Discovering Cuba with X Series

X-Photographer strip BLACK

By Daniel Malikyar

Wandering the streets of Havana felt like I had hopped in a time machine and turned the dial back 50 years. Avoiding tourist areas at all costs always provides an interesting experience, and we did all we could to experience the real side of the city each day.dscf1567My favorite part about Havana was the wide variety of subjects scattered throughout the city. It seemed as if every corner I turned there was something new, whether it was a Dalmatian contently sitting on a gritty front porch or a bike taxi that seemed to ride by just in time for perfect light, it seemed as if there was always something that caught my eye.dscf1810I particularly enjoyed shooting the neighborhoods that surrounded the capitol building, Capitolio. I did just about everything in my power to capture the lifestyle of the locals with this interesting structure in the background. From persuading locals two stories above to give us permission to shoot from their balconies, to running behind cars, to playing soccer with local kids to get their approval, I took all measures to capture various perspectives of the Capitolio with fresh subjects in the foreground on each occasion. Thankfully I had a wide variety of range of FUJINON glass to pair with my X-Pro2 and X-T1; the XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS and XF10-24mmF4 R OIS were my go-to lenses for these photos.dscf8130Another one of my favorite locations in Cuba was Barrio Chino, or China Town. This area was very unique and boasted what I called the Cuban version of New York’s iconic Flat Iron building. I immediately loved this spot after catching an incredible golden hour that saw the sun light up the surrounding area of the building with a warm, glowing light that made for some of the best shots on my X-Pro2 XF10-24mmF4 combo from the trip.dscf1644One of the most noteworthy elements of Havana are the many random puddles that form throughout alleys that provided mirror-like reflections of the colorful cityscapes, classic cars, and great city vibes. The locals would stare at me in confusion when I would stop traffic to kneel down and use the tilt-screen on the X-T1 XF10-24mmF4 combo to capture perfect angles of the glassy puddle reflections.dscf1990As I was composing a reflection shot with my X-T1 on an overcast afternoon among a vibrant alleyway, my cousin called for me and told me I had to stop whatever I was doing and see how beautiful a baby was down the street. My first instinct was to continue to try and get my shot as that sounded a little off, but I got up and quickly walked around the block to catch the little girl and her father just before they were going to enter a home. The young dad had his daughter in his arms, and we she turned around she looked like something out of a National Geographic cover. I had never seen eyes like hers. They had a bright aqua tint of blue that could be seen from a block away. He kindly let me snap a few photographs, and I every time I looked into my electronic viewfinder of my X-Pro2 and I couldn’t believe how stunning this little girl’s features were. Cuba is full of surprises… this experience was a sure reminder of that.dscf1186I’ve never really been an advocate of guided tours under any circumstances. Cuba is one of those destinations that only has so much information that can be found online. In order to experience and capture it properly, you can’t really have a comfort zone. You have to be willing to put yourself out there with a positive and friendly vibe and hope for the best in most instances. We were even invited into a family gathering for drinks in a broken down backyard after approaching a couple locals in hopes of entering their compound to find something interesting to shoot. I lost count of the amount of complexes, homes, and lots we entered (all after asking what seemed like owners or tenants). These were the best memories, and provided some of the best perspectives that will be extremely difficult to replicate.dscf1189One hot afternoon the sunset was quickly approaching, and we were determined to find a rooftop vantage point to capture the moment the light brought warmth to the tattered cityscape of old Havana. After entering a building and passing by locals on each story, all with wide smiles of confusion but acceptance on their faces, we made it towards the top floor. When I looked down, there was the unique spiral staircase I had ever seen. I captured an organic image of the staircase with my X-Pro2 XF10-24mmF4 combo and we made for the roof. Unfortunately there are not very many tall buildings in Cuba; making it a bit difficult to get a great view of the sun setting on the water with the cityscape in the foreground. I completely forgot about the shot I had anticipated when several kids entered through the roof and showed us their pigeon traps, introducing us to some of their birds. I had never seen anything like this, and it really made me appreciate how a simple lifestyle brought joy to these kids. There were no iPads, no PlayStations, it was all about going out and having fun with the neighborhood kids like the old days.dscf1582Growing up, I’ve always loved the game of soccer. I’ve played my entire life, and jumped in on just about every pick up game we came across. Towards the later end of the afternoon we decided to check out a neighborhood called Citio just outside of Havana. Apparently this neighborhood was extremely dangerous for tourists, and upon entering all eyes were on us. After passing by a few young kids playing soccer, I hopped in passed the ball around with them. The ball they had might as well have been a rag… it was completely trashed and lopsided. I offered to buy the kids a new ball, and the look on these kids’ faces was something I’ll never forget… we walked almost 2 miles looking for a store that was open. Along the way, the kids seemed to know all the other youngsters in the area, and our group grew with every few blocks we walked. When we finally found a store with someone inside, we begged the tenant to open her store for us to buy the ball for the kids. My friend Joon and I each bought them a ball that were less than $20 USD each, but it may as well have been a brand new MacBook Pro for these kids. They couldn’t believe it and were so excited to get out and play with one another. Even though we skipped shooting for a couple hours, that was one of the best memories from our trip.dscf1381In conclusion, I highly recommend giving Cuba a visit before it becomes increasingly commercialized. Your experience in the country is up to you. I spent the majority of my time in Old Havana in hopes of capturing an unseen photo, and there are tons of interesting places to see. I was lucky enough to capture my experiences behind my FUJIFILM X Series gear, which never disappointed once. With all the impromptu moments, seconds of good light, and organic situations the X-Pro2 and X-T1 paired with a wide variety of FUJINON glass executed everything I could have asked for.

Light for Life: Solar Energy in Nepal

By Kristin Lau

Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.

2.3 billion people worldwide lack access to reliable electricity. In Nepal roughly 80% of the population live in rural mountainous regions that have little to no access to electricity. With the devastating earthquakes last year (April 25th and May 12th 2015) the citizens of Nepal were left with a broken country, 9,000 people killed, tens of thousands of people injured and over 2.5 million homeless.

In Nepal, rooftop solar panels are being used in households to provide power for daily electrical appliances and activities; at schools to power computers, laptops and cellphones; and at hospitals and health posts to power patient needs in the rural mountainous communities. Solar integration for agricultural purposes has recently been implemented throughout various parts of rural Nepal to aid in the irrigation and harvest of crops year round.

My goal with my photography is to raise awareness around humanitarian and environmental issues globally. I focus on documenting the candid and capturing moments that inspire a call-to-action. Through a partnership with Photographers Without Borders and SunFarmer, a non-profit organization focused on delivering solar power to developing countries, I returned to Nepal in October 2015 to capture the impact of solar technology and build awareness around the work of SunFarmer on local Nepali communities enduring the difficulties of life without electricity due to energy poverty.

The country continues to rebuild with the citizens of Nepal struggling to survive in the midst of the current political crisis that has left the country with a limited access to petrol, medicine, cooking gas and other essential supplies.

Sanepa Chowk, Kathmadu, Nepal.
Sanepa Chowk, Kathmadu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.

How did you get started as a photographer?

My inspiration for photography began in early childhood when I travelled with my family throughout Asia. I took my first film photography course in high school at the Hong Kong International School, while living and studying abroad in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t until years later after working in the financial services sector and living close to 10-years overseas, did I find my hand in photography. Over the years while living abroad, I’ve gained an understanding and deep appreciation and respect for diverse cultures and places.

Community member, Lakuri Danda health post, Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal.
Community member, Lakuri Danda health post, Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal.

In the pursuit of my passion, I’ve travelled extensively throughout South East Asia with my partner and with a camera always by my side ready to document my environment, culture and people that I encountered. With my photography, I seek out stories that raise awareness and address social, humanitarian, environmental and cultural issues to evoke positive change for the natural world and its inhabitants.

Charikot, Dolakha, Nepal.
Charikot, Dolakha, Nepal.

How did you get involved with the SunFarmer project in Nepal?

The SunFarmer project came about through a partnership with Photographer’s Without Borders (PWB), a non-profit collective of journalists, photographers, filmmakers and passionate storytellers with a mission to inform and inspire positive change by visually communicating the ways that grassroots initiatives are addressing problems in their communities. I was assigned to document solar energy solutions for SunFarmer in Nepal.

SunFarmer is a solar engineering non-profit that installs solar energy in hospitals, health clinics, schools and agricultural sites throughout the developing world. Nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide are without access to electricity. Without electricity, a modern quality of life is impossible and the growth and prosperity of a country is severely hindered. SunFarmer has a mission to reduce this figure by providing best in class solar at an affordable rate to schools, farms and health posts. The team’s goal is to provide electricity access to seven million people by 2020. In Nepal, SunFarmer has partnerships with various stakeholders that include private organizations, NGOs, government organizations, banks, bilateral organizations, and microfinance institutions. The basic criteria when choosing to work with these organizations are like-mindedness, a vision to provide access to reliable and affordable electricity over a long period of time and access to transmission lines in areas that are difficult to reach often due to rough geographical terrain in the rural parts of the countryside.

Since SunFarmer started in Nepal in 2014, the team has successfully implemented over 100 projects in the country. The value SunFarmer works with is to provide the best in class, affordable energy solutions to their clients. Many developing countries are facing similar situations to that of Nepal with regards to energy and electricity crisis and are equally as important to focus on next. The team is still weighing out the various different countries to focus on next and has made a global announcement on their commitment to rebuilding Nepal at the Clinton Global Initiative. Their commitment will bring 1.5 MW of solar powered electricity to at least 2 countries in the next 3 years.

SOS Children's Home, Joripati, Bhaktapur, Nepal.
SOS Children’s Home, Joripati, Bhaktapur, Nepal.

How do you go about determining your focus for a project of this size?

My goal for partnering with SunFarmer was to capture the impact of solar technology as Nepal continues to rebuild after the earthquakes that hit the country earlier in the year.

Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.

The vision I had was to share a story that chronicles the lives of the Nepalese families and local community members that we visited throughout Nepal’s countryside and to show their shared hardships, stories and experiences. Through a series of photo essays, I illustrate the struggles faced by the citizens of Nepal as the country continues to rebuild and how solar energy is changing their lives.

Dhan Kumari KC, Lakuri Danda health post volunteer, Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal.
Dhan Kumari KC, Lakuri Danda health post volunteer, Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal.

I’ve lived in many of the world’s major cities and remote areas of Southeast Asia and it has been an invaluable experience that has become a strong influence in the way I shoot and go about determining my focus for long-term projects. Before I pick up the camera, I enjoy seeking out new places and diving into unfamiliar scenarios where I find my way by building strong relationships with the people I end up encountering.

Kathmandu Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kathmandu Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Over the years, my curiosity to explore has taken me to the top of the world on a month-long expedition trek across the Everest Region, to the bottom of the Red Sea free diving in Egypt and on to studying meditation and traditional Muay Thai boxing in the mountains of northern Thailand.

My project with SunFarmer took me back to Nepal for a second time. The first time I visited was in April 2012. I landed in Kathmandu on my birthday. My partner and I stayed in Thamel where we purchased our gear and equipment for an expedition trek. It was an incredible, life changing experience. We started at the famous ‘world’s most dangerous airport’ in Lukla, acclimatized in Namche Bazaar Village, crossed the Chola Pass, summited Gokyo Ri and Island Peak and made our way to the Everest Base Camp and back to Kathmandu in one piece.

We ended up spending three months in Nepal and I had a genuine connection with the people, community and country. The Nepalese are a very special kind of people with a strong sense of dignity, compassion and unity.

Celebrating Indra Jatra Festival, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Celebrating Indra Jatra Festival, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal.

What did you do to prepare yourself for the trip to Nepal?

Of critical importance to successful assignment photography is the research you do before you book that plane ticket. The more legwork and planning done upfront, the better your images will be when you land.

My first point of contact for the project was SunFarmer’s Director of Impact & Partnerships, who is based in New York. SunFarmer has operations in the US, Canada, and Nepal. Planning began with logistics and safety discussions in late February 2015. Over several months we coordinated the solar site visits at SunFarmer and with SunFarmer’s partner organizations throughout Nepal’s countryside.

Temporary health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.
Temporary health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.
Inside the temporary health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.
Inside the temporary health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.

There are several factors to consider when working on location and in a developing country. Not surprisingly, the first avenue of information is from the Internet.  I have a quick look at tourist information and government sites, travel advisory boards, official country tourism boards, news outlets for the most updated look at the country’s political standing and issues, guide books such as the Lonely Planet Guide and Rough Guides for high level country profile information, sites to see and places to stay, and travel sites like WikiTravel, VirtualTourist and Trip Advisor. It is also extremely useful to take a good look at the best time of year to head over to your destination.

Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Collapsed health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.
Collapsed health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.

With this information, I also prepare a concept and shot list with details on the shoot objectives, location, setting and contact list. Purchasing a local map and marking off sites and locations of importance will be extremely helpful to ensure you get all the shots you need for the project and your creative curiosity.

Rebuilding the health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.
Rebuilding the health post in Lakuri Danda, Dolakha, Nepal. Dolakha district is one of the hardest hit April 25th Nepal earthquake disaster zones in Nepal.

What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome while planning the trip?

The biggest obstacle was looking at the best time of year to visit. In Nepal, there are two preferred times a year for travel. Peak season, particularly for trekking is from late September to early December when the air is crisp and fresh with clear skies for the best mountain views.  From the end of February to mid-April, it is warm and dry; the rhododendrons are in flower and bloom. This season brings a second wave of visitors. The summer months of June to August are also the monsoon season in Nepal and not an ideal time to visit. The weather is hot and wet. It rains almost everyday with occasional thunderstorms in the evenings.

Another factor to consider is the festival season. Throughout the Nepalese annual calendar, there are several religious holidays. Dashain is a very popular festival in Nepal. It is the longest and most auspicious festival celebrated. In Nepal, it is a celebration of family. People return home from all over the world to spend time with their family and loved ones. All government offices, educational institutions and businesses remain closed during the festival period that falls in September or October and lasts for fifteen days.  Making a visit during the festival season can be great for street and travel photography, but is not always the ideal time to visit while on assignment. Many of SunFarmer’s partner organizations remained closed during this time and we had to work around the festival schedule.

Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex Sundhara, Kathmandu Nepal.
Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex
Sundhara, Kathmandu
Nepal.
Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex Sundhara, Kathmandu Nepal.
Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex
Sundhara, Kathmandu
Nepal.

Travel and logistics are equally as important to work out long before the project starts. We had to secure well in advance a four-wheel drive vehicle and experienced driver to take us across Nepal’s countryside and up the mountainside to visit the agricultural solar sites and solar water pumps that lift water from the valley below to a tank above the community on a hill. Access to water from tap stands outside each house gives families back time they would otherwise use for collecting water and gives farmers water to irrigate their crops.

How are solar photovoltaic systems used and are they anymore beneficial than the more traditional energy gathering techniques such as hydro or wind for Nepal?

A solar photovoltaic system or PV system is a power system that harnesses the power of the sun which is composed of particles of energy called photons that is converted into electricity via solar panels to power electrical loads. Simply put, solar panels absorb and convert sunlight into usable electricity.

Sanepa, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Sanepa, Kathmandu, Nepal.

SunFarmer Nepal team has noted that Nepal has around 720-740 MW of hydro power plants installed in the country and import around 200MW of electricity from India. There is a large demand of around 1300 – 1400 MW of energy for consumption. The supply and demand clearly doesn’t match and there is a large energy deficit in the country. Nepal has not been able to upscale their hydropower installations to meet its citizen’s demands because the demand for energy grows roughly 10% every year. An additional problem is that currently there is only one hydro station that has storage capacity in the country. The remaining hydro plants are run-of-river power. So during the dry season Nepal only has 25% of energy generation leaving the population with around 12-16 hours of load shedding (scheduled blackouts) during the dry months that runs for more than six months. This is why it is important to have a healthy energy mix of renewable energy sources in the country to address the energy crisis, to be independent and to be climate resilient. With the earthquake, most of the hydro stations were damaged. Nepal lost around 150MW of power due to the earthquake.

What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome while filming in remote locations?

In Nepal, 80% of the population lack access to reliable electricity and live in the rural parts of the country. Naturally, the biggest challenge we were faced with was keeping our equipment charged and ready to shoot at all times. A few of the project sites we had on the agenda required a days worth of travel and off-road driving up Nepal’s countryside.

For the project, we had arranged in advance with community directors at each of SunFarmer’s partner locations to join us for the site visits. SunFarmer provided me with a translator and solar operations engineer to interview our subjects. Once on site, I setup my equipment for a series of interviews with the local community members and a series of portraits to follow.

We shot under all environmental conditions, rain or shine, indoors and outdoors. We were blessed with good weather during the tail end of the monsoon season with sunny skies and little rainfall. It became a bit of a challenge to work with the changing sunshine. While shooting outdoors and interviewing our subjects, we had to wait several times for the clouds to pass and the sun to shine to keep a consistent exposure. For portraits, we shot mostly indoors or in a shaded area outside with a 3” Octabox providing warm light to envelop the sitter in their natural environment.

How does travel affect what you bring to shoot?

I try to be a minimalist when it comes to things to carry while traveling on assignment. When I traveled throughout Asia for over 2 years, I had with me two camera bodies (one for backup or video), a laptop for quick edits and social media updates, a cobra flash, a 3’’ octabox, tripod, light stand, transmitter/receiver, extra camera batteries, CF cards, rechargeable AA batteries and a reflector. Today, I wouldn’t go without my Fujifilm X-T1 with X Mount lenses and Voltaic Systems 17-watt solar charging kit.

Traveling has taught me to shoot creatively in difficult situations, think on my feet and problem solve various scenarios that come up. Oftentimes, you will be uncomfortable, but as long as you keep your equipment close, stay safe and keep a flexible attitude and an open mind, travel is the best kind of education that will take you to some of the most intriguing and wonderful places the world has to offer.

Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebuilding Nepal in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex Sundhara, Kathmandu Nepal.
Chinatown Shopping Centre, Churchil Complex
Sundhara, Kathmandu
Nepal.

What advice would you give to someone interested in documentary photography?

When you first arrive at your destination, begin to quickly familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. Don’t be afraid to walk around while always being cautious of your surrounds and self-aware. Look for interesting vantage points and characters, and keep in mind when the sun rises and sets to scope out areas the day before for where you will need to be during the ‘magic hour.’

Be present, shoot in the moment and become inspired by the rich, diverse cultures of the people that inhabit the world. Everyday we are faced with environmental and societal concerns that challenge us to look inward, encourage us to re-evaluate our actions towards one another and inspire us to look closely at the world we reside in. Be true to yourself and follow your curiosity and passion.

Patan Durbar Square, Patan, Nepal.
Patan Durbar Square, Patan, Nepal.
Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal.

In Nepal, the streets are so full of life with people who are proud to share their stories and life experiences if approached. Their strength of character shines through and it was important to me to capture this in the best light possible. With every photo you take, try to find a way to create images that humanize various situations and cultures. With my photography, I hope to open avenues of understanding between people and cultures and inspire positive change out of difficult situations.

Developing countries must expand access to reliable and modern energy services if they are to reduce poverty and improve the health of their citizens. Nepal is currently facing a petrol crisis on top of their electricity crisis. As a landlocked country, Nepal depends heavily on India for the import of goods into the country. Nepal is facing a shortage in fuel stock with the continuous blockade of supply at the Indian border.

The sad reality I witnessed by working alongside SunFarmer is that the current petrol crisis is worse than the April 25th 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the country. Nepal received a lot of support globally with regards to earthquake relief. The earthquake has caused around USD $7 billion in damages, and it is estimated that the current cumulative loss from the blockage significantly exceeds that amount.

Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kupondole, Kathmandu, Nepal.

About Kristin Lau

All images in this photo series were shot on the Fujifilm X-T1. To view more of Kristin’s images from Nepal and project “Light for Life: Solar Energy in Nepal,” visit her website: www.kristinlau.com

Kristin Lau is an award-winning Toronto-based documentary photographer from Queens, New York. She’s focused on social documentary, portraiture, and underwater and aerial subjects. Kristin seeks out stories that raise awareness about the environment to evoke positive change for the natural world and its inhabitants.

DeLorme inReach used to track and send location points for the cracked health post in Boch, Dolakha, Nepal.
DeLorme inReach used to track and send location points for the cracked health post in Boch, Dolakha, Nepal.

Follow and connect with Kristin Lau

Twitter: @kristinannelau
Facebook: /kristinlauphotography
Instagram: @kristinannelau

What’s in the bag on the road

The essentials to traveling for a photography assignment in Nepal's countryside, Syangja, Nepal.
The essentials to traveling for a photography assignment in Nepal’s countryside, Syangja, Nepal.
  • Voltaic Systems V72 portable battery and 17-watt solar panel
  • Fujifilm X-T1 Camera Body
  • Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R prime lens
  • Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R prime lens
  • Fujifilm Fujinon XF 50-140mm F/2.8 LM OIS WR
  • Canon 5D Mark III Camera Body
  • Canon EF L series 24-70mm f/2.8 lens
  • Canon EF L series 16-35mm lens
  • Profoto Softbox RFi 3” Octabox
  • Profoto RFi Speedlight Speedring
  • Portable Light stand
  • Canon 430EX II Speedlight
  • Hanel transmitter/receiver
  • Manfrotto 222 joystick head
  • Sennheiser G3 Wireless lavaliere
  • Zoom H4N External Recorder
  • Vanguard Alta Pro 264 Tripod
  • inReach DeLorme SE 2-way satellite communication device
  • Extra camera batteries, AA batteries, CF Cards, SD Cards, and chargers
  • Laptop, Hard Drive, USB Stick
  • Lens filters / Lens cleaning kit
  • First Aid kit
  • Dry Bag
  • Notepad / Pen
  • Waterproof shell / towel
  • Bug Spray
  • Super Glue / Duct Tape / Electrical Tape
  • Head Lamp

Cuba with X-Photographer Chris Upton

20150309_cuba_2804

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?

20150316_cuba_4060

20150304_havana_0685

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?

20150304_havana_0759-Edit

20150307_cuba_2145

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?

20150306_cuba_1750-Edit-Edit

20150307_untitled_1960-Edit

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?

20150304_havana_1171

20150303_havana_0098

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.

20150310_cuba_5049-Edit

20150309_cuba_2777

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.