When people first think of Cuba, they often think of classic cars, Che Guevara, the revolution, the US trade embargo and perhaps cigars or Havana Club Rum. What struck me most about Cuba (pronounced cooba) was the impact of the socialist state. The one party system with communist rule. On the plus side everyone has free health care and it is considered to be among the best in the world.
Part 1: Havana
Night watchman I used my tripod and gave this chap a ½ second exposure at f/4 and ISO 800 using the 32-64mm zoom on the Fujifilm GFX 50s
They have a fixed salary from the government equivalent to about $20 a month. This is the same for someone who sweeps the streets and a surgeon alike. There are no homeless people living rough in doorways or on the streets of Havana. On the negative side people can feel trapped with no chance to leave the island and they can find themselves in a job without career progression.
Left: The rear entrance of the 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 110mm lens. The tilting screen on the GFX 50s is wonderful for this kind of thing. Having to look through the viewfinder would have killed the moment.
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 they fled to Miami in their thousands among other places in the late 1950s.
Night life in Havana. A tyre fitter works overtime to get ‘227’ running again. The wings of a 1959 Chevy Impala are unmistakable and fabulous. Top and left: GFX 50s, ISO 8000, 1/125th at f/4 using the 32-64mm zoom. Bottom right: GF X50s, ISO 4000, 1/15th at f/4 using the 32-64mm zoom.
I took out my Gitzo 3551 monopod with its RRS ball head on my first night in Havana with the GFX 50s 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. I took my Novo T20 tripod with the Benro G2 ball head and RRS leaver lock top plate for my second night shooting out on the town.
Night scenes. Bottom left: 6½ seconds at f/11, ISO 400 and bottom right: 6½ seconds at f/11, ISO 200 with the 32-64mm zoom on the GFX 50s
The revolution and the recent history of Cuba is universally admired and celebrated among the people I met on my travels. It helps having a poster boy as good looking and iconic as Che.
Che Guevara looking over the young fashionistas in Havana. Bottom: 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. GFX 50s with 32-64mm lens, ISO 8000, 1/125th second at f/4. Lit with the lights of the petrol station canopy. 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 find for shots like this the GFX is at an advantage. It creates instant respect and elevates me from tourist to photographer status.
There are eyes and ears everywhere but very little police presence and I saw no military personnel in the three weeks that I was touring around. The bands entertaining tourists drop pro revolution songs into their otherwise well known sets.
The symbolism and artwork of the revolution is everywhere you go. Revolution art is big, bold and well maintained. Change is happening in Cuba and it’s happening fast. How long this artwork will stay relevant to the next generation of Cubans will be interesting to see. 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 mix of buildings in Havana is unique. These shots were captured within 200m of our tour hotel. There are some fabulous examples of Art Deco, Art Nuevo and neo classical buildings in Havana. These sit alongside the brutalist architecture of 1950s and the stark designs of the pre Glasnost soviet era.
Luxury with an edge. Our tour hotel (on the right) had everything we needed as a base to work from. At 5 star prices you get mid-level amenities, a swimming pool and very friendly staff. The rooms were spacious, clean, air-conditioned and had wifi (should you wish to stay connected). I went off grid for most of the three weeks I was in Cuba and it was wonderful.
American classic cars are everywhere. I was expecting to see clunkers and bangers but a restored 1950s piece of americana can earn its owner $50 per hour as tourist transport in Cuba. That’s $250,000 per year (with multiple driver shifts). Remember that the national wage here is $20 per month. These cars are worth far more in Cuba than they would fetch in the USA. They live on as daily transport too rather than museum pieces. I took all these shots in a one-hour stroll from my hotel using my trusty Fujifilm X100T. With the X100 series cameras, it’s easy to be a tourist rather than a photographer. I have 40 or so similar pictures that I will use to make up a piece of wall art.
I like to mix up my workshops and adventures. After all, I want to put my stamp on the work we create. I travel and shoot with like-minded photographers who found my tours via my passion photography experience website. When I was in Cambodia I took my tour photographers to shoot some kick boxers and here in Havana I found a gym used by the Cuban junior national boxing team. The light was perfect from 4pm to 6pm and here are some of my shots from the session.
Members of the Cuban national youth boxing team at a gym in central Havana. Top right: I used a Godox AD200 to light the bench press and the other shots were naturally lit. I used the 110mm lens wide open at f/2 to capture the portrait at the bottom. 1/500th second at ISO 250.
The young stars of Havana. GFX 50s with 110mm lens at f/4. I posed them 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.
Top: The coach, Alberto Gonzales Caturla and with his son, the champ. Bottom: 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.
The champ. Albert González Monteagudo, Cuba’s national youth boxing champion.
Location, location, location. When I arrived in Cuba I spent a few days location scouting and I just loved this authentic original mansion still owned by the lady who has lived here 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.
A portrait of Cuban girl Rocio that I shot in the mansion for my forthcoming book called Tutu.
More natural light shots of Rocio taken in the Mansion. As the light changes throughout the day each room in turn comes alive.
Right: I used a Godox AD200 to add a splash of flash to this shot. I had taken triggers for each of my workshop photographers. I had the Godox X1t for Hasselblad (Nikon), Fujifilm, Sony and Olympus. One client had brought a Hasselblad H6D and it was interesting to see how it compared to the Fujifilm GFX when shooting the same scenes alongside each other. Another client brought the Fujifilm X-H1 and I can confirm that really is a fabulous camera. I’d have it as a backup for my GFX if it took the same lenses. My back up camera was the X100T but I didn’t need to use it as my GFX 50s was faultless, as it has been for the past 13 months.
Fashion in the mansion. I like to keep our shoots varied and the shooting fun. Everyone enjoyed their time shooting in this magical place. Left: I used the Godox AD200 to light Rocio on the stairs.
Music is everywhere in Cuba and Rocio and I found guitar man in a back street. He played for us and Rocio danced in the sunlight.
The streets of old and central Havana are free from traffic with just the occasional passing car or barrow. That would all change if Cuba were to start importing cars. 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.
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.
Joy ride. We hired this classic 1955 Ford Fairlaine convertible for a few shots. Left: Javier, our Cuban guide 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. Right: 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.
Flash on the streets. I took my Godox AD200 flash onto the streets of Havana and used it to add a splash of light where no sunlight existed. I gelled up the AD200 with a CTO gel for the shot on the right to make it look like evening sunlight. I felt we could be in the Forum in Rome.
We made Cuba our studio. The textures and backgrounds in Havana are wonderful. Left: Godox AD200. Right top and bottom: Natural light.
In part 2 I’ll show you around Trinidad, Cuba. It’s a 6-hour drive from Havana via Santa Clara but it was well worth the trip.
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.
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Hi I’m Damien Lovegrove, a portrait photographer, writer and trainer based at a converted barn and farmhouse in Somerset UK. I have a passion for beautiful photography and I will go to great lengths to create wonderful light. I don’t leave things to chance in my work and I love directing the moment.
I suppose I’m the antithesis of a documentary or reportage photographer. I like to take control. I started making pictures professionally when I joined the BBC as a cameraman in 1984 at the age of 19. I’ve had many careers since then, all of them photography related.