What I Learned about Photography in Havana

Happy New Year - Havana - 2013

On my recent people-to-people cultural exchange visit to Cuba, I shot almost 1,500 images during six days of out and about walking – almost all of it in Old and Central Havana.

In packing for this trip, I wanted to stay light – but I also didn’t want to miss any photo opportunities due to not having the “best” gear. I had three cameras with me: a Nikon D600 (over my shoulder), a Canon PowerShot S100 (in a case on my belt), and my iPhone 5 (in a pants pocket). Most of my images were taken with the Nikon, a few with the S100 – and a number of “location establishing” shots with my iPhone – taking advantage of it’s ability to capture GPS location data. For the Nikon, I had packed three lenses – the “kit” lens that came with the D600 – a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom, an 85mm f/1.8 prime lens, and a light 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom.

I decided not to take a tripod – I’m a pretty fickle tripod shooter anyway and figured opportunities for using a tripod in the heart of Havana might be limited.

On the first day, I carried two lenses along – one on the camera with the second in a pocket in my vest. I had brought along a small daypack but decided not to use it. Wish I hadn’t brought it – it stayed in my hotel room the whole time!

Each day, we were accompanied by a Cuban photographer – and I soon noticed how little gear they typically carried. The Cubans weren’t changing lenses – they were just shooting away with the lens on their camera. Nor were they carrying tripods.

After carrying two lenses and finding that I also rarely changed lenses, I mostly just went out with one lens on the Nikon – typically the 24-85mm zoom. That lens turned out to be near perfect for the street photography we were doing. The one time I made use of the 85mm prime lens was for shooting the show at the Tropicana. It was the ideal lens for that – having just enough reach and low light performance for that venue. I rarely used the 70-300mm zoom – should have also left it at home as it turned out but it’s a light enough lens to almost not matter.

For capturing street shots, I mostly left the Nikon in P mode – with auto ISO and auto focus enabled. The D600 does a great job at figuring things out – and I was mostly very happy with the images I got. A few times, focus was off – and I flipped it into a different focus mode to adjust. I also used aperture priority for a few shots where I really wanted more control over depth of field. But mostly I let the camera do its thing – and came away very happy with the results.

While the gear obviously matters, it turned out not worrying much about it was the best choice for me. Being in the moment, seeing such great opportunities in a venue like Havana, made capturing images such a delight!

I brought along an 11-inch MacBook Air – to use for offloading images from the SD cards each evening – as well as an external hard disk to backup the images from the Air – ending up with two copies of each original image. After offloading the SD cards, I would put them back in the camera and reformat them in the camera before going out each morning.

I enjoyed sitting in bed at night or early in the morning processing a few of my images on the Air using Lightroom and Photoshop CS6. We needed to select five of our favorite images for a group show the night before leaving Cuba – and that was easy given having the Air and Lightroom along.

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