content: [caption id="attachment_548001" align="alignnone" width="824"] Havana under moody skies from the rooftop bar of La Guarida.[/caption]
Over the past few years, Cuba has become a very popular photography destination, and for good reasons: the “mystique” factor, since travel to Cuba for many photographers has not been an option until recently; the lively Cuban culture, the people, the arts and the architecture are all beautiful; the countryside towns with cobblestone streets, the rural landscapes and the vibrant and colorful urban areas are prime for the photographer’s eye.
How do you get there? If you’re from pretty much anywhere but the United States, you can simply get a visa from your home country and go. If you’re from the U.S., even though direct flights to Cuba have resumed, you need a visa and you have to qualify for one of the 12 categories of approved travel: family visits, journalism, professional research, public performances, athletic events, humanitarian projects and some others, including the “People To People” cultural programs we use as the basis for our photography workshops in Cuba. This method is the easiest way for U.S. citizens to legally and easily travel to Cuba.
A word of caution: As the popularity of travel to Cuba has grown, so too has the number of companies offering tours, and as a photographer you should be careful to ensure that you are going on a trip that will maximize your photo opportunities and minimize hassle.
[caption id="attachment_548003" align="alignnone" width="824"] Broom seller, streets of Trinidad.[/caption]
Cuba is bigger than you think, and in a typical visit it is rather difficult to cover the entire island. We’ll focus on two of my favorite regions to photograph in Cuba.
Cuba For Photographers: Havana
Parque Central Area. So much to do and shoot here. There are locals hanging out, vendors selling foods and other items, dozens and dozens of shiny and colorful old cars and often live outdoor entertainment. You are very near to the Gran Teatro of La Habana, which has just been beautifully restored and is itself a great photo op. Try to get inside, and capture details and grandness of this arts space. Just up the street from here is Cuba’s capitol building. It’s been under construction, so as of this writing be prepared for scaffolding.
The Malecón. This is the seawall, walkway and public area that stretches for about 5 miles from Old Havana to the Vedado neighborhood. Early in the morning, you will find people fishing or doing yoga, and throughout the day, many locals hanging out using one of the WiFi hot spots or just sipping a beer. I have made so many fun images there at all times of day, but my favorite times are very early in the morning (sunrise and just after) and sunset and just after sunset. Speaking of sunset and just after, one of the fun shots to get is setting your camera and tripod up opposite of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and photographing the old American cars as they speed by. A great time to do long exposures showing movement since no filters are needed!
Paseo del Prado. This road stretches from the eastern end of the Malecón to Parque Central, and is a wide boulevard with a tree-lined pedestrian walkway that runs in the center between the two roadways. One of my favorite things to do is photograph from the Malecón at sunrise, and then, when finished, walk slowly up the Prado. You will be able to photograph locals as they congregate and go to school or work. The cars and taxis going by the old buildings are another subject. And there is amazing graffiti on every block. Don’t forget to look up at the balconies, too!
Old American cars. You can do this most anywhere in Cuba, but the opportunities are really good in Havana. From your hotel, you can book an hour with a car and driver for a reasonable fee (cash only). A very simple shoot is to go for a drive and find a cool location with good background to park and photograph the car and the driver. Some places I like are an old church, a colorful old building or perhaps in front of some interesting graffiti.
Another option is to book the car and driver for a couple hours and try many different places. Have the driver take you to Agromercado de 19 y B, the big local produce market. This is a cool place to get photos of people as they are buying and selling local foods. If you do this in the later afternoon, you can time it for a sunset drive along Havana’s Malecón.
[caption id="attachment_548005" align="alignnone" width="824"] Old American car, cobblestone street, Trinidad.[/caption]
La Guarida neighborhood. La Guarida is a restaurant in an old beautiful townhouse built in the early 1900s. My suggestion is to book dinner reservations for about one hour after sunset (it’s very good and very popular, so be sure to do this). Get to the neighborhood about two hours before sunset—all of the surrounding blocks are street photographer’s paradise! About 45 minutes before sunset, head into the building and you will find beautiful architectural scenes and details to shoot. Head up to the rooftop open-air bar about 30 minutes before sunset, have a relaxing cold drink, and get ready to shoot as the sun sets on the city of Havana. Tripods are allowed. Oh, don’t forget to stay for the blue-hour!
Finally, go down one flight on the wrought-iron spiral staircase and have one of the best meals in town. Enjoy all of the amazing artwork that is on display here—it is practically an art museum!
I’m often asked, “How many days should I spend in Havana?” and my answer is “It’s never enough!” I have mentioned a few of my favorite photo ideas here, but there is so much more.
Cuba For Photographers: Trinidad
Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the early 1500s. Here you will find a more laid-back Cuba. Cobblestone streets, colorful old buildings and a generally slower pace make Trinidad a special place for photography. My recommendation is to stay at one of the many “casas particulares” with Hostal Lola being my absolute favorite for its old world charm, perfect location, great service, excellent food, big rooms, privacy and beautiful central courtyard. Hostal Lola is a photo opportunity in itself.
While in Trinidad, there are some things you must do and shoot. First, get up before sunrise. Wake up with the city and walk uphill toward the Church of Santa Ana, which is in ruin but presents great photography potential. Keep walking uphill as far as you can go to the overlook at Hotel Las Cuevas—you can’t miss it, it’s the highest point in town—and shoot the beautiful sunrise over this historic town. Be sure to walk back down via different streets, where you will find people at work, talking, walking and other slices of Cuban life.
Another option for early-morning shooting is to go in the opposite direction toward the commercial part of town and find one of the local bakeries. You can usually talk your way inside for some great photography! If you are lucky, and you have a few CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso, the country’s currency) to spare, you might get access to the cigar factory in Trinidad and get some photographs of the cigar-making process, which is fascinating.
[caption id="attachment_548006" align="alignnone" width="824"] Cigar Factory, Trinidad.[/caption]
Another favorite thing to do in Trinidad is to photograph around La Plaza Mayor, the central square in town. There is so much going on where Cubans and tourists alike congregate in the park here.
Photo Ops to Look for in Trinidad
If you get rain, find reflections in the puddles of the cobblestone streets.
The warm pastels of nearly all the buildings in town, especially early and late in the day when the light is low.
Photograph the people and the world going by on the cobble streets with the beautiful pastel colors of the old buildings. Best times are early or late in the day
Chat up the locals. This is where speaking some Spanish or having a guide will help. You can easily get invited into their homes to see what living is like. Cubans take great pride in their homes. On my last visit, I got our photo group invited into the home of an elderly gent, whose father was the first surgeon in Trinidad many decades ago. His home was full of antiques and art, and he had an amazing collection of old photographs and cameras. What a treat!
Look for everyday commerce and activity in the non-tourist areas (like the bakery, cigar factory, a soccer game) as these can provide very interesting photographic situations.
Cuba For Photographers: Travel Advice
Accommodations. In the cities, the bigger hotels are quite nice and offer typical amenities and service that you’d find in any large city. But there are so many more options! I highly recommend staying at “casas particulars,” which are family-run B&Bs. There are so many to choose from all over Cuba, and I’ve never had a less-than-stellar experience when using them. The owners are very proud of their business, and so the service is high, the beds comfortable and the food (if arranged) is great. Airbnb now has listings for these.
Packing. It’s the Caribbean, so you don’t need much. Comfy shoes for lots of walking, quick-dry clothing in case of rain, and a light sweater or jacket for evenings are essential. Casual clothes are fine everywhere in Cuba.
Photo gear. I’ve led many photography trips in Cuba and one thing that is common is photographers bringing way too much gear. A good, lightweight, easy-to-manage kit for Cuba is one camera with a 24-70mm equivalent zoom and a 70-200mm equivalent zoom. A lightweight travel tripod and a few accessories like cleaning cloths, spare batteries and a camera remote are really all one needs.
[caption id="attachment_548007" align="alignnone" width="824"] Tobacco farm, Viñales Valley.[/caption]
If you own a lightweight prime in the 35mm or 50mm range, then by all means bring it and use it for the many street photography opportunities you’ll have. When I travel to Cuba, I carry a Sony a6500 camera with a Sony Zeiss 16-70mm (24-105mm equivalent), the Sony 70-200mm f/4, a 50mm equivalent f/2.8 prime, a small and lightweight Really Right Stuff travel tripod, and that’s it.
What about a backup camera? For me, that’s my iPhone when I’m in Cuba, but it’s totally fine to bring a second camera body just in case. Having less gear will enable you to travel around during the long days much easier and better concentrate on the scene, subject, light and composition. Think “light, nimble and quick” when choosing your gear.
Money. The first thing to know is that while things in Cuba are changing, plan that your credit and ATM cards will not work anywhere in the country. You must bring enough cash money for your entire stay. Cuba has two currencies, CUC and CUP, but don’t sweat that. As a tourist, you will use only the CUC. You can exchange your cash for CUC at major hotels and also at the Havana airport. For USD, there’s a surcharge of 10 percent and a service fee of 3 percent. There is no surcharge when changing Euros, GBP, CAD or many other currencies. Bring more than you think you’ll need, since you can’t get more money while in Cuba.
Maps. I highly recommend MAPS.ME, an app you can get for your smartphone that will give you a detailed map of Cuba, and it works offline. The best part? It’s free.
Internet. Yes, Cuba has the internet, but it is slow and often unreliable. It is adequate to check or send emails, or to even upload small photos to Facebook or Instagram. Purchase a WiFi card at major hotels for a few CUCs that will give you an hour of internet time. You can use this card at WiFi hotspots that are in major hotels and in certain areas of the cities—you will know where these areas are simply by looking for the group of people all using their phones. Be sure to logout of the WiFi service or your time will just run out. My best tip is to forget the internet, take more pictures and enjoy your time there “off the grid.”
[caption id="attachment_548008" align="alignnone" width="824"] Tobacco farmer, Viñales.[/caption]
Electricity. In most places where you’ll stay, there will be electric outlets that are either 110V or 220V, with North American-style plugs. Some of the places you will stay will have access to both. Some bed and breakfasts and hotels do not have outlets for three-prong cords, common for computers. Be sure to have the necessary adapters.
Food and water. As tourism has grown, so too have the opportunities for good food. The food you will get in the paladars (family run, small restaurants) is quite often very good, fresh and tasty. If you stay in “casas particulares,” the food prepared by your hosts can be downright amazing. I’ve had some of my best meals in Cuba in such places. The water from the taps in Cuba is not safe to drink anywhere, so you should be prepared to drink bottled water everywhere. And be sure to try the ice cream in Cuba, it’s very good.
Transportation. If you are traveling to Cuba on your own and not part of a group with transportation, then you’ll want to rent a car. This sounds trivial, but it’s not as easy as you might think. You must get a guaranteed reservation ahead of time, and you must have cash for the car rental. Driving in Cuba is not difficult. While there are tourist buses available, they book up quickly and are somewhat unreliable schedule-wise.
Go to Cuba. Photograph like crazy! And go back again.
Andy Williams is a professional photographer and partner in Muench Workshops. See more of his work at andywillia.ms and find workshop information at muenchworkshops.com.content:
A helicopter view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest.
At 11:56 a.m., on April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 9,000, injuring an estimated 23,000 and displacing more than 450,000 people. It was the worst natural disaster to strike the landlocked nation of 27 million since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. Six months later, I traveled to Nepal to document its recovery efforts, focusing on the Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas.
As I’m based in Los Angeles, the Himalaya section of the assignment meant digging deep into the closet for my cold weather kit. I emerged decked head to foot in The North Face gear, including thin, touchscreen-sensitive gloves.
Upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport, my bags and I were hustled through Customs by a Dharma Adventures representative—it’s always a great idea to have a local “fixer” on the ground—then transferred to Dwarika’sHotel, my base for the Kathmandu Valley segment of my assignment.
According to UNESCO, more than 30 monuments in the Kathmandu Valley collapsed and 120 incurred significant damage in the initial quake and its aftershocks. This is in addition to the thousands of destroyed monasteries, shrines, office buildings, apartment complexes and private homes that didn’t escape the wrath of one of nature’s most terrifying phenomena.
Drones have been used to fly over Nepal’s cultural heritage sites, providing images of the damage to assist in the reconstruction efforts, which are now in full swing. In addition to focusing my cameras and efforts on documenting the physical damage in places such as Swayambhunath, the Durbar squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan, I did a number of portraits—both environmental and “the eyes are the window to the soul” style—of people I encountered along the way.
Continuing with the idea of putting a human face on post-earthquake Nepal, I documented Camp Hope, set up by the family-run Dwarika’s Group of hotels and resorts as part of their contribution to the recovery efforts in their country. Camp Hope is a tented village in the heart of the capital for more than 300 refugees from Sindhupalchowk, a region that lost almost 90% of its homes. Ambica Shrestha, whose late husband Dwarika founded the first hotel in the chain, explained that they’re currently doing feasibility studies in and around Sindhupalchowk in order to construct new homes for the refugees after the monsoon season.
The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River were in constant use in the days following the massive earthquake in a country that’s more than 80 percent Hindu.
To begin the second part of my assignment—exploring sections of the Everest trek—I flew from Kathmandu into the Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla (9,318 feet) with a small group of fellow journalists. The airport is considered one of the most technically challenging in the world for pilots, due to its short runway at a severe incline that ends with a cliff. I used my GoPro HERO4 mounted on a GoPro 3-Way arm to document the dramatic approach and landing.
I assembled my trekking poles, which fold into three sections for ease of transportation, and headed to the town of Monjo (9,301 feet), our group’s home for the night. On the way, we passed Buddhist chortens, mani stones, prayer wheels, and a surprising number of tea houses and well-stocked stores.
Day two on the trail brought us into Sagarmatha National Park, established in 1976 to protect the area surrounding Mount Everest. We crossed the route’s highest swinging bridge over the Dudh Kosi River, then made a steady climb up to Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet), the Khumbu’s largest town. Typically, trekkers to Everest Base Camp and those attempting ascents there or on other mountains will take an extra day for acclimatization in this central hub. They then trek another two days to Dingboche (13,980 feet) for another day of acclimatization, then two more days on the trail to Everest Base Camp (17,598 feet).
Children pass a Buddhist stupa on the trail between Namche Bazaar and Khumjung in the Himalayas.
Instead, we left the following morning to inspect the heavily damaged village of Khumjung (12,401 feet), on the way encountering spectacular views of Thamserku, Kangtega, Tawoche, Lhotse, Everest and 22,349-foot Ama Dablam, crowned with one of the most beautiful peaks on earth. In the late afternoon under a light snowfall, we descended to the Everest Summit Lodge of Tashinga (11,300 feet). The original 20-room lodge was destroyed by the earthquake, but already has been rebuilt with 10 rooms.
The next morning, we trudged our way through a heavy snowfall up to the famous monastery at Tengboche. Everest climbers stop here to light candles and seek blessings for safe mountaineering. It doesn’t always work, unfortunately.
Just before leaving home, I had watched Hollywood’s latest account of the events that took place on Everest in May 1996, which resulted in the deaths of eight climbers. The April 25 earthquake eclipsed that number by triggering an avalanche on Pumori that swept through the South Base Camp, killing 19, making that day the deadliest in Everest’s history. Just over a year earlier, on April 18, 2014, an avalanche near base camp killed 16 Nepali guides.
Sherpa lives have really been affected, because most are involved in tourism directly or indirectly.
My group’s Himalayan guide, Maya Sherpa, is the only Nepali woman alive today who has summited Everest from both the south (Nepali side) and the north (Tibetan side). Pemba Doma Sherpa, with whom she shared that distinction, died in 2007.
“I met her on Cho Oyu in 2004,” explains Maya over a cup of steaming masala chiya, a spicy, milky black tea. “She was a good lady. When I was on the north side of Everest, she was on Lhotse when she fell to her death after making it to the summit.”
Maya also has summited K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, but it’s considered much more dangerous than Everest, with roughly one person dying for every four who make it to the summit.
A woman carries a load of leaves in a doko (an oversized basket) in the Himalayan village of Pangboche.
Maya happened to be in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake, while her husband, fellow climber and guide Arnold Coster, was on Everest. “I knew that day many friends were going to climb the icefall there,” she recalls. “That’s the worst place to be in an earthquake. They were very lucky nothing happened in the icefall, but the people at Everest Base Camp weren’t so lucky. They were hit by an avalanche. Many people died. My husband, who’s from the Netherlands, was there leading an expedition. He and the people he was with were fine. Others were not.”
In the months following the earthquake, Maya and her husband gathered $30,000 from their friends and sponsors around the world to support earthquake victims, but the crisis continues.
“Sherpa lives have really been affected, because most are involved in tourism directly or indirectly,” Maya explains. “You have seen in the Khumbu area that there’s 60 percent less tourists. That means lots of Sherpas have no jobs this year. Many trekking trail hotels are empty. They have spent lots of money to rebuild the hotels, but have no business. Some trekking trails were damaged by the earthquake, like the ones in the Manaslu and Langtang areas, which will take a few years to rebuild, but there are so many other places in Nepal around Everest, Annapurna, Makalu and Kangchenjunga where people are still afraid to come because of all the bad news they have heard. A lot of the negative news isn’t true. Trekking in the Himalayas as you’re experiencing is very safe, and we Nepalis are waiting to welcome visitors.”
After spending a final night in the Himalayas at the Everest Summit Lodge at Pangboche (13,074 feet), I boarded a helicopter to get an overview of the Everest region before flying back to Kathmandu. Since there was no room to be pulling equipment in and out of my camera bag during the flight, I slung a camera body with a 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 over one shoulder and a second camera body with a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 over the other. In this type of shooting situation, I switch from my usual aperture-priority mode to shutter-priority, with 1/2000 as my go-to shutter speed, since the vibration of the helicopter can cause camera shake.
Back at the airport in Kathmandu, I bade namaste to my guides from Dharma Adventures, knowing that while Nepal still has many earthquake-related issues to deal with, the country is well on the way to recovery.
Mark Edward Harris’ Nepal Gear
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight
Gary Fong Lightsphere
GoPro HERO4 Black
Gura Gear Bataflae 18L backpack
Black Diamond Distance FLZ trekking poles
See more of Mark Edward Harris’ work at markedwardharris.com and on Instagram @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto.