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Cuba: Traveling Light, Chasing Light

I've just returned from a week in Havana, Cuba. Without an official assignment of any kind I found myself wandering the streets with absolute minimal gear, looking for and studying light.

Consciously paying more attention to light is something I have been working on, and I can't imagine a better place to indulge that effort than in this amazing city.


As a native Floridian, I am well-versed in the political complexities of the Cuban/US situation. There are many different perspectives, and Cuba can be a hot-button issue. (And we won't be indulging that debate in the comments, thanks.)

That said, I have long-believed that direct, people-to-people contact is the best cure for squabbling governments. So when I had the opportunity to participate in a people-to-people cultural exchange, I jumped at it for a number of reasons.

I went with Santa Fe Workshops, an entré which I highly recommend for first-time Cuba travelers from the US. It is perfectly legal, and seeks to balance the requirements of both the Cuban and US governments—and more important to us, the needs of photographers, too.

If you have an interest in visiting Cuba legally, you could do far worse than to do so through SFW.

In our group, which was composed of mostly Googlers with a few other Silicon Valley types and experienced travelers thrown in, the most common word I heard to describe the experience was "surreal." It's hard to argue with that assessment.

Picture a whole city that looks like it has been professionally distressed to the point where it looks like a movie setting. Throw in a couple million people who, although they have few material possessions, manage to squeeze every possible drop out of life. (I can't remember being outside in Havana and not hearing live music.)

Add in some of the most remarkable light I have ever seen, and that pretty much sums it up. For world-curious photographers, it is almost sensory overload.

The scene above is typical of the architecture on the second-tier streets, the light and the density of people. I found myself stopping to photograph things not because they were special in some way, but because the scene was ubiquitous and I just wanted to remember it. This was one of those shots.

The alleys and crossways and frequent gaps in buildings allowed both the light and the tropical breezes to pass through unimpeded. So even midday light looked somehow different.

As the afternoon wears on, the intersections create dramatic scenes of chiaroscuro—light against dark—that give you the opportunity to find a good spot and wait for the interplay between multiple subjects.

As the light drops down later in the day it just gets better and better. Looking out over the Malecon, Havana's famous sea wall and nighttime social gathering spot, the light serves as subject matter as well as creating texture on the oceanfront buildings at left.

Swing the camera around to the left and those last rays of sun become a light source with a layer or two of CTO. This is enhanced by the patina of time-worm texture that is everyplace you look. I saw a thousand portrait backdrops right from central casting if I saw one.

At night, the mixture of new and aging light sources make for a kaleidoscope of color and textures. This is something in which I was particularly interested, as I am trying to learn how to better create multi-color, textured light schemes that have a grounding in reality.

Studying Greg Heisler has taught me that he has an intuitive sense of observing ambient light, and can thus internalize it for creating that light with flash later. That's why this photo (like this one, earlier) probably looks more nuanced than anything I'll ever create with flash. But I am consciously studying ambient light, in the hopes of being able to better create it.

I am letting the camera drive a little here, and just seeing what happens. It's trying to balance for the (unseen) sodium vapor falling on the facade, and thus pulling warmth out of the balance. What you are left with is a very blue ambient (expressed at upper left) and interior lighting that is positively cyan.

If you want to be able to make stuff like this—and give it a grounding in real life—you have to be able to see it first. I never would have thought of a 30CC cyan light to establish the scene. But I might think of that going forward.

Note: The next four photos are straight out of camera, for reference.

I'm learning that shooting in marginal light like this requires observation and patience. And while it is easier to let the camera drive, it is sometimes also helpful take the wheel yourself. Take the photo at top for example.

Light is most interesting at the margins, and that's why I am really growing to appreciate the Fuji X100s. It lets me work, hand-held, way down into the Hail Mary range of ambient light—just when things get really interesting and balanced.

Shooting after an evening rain, I was looking for photos through blue hour. Being an idiot, I was letting the camera drive the white balance, as seen here:

But realizing that neutral stuff should be blue during blue hour, I shifted to tungsten WB. Nope. This was clearly too blue, so I instead went to the Kelvin WB scale. Choosing a Kelvin temperature lets you nuance the shift from warm to cool. I use this a lot when trying to balance cool and warm effectively, as here:

As the ambient light level drops, this contrast will become even more apparent. The ambient light will get bluer and darker, and the street lamp will get relatively brighter—and thus more prominent and warmer.

So now I am in a much better color neighborhood for the light temperature, but I still have to balance and cheat a number of variables. The camera is wide open, at ISO 800 and even still I am hand-holding at ~⅛ sec.

No problem with this mirrorless camera, as it induces no vibrations. I can hand-hold it easily at ¼ second. But that doesn't mean my subjects will stay still for that long:

So, like everything else, my subject and timing choice are a compromise right along with ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Even my exposure is a compromise. I want it to ultimately look like it feels to me on scene. But I also want to have good info on the chip. the purists will tell me to expose to the right for best quality—and they're right. But if I do that I am either going to have to expose at ½ sec or push to ISO 3200.

So, even my histogram is a compromise. Here is the top photo, as it was straight out of the camera:

As someone who has been a photographer in one form or another for 40 years—and married for 20—I am very comfortable with compromise. C'est la vie. And dropping this image down in post production easily brings back the rich colors I saw at the scene:

Being able to balance the Kelvin scale in this photo is really helpful for reproducing that blue hour "warm vs. cool" vibe from the unseen street lamp. I love the palette in this photo, which actually looks more like a painting that a photograph due to the light and texture.

It will serve as a great reference one day when I want to go warm vs. cool and do it in some way other than my stock CTO vs. CTB gels.

If you are photographer in search of inspiration, a trip to Havana should be on your short list. Heck, it should be on your bucket list. Whether your inspiration is from light, wonderful people, the texture of decay, world-class cigars or a ridiculously cheap Havana Club 7-year-old dark rum that tastes like liquid brown sugar, you'll find it in Cuba.

UPDATE: I have been dropping my Cuba photos into an album, here.


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