The unabridged full version of Damien’s epic experience in Cuba. Part 1 ~ Havana
Photography and words: Damien Lovegrove Event: The Passion Photography Experience adventures in Cuba 2018 Two 7 day tours limited to just 6 photographers per tour. Camera: Fujifilm GFX50s, 32-64mm and 110mm lenses
01. The iconic 1950s American cars are everywhere in Cuba.
Cuba, or ‘cooba’ (as locals call it) is a photographers paradise, an island of contrasts. Parts of the fabric of the island have been held in a time warp since the revolution of 1956-59 and now Cuba is slowly but surely emerging into the 21st century. It’s an exciting time to live in Cuba and an exciting time to visit.
02. The old and central Havana districts are so distressed they are stunningly beautiful. They are best explored in the late afternoon light and at night. I waited for the walking man to be set against the yellow panel before I released the shutter. I love the dog up on the balcony in this shot too. 32-64mm lens at 33mm and f/4 for 1/500th second and ISO 250
03. The mix of buildings in Cuba is unique. These shots were captured within a 200m radius of our tour hotel. There are some fabulous examples of Art Deco, Art Nuevo and neo classical buildings in central Havana. These sit alongside the brutalist architecture of 1950s and the stark designs of the pre Glasnost soviet era.
I love the vibe in Cuba. It’s a place I could enjoy living in for sure.
04. Left: A beautiful classic car on white wall tyres graces the forecourt of the Habana Libre Hotel that was once the Hilton Hotel. Right: These three classic Chevys were our transport while we were in Havana. Their drivers took us and our gear to and from the shoot locations each day. We could leave extra kit locked in the cars so we were never far from an extra flash head or a spare camera body if we needed it. The dogs in Cuba seem very friendly and the cats too. Everyone is laid back in Havana.
The streets are free from traffic with just the occasional passing car or barrow. Silent electric scooters are starting to become popular in Havana and they seem like the right sort of transport for these narrow streets. Cuba is quiet except for the occasional rooster crowing or live band playing in a café or restaurant. I didn’t hear any sirens from emergency vehicles for instance.
05. Top: Our tour hotel NH Capri is a fairly well renovated establishment with a pool on the 18th floor, spacious rooms with air conditioning and wifi. Yes wifi! I was expecting to be off the grid in Cuba but inexpensive wifi cards get you broadband speed (most of the time) in all the main hotels, town squares and outside some government buildings. Bottom: Just metres from our hotel and beside the famous Hotel National I saw a line up of classic convertibles. These cars were awaiting their clients from a cruise ship tour that arrived by coach just a few minutes later. Cruising the streets of Havana in a motoring icon is a wonderful experience and one I did on several occasions during the few weeks that I was there.
06. There are thousands of classic American cars in Cuba and most have now been restored. I love the candy colours too. It’s a refreshing change from the black, silver, grey or white cars produced in mainland Europe. The original V8 engines were replaced with diesel engines in the early 1990s after the break up of the USSR as petrol became scarce but the original V8s are being refitted once again now that the tourist dollar can fund the fuel required. I was expecting to see clunkers and bangers but a restored 1950s piece of Americana in Cuba can earn its owner $50 per hour as tourist transport. That’s $250,000 per year with a few of drivers sharing the work. Apparently these cars are worth far more in Cuba than they would fetch in the USA. They live on as daily transport too and are not confined to collectors lockups.
The guide books for Cuba said take a loo roll everywhere as paper is in short supply on the island but to be honest the main hotels and restaurants were very well equipped indeed. There were no Dyson hand driers yet but there was soap available. Cuba has come on a lot in recent times. The food options in the tourist restaurants were not quite up to Western standards but they were very close. The chefs and bar staff were all keen to impress with their skills. However a word of warning if you are going to visit Cuba, don’t expect great coffee. I did and was bitterly disappointed ;)
07. The late 1950s revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara is kept alive and celebrated with propaganda artwork. This symbolism and artwork of the revolution is everywhere you go. The revolution art is big, bold and well maintained. How long this artwork will stay relevant to the next generation of Cubans will be interesting to see. Change is happening fast in Cuba. So far there seems to be a happy medium between state supported entrepreneurship and socialism. My guess is if the trade embargo with the US is lifted, the beautiful balance that exists in Cuba will be lost forever. What Cubans will gain will be far more important to them than the loss of their quaint ‘time stands still’ lifestyle.
The Batista regime was extremely unpopular with the Cuban people. In 1956, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara gathered a force of guerrilla fighters and started a revolutionary war against government forces. By 1958, the revolution had spread throughout Cuba, culminating in the fall of Havana in early 1959. Batista fled the country in 1959 and Castro formed a liberal nationalist government. He wanted to remove the stranglehold that US business had on the economy. Big businesses were nationalised and land reform limited the size of farms. This meant that the Cuban economy could begin to work for poorer Cubans instead of corrupt upper-classes. Some 300,000 people fled Cuba for Florida and still today there is a big Cuban community of expats in Miami. Read this if you want to a brief account of the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and other juicy bits of Cubas recent past.
Perhaps there are eyes and ears everywhere but I saw very little police presence and no military personnel in the three weeks that I was touring around Cuba. Apparently crime is almost non existent and I felt safer in Havana than I have done in any other capital city.
08. The Malecon is the famous waterfront road and promenade in Havana that keeps the Straits of Florida at bay. The young people of Havana gather at the Malecon in the evenings to socialise and have fun. Waves can often be seen breaching the sea wall.
The Havana sessions
Lighting: Godox AD200
09. We started our first session with a walk around the block from our hotel and shot in various doorways and porches. Right: In the 2 hour session I showed how to create a pool of sunlight with the AD200 flash and a gridded reflector. I had Godox triggers with me for Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Sony. The Hasselblad H6D of one photographer used the Nikon transmitter. All worked according to plan. Together with help from Javier (our Cuban tour guide) and Rocio we managed to blag our way into some great shoot spots. I particularly loved the cast zinc rocking chair and I placed in the frame just where I needed it. I rigged the flash out of shot, high on a stand to the left and the cat crept into the frame on cue. Left: We mixed the styling up between tour 1 and tour 2 but kept the shoot locations largely the same.
10. A couple of natural light close up shots of Rocio.
11. The pictures top and right were lit with afternoon sunlight and the shot bottom left was lit with the Godox AD200 flash unit fitted with a 5″ reflector and a CTO gel. I showed the group how to recreate evening sunlight with a simple flash set up. I felt we could have been in the Forum in Rome with the carved stone design and patina.
12. Left: Rocio (Pronounced Roceeo) stands in a doorway lit with the light reflecting off the house on the other side of the street. Right: Although Havana is largely free from litter there are some odd liquids lurking in the gutter.
Cuba is not a smelly place. It doesn’t have a unique smell like Hong Kong for instance, although smokey diesel engines do occasionally belch out pungent thick black smoke. Havanas pollution tends to get blown out to sea and replaced with fresh ocean air. The skies are a deep blue and the clarity of light makes Cuba a wonderful place to shoot.
13. Left: Red, green and blue, the primaries colours of light. The contrast of late afternoon sunlight can be very high but the dynamic range of the GFX 50s coped easily. I used the tilting viewfinder to better assess my exposure as I find the LCD screen pretty useless in bright sunlight. Right: This bread seller sells bundles of rolls or crackers for cents in the local currency.
There are two currencies in Cuba. One for tourists, the CUC and one for Cubans CUP. The tourist CUC is pegged to the USD and is worth about 25 of the CUP. Although the locals earn the equivalent of just $20 US per month their money goes much further than the tourist money. Neither currency can be taken out of Cuba and therefore can’t be traded. This avoids fluctuations in the value of the currency.
Typical tourist hotel prices: A Bucanero beer 2.5 CUC; a mojito 4 CUC; grilled chicken and rice main dish 15 CUC; fillet steak with grilled vegetables 30 CUC; a one night stay 350 CUC.
14. Joy ride. We hired this classic 1955 Ford Fairlaine convertible for a few shots. Top: Javier, our fixer in Cuba, is driving the car with Rocio in the back. I held my GFX 50s with the 32-64mm lens 6ft above my head using my monopod and triggered the camera with the self timer set to 10 seconds. Bottom: The 110mm lens is perfect for the close ups. My next lens purchase will be the GF250mm when it gets released sometime later this year.
Havana is quiet. I’ve never known a city like it. Even the dogs don’t bark. There are no sirens, loud motorbikes or thundering traffic. There is the occasional rooster crowing but the loudest noise has to be the music that comes from the houses and the bars. Not modern pop music but Salsa rhythms. For the full Cuban experience you might like to play the music track below while you scroll through the remaining pictures. This band played for us in one of the local bars while we drank a bottle of the fabulous 7 year old Havana Club rum over ice. It’s the rum of choice, super smooth on it’s own or in a Cuba Libre. (Cuba Libre translated means “Free Cuba” and was popularised around the end of the Spanish-American War. This simple mixed drink is similar to a Rum & Coke, but the addition of fresh lime juice lightens it up).
15. We found this wonderful man with his guitar in a back street when we were on our first tour. He played and sang for us while Rocio danced in that fabulous red dress. GF32-64mm lens, 1/1000th second at f/4 using ISO 1600.
I used a monopod with my GFX for the street shoots in Havana. I’m much more comfortable with a tripod but I needed to be able to react. Hand holding doesn’t appeal to me with the GFX as I like to be more considered with my framing. That’s not to say it isn’t a camera for hand held work. I just chose not to.
16. Rocio dancing in the sunlight to Salsa rhythms in old town Havana. 32-64mm lens, 1/500th second at ISO 200 and f/7.1. The empty streets at rush hour were as much a surprise to me as the spectacle of seven photographers shooting a dancer in the street was to the local inhabitants.
17. I had been shooting so much with the wide zoom lens I almost forgot I had the short telephoto lens with me too. Just one lens on the camera and one in the bag was the way I worked in Cuba. I like to keep my kit choice simple. I used the GF110mm lens for these tighter shots of Rocio. f/3.6 for 1/500th second at ISO 100.
The rate of change in Cuba is alarming some citizens. It is a magical mixed up place where the self declared socialist state run by the communist party encourages a new type of entrepreneurship. Every citizen earns the same amount of money from the state that is roughly equivalent to $20 per month irrespective of whether they are a surgeon or a road sweeper. Residents can and often do supplement their income with some kind of other work. There are a growing number of entrepreneurs in Cuba converting part of their homes into restaurants or Air B&B lettings for instance. These start up companies are licensed by the government with a percentage of the profits going straight back into the economy. There is big money to be made from tourism and the workforce is being mobilised to do just that. Cuba has a very effective safety net for the less well off and vulnerable. As well as a ration book for eggs, rice, beans, sugar and bananas all at micro prices everyone gets access to a free health care system that is considered to be among the best in the world. There seem to be no drop outs living on the streets and everyone I met in my three weeks on the island were warm, friendly and genuinely happy.
18. On the last session of tour 2 we were joined by Malena, a model from Havana for an hour or so in the fading light. All three shots were taken with the 110mm lens Left: The last rays of light to hit the streets. Right: The AD200 pretending to be a patch of sunlight. Middle: A high key portrait in overcast light.
19. Left: Milena lit with the Godox AD200 with fresnel head. Right: Canon bollards are to be seen in Havana and Trinidad, perhaps they are a legacy of invasion fleets and buccaneers. Probably the best beer brewed in Cuba is called Bucanero. At 5.4% ABV it is no slouch and it has a darker fuller flavour than the Cristal option. Top tip for visitors: Bucanero tasted good from a can whereas Cristal should always be bought in bottles.
The faded glory of colonial imperialism has become shabby chic in downtown Havana. The remnants of corrupt capitalism are everywhere. The Mafia run casinos and hotels were liberated by the government after the revolution, along with the palaces and mansions of the super rich when 300,000 of them fled to Miami among other places in the late 1950s.
20. Left: The trades entrance of the once salubrious Pullman Hotel. Right: I am watched by a security guard as I capture his portrait. I looked the other way at the time of capture so I could get him still enough for my ¼ second exposure at ISO 400 and f/5 using the GFX on a tripod with the GF 110mm lens. A tilting screen on any camera is wonderful for this kind of thing. Having to look through a viewfinder would have killed the moment.
Havana is a wonderfully safe place to explore at night. I took my Gitzo 3551 monopod with its RRS ball head out with me on my first night in Havana so I shot more frames with people in them. I can shoot down to 1/15th second on my monopod with a wide lens if I’m careful. From then on I took my Novo T20 tripod with the Benro G2 ball head and RRS leaver lock top plate for subsequent nights shoots on the streets.
21. Night life in Havana.Top: A tyre fitter works overtime to get ‘227’ running again. Middle right: The wings of a 1959 Chevy Impala are unmistakable and fabulous. Top and middle: Taken with my GFX50s on a monopod. ISO 8000, 1/125th at f/4 using the GF 32-64mm. Bottom: Taken with my camera on a tripod. 6½ seconds exposure at ISO 400 using f/11 on the 32-64mm lens at 64mm.
22. Both of these frames were shot using long exposures on the tripod. Havana is a dark place. When I flew in over Havana at night I was surprised at just how little light there was down on the streets. Top: 6½ seconds exposure at f/11 with ISO 200 Bottom: 1/8th second exposure at ISO 400 using f/4 on the GF 32-64mm lens
23. Night Watchman This chap seems fairly well locked in and he didn’t lift his head from the desk as he watched me shoot his portrait. Cuban people can feel trapped with no or little chance to leave the island and they can also find themselves in a job without career progression. I used my tripod for this shot taken with a ½ second exposure at f/4 and ISO 800 using the GF 32-64mm lens.
24. On the first night of the first tour we were out on a scouting shoot when it started to rain. Top: The youngsters who had been gathering on the Malecon decided to party in the petrol station instead. I held my GFX above my head still attached to the monopod and with the LCD screen tilted down so I could see my framing and the moment to shoot. 1/125th at f/4 using ISO 4000 Bottom left: Young fashionistas in Havana. Apparently the dummy, pacifier, binky, soother, teether, or whatever you want to call it is right on trend in Havana. I hope the trend doesn’t transfer here to the UK. I posed the group and worked hard to direct their attention into my lens. It was a busy space and I needed to be quick. I findthe GFX for shots like this is at an advantage. It creates instant respect and elevates me from tourist level to photographer status. GFX 50s with 32-64mm lens, ISO 8000, 1/125th second at f/4. Lit with the lights of the petrol station canopy. Bottom right: Che Guevara becomes even more handsome each time I see him depicted. ‘Brand Cuba’. His iconic image is instantly recognisable the world over.
25. Another Icon in the Caribbean is Ernest Hemingway. He lived in Cuba for 17 years and each bar claims a bit of his fame. Hemingway sat here etc. One of my favourite quotes of his: “Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual” The shots to the left and right of Hemingway show lovely texture and a somewhat unusual side to Havana’s arty district.
I love to mix up my adventures. I try to make them a unique blend of shooting landscape/ cityscape as well as directed shoots with local people or models. This mix takes a lot of planning and preparation back in the office to make it happen. I travel and shoot with like-minded photographers with a creative heart who love adventures. When I was in Cambodia we shot kick boxers and here in Havana we arranged a visit to a gym used by the Cuban national junior boxing team. The light was perfect from 4pm to 6pm and the planning and preparation payed off.
26. Left: The coach, Alberto Gonzales Caturla and right: with his son, the champ.
27. The champ. Albert González Monteagudo, Cuba’s national youth boxing champion.
28. Squaring up. All this set were lit with natural light. Finding great light is one the techniques that I teach on my adventures. I love to use full on sunlight in a creative way and if it is cloudy I make my own sunlight with flash.
29. Left: Yonny Guerra Tellez. Right: On the ropes
30. Top left: Afternoon sunlight Top right: I lit this shot with the Godox AD200 and a small gridded soft box. Bottom: A portrait I shot using the GF 110mm lens at f/2, ISO 250 and 1/500th second exposure.
31. The Cuban national junior boxing team that will one day go on to compete in the Olympics. GFX 50s with 110mm lens at f/4. I posed these lads in a relaxed manner on the same focal plane and biased to the light. I created the gritty expressions by winding them up a little.
32. We had the light for a bit of sparring in the ring on tour 2.
Location, location, location. When I arrived in Cuba I spent a few days scouting out locations and with Rocio’s help I came across this magical place. I’m a firm believer of ‘Success happens when preparation meets opportunity’. I just loved this authentic original mansion still owned by the lady who has lived there since before the revolution. In the days after the revolution her husband and about 300,000 other Cubans fled to the US in fear of their lives. She stayed in Cuba and the house has been barely touched since. She lives in one small part of this wonderful house.
33. Fabulous details and patina.
34. We started outside in the glancing sunlight for the shots on the left and then I created my own glancing sunlight for the shot on the right using the Godox AD200 with a gridded 5″ reflector. It’s lovely having control of contrast, colour and intensity of the light when using flash.
35. These shots were taken in some lovely dappled sunlight on the front porch of the mansion.
36. Between tours I had a few days off and I did a mini shoot for my forthcoming book called ‘Tutu’. We then recreated some of these shots on tour 2. I could have done with a Lupo LED 1000 and a Scattergel in the mansion but I opted to carry an AD600 flash in my second checked in bag instead. I didn’t have space and weight allowance for both. My task at the mansion then became to seek out good natural light and take control of it using shutters and doors.
37. Mixing it up a bit.
38. The wall texture and the staircase were perfect for my style of work.
39. Beautifully simple and simply beautiful. Top: Just a tweak of the shutters here and opening the door a bit there gave me lighting control. I like to keep the foreground room 1 stop darker than the light landing on my subject in the distant room when shooting like this. I achieved a classic 2 point lighting balance on Rocio. Bottom left: Keeping control of the shadow detail in this shot required a generous exposure. The GFX files are perfect for revealing shadow and highlight details when there is enough exposure. Bottom right: A lovely two point lighting mix was achieved here too. I love using a tripod because once I’ve set the composition I can go off and alter the lighting balance and quickly see the effect on camera. I can also use a slow shutter speed to keep the ISO low. 1/8th second, ISO 400 with the 32-64mm lens at f/4
40. The light can change in moments. Top: 1/250th second exposure at f/4 using ISO 125. Bottom left: The sun came out and the room came alive. Bottom right: I used the 110mm lens at f/2 for this head shot. ISO 100 and 1/500th second.
41. I love fabric details, sheen, silk, shape and shine.
42. I lit this fashion shot on the stairs using the AD200 with a small soft box and grid. 1/30th at f/4 using ISO 3200 (The luminance noise reduction is set at ‘0’ in Lightroom. The GFX is fantastic in low light)
If you are interested in joining me on a similar Cuban adventure in March 2019 let one of my team know here. This could be the last opportunity to capture Cuba before the tourism flood gates open. Cuba is a safe, vibrant, friendly and magical place to visit right now. The restaurants have become good in the last year or so, there is WiFi in hotels and many other places and change, largely for the better is happening all the time. At the moment restrictions still apply to US citizens wanting to visit Cuba but our team in Cuba did all the necessary paperwork for my clients joining us from the USA to make it happen. More info on the current restrictions for travellers from the USA is here. Visit PassionPhotographyExperience for details about my adventures coming up in the USA and Tuscany.
In Part 2 I’ll show you the delights of Trinidad in Cuba, I photograph dancers in the town centre and Rocio and I go to the beach. In the meantime feel free to comment bellow on these pictures.