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.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Steve Fett said...

Fantastic Post David! You nailed the tonal temperature range. I especially like the reflected taillight shot as it brings you full circle with the color temperature in the foreground contrasting with the wall. Both Cuba and the X100 are on my bucket list.

April 22, 2013 8:44 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

You might want to watch "Chico & Rita" and "Buena Vista Social Club" if you enjoyed Cuba that much ( and

Do you have any tip for hand-holding the X100 that long? Less coffee, lens hood on, shutter sound on?

April 22, 2013 9:15 AM  
Blogger Dominique Pelletier said...

Thank you for this inspiring post, David. I think we should all, at some point, drop the strobes for a while a observe ambient light. Havanna sure is on my to do list.

April 22, 2013 9:22 AM  
Blogger JS said...

David, since your main gear seems to be Phase One and X100s these days, do you feel there is much room in your life for SLR? I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, and have been paying rapt attention to your reasoning. More, more!

April 22, 2013 9:48 AM  
Blogger Maurizio Camagna said...

I can't believe you're still paying attention to WB while shooting. By a long way the biggest benefit of shooting RAW is that you can adjust the WB later, and later is the only right moment to decide this fundamental parameter that takes a second to be adjusted on a good monitor and can instead never be right when adjusted in camera. It's just lost time. Stuck with sun or whatever and enjoy your shooting without worrying about colors, of they are there, they will be there.

April 22, 2013 10:08 AM  
Blogger Maurizio Camagna said...

I can't believe you're still paying attention to WB while shooting. By a long way the biggest benefit of shooting RAW is that you can adjust the WB later, and later is the only right moment to decide this fundamental parameter that takes a second to be adjusted on a good monitor and can instead never be right when adjusted in camera. It's just lost time. Stuck with sun or whatever and enjoy your shooting without worrying about colors, of they are there, they will be there.

April 22, 2013 10:09 AM  
Blogger BWJones said...

Dude... As I said in Cuba, that trip completely put me in a post-DSLR state of mind. There is a pic somewhere that Duncan took of me silhouetted with a 1D body in each hand and it looks absolutely insane. I've hauled all that gear around for over a decade and am pretty much over that. The work that our peeps were bringing out with those Fuji's and the RX1 has been a revolution.

April 22, 2013 10:23 AM  
Blogger jniz22 said...

Really great post. Here in Mongolia I have found something similar... almost movie set alley ways and weathered urban landscape.

One thing that amazes me here are the reflections of light off of the buildings. Never have I been in a place that has such unique patches of light found throughout the city. Also, for some strange reason there is quite a bit of yellow and blue glass... I can literally sit on a curb for 20 minutes and wait for the people to just walk into the light!

April 22, 2013 10:24 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

David, Great pics! They seem to capture mood and lighting perfectly. I hate to ask several "FAQs".
- How many of these are out of the camera jpgs and how many are processed RAWs...? I've heard that LR processing of x100s files is now pretty good, compared to the x100.
- Is it better dynamic range in the sensor that allows capturing the mood, much easier? It is my feeling that dynamic range should be more important than megapixels.

My friend argues that you can take any modern camera and process a file to look pretty good. My argument is the less work the better! Appreciate your thoughts.

April 22, 2013 10:31 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

A most interesting post indeed David, one that is sure to get a lot of exposure. Your last image (and first) takes on the feel and look of an old master at first glance. Lovely saturated colours and a timeless quality. Beautiful.

April 22, 2013 10:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yeah, I still use the Nikons some. But I kind of see them as the compromise camera between best quality and portability. Definitely use them when I need the lens selection the afford.

April 22, 2013 11:01 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Maybe I should just switch to Lytro and focus after the fact, too?

I am 48. I grew up making the photo in-camera. To the extent I can get most of the way there before Photoshop, that's my preference. Plus, I like the real-time, back-of-the-camera feedback of the tweaked settings, too.

I even shoot B&W as B&Ws. If I am shooting that way, I want to see it as I shoot it. B&W makes you think differently—which is a different animal than converting after the fact in RAW.

April 22, 2013 11:04 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


These are all jpegs, with pretty minimal processing. And yeah, the dynamic range of the X-trans chip is really good. Fuji basically allows you to shoot raw (which every camera does every frame, obviously) and custom-tailor your jpeg conversions on the fly. That's one thing I love about it.

April 22, 2013 11:06 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You definitely give up some capabilities as compared to toting a DSLR. But the freedom you gain is more than worth it.

April 22, 2013 11:08 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Have watched them both, many times. Highly recommended.

April 22, 2013 11:08 AM  
Blogger John said...

As an armchair traveler, I have to live vicariously through other people's adventures. Thanks for sharing these, loving your set on Flickr!

April 22, 2013 11:51 AM  
Blogger ericsf7 said...

David, you absolutely are right that there is so much to see and shoot in Havana that it behooves one to concentrate on one aspect, as you did with light and shadow. I have been 5 times now (once with SFW), and I feel like I barely have scratched the surface of what there is to photograph. I noticed that you had Ramses as one of your guides -- never a dull moment with R. on board!!

April 22, 2013 1:17 PM  
Blogger Carlos Martinez said...

Hi, I am cuban and I live in Havana. I follow your blog, I really love it. I would have liked to know you here in Havana. Hugs & regards.

April 22, 2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

as you say nice color palette I like the scraping off the lights against the backdrop To show texture on the last picture

April 22, 2013 1:41 PM  
Blogger Don Toothman said...

Inspirational as always.

I totally agree with your assessment of Cuba (photographically speaking). I had the privilege to be one of the riders in the first group of American motorcyclists to legally ride in Cuba since 1959. The motorcycle was a great tool to get us out into the countryside. I posted a few of the pics to Flickr...

April 22, 2013 2:05 PM  
Blogger Dawn JP Danko said...

With today's high ISO capabilities, I'm finding a whole other learning curve shooting low light ambient where different light sources all blend together.

I do not agree at all with the sentiment of shooting in raw with auto white balance.

Sure fixing white balances that are a little off is easy in post - its a one slider tweak.

Fixing white balances that are way off is not easy - and rarely works out well. People tend to forget that white balance is not just a function of light temperature, when its way off the tint is also a major factor - and by the time you're screwing around with tint in post - you're probably going to have to mess with the hue and saturation of individual colors too. Now you have multiple variables working against you.

Forget that - do it right in camera.

April 22, 2013 2:23 PM  
Blogger Andrew Petti said...

David, Great post. I've spent 5 days in Havana each of the past two Decembers and have really enjoyed those lanes, alleys, and buildings in Old Havana. My last trip I mostly used my DSLR with a 50mm f1.4 and really enjoyed just dealing with the one lens both for easy of travel and composition.

Glad you Americans are gaining better opportunities to enter Cuba legally. Lots of photo opportunities to be had. Hopefully the redevelopment won't take them all away.

April 22, 2013 2:26 PM  
Blogger jim "shu" carroll said...

beautiful and informative as always david. thank you. and as to the WB question: yes, what she said. the farther off you are, the less ability you have to get it back where it belongs without losing all the subtle tints. if you put all your faith in post, are you really a photographer?

April 22, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger paintedfoot said...

I'm excited about this exploration of natural light that you're doing. I'm always amazed by the lighting department in films and how they can create layered light that we interpret as natural or light from the scene itself. Can we expect posts in the near future where you replicate complex real life lighting scenarios with strobe? Can we? Can we? Please. Please. :)

April 22, 2013 3:42 PM  
Blogger Robert Boag said...

Hey David,

Would you say the freedom and mobility you gain with an x100s is considerably more than carrying around a D800 with a 50mm? A minimalistic DSLR style set up? Just thinking about a few options for how I can go light and how much freedom/mobility the x100s would give me over that kinda set up.

April 22, 2013 8:51 PM  
Blogger alim said...

Great photo set, thanks for sharing your story.

April 22, 2013 9:38 PM  
Blogger Thomas Shue said...

I am diggin that x100S. You shot Jpegs only? The scene of the midday sun (second tier street) has clouds and shadow detail. That is a ton of range for a Jpeg. Did you expose to the right and pull down the shadows?

I am so impressed I can't wait to get mine in hand.

April 22, 2013 10:03 PM  
Blogger Lanthus Clark said...

Damn you David Hobby! Now I have to start saving to go to Cuba...


April 24, 2013 9:41 AM  
Blogger David Williams said...

Hi David, thank you for posting this review. Your point about looking for and using the available light is inspiring and reminds us of that important technique. The x100s is so good, I've had mine for 4 weeks now and have posted some blogs at if you're interested in viewing my thoughts. Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip. Regards, David, Sydney Australia.

April 24, 2013 7:02 PM  
Blogger Lanskymob said...

DH: like the advice about tweaking the kelvins in camera (as opposed to post). Gotta admit it's scary for me to be doing those kinda maneuvers and possibly missing "the shot", but you pulled it off nicely.

If you or anyone else is gaga for great Cuba stuff, check out my friend Sandro Miller. He's one of the top shooters on the planet (the guy that did the D800 preview "motorcycle" video). His book Imagine Cuba 1999-2007 is, like all his work, friggin' amazing. This isn't a commercial...just, like this blog, a gateway to further inspiration.

April 24, 2013 9:16 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Like the Flickr series. My fav pic is nr2, the car and the cart is f---ing awesome! I think the FujiX100 is amazing for what it's doing for photography.

April 25, 2013 6:50 AM  
Blogger escostva said...

i wish i could travel now

April 25, 2013 9:01 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

I just have to say I love reading your blog! There are times when I fall away from my photography practice and I'm come back and the thing that really helps is reading your posts. They are quite simple, concise and very enjoyable. The technical stuff isn't like a brick to the head and I always leave feeling very inspired. So few photography blogs have this affect on me and I'm tremendously thankful for your years of knowledge that you share with us. I'm also very thankful for a very good friend who suggested to me a few years ago to check out your blog to learn how to light and I've been reading it ever since.

April 25, 2013 9:56 AM  
Blogger Reibs said...

Wow.. your flickr slideshow is AMAZING David.. I am curious though.. how was it being an american walking the streets? I was in Cuba once and vowed to never go back (LEO and my profession was questioned at the airport like I was a spy.. very uncomfortable with wife in tow) ... Reading your blog has inspired me to look at Cuba mainland again.. again, great job here as always.

April 25, 2013 6:33 PM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

Thanks for the X100s review, both here and the long video. Zack Arias has shot some great material and I just need to find somewhere to buy this camera!

Great video from Bert Stephani here:

April 28, 2013 10:30 PM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

Me gusta tambien:

April 28, 2013 11:00 PM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

I shoot Indian dance, with lots of jumps and high points. I was concerned about shutter lag with the X100s. Although it is apparently sponsored by Fuji, this suggests there isn't any concern:

April 28, 2013 11:05 PM  
Blogger Shawn Ruyffelaert said...


I think this is what a lot of photographers would call the difference between "taking" a photograph and "making" a photograph. David, and many others of his caliber, seem to be previsualizing these photos including composition, contrast, and color.

It seems that David wanted a "blue hour" photograph. I'm not sure how he could have done that if he couldn't clearly see whether or not it had worked. I doubt he wanted to wait until he got back home and onto his computer to find out if he accomplished his goal.

May 05, 2013 1:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin Finch said...

Totally agree with your comments about making images in Havana, having spent a week there in January 2012, on a seminar organized by

Although operated out of Halifax, Canada, half of the participants were American; since all participants stay with Cuban families and have access to musical performances, I believe it meets the cultural exchange criteria.

By far, the friendliest and most approachable people, who are almost always willing to be photographed, for free, more often than not.

Highly recommended.

May 20, 2013 1:04 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

I just bought the X100s and thought your video was great. I learned alot about the potential of the camera and am using your suggestions about the settings. Wanted also to try the custom settings and to confirm these were correct:
C1- BW film with yellow filter, +1 shadows and highlights
C2 - Color neg low contrast, -1 color saturation and -1 shadows and highlight contrast
C3 - Velvia with +1 color sat and -1 highlights and shadows contrast

December 27, 2013 7:11 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, that's it. But that is just a starting point, and a choice that fits my palette. Start there and tweak it until it consistently works well for you.


December 28, 2013 5:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home