Lumix Diaries Goes To Cuba
Lumix Diaries Goes to Cuba With A Photo Lesson A Day
One of the things I want to start doing is sharing more information about how I shoot certain images. Our Natural Exposures Invitational Photo Tours keep me on the road taking pictures for as many as ten months of the year. I’m actually shooting more images today than I did during the height of my career in the 90’s and up to 2010. That’s a good thing, and it occurred to me it might be of interest to my readers to share more details on how I’m producing some of the images I come home with. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my Lumix Diaries posts are related to how I’ve changed from traditional DSLR’s and moved to my favorite Micro Four Thirds cameras. However, even though these images were all taken with Lumix gear, any camera system is able to do the same or similar.
With that in mind, I want to introduce what I’ll be calling A Photo Lesson a Day. The idea will be to share at least one image per day while I’m on our tour that has some sort of reason as to why I shot it. This could include a special technique such as panning, or maybe it will be an environmental portrait and how I set it up. Anything is fair game including spontaneous pictures that happen at a moment’s notice. You’ll see an example of that spontaneity on day 4 in Cuba where I was walking the streets of Trinidad and numerous photo opportunities of local, young people walking to school presented themselves.
I’m hopeful I can keep this on schedule. Traveling like we do can be daunting, and finding the time to write about photography will be difficult but I’m going to try. Some of the discussion will revolve around new technology as well as tried and true photography techniques I’ve used over my 40-year career. With that, let’s start with our first day in Cuba.
When traveling, it’s always interesting to get above your subject. I sometimes rent a plane, and once in awhile a helicopter. For those interested, fixed-wing planes are always less expensive than a helicopter. Cheaper yet is to find a great vantage over your subject, which in this case was downtown Havana. We were staying at the Manzana Kempinsky hotel and one of its prime benefits is a gorgeous rooftop bar. Our group agreed to meet for an evening sundowner and to be honest, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about great pictures. That was obvious by the fact I had only brought my Lumix LX10 for people pictures. We had just arrived, I was a bit tired, and the goal was to just get settled into helping our Explorers get ready for our week in Cuba.
But then the sunset started happening. As is the case with virtually all good sunsets, there were lots of fabulous clouds. With the clouds came shafts of light and the sun peeking from behind. Equally exciting was a great view of the Havana skyline with the miniature replica of the U.S Capitol Building—the Cuban version known as El Capitolio—rose above the surrounding buildings like a mini monument to Trump. It was a glorious view of a very interesting icon of the Havana skyline that now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Imagine that, a mini monument to Trump housing science.
Anyway, it was gorgeous. Thankfully my wife Tanya had brought her Lumix FZ300 which has a great panoramic feature where you can pan the skyline as the camera starts firing. It sounds a little crazy, kind of like a machine gun, but boy does it work. So in the example above, I used technology to create an in-the-camera image of a panoramic scene. You can do this with many of the cameras on the market today including several Lumix. You can also do this same technique and move all the accompanying images into a piece of software that stitches them all into one panoramic image. Some might argue this is the best way to do a panoramic. But from what I’ve been getting, that argument would be a tough one to win.
Lightroom is one piece of software that will allow you to shoot many separate pictures and stitch them together. Photoshop is another and there are others as well. But for this first lesson, less was more, and I feel I captured a gorgeous image of the unique and seldom seen Havana skyline. This panoramic feature, unfortunately, is not an option in the “professional” Lumix cameras. It’s hard to believe that by leaving my pro bodies—the G9 and GH5—in the hotel room, I could still borrow my wife’s camera, the FZ300, to get the image I was seeing.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Shoot sunsets/sunrises with clouds in the sky. Nothing is more boring than a bright blue sky, other than a complete cloudy one. Always look for broken clouds.
- I switched the pano direction in the FZ300’s menu to go from left to right since the sky was brightest on the right. Start exposure on the brightest part of the sky then pan to the darkest. The FZ300 and other Lumix cameras lock the exposure on the first frame.
- Don’t shoot something too wide. Middle of the road is the way to go for something that fits on your wall.
Up early for the golden hour, which is at sunrise and lasts about 1-2 hours after. It’s the same for sunsets, only it’s 1-2 hours before sunset and lasts until the sun is gone. That’s a mini lesson in itself. But for today I want to show you how changing your angle can help create an interesting photo out of something not all that exciting.
This morning we took an early walk along the Malecon and stopped at one of the military fortresses built in the 16th century. There wasn’t a lot to photograph, but I wanted to have a record of something interesting. Havana Harbor is surrounded by forts. In fact, the main fortress, La Cabaña or Fort of Saint Charles, which sits atop the hill on the east side, is the largest fortress complex in all of the Americas. But getting an interesting photo of something this big is virtually impossible. So to that end, I break it down into parts and for this shoot, I choose the cannons.
The cannons were fascinating but shooting them eye level was boring. With the idea of making this scene more interesting, I got down low and used the flip-out LCD of the G9 to place the camera at my feet (with a 24mm wide angle). Looking up into the behemoth artillery helped create the feeling of even more size and power. I’ve included a shot of the cannons as you would normally see them and one from ground level. The sky not only added color but it cleared most of the background up. There are a few branches on the right side of the frame from a tree. Most photographers will criticize me for not removing them so the image looks even more beautiful. But that’s not how I do things. If it’s there and I can’t crop it out, I leave it. That’s just part of what’s important to me. Truth and integrity of an image are more important than a scene that is basically phony. Yes, it would look better without the branches, but more importantly, it wouldn’t be real.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Change your angle.
- Always have a wide angle on hand.
Looking for interesting environmental portraits of the people I meet is always a lot of fun. Like the animals I love to photograph, showing your subject in the habitat they live and work can add a lot of interest to an image.
On our travel day to Trinidad, we stopped at the old Dupont mansion along the coast. What a gorgeous, opulent getaway for the Dupont’s. At the top of the building is a luxurious bar overlooking the ocean. As we were waiting for lunch we were entertained by a one-man band who played the saxophone accompanied by his digital sound machine. He was an exceptional sax player and he looked the part. I asked him if myself and the group could photograph him, and he was more than happy to oblige.
The first two examples were shot in a way that included too much of the background. The reason being I was shooting fairly wide with my Lumix LX10. I loved the dark door so I moved him slightly and then zoomed the LX10 lens out to the furthest it would go, 72mm. I then lined Angelo up with the dark door. By using a longer focal length I was able to stand back further from my subject which narrowed the background down to just the door. It worked beautifully.
The second example is the bartender who so graciously served our favorite Cuban drink, mojitos. The bar was visual art and it called for documenting. For me, it’s never enough to have just a scene if there’s a possibility to add the human element. And so I did. To help tell the story that this wasn’t just any bar in any old town, the Havana Club rum was an essential element in the front part of the image. The Havana Club sign, behind the bartender’s head was also intentionally included. It’s not super easy to read but it’s there and it’s an intentional element to this image.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Find an interesting character in their surroundings and then place them for an environmental portrait.
- Don’t always feel like you have to set things up. Sometimes it’s essential and other times not. The saxophone player I shot with no interruption at all. The bartender I asked to have him pause for a moment in front of the bottles of Havana rum.
Today we wake to an early morning in the city of Trinidad. It’s a wonderful place, lots of authentic people, street vendors, kids going to school. By 7:00am the streets are alive and we head out to search for pictures.
The streets were alive and many of the early morning risers were obviously students. Long gone are the days where you can pick students out by the uniforms they wear in the U.S. But in Cuba it’s easy. Once again, to try to make an average scene a bit different, I got down to street level and shot this group of young people on their way to school. This image was captured with the new Leica 8-18mm zoom. For those who are more familiar with full frame numbers that’s a 16-36mm. The 18mm setting gives such a great view and it allowed me to capture the kids on the sidewalk, or I should say their legs, as well as the young lady in the street. This is one of my favorite lenses because of its exceptional wide view. Notice how the left side of the image is all legs, legs that are moving which adds an element of motion to the picture. Had the young lady in the street not been totally visible, this shot most likely would not have worked. The legs on the one side tell the story of a group of young people which the young girl in the street makes obvious. I think it works. It’s one of my favorite pictures from the trip.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Look for everyday life that shows how they do it differently. In Cuba, all children wear consistent school attire.
We made our way back to Havana, and on this day one of the highlights was a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s home in the little town of San Francisco de Paula. Our first trip to Cuba we were unable to see this historic landmark due to a movie being shot there. This year was different and I was excited to finally see it for myself. There is no actual access to the home other than looking through the windows. The reason being that in the early days of this Hemingway museum being open, people coming through were stealing the many things on exhibit, so they shut it down to outside looking in only. For photography, it’s a great advantage since you can shoot through open windows without people milling about mucking up the picture. I loved it and it kept the general, run-of-the-mill thugs from performing their five-finger discount technique. It never surprises me how many low brow people there are on this planet.
My favorite view was looking into Mr. Hemingway’s bedroom. None of the home was overly luxurious, all of it had a modest, pragmatic feel. What I loved about his bedroom was the bookshelf, the typewriter on the top of that bookshelf, the impala mount high on the wall, and his simple single bed. Mr. Hemingway’s typewriter was perched at a suitable height that allowed him to write standing. He had hurt his back in two separate airplane crashes in Africa and was in constant pain. Anyone who has experienced back pain knows it’s typically much more comfortable to stand than to spend time in a chair.
The image above shows pieces of Hemingway’s life. It’s somewhat stark, simple, and gives you a feel for what he must have been like. A simple man who was a wordsmith very few have ever achieved.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Be creative! When I first heard we would not be able to go into the Hemingway house I was disappointed. But being able to point your camera in from the outside, with no tourists mucking up the shot, was a huge bonus. Had all the people on the property been in that house, you would have been hard-pressed for any interesting images. This safeguard, by the Hemingway museum, was genius.
This day was a whirlwind with several interesting stops, but my favorite was Bonitos Farm where we met Omar who was part of the family that harvested tobacco for high-end Cuban cigars. As I said on Facebook when I posted these photos, I have no idea why I wanted to photograph a tobacco farm so badly, but I did. I think it’s mainly due to the fact these people are still doing what their forefathers did for many decades. Unlike our lives in the U.S. where almost everything is mechanized, Omar still does his work with his hands.
As we stepped into the drying barn, we were surrounded by tobacco leaves hanging from the rafters and multiple drying racks. Omar began is tobacco presentation on how the tobacco farming all began. It was obvious this was a typical tourist stop, but that didn’t affect my desire to find just the right place for an interesting environmental portrait. As Omar talked I sorted out the details and settled on the rack of tobacco leaves drying behind him in the background.
During his presentation, he sat down with a weathered board on his lap to show us all how a cigar is made, the special technique of combining three different types of tobacco leaves and rolling them all into one cigar. This was just the prop I was hoping for. An easy but authentic way to place him in front of that wall drying tobacco.
So after his presentation, I had him move his chair over to the wall of drying tobacco and asked him to show us the process of rolling the leaves. As he did this I shot a couple different situations. One looking down at his work, another looking up. Some I came in tight, and my favorite was shot with him as a small part of the overall scene.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Pick an interesting background that tells a story for your environmental portrait.
- Make sure you have good lighting. I used the soft light coming in through the barn doors and placed my subject so it was coming in from his right side. Sidelight or backlight is always more interesting than front lighting.
- Shoot wide as well as up close details.
During my first trip to Cuba, our day at the Cuban National Boxing Gym, Rafel Trejos, was a complete surprise, but it was one of my favorite shoots. If you follow boxing at all you know Cuba is often an Olympic contender, and it was really exciting to get to see their facilities firsthand. The most impressive aspect was, it wasn’t impressive. Just the opposite in fact, and that’s what was impressive. Our Cuban guide Vicki surprised us as we walked the streets of Havana and casually walked into a literal “hole in the wall” and into boxing history. That was our first trip so I was excited to return. The short video below was shot by my wife Tanya with the Lumix FZ300.
On this day we had a lot of sun and the gym is open-air, so it was imperative to find a place to shoot the boxers outside the harsh light. You can see in the video what we had to work with as far as lighting. I asked a couple of the boxers to pose for our cameras. I took them into the shade of the tin roof over the boxing ring and placed them next to a punching bag for an interesting element that helped show where we were. The first image below I made the mistake of the having the upper left corner including bright, open sky. This is always a great way to take the viewer out of the image.
I selected the second boxer and repositioned him where there was no sky in the frame at all. I think you can easily see how your eyes stay within the frame in the second photo, keeping our attention on the subject, the boxer, and his surroundings.
It was another great day with some very energetic young athletes. I must say that I had never shot boxing before and it was a challenge to keep the focus on the face of one boxer known as Mr. Reggae. I was told he’s the current Cuban National Champion that also sings reggae. He had a CD for sale which I purchased. Haven’t had time to check it out yet.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Telephotos are great for portraits that blur the background. Micro Four Thirds is often criticized for having too much depth of field but all I do, when I need as shallow depth of field as possible, is bring out a longer lens.
On our last day in Cuba, we all got up early for an opportunity to learn the technique known as panning. The old cars in Havana make great subjects. My favorite lens for general travel photography is the new Leica 12-60mm, and that was the lens I chose for this morning.
To get a good pan you need to use a slow shutter speed. Although I typically shoot in Program mode, for panning I like to set the shutter speed manually, so in this case I used Shutter Priority with a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second.
Using a slow shutter speed created the blurry background that panning is known for. The idea of a good pan is to use a shutter speed that is slow enough to blur the background as you sweep the camera in the direction of your subject, in this case, old cars.
The smoother you are in all your actions, the more successful you’ll be with panning. Keep in mind that the technique is almost never perfect, so you have to shoot a lot of frames. But that’s why it feels like Christmas when you get a really nice one.
A Lesson A Day Tips:
- Add motion to a still image with panning.
- Remeber the rule of thumb for sharp pictures that states: Shutter speed equal to or greater than the lens you’re shooting. Now break that rule by using a shutter speed less than the lens you’re shooting to create that beautiful soft background that makes a still image look like it’s speeding.
Wrapping Up Cuba
On the last afternoon, we visited the Fototeca de Cuba, created in 1986 to preserve, study, and promote the country’s photographic patrimony and create a space for the promotion of international photography. The Fototeca is an archive with a vast and valuable collection of documents; it is also a museum with the widest and most valuable collection of Cuban photography known, and it functions as a gallery with rooms for temporary exhibitions for works that don’t belong to the permanent collection. Before arriving in Cuba our Cuban photography guide Vicki had contacted them about our group donating used cameras that could be used by students and others working within the museum.
Several of our Natural Exposures Explorers donated amazing cameras. A young lady named Conchita Tamayo, assistant to the director, was extremely excited to have options that were going to allow her to document a large stack of photo books for museum archives.
We’re hoping we might get a chance to work with these folks in the future.
Finally, as I mentioned at the top of this blog piece, I was hoping to stay up with this post during my time in Cuba. Unfortunately, as I had feared it was just too much. I’m now in Svalbard, Norway and working on a new project. But if you can all bear with me I’ll try to do more of these blog posts on the many trips and shoots I do. Let me know what you think and if you have any questions in the comments below. And also, if you feel this blog is of value, please tell your interested friends, colleagues, or whoever. If you have contact with other photo forums such as DPReview or others, please share this with them and others. Thanks in advance.
Just for those who might wonder, none of my images are manipulated in any way. All are virtually exactly as they were straight from the camera. I don’t use Photoshop or any other software that allows for manipulation of an image. I do allow for minor color correction, cropping, and retrieval of highlights if needed. The software I use for keeping track of my entire 1 million+ image library is Mylio. I sometimes use DXO PhotoLab for noise reduction and highlight recovery when needed. You can see more of my work on my Instagram account labled with the hastags #nophotoshop and #realphoto