How to take great street photos in Cuba (Claire Boobbyer/Julio Munoz)
Article Words : Claire Boobbyer | 24 April

Capturing Cuba on camera

Old cars, colonial mansions, local characters: Trinidad is a street photographer’s dream – and the place for a lesson with a local pro

All of Cuba is a gift to photographers, but Trinidad in particular. This beautiful, sun-baked town of low-slung, ochre-washed colonial homes slumbers between mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Life here is lived on the streets and in the large open windows and doorways. Horses and carts clip-clop across ballast stone; children kick deflated footballs along the alleys; mothers and toddlers peer out from behind grilles as they sit on street-level sills; old men, cigars perched in their sun-creased mouths, slouch on steps in slithers of shade, smoking their cares away.

Which partly explains why I was in this most photogenic of towns, being given orders by a camera-wielding Cuban.

“Dress like a tourist,” Julio instructed. “Come with no bags. And absolutely no photographic vests.”

But what if I needed to change lenses?

“There’ll be no changing lenses,” came his resolute response. “Bring one camera with one lens. The idea of street photography is to work quickly and unseen, like a ghost. If you’re fiddling with lenses you’ll lose the moment; if you come wearing vests, you’ll make people nervous.”

I was being asked to turn invisible – a tall order for a pale blonde in this land of copper-skinned locals. I donned a shapeless shirt and shorts to ensure the Cuban piropos (flirtatious remarks) were kept to a minimum and let Julio lead the way...

Street smarts

I was in Trinidad to enrol in Julio Muñoz’s street photography boot camp. Julio is an electrical engineer turned photographer, who has worked with some of the very best street snappers. Like many Cubans born after the 1959 revolution, Julio has reinvented himself each time economic Titanics have threatened to sink the island since the 1980s. He now works with pro photographers and filmmakers as well as visitors hoping to acquire a few skills.

Joined by fellow rookies Henning and Madeleine from Norway, my workshop began in school. Julio’s classroom is his mansion: built in 1800, and furnished in Spanish colonial grandeur and original, rose-tinted tiles, it straddles a prominent street corner in the centre of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“With street photography, you must take control of your camera,” Julio told us. “Unlike landscape and still-life, the photographer doesn’t control the environment. If you let the camera dictate, you will lose time.”

It became Julio’s mantra: time is of the essence. The black box with its beeps, bumps, lumps, lamps and wheels is a curious beast, and Julio tasked us with breathing life into the inanimate metal package.

“Reading the camera manual will make you depressed,” he joked. Julio simplified the job for us by sketching on paper the fundamentals: the relationship between letting enough light into the camera (aperture) and the speed of the shutter to capture the image.

For the best street photography, he said, we needed a wide-angled lens to create a greater depth of field. This would mean that more of the scene would be in focus, creating a greater sense of reality.

Next, we moved on to how to take a winning shot. “The best compositions are the simplest,” Julio explained. “The picture should deliver a message quickly, so should only include elements that are useful for that message. To achieve that, change perspective when shooting and think about two rules: linking, and capturing the right moment.”

Nothing was lost in translation as Julio held up a typical Cuban example. The shot showed a musician playing his instrument (a visual link to his profession) in an active motion (right moment). Cropping out the instrument or snapping him with hands at rest wouldn’t see us picking up any prizes.

Cameras & clairvoyance

Before heading out on to the streets, we fixed our cameras’ sensitivity at ISO100 to get the best possible results in Cuba’s strong sunlight. As we’d be on the move, and picture opportunities – such as American classic cars and clopping horses – would be moving towards us, Julio advised us to set our cameras to shutter-priority mode. This meant the aperture would be compromised, but it was more important that the pictures were not blurred.

Julio also showed us how to hold the camera body. “Your right arm should work like a tripod. Imagine you are shooting with a rifle; it should be the stabiliser.”

Lastly, before we stepped out into the glorious tropical light, he emphasised again that the secret to good street photography is to work quickly. But, we protested, wouldn’t we need to ask permission to take photos of people, which would slow us down?

Julio had some controversial ideas on that front. “If you ask, you lose the moment,” he said. “Sneak a photo first. If the person looks OK, then continue; if you sense they’re not happy, engage in conversation. Or work with a second person. Cubans love to talk. The first photographer can relax the subject by speaking to them while the second shoots.”

I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, trying to absorb all the practical, psychological and technical info. But there was more. While out and about we’d need to identify the main characters who would enhance our compositions and guess what was going to happen next in order to move into place for the perfect picture. It seemed we needed to be able to predict the future too.

Seize the moment

A case in point soon presented itself. In Trinidad’s pretty Plaza Mayor, a lumbering 1950s American car trundled by; it was about to motor past a sun-lit colonial building. We were all fumbling with our settings and missed it, but Julio had hop-scotched over the ankle-cranking cobbles to capture the antique beast set against the mansion backdrop. He’d predicted the perfect position of the car and set his focus on a large stone; when the car reached the spot of ideal composition, his shot was ready.

Embarrassed, we wandered away from the centre into the barrio of Tres Cruces, looking for subjects that moved even more slowly than old American máquinas. We found some men lounging on horses on a street corner. “Shoot as near to the subject as you can,” Julio directed. “Don’t delay – you’ll make people nervous and lose the moment.”

As we snapped the cowboys, chunks of sky opened up in the frame. “Avoid empty spaces in your composition,” Julio yelled. “Yes, you can fix it in the computer later but that means you are a computer person and not a photographer. It’s important to take good pictures first.”

We edged closer. “Move around the subject,” Julio barked. “You are not moving around! You have a fixed lens. You are the zoom moving in and around the subject.”

I wondered if Julio had aspirations to be a movie director. He was not the least bit impatient but he wasn’t slow to point out our faults. Like most of the Cuban population, he has never located the word ‘modest’ in the dictionary.

“Well, you all missed the dog,” Julio berated as we snapped a gravel-worker. “The dog was there several times next to the man and you missed the opportunity. Learn from the master,” he said, demonstrating his craft by taking a perfectly composed shot complete with worker, spade and lactating dalmatian.

Next, we pinballed across town to witness a postcard-perfect group of old men with sun-crinkled faces tinkling out traditional Cuban tunes. We practised the art of shyness-avoidance and got right up close in an attempt to snap some ‘right moment/right linking’ portraits.

Then we practised some artistic nosiness. The colonial homes of Trinidad all have fulsome, street-level rectangular bay windows, loosely barred with iron grilles. During the day, the wooden shutters are always open, and the pregnant bulge of the windows invites passers-by to peer in.

This was how I came across a shirtless barber shaving a client in his front room. I propped my camera on the grille and waited until I got the right shot.

Marks for effort

Back at the mansion, it was time for the “laughs”, as Julio called the crit session. First up, my barber shots.

“Unless the shot shows the barber with an instrument, as you eventually captured, he could have been slapping, massaging or killing that man. There was no link. Also when the barber was looking at you, you were not a ghost, so that wasn’t right either.”

As the images spooled across the computer screen, Julio delivered his unflinching verdicts: Henning must get closer to his subjects and take more horizontal shots; Madeleine was chided for shooting people’s backs.

“All of you need to move; don’t be lazy. Move the camera up and down; predict, prepare, shoot,” was Julio’s final judgement.

The next day, I did a salsa class. Carlos, my teacher, encouraged me to relax with a few shots of Havana Club. By the time I’d finished the lesson, my limbs were lubricated and my confidence had surged. Camera in hand, I launched into the street, getting right up close to subjects.

At last – I’d found the secret ingredient to successful street photography: a few slugs of aged Cuban rum.

Top tip: right lighting

When photographing in an environment where the sunlight is strong and your subject is likely to be moving, set your camera to shutter-priority mode, with a minimum exposure of 100/sec. This may slightly compromise the aperture, but will mean your images
are nice and sharp.

Top tip: stay observant

You may think you have the perfect shot, but keep checking – has something else entered the scene? Something that might enhance your image? The subject matter in street photography is always changing, always offering new possibilities.

Top tip: simplify things

When you are confronted by a messy subject – lots of objects and action – crop your mind so that you can compose the scene into an image that makes sense. Consider: what elements will best deliver the message you are trying to convey?

What equipment do I need?

For effective street snapping you need a camera with an optical viewfinder (ie you’re holding the camera up to your eye, not looking at the LCD screen) and a fast, wide lens. A digital SLR is ideal, though a high-end compact with viewfinder and manual controls would work too.

Fixed lenses are faster than zooms, and force you to get into the action rather than hang back: a fixed 28mm, 35mm or (just about) 50mm allow you to capture whole scenes, sharply, in limited light. Alternatively, bring a zoom lens that starts with a wide angle, such
as a 24-70mm f2.8.

Bring a stack of memory cards, a lens cloth and a lens hood, for protection.

The author used a Canon 5D Mark 1 with a fixed 35mm f1.4 lens. A few shots were taken with a 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 lens, a good general-purpose travel photography lens.

Claire Boobbyer is the author of the Frommer's Guide to Cuba and Cuba: Day by Day

Photography Workshops with Julio Muñoz (www.trinidadphoto.com) cost from CUC$25 (£16) for a half-day session. Snappers can also stay in Julio’s house – a chance to photograph a lovely colonial-era home at leisure. Doubles cost from CUC$30 (£19); breakfast costs CUC$5 (£3). Check out: www.casa.trinidadphoto.com.