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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.