Many of us photographers and filmmakers enjoy travel. We love the thrill of seeking new places and finding new angles on often shot subjects. It is both challenging and rewarding. There are a few places in the world that capture the imagination of all travel photographers. Perhaps it’s the incredible light, maybe the culture, the unique architecture. One place has all these and much more, a kind of photographers heaven where it’s impossible to not get great shots. That place is Havana, Cuba.
Lets start with the elephant in the room, getting there for US Citizens is still not easy although the rules and regulation are beginning to relax. It is possible to travel there via a third country and Cuban immigration will not stamp your passport. For most other nations it is fairly simple, from Europe and South America several airlines fly to Jose Marti International, from Asia you will probably need to connect via Europe.
For most nationals, you require a tourist visa before arrival in Cuba. These are easy to obtain either from your local Cuban embassy or through a specialist travel agency.
What to Shoot:
When you arrive in Havana, it feels like time has stood still. Old American cars rumble past, faded and crumbling colonial buildings line the streets. Even the light seems to come from a 1950’s film. The obvious starting point for photography is Havana Vieja, or Old Havana. This is the central part of the city, heavily restored with some stunningly renovated buildings. It’s narrow streets make shooting difficult, especially for the architecture, but by using a good telephoto, you can isolated some of the details.
There are many “street characters” in old Havana, but be aware they are not all what you would call the genuine article. They dress to make money from tourist photographs. Most common amongst these are the Santeria women, dressed in pure white, often smoking large Cuban cigars. Take their photos or film them and they will demand money.
Some of the things to shoot in Old Havana, are the Cathedral, the Plaza San Francisco, with its beautifully restored buildings and art deco port terminal. Plaza Viejo and the famous Hemingway hotel, the Ambos Mundos. The bar at the top of the hotel provides great views over the city for panoramics.
To the western edge of Old Havana lies Parc Central and the Capitolio. The Capitolio is the former parliament building, an imposing edifice built on the same design as the US Capitol. It is best shot in the early morning as the sun rises to get the golden light on the white stone. Later in the day the sun moves behind the building making it difficult to shoot. There is a wide, busy street in front of the Capitolio, where you can capture old American cars with the building behind.
Parc Central is a great place to mingle with the locals. There are old Cuban gents playing dominoes, hustlers, and local families sheltering from the heat. Cubans are gregarious and open people, they love to engage with other people and are usually happy to have their photos taken. Unless shooting candids, always ask if you can take a picture. Just sticking a camera in someones face without asking is a sure way to propagate the myth of the ignorant foreigner. Some people will ask for money to take photos, you need to decide whether you are comfortable with that or not.
Havana Centro and The Malecon
The streets of Old Havana are in some respects a tourist bubble, a sanitised version of the real Havana. To see the real Havana you need to go to Havana Centro. In the canyon like streets of Centro you will see barefoot kids playing football or baseball, black market transactions and all sorts of local street trade. It is a great place for people photography, both candid and posed.
The ultimate, perhaps cliched, shots of Havana you need to visit the Malecon. This is the famous sea wall that runs for five miles along the the northern edge of the city. The golden hours here provide stunning light. The soft golden rays of the low sun bring subtle yet beautiful coloring to the pastel shades of the colonial buildings along the front. Here, in the evenings, you will find fantastic photographic opportunities to shoot Hanaveros at play. There are musicians practicing, kids swimming, friends drinking rum. An evening or two on the Malecon is a form of photographic Nirvana.
Lets look at some of the practicalities of a trip to Havana. Firstly, your equipment. There is such a diversity of shots to be made in Havana that, if you have them take a super wide, standard zoom and a good telephoto zoom. It’s also worth taking a discrete compact for candids. Being tropical, it rains a lot, so make sure your camera bag is waterproof or has a cover. Moving from the cold air conditioned hotels to the warm tropical air will cause condensation to form on your lens. Allow 30 minutes or so for the lens to acclimatize before shooting. Such is the heat that this can occur even in the early morning predawn.
A tripod is a useful tool for low light photograph but can also be heavy to carry all day, you need to balance your requirements for this. A flashgun is certainly useful to carry. The sun during the day can be very harsh and flash can be used to fill the shadow on any portraiture. Professional filming will require a permit and lots of paperwork. However, shooting run and gun with one or two crew will not attract too much attention.
We shot this Havana film in two days using one camera and a lot of walking
Lastly lets talk briefly about safety. Havana is probably one of the safest cities in Latin America, for tourists. In the many years I have been traveling there I have not once had an issue. There is a dedicated tourist police force, who are stationed virtually on every corner of the tourist districts. If going into Havana Centro, apply some common sense. Do not flaunt your camera and have respect for the locals and you will be fine.
Havana is an engaging, magical city, a delight for anyone that enjoys photography and should be near the top of anyone’s bucket list.