Cuban revolution

A family holiday to colourful Cuba was always going to become a photo-fest but not in the way Andrew James was expecting. Discover why he had to adapt his approach to photography at the end of day one...

By Andrew James

Family holidays can take many forms. A wet weekend on the Welsh coast, a week in sunny Spain, or a month backpacking across the Sahara! Okay, the last one is a bit more unlikely although I’m sure some globetrotting family has tackled it! I think family holidays are vital for us photographers. It’s not always possible from a time or financial point-of-view to go on a dedicated photo trip, so the family holiday has to double as a photo shoot too.

Clearly, the needs of the family and our 'perfectly reasonable' demands as keen photographers don’t always go hand in glove. So when, Amanda and I agreed on Cuba as our intended destination for the summer, I was rather pleased. Cuba had been on my wish list for some time but I hadn’t got round to going. I also knew that it was a country on the edge of change as the legendary Fidel Castro relinquishes power and the needs of the country inevitably mean that some of the old revolutionary zest has faded. I wanted to see the place before it changed too much.

So off we went. Me, Amanda and 11-year-old Ted. We flew from Gatwick on October 2013 and arrived in Havana some 10 hours later in what appeared to be circa 1950! You really do travel back in time when you go to Cuba. The plan was to spend a couple of days in Havana then head off in a hire car to see some of the rest of the country before ending up on a little offshore island to unwind for a few days before heading home. Driving in Cuba, we were told, was an experience in itself. The roads were not in a good shape, there were very few road signs as they were used to patch up houses, and the hire cars themselves had seen better days. But, we figured, it would be an adventure!

I packed as much camera gear as I could. One DSLR body (my older Canon 5D), a 17-40mm wide-angle zoom, a 70-200mm telephoto, my beloved 85mm portrait lens, and some odds and sods in terms of accessories. I wanted to take a spare body. But I had to travel incredibly light so, instead I stuffed an Olympus E-PL3 compact system camera into what little space was left, and figured I had more than enough to keep me happy for the trip. Havana on day one was an intoxicating and chaotic cauldron. I wanted to photograph everything – the crumbling but beautiful buildings, the dusty back streets, the patched up American cars that coughed and spluttered their way along the pot-holed roads. We walked and I happily snapped away on the 5D.

It was hot, dusty, and occasionally the overzealous sellers who rely on Western tourists for their livelihoods were a tad annoying but I was in photo heaven. I didn’t go too mad with the camera as it was only day one but there was no conflict between my snapping and Amanda’s sightseeing. It all blended happily together. This was the perfect family-cum-photography holiday! Day one photography was very much a street photography fest. I had promised myself that I wouldn't become obsessed with the old American cars that Cuba is famed for but really you can't help it. I know they've been photographed many times before but they are so beautiful, battered, and brilliant that as a photographer you can't ignore them.

The next series of shots were all taken in Havana using my DSLR on my first morning...

The light wasn't great for the shot below but the setting was. I loved this old American car with its bonnet propped up randomly parked down a dilapidated street. I just had to wait for the right sort of person to conveniently walk into the frame. Luckily an old Cuban obliged. He walked through my shot and gave me a cheeky grin as he passed by me.

I spend a lot of time waiting for that 'right' person to walk into frame and here's another one. I always want a character, someone who seems to match the setting. In this case, I liked the way the old woman's skirt went with the faded paintwork of the building. And isn't that old door amazing? This is just a typical back street in Havana – a still beautiful shadow of its former self. Not unlike myself!

The first two shots are taken with my wide-angle zoom but this one is with the 70-200mm at about 150mm. I can tell this green car is a taxi - as it's polished and in better condition than the first ones I photographed. It is absolutely amazing that the Cubans keep these vehicles running the way they do and it's testament to their ingenuity. I used the telephoto lens to flatten the perspective. Focusing on the car, the out of focus ornate front of the building leads you up to the vehicle and the group in the distance are really important to the composition, just holding interest in the image up to that left-hand corner where a huddle of locals are deep in animated conversation.

Right in the centre of Havana the cars seem to endlessly chug passed. You could be forgiven for thinking that every single one is an old American Classic but that's not the case. Here I focused with the telephoto on the main green car in the centre, allowing the one on the right that's cut in half and the tail end of the one leaving the frame on the left to act as a suitable framing device. It's a shame there's another less interesting car right at the back but they're hard to avoid.

Now you have noticed this next image is a square crop. I haven't done this in camera, I've done it back at the computer and it works better in square than the original format because it cuts out a lot the building which, like quite a lot Havana, was clad in scaffolding. In fact, many of the buildings are slowly falling down. People live in them because they have nowhere else but they are highly dangerous! Using my wide-angle again, I was able to get this really angular composition and I love the yellowy-orange of the main car and the red one behind against the drab concrete.

I could show you another dozen shots of colourful cars from Havana's streets all taken on my DSLR either using my 17-40mm wide zoom or the 70-200 telephoto but you've got the idea now. Despite every good intention of NOT getting addicted to the colourful cars I couldn't help it - I was just sucked in. I know they've all been photographed before but they hadn't been photographed by me so I enjoyed myself. Don't be afraid of shooting what others might consider a clich é. I always think it's a cliché for a reason!

I arrived back at my hotel with a memory card full of great photos and was quite happy until.... (cue some dramatic music) I went onto the balcony to shoot some kids playing on the street below. I took the photo you can see on the right and then the viewfinder went black. I was puzzled for a second and then I realised the mirror had become dislodged. Gulp! My camera was knackered. My original 5D was a bit of a war horse and we'd been through a lot together. But it had never let me down. Suddenly after a day out on the streets of Havana in this impossibly photogenic place it decided to die! I fiddled around with it but it was no good. My stomach turned over and I sat on the hotel bed with a look of thunder on my face. There hadn't been room for a spare body so I had taken a chance and the gamble hadn't paid off. If it hadn't been a family holiday I would have had that spare but as it was, I'd made a tough (maybe stupid) decision. 

Havana isn't exactly stuffed with digital camera repair shops, plus we were heading off early the next morning. I was screwed. I actually felt like crying. What a big girl's blouse. The next morning I stared at the camera for a bit. I'm not sure if I thought it would miraculously fix itself or whether I was just coming to terms with the fact I had no choice other than pack it and the lenses away for the rest of the trip. Either way, I pulled out the little silver Olympus E-PL3 compact system camera and reminded myself I had a couple of useful lenses with it - a wide, a prime, and long zoom. Amanda was going to use this camera while I shot away on my DSLR, but suddenly the Olympus was elevated up the ranks.

Pull yourself together
I was on holiday and I had to pull myself together. In the blunt but frankly honest words of Amanda my supportive girlfriend: "It's only a bloody camera and you've got another one so what are crying about?" What was I worrying about? This was a challenge. I had to change my shooting style to suit the smaller camera and the lenses I had with it but actually the E-PL3 is a really good camera. As we drove out of Havana in our rather battered looking hire car I resolved to stop moping over the loss of the DSLR and embrace the CSC...

I am a fan of CSC's for a number of good reasons but I also think they have their faults. If you've read my FotoRant on this matter, you'll already know this. Being small is a pro and a con. It makes them light and unobtrusive but it can also make them a bit fiddly and awkward to use. It varies from model to model of course. The Olympus E-PL3 is a little fiddly and I'd occasionally press one button expecting it to do something and then it'd jump to something I didn't want. For this reason I vowed to work as simply as I could. I switched it to A (Aperture-priority) so I could control the aperture, set it on Auto ISO, and then made sure that I could be precise with focusing with a single focus point. For me, this was really important. Whatever happened, I wanted to be sure my main point of focus was going to occur where I decided and now where the camera decided. In theory, this left me with only composition and where I was focusing to really worry about – although here and there a bit of exposure compensation would probably be needed.

After a four-hour drive along the Cuban highway - dodging men holding turkeys while standing in the fast lane and avoiding potholes the size of Wales, we arrived at out first destination, Spiritus Sanctus, a small but lively town. It was late afternoon and by the time we had found where we were supposed to be staying and discovered the hotel had recently collapsed and then found somewhere else for the night, the sun was low in the sky. I grabbed the little Olympus and snapped this shot (right) in the centre of the town square. From the moment I reviewed the shot I thought everything was going to be okay. Who needs a DSLR? The light was fantastic, the colours vibrant, and the people were everywhere. I literally ran around the town with my little camera. No hefty camera bag to slow me down or a tripod to get in the way. Just me, the E-PL3 and a 12mm lens – oh and a little detachable viewfinder that I find really useful. I prefer to be able to look through a viewfinder when I am composing because it allows me to shut out the surrounding mess. Some CSC don't have viewfinders so you have to work via the LCD. It's not impossible to take decent pictures but I don't like it as much.

Around the corner from the first shot, I spotted an old Cuban guy leaning back against his car. Yeah, I know - a car again! There were another two guys near him chatting to each other. Do I just take a shot or do I ask? On this occasion something made me ask. I nodded, smiled, held up the little camera and made a gesture that was meant to imply, 'is it okay for me to take your picture?' The old guy didn't smile back or really even move. He just gave a quick little nod back which I took to mean - go ahead. So I did!

[INSERT-Cuban man on car]

I have no doubt that had I been able to use my DSLR I would have grabbed some good shots but being forced to shoot in a different style has yielded some different results. For this image, taken outside the railway station, I think I might have been tempted to zoom in tighter on the girl. But shooting with the CSC and a fixed focal length lens meant that my options were limited to zooming in using my feet! In this case, I opted for this wider composition. I thought there was an amusing connection between the back end of the bus and backside of the slim girl on the telephone. The big shadow being cast by the bus seems to connect the two. I'd point out I thought all this after I'd taken the shot, not particularly at the time. I just liked the colours and the contrast, plus the fact I couldn't recall the last time I saw someone talking on a public telephone! To some degree we all shoot instinctively and the more you shoot, the more composition seems to work at that level.

I could drop in a dozen other images from that single hour running around the town with the little camera. But my point is, you don't need a huge camera or even a huge collection of lenses to grab some good shots. The best approach is often to keep it simple. Would I liked to have had the option of my DSLR? Yes, of course but it wasn't the end of the world and the CSC did a more than adequate job. It still allowed me to be creative with my pictures and come home with enough to fill a Photobook with colourful images of Cuba.

Favourite shot
The next image was taken in a town called Trinidad and it's my favourite taken with the little camera. I'd walked around its cobbled streets with the E-PL3 snapping a few images here and there. When I spotted a Parking sign with a horse tethered not far away, I stopped to take a shot. Out of a nearby house came the horse's owner to see if I needed an equine taxi ride. I didn't but we attempted to chat in our different languages to pass the time of day. After a few minutes I did the 'nod at camera and grin' thing. He nodded back. I was framing up when I noticed his daughter/grandaughter appear in the doorway and add to the picture. The sign, the horse, the patchy coloured walls and the little girl sucking her thumb all came together in a few perfect moments. The little Olympus didn't let me down. I just focused on the man's eyes and pressed the shutter. I was pleased he didn't smile that fake smile you often get when you take peoples' pictures. He wasn't embarrassed, he looked natural and I think even a little proud that I wanted to take a picture of him and his horse. With my picture taken, I showed him it via the LCD panel and he grinned and pointed at the little girl. We shook hands and I went on my way. It's encounters like these that make travel so rewarding and photography such a brilliant way to help hold onto those memories. And I'll say it again – when it comes to photography like some other things in life, size doesn't always matter!

Weirdest photos of the trip!
Okay, so the final two photos don't feel like they fit in with the rest. But I am a great believer in always looking out for the unusual. I hadn't taken a photo for 24-hours as we were on the final few days of our trip on a little tropical island that was basically a beach and a few apartments. Beautiful though it was, I get bored at these places so I picked up the EPL-3 and went for a wander as far as I could around the island. White sand, white sand, shells, seaweed - oh look, Sindy/Barbie* (no idea which it is) wrapped in seaweed! Now this was more interesting. How the poor creature – a symbol of consumerism – had washed up on a tropical beach in the world of communism I don't know but there she was, with tar on her body and salt/sand matting her hair. Initially I took a few shots directly down at her exactly where she lay and played around with a few compositions. She looked like a legless (as in no legs/tail as opposed to drunk) mermaid but I didn't really like the way she was almost lost among the tangle of seaweed. So after shooting the crime scene as it happened I decided to move her and try something new. I picked up her and dropped her on the wet sand while I had a think and as I did, the surf rolled in covered her for a moment. As it peeled back she flipped to one side and it almost looked like she had just been washed up at that very point. I lay down on the sand and shot from ground level with the sea stretching behind

.It's weird I know and slightly disturbing. Like a tropical crime scene. I'm pleased to say that I had walked far enough around the little island for the beach to be utterly deserted as I'm sure I would have got some very odd looks from passers-by. Not that this would have stopped me as it was too good an opportunity to ignore! If you think I'm odd, you're right. But I really think that photos should sometimes surprise or even shock because it isn't all about picturesque scenes and beautiful sunsets.

As I lay down in the sand and waited for the surf to flow across her unblinking eyes I remember thinking to myself how I thought my trip was ruined when my DSLR died sat the end of day one. It wasn't, I just had to rethink how I worked and continue to think creatively and observe the world around me. A camera is just a tool and whatever model we have, if we are thoughtful about our approach we will always be able to take a shot that is more than just a snap. Mind you, the next time I go to Cuba I am definitely still taking a DLSR and a spare body. But I'll take a CSC too...

PS. Anybody fancy a FotoBuzzers trip to Cuba? We could go in search of a few colourful cars, drink mojitas until dawn and then discover whether Barbie is still rolling in the surf! * The management would like to point out that no dolls were harmed in the making of this FotoStory!

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