article! Exactly what I was looking for. My wife and daughter (1 year old) are going to Cuba and doing a 1 day trip to Old Havana. I have a question for you.

    I want to bring 1 lens with me on our 1 day trip, I do not want to have to change lenses in public. I have a wide angle, 10-20, a prime 50mm and a 17-85mm.

    Which one do you suggest having been there, I know it all depends on what your own personal style is, but, not having been there myself, it is hard for me to imagine how tight the streets and buildings are together etc…

    I am leaning towars a more versatile choice, the 17-85.

    Thanks for your advice!

    Antoine

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