Capturing the Essence of Cuba

© Ralph Velasco
© Ralph Velasco
As a travel photography instructor, author and international tour guide (see, my main goal is to help photographers of all skill levels - from beginner to advanced amateurs - to recognize and successfully capture more and better photo opportunities on their travels, whether venturing around the world or around the corner.  

In 2010 I was part of a humanitarian trip to Cuba, and I'll be returning in April 2011 and hopefully at least once a year indefinitely (ask me how to join future trips).  Having photographed in over 40 countries on 6 continents, Cuba is now my favorite destination to photograph, so I thought I'd use it as the backdrop for this article about bringing back a well-rounded portfolio of images that truly gives your viewers a sense of the destination you're shooting.  It's based on a class I teach called Capturing the Essence of a Place.

Any comments or questions would be welcomed.


Creating a Cultural Portrait of Place by Developing a Shot List

By Ralph Velasco

The very idea of capturing a complete set of images that result in a well-rounded portfolio of a place can be an overwhelming thought, especially when that place is a large city such as Havana, or an expansive region like coastal Cuba.

By seeking out a variety of images based on a well thought out “shot list,” a photographer can be sure to minimize the chances of creating an uninspiring slideshow for the folks back home. There’s nothing that will put your viewers to sleep faster than 300 slides of nothing but people, or monuments, or even the most beautiful landscapes. The trick is to mix it up and keep the audience’s attention from start to finish by providing a sampling of each of the distinctive parts that make up the whole of the place you’re photographing. Look at just about any travel magazine article and you’ll see that the photo editor will always have this in mind.

The very word “essence” means the intrinsic or indispensable properties that characterize or identify something, and this case we’re talking about a country: Cuba.

Iconic Cuba © Ralph Velasco
Iconic Cuba © Ralph Velasco

Get Yourself Organized

I have what I call my “Zen of Photography.” In it I state that 75 percent of successful image capture is accomplished by doing the necessary planning and research that will put you in the right place at the right time. If you’ll just do that, the vast majority of the work is done, it’s really as simple as that.

A shot list provides a framework that will put you head and shoulders above the unorganized photographer who’s just out to shoot whatever he or she may stumble upon, after all, there’s an old saying that “Even a blind mouse finds a hunk of cheese once in a while.” Spontaneous photo opportunities will surely present themselves along the way, and you’ll certainly want to capitalize on those, but be ahead of the game by putting a plan in place, especially if your time is limited.

Cameras and lenses wear out, but artistic vision endures, so I encourage my students not to get caught up in chasing technology. I’d rather have them spend time on developing their photographic eye, not money on more complicated and cumbersome equipment.

It goes without saying that in Cuba, just as in most locations, it’s extremely important to photograph in the best light of the day, which is typically either early morning or later in the day, during the golden hour, when the sun is low in the sky. If I need to choose, however, my preference is to be out early because it has several benefits: it’s often cooler in the morning (especially in the tropics), there are fewer, if any, tourists out (so I can concentrate on photographing the locals on their way to work and the kids on their way to school), lakes and slow moving rivers tend to be more still before the winds of the day build, and I can get a lot of my work done before my travel mates even get out of bed, so I can take my time and not feel rushed.

The following is an abbreviated list of shots (I’ve come up with over 50 categories) that will help you to cover a city or region thoroughly and allow you to stay focused and organized, in turn making the most efficient use of your time. Often, shooting some categories, such as People or Street Scenes, is going to be easier to accomplish than others, for instance Establishing Shots, but if you can strive for a select number of keeper images (even just 5 to 10 is a good goal) from each of the categories on your shot list, you’ll have the basis for a dynamic presentation that inspires.


Havana, Cuba © Ralph Velasco
Havana, Cuba © Ralph Velasco

Establishing Shots

In order to get a clear view of the place, seek out opportunities that will get you to the highest point in the city or place in which you’ll be traveling, whether it involves hiking, taking a cable car or employing a Sherpa. In Havana, our base of operations at the 5 star Hotel Parque Central offered commanding views of the streets, buildings and neighborhoods below. I always make an effort to venture up in the highest building or monument offering a public space from which to shoot, or I might try to talk my way into a private place with an interesting vista.

An Establishing Shot gives your viewers a overall sense of the place you’re representing with your photography and provides the perfect set up for the rest of your presentation.

Everyday Life © Ralph Velasco
Everyday Life © Ralph Velasco


With the possible exception of architecture, few categories on your shot list will sum up a place more than its people. My experience with photographing the people in Cuba was that they were actually seeking me out to take their pictures. On more than one occasion I’d be shooting a person in a shop, along the famous Malecon, or on a back street, and someone nearby would say, in effect, “Hey, what about taking a picture of me?!”

The Cubans are widely known as the most pro-American people in the entire region, and I believe it. Because they’re not used to U.S. citizens traveling in their country, when they found out I was from the U.S., and especially Southern California, they couldn’t have been more interested. Establishing rapport with the locals was not a problem, and never did I feel in any way afraid that my camera equipment or other valuables were threatened.

While capturing images of these interesting people, in colorful clothes against wonderful backgrounds - the holy grail for any travel photographer - if the subject did notice me, I was greeted with a smile and never a bad word, and often I’d find myself spending 15 minutes or more conversing with the person who expressed sincere interest in me and where I’m from (I do speak Spanish, however, so that helps).


There are few subjects that are more representative of Cuba than old American cars, hand rolled cigars and baseball, and so those are certainly going to be towards the top of my shot list. Colorful, roomy, and often filled to the brim with passengers, classic cars from the 40s and 50s are everywhere, and Cuba is teeming with an enviable collection. Held together seemingly by tape, gum and incredible ingenuity, these American beauties, oddly enough, are a symbol of this country, and one could hardly leave without photographing a dozen or more on even the shortest trip.

Children playing baseball with broomsticks and tattered tennis balls fill the streets, each attempting to emulate their Cuban and American baseball heroes. And cigars, one can’t go even a block or two without a wrinkled man, or even a colorfully dressed woman, chomping on an original Cohiba or Monte Cristo, another iconic scene for the taking.

Icons © Ralph Velasco
Icons © Ralph Velasco


In many places, the architecture will immediately tell the viewer where you are shooting, and Cuba is no exception. Known for its dilapidated colonial buildings, most of which have not been maintained in more than 50 years, both Havana and Trinidad de Cuba, two of the three major cities I visited, along with Cienfuegos, offer a myriad of subjects representative of this fascinating country.

While attempting to capture the whole scene in a unique way, at the same time be sure to hone in on the details. The roofline, windowsills, balconies and architectural moldings complete the story, so they most certainly should be a part of it.

Markets & Vendors

Because of the colors, textures and variety of shapes of both the products being sold and the people that abound at most local markets, they’re one of the first places I seek out when traveling. It’s at these markets that you’ll capture the citizens buying their daily provisions, and it’s here that the weathered and experienced vendors become the subject. If you seek them out, and your research should have provided insight as to where the best markets are located, wandering specific areas will provide a great opportunity to capture some candid shots of the merchants and their clientele.

Street Scenes

Look for distinctive design elements or surroundings that will provide an interesting backdrop for your photography. If you come across a detailed stone wall, an ornate mural or some colorful graffiti, be prepared with your camera and wait for a subject to walk into the frame to provide scale and add what I like to call a “human touch.” After a while you’ll blend into the scene as you capture these wonderful moments. Like a spider waiting for its prey, let a variety of subjects come to you and then fire away. The ubiquitous porticos bathed in arched shadows and light, crumbling walls that haven’t seen any paint or plaster in decades, and the eerie propaganda that can be found throughout Cuba, provide the perfect backdrop for just about any subject.

Icons © Ralph Velasco
Icons © Ralph Velasco

Storytelling Close-Ups & Detail Shots

When I show my images of well thought out close-ups and shots of the specific details of a place, it’s often then that I’ll get the most positive comments that we all as photographers seek. In Havana I encountered a cigar-smoking woman sitting near the Plaza de Catedral who was more than happy to allow me to shoot the details of her colorful and bejeweled hands. She had long nails, each of which was intricately painted a different way by the woman herself, including a “thumbnail” version of the Cuban flag.

Get in close and let the details reveal themselves. I know from experience that the keepers you get in this category will be some of the most gratifying images you’ll capture.


There are over 50 categories that make up my shot list, and so the above sampling is not comprehensive by any means, but only a starting point. Feel free to add or eliminate categories as you see fit, or as the location dictates. Your goal should be to capture a minimum of 5, but even better would be 10 to 20 “keepers” in each of the relevant categories for the particular place you’re photographing. This very realistic goal will surely guarantee that you come back with a well-rounded portfolio of images of which you can be proud.

Remember, photography is an art and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being creative, and besides, rules are made to be broken. If you push the creative envelope by stretching your photographic skills each and every time you travel, great art is sure to result and your photography can’t help but improve.

See more images from Cuba in the album "Capturing the Essence of Cuba".


Ralph Velasco is a Southern California-based travel photography instructor and international tour guide. He’s the author of “Ralph Velasco On Travel Photography: 101 Tips for Developing Your Photographic Eye & More."  Additionally he has a new app for iPhone and iPod touch called My Shot Lists for Travel, which was created to help photographers of all skill levels to organize and track their photography of any destination or subject by using a shot list. The app is available on the App Store in iTunes for just 99 cents.

by Ralph Velasco

Location-independent travel photography instructor, small group tour organizer and international guide. Public speaker, author, app creator and award-winning travel blogger.

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 HOLA amigos amigas! Just got back from Cuba. Im here in Toronto and would like to go back again to Cuba for travel photography.....