Be Inspired

Cuba with X-Photographer Chris Upton

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by Chris Upton

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean is a stunning and diverse location. The noise, hustle and bustle of Havana, teeming with brightly coloured vintage American cars contrasts with the quiet verdant plantations and gorgeous beaches. The wonderful Spanish architecture is at odds with the decaying beauty of some of its poorer areas.

Cuba has had a turbulent history from Spanish colonial rule and the slave trade to Batista’s dictatorship and overthrow by Fidel Castro and it’s subsequent economic struggle. Throughout this it’s culture, music and arts have remained as colourful and vibrant as ever.

I have recently returned from a trip visiting Havana, the plantations in the west around Vinales and the towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad on the south of the island.

What you were looking to capture?

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Cuba is simply a photographer’s paradise, there is so much to photograph. I wanted to capture the spirit of the country, it’s unique feel, from it’s people, architecture, landscape, crumbling urban beauty, to it’s political heritage and, of course, the wonderful array of vintage American cars.
From my research, the colour and the vibrant feel to the country captivated me and my goal was to reflect this in my images.

There was clearly going to be an emphasis on Street, People and Architectural photography whilst in Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad with more traditional landscapes when in the west of the country around Vinales.

I also wanted to capture the incidentals, the detail shots that “shout” Cuba. The American cars topped that list, but signs, revolutionary slogans, images of Che Guevara, graffiti and of course the famous Mojitos and Daiquiri’s were in my plans too!

How did you plan your adventure?

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Of critical importance to successful travel photography is the research before you go. The more planning you put in the greater the chance of capturing great images. Having the best technique is no use if you’re not in the right place at the right time or you return home and realise you have missed some great locations.

Before I discuss how I planned the trip it is important to understand the objective. You need to be so well planned that when you arrive on location you should feel like the place is familiar, as if you’ve been there before. You will then find that you are comfortable in your surroundings, already having some shots planned in your mind. You can then concentrate on shooting those and then look around for other shots, for your own personal interpretation. This approach saves you time and helps ensure that you don’t miss important shots.

Not surprisingly the first port of call when planning is the internet. Whatever did we do before?! I will look at Tourist information / Government sites, Google images, Flickr, 500px and Stock Libraries. It is important to note that this is not to simply copy pictures that have been shot by others but to give you an idea of what is possible and to help you then put your own stamp on a place.
Good guide books are also an invaluable source of information and offer plenty of hints, tips and recommendations, especially for food and hotels. Well you’ve got to be comfortable when you’re out shooting all day! They also provide you with some basic language, very important to break the ice with the locals. I prefer the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides as they have sufficient historical and background information but are also much more visual than some of the other guides.

Not only is it imperative to have a list of planned shots but you also need to have locations for sunrise and sunset. The best source for these timings is the Photographers Ephemeris, a web app which shows you not only what time the sun rises and sets for any place in the world on any particular date but also the direction of the sun. This makes it an invaluable tool in your planning armoury. I planned my pictures taken on the Malecon (seafront) by using this app.

I also looked at Travel brochures and the Travel sections in newspapers.

You will also need a good Weather forecast so that you can amend your plans to suit the conditions. If the weather is really bad spend time inside buildings or churches though don’t miss out on the opportunities that bad weather presents by shooting outside, you might be really surprised at what you achieve and it will most likely be very different from the standard shots.

From all this information I prepare a Shoot List including all the details. This is invaluable and I check it every night. I always buy a decent street map and mark the key locations to ensure that I cover all the shots when in that area.

What kit did you take?

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One of the most common questions when I give my Travel Photography lectures is: “What kit do you take”?

So here is a list of the equipment I took:
• Fujifilm XT1 and XE1 bodies
• Fujifilm Zoom lenses XF10-24, XF18-55, XF 55-200
• Fujifilm Prime lenses XF35 f1.4 and XF56 f1.2
• Nissin i40 flash
• Lee Seven5 filters
• Cable release
• 6 spare batteries
• 80gb SD Cards in a Think Tank Pixel Pocket
• Giottos Vitruvian Carbon Fibre travel tripod with Really Right Stuff B30 ballhead
• Gorillapod
• Cleaning cloths, rocket
• Headtorch
• Think Tank Urban Disguise 50 shoulder bag

• 13” Macbook Pro and Lacie Rugged Hard Drive
• i-phone
• 4 gang adaptor.
• Twin Battery charger

Here is some background to my choices.
I always take two bodies with me, primarily for insurance in case one fails or doesn’t survive being dropped onto a marble floor as happened to me on this trip! Thankfully the XE1 and 55-200 must be made of sturdy stuff as they survived and continued to work perfectly, but it just goes to show how important this is.

My lenses needed to cover wide angle, for interiors, to long telephoto to capture detail or compress the perspective. My three zoom lenses 10-24, 18-55 and 55-200 zooms are ideal for this. On this trip I also took along the XF35 f1.4 and 56mm f1.2 primes. These are stunning lenses superb for portraits, with their wide apertures, and great when the light is low.

The Nissin i40 flash is a fairly new acquisition and complements the Fuji form factor superbly, being extremely small and light and with enough power for most tasks. I tend to use it mostly for fill in flash on portraits.

My Lee Seven5 filters include a polarizer, ND Grads and ND filters for long exposures.

Tripods usually cause much debate. There simply isn’t a perfect tripod as the conundrum of size, weight, robustness and price cannot be solved! That said I am very happy to pair my Fuji cameras with the Giottos Vitruvian tripod (a few years old and I think there is a newer version) and Really Right Stuff Ball head. This tripod packs down small, with it’s legs folding back over itself, is light and sturdy and best of all weighs little over 1kg. The RRS ball head is superbly engineered and holds the camera in position really well with no droop even with the 55-200 lens.
In certain places the tripod police are only too keen to assert their authority preventing you from using your large tripod. In these situations I have a Gorillapod which I can attach to a support, chair, barrier or even place on the floor.
I use the Arca system of quick release L brackets on both my cameras for ease and speed of use.
When the power supply is unreliable it’s vital you have sufficient battery power. Therefore I took 6 spares plus the ones in my camera. I always take a lightweight 4 gang adaptor and a twin battery charger. When you need to charge your batteries quickly, together with your phone and laptop you need the extra sockets and hotel rooms usually have a dearth of wall sockets.

All of this packs into my Think Tank Urban Disguise bag and weighs in at less that 10kg! Think Tank products are superb, so well made, extremely functional and they are like the tardis, you can just keep filling them up! On this type of trip I prefer a shoulder bag to a backpack both for security reasons and ease and speed of use.

Any general tips?

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When you arrive at your destination familiarise yourself as quickly as you can, good planning will help here. Look for interesting viewpoints and check to see where the sun rises and falls. In Cuba the streets are laid out on a grid system so I found streets that ran east / west where the sun would backlight my subjects early or late in the day.

When you photograph buildings or churches always snap the sign when you finish, you won’t remember the names of the places you visited.

You will need to work quickly, the lighting is challenging, very contrasty in the middle of the day and the sun rises and sets very quickly so you don’t have too much time to get your shots. Be in place an hour before sunrise and stay at least 45 minutes after the sun has set.

It will help if you have practiced other techniques that you might find useful such as panning. You don’t want to be learning and missing great shots whilst old American cars are speeding by on the Malecon.

If you are shooting a panorama to stitch together later I always shoot a frame first and last of my hand so the pictures in between can be easily identified as a pano set.

Walk, walk and walk more. If you find an interesting background in the streets, wait a while until someone interesting walks into the frame, it will happen.

Finally, the most important tip, always carry a camera. You never know what might present itself at the most unexpected time!

How did you get those stunning portraits? Did you ask them. etc.

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The people in Cuba were full of character and life and capturing this is a must.

There are various ways of approaching this. A street approach using wide lenses and getting amongst the action to achieve reportage type, unposed, images. Using a long lens and shooting without the subjects knowledge or getting posed shots after asking permission to take a photograph. Many photographers find walking up to total strangers and asking to take their picture very difficult. However if you can overcome this and your subject agrees, the pictures you get will be far better than any long distance grab shots. This is my preferred method with which I have found most success. Sure you will get some rejections in which case I simply smile, wish them a good day and move on. But get a willing, interesting, character and you will get some stunning shots.

My technique when I see a subject, before I approach them, is to check my camera. I will select the appropriate lens then check camera settings, battery level, memory left on the card and my flash settings if appropriate. Only when that is completed do I walk up to them keeping my camera to one side. I smile introduce myself and ask if they speak English. I try and learn these words in the native language which immediately breaks the ice and often makes them laugh! I might ask a little about them before asking to take their picture. If you are already prepared you can get to work straight away, you don’t want to be checking your screen or fiddling with your settings. Don’t just grab one shot and move on, take several, some people will move to a different area for you or pose as you request. It’s important to show them some images on the back of your camera and thank them before moving on. Children love to see their pictures and the best shots are often when you’ve just shown them so be ready!

So to the thorny subject of payment. My rule is generally not to pay money as I think it simply sets a precedent for other photographers and encourages the practice of begging. However I will sometimes take pencils, pens or soap and shampoo and sweets for children. This rewards them without actually paying them cash. If I have worked with a person for say 10 minutes or more and they have been really helpful then I may give them a small tip but usually I try not to.

I had wanted to visit Cuba for some years and often such high expectations can be cruelly dashed. However this was definitely not the case here, it is a stunning destination perfect for photographers. My recommendation is to go soon, before it changes too much.


To see more of Chris’ images from Cuba see his website www.chrisuptonphotography.com

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25 replies »

    • Thank you Kevin. TT bags are excellent, I have the Urban Disguise 50 and the Airport Takeoff Rolling bag which also converts to a rucsac. Both really well made, very functional and hold loads.

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  1. Love the pictures. I need to go to Cubas as fast as possible.

    I’ve got a question for you tough. I’ve got the the XF10-24 as well and was thinking about buying the LeeSeven 5. I thought it’s not going to fit. Is it fitting?

    Thanks
    Andy

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    • Hi Andy,
      Thanks for your comments.
      The Lee Seven5 system does fit the 10-24, however there is a problem with vignetting at anything up to around 14mm. Lee designed their smaller system before the 10-24 was launched!
      You have three options :
      1. work within the limitations
      2. if you were looking to use ND grads then you can bracket exposures and blend in post processing – now made much easier in Lightroom 6 with their new auto blend
      3. If this is your primary lens you could by the standard 150mm Lee Filter kit instead. It will work but it’s larger and more bulky
      Hope that helps
      Regards
      Chris

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    • Thank you Marcelo.

      Great questions. Yes I did use all the lenses I took though some didn’t get as much use as the others. The zooms were used the most as, for travel, they are the most flexible. The great thing about travel photography is that you cover a wide range of subjects, but that presents challenges. You can walk out of a church where you were using a wide-angle lens and be presented with a superb portrait opportunity requiring a 35mm or 56mm lens. I found that I was changing lenses a lot on this trip and so in the end I stuck mostly with the zooms using both the XT1 and XE1 bodies. On occasions I left the primes behind, taking too much gear can defeat the object of using a CSC.

      What would I do differently?
      (1) there is a lot to be said for having two bodies of the same model (XT1) when you are shooting quickly in difficult lighting it makes it much easier to switch between them using different lenses rather than keep thinking how do I change focus point or ISO on a different body.
      (2) I don’t have the 18-135mm lens but that together with the 14mm and a 56mm would be a great travel set up. I was concerned about it being a relatively slow lens and felt that it might be asking a lens to do too much going from 28-200 equivalent. However I have read reviews that say it’s a cracking lens. I have recently bought the 27mm pancake lens which paired with the XE1 makes a brilliant carry everywhere camera – a flexible X100 ! I would probably take that in preference to the 35mm.
      (3) I also carried a full set of Lee Seven5 filters, I hardly used the Big and Little Stopper. So a polariser and 2 and 3 stop ND Grad would have coped with most things.

      You can get great travel pics whatever lens or lenses you choose to take, I guess it’s a trade off between your desire to keep the weight and bulk down and being prepared to miss shots versus the “insurance” of having a lens for virtually every opportunity but in a heavier bag. That is a very personal choice!

      Hope that helps

      Regards

      Chris

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  2. Hi Chris, a good read and great images. Enjoy Umbria next week. Looking forward to meeting you again soon. I think your photos show your love of travel and engaging with different cultures and history.

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  3. Hi Chris,

    I really enjoyed your article and moreso as I’m planning to go to Cuba this year.

    I agree that there is a personal choice to be made between having a lens for every possible opportunity and travelling light. I recently returned from six weeks in Asia with just an X100 T and the TCL-X100. I came back with great images, but there were times I wished I had something longer, and less frequently, wider.

    In the case of Cuba, and specifically Havana, how much use did you get out of the 55-200? I ask because I have much the same gear list as you, but really want to keep the weight down. I’m thinking of taking just the 18-55, the 14 and possibly the 35.

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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  4. Thank you for your comments David.
    I’ve looked at my metadata and the 55-200 was my third most used lens, behind the 18-55 and, marginally, the 10-24. However, many of these images were landscape shots taken around Vinales. In Havana I used it to pick out detail and compress perspective. It’s also fair to say that I could have got some of the shots by using the 18-55 and walking a little closer! Therefore I think your proposed lens selection would definitely work, yes there may be the odd shot that you can’t get but you can probably live with that and really enjoy the freedom of a lightweight set up.
    I hope you manage to make the trip this year, I would go back tomorrow!
    Regards
    Chris

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    • Please accept my apologies for not responding before, I have only just picked up that you left the comment. Thanks, Cuba is a wonderful country to visit, I can only recommend that you go before things change too much. Best regards Chris

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  5. Great post, Chris! As a photographer with a limited amount of time in my upcoming trip to Havana, I am diligently figuring out what I want to shoot (and looking forward to the surprise shots I am not anticipating).

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