Cuban colour to mono

Cuba may be one of the most colourful countries you can visit but you should never ignore the power of Black & White photography on your travels, even in a place where colour seems to dominate, writes Andrew James.

Cuba is a special place. It can drive you mad at times but it has a unique flavour that can become a bit addictive. Quite a number of Foto-Buzzers accompanied me on a Cuban adventure and after a day’s delay in Madrid (thanks Iberia – you useless bunch of {insert expletive of your choice here} we eventually made it to the heat and humidity of Havana, weary but in good spirits. This article isn’t the story of our adventure, it’s a personal account of why I went to such a colourful place with Black & White photography in my mind.  This trip was my third visit to Cuba so my files were already bristling with colourful photographs of this extraordinary country.

I wanted something different; something more timeless and there is no treatment better than monochrome for creating that. So, before I even packed my bags I’d decided it was going to a Black & White trip for me, with occasional outbursts of colour. Of course I shot digitally so every image you will see in this blog started life in colour. Many of them also work very well in colour too but in black & white they have to succeed (or fail) on the strength of their shapes, form, textures and contrasts.

Each image has been simply processed using Lightroom. I wanted deep black and strong whites. I worked on the first image to get a look I liked and then created a preset that I could apply to everything. After that I only needed to tweak a few things here and there.

Early morning in Havana
Downtown Havana is trying to smarten itself up a bit but you don’t have to stray too far to find the gritty, half-broken Havana that is full of mono potential. Due to Iberia’s inability to get us to Cuba on time we only had one full day in Havana, although we managed two early morning sessions. I was bitterly disappointed for those who were experiencing Cuba for the first time that they did not get longer in the capital city. You can wander to streets for days without getting bored (well, I can).

My image of a kid on his way to school (below), walking passed one of the old old cars Cuba is famous for, was taken not far from our hotel and if I am honest, it didn’t immediately strike me as a black & white image. The car is bright red and the warm light pouring down the street is beautiful. Having agonised over the colour and mono versions, I have finally decided I prefer the B&W more. It allows you to really take in the shapes and textures whereas the colour version below is almost too much and slightly imbalanced.

If you ever come on this sort of trip with me you’ll learn I am an observer. I like to wander about to find potential backdrops that would look good and then wait for someone or something interesting to happen to make the image come to life.

Cuba is the perfect place to do this and we’d set off in pairs to ‘work’ the streets! When doing street stuff you can’t really hunt in packs or your ‘subject’ notices you and behaves differently. The best approach is be subtle and lurk in doorways. Watch. Wait. Then pounce when the elements come together.

The next three images were all taken this way. You’ll also see they have a lens in common, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. In this case, it’s the Canon but it’s the focal length and maximum aperture that are the important things, not the brand. Everyone is different of course but this is my ‘go to’ lurkers lens. You are not so far away to be entirely remote from the subject but you are far enough away to be less obvious. As I said, I’m NOT trying to ‘blend’ in to be sneaky, I just don’t want to affect how people move or behave. It’s a lot like wildlife photography really!

Every single one of the next three images was shot at an aperture of f/2.8 in a city called Cienfuegos. It does mean you have to be really accurate with your focusing and I’d never use anything other than continuous focusing (AI Servo) and a single active AF point for this kind of photography but that wide aperture gives you a pleasant sharpness fall off in the background. It’s most evident here in the first image of the man walking with the bird cage.

I love detail. I love texture. Generally they’re simple shots to take but it’s so easy to walk past simple scenes that have bags of potential without even noticing them. The photo of the resting cat in the photo below is great for B&W. If I am honest, I didn’t spot the cat at the bottom at first, I was simply drawn to the light and shade created by the old wooden slats and the side lighting. It was evening and the sun was getting lower in the sky. When I noticed the cat I was like – “yes, get in,” because it added an extra dimension to the shot. It doesn’t scream ‘Cuba’ but it still works on the mono theme. With the 70-200mm I could stand on the opposite pavement and get a couple of shots without disturbing the cat. As I recall, I think at least three of us ended up on that street corner photographing the cat who, inevitably, had got up by this point as we’d blown our cover.

The second image is simplicity itself. Shape and texture. Nothing else. I won’t try to kid you I spent hours working out the composition. I didn’t. I stopped, liked the texture, framed up with the closed window more or less in the centre, took a shot and walked on. I’m glad I did. Not every image needs a narrative behind it.

There is a lot always going on on a Cuban street, especially in Havana. Smart locals, scruffy locals, school kids in cool uniforms, old men & women shuffling along in slippers, and so on. Here (right) I’d actually stopped to photograph the car (which is blue when you see it in colour) and was concentrating on that when I saw the man walking towards me. Where possible, even if I am shooting the old cars, I like to add some extra street life into the image. As I was crouching I only picked the man up a few moments before he appeared in the frame so I had no time to refocus from the front grill of the car onto him so I stuck with my initial focal point. His son, who was also carrying a small sack of something, possibly flour, was positioned nicely in my focal plane, following his dad with what looks like adoration

BO3I4369-Edit
BO3I4403-Edit

You will have noticed from the images so far that I predominantly used two lenses in Cuba. The 70-200mm and a 16-35mm. I love them both and will often change between them as they give a very different perspective on the same subject. I don’t mean that I am constantly switching from one to the other because my simple brain can’t cope with that. Instead I’ll decide the next hour is ‘wide’ time and then I might switch back to the medium telephoto for the following hour. Each lens and the way it interprets a scene makes me look differently at what’s in front of me. I’ll even do this with portraits. Below you get the telephoto approach and the wide approach to essentially the same subject – tobacco farmers. They are similar yet very different and each approach poses different questions of the photographer.

In my opinion, shooting with the telephoto does simplify things and that can be great. Your angle of view is much more restricted and this means that it’s easier to find a background that complements or contrasts with the subject. But going wide for a portrait can be fun too. There is a bit of wide-angle distortion to consider, such as the ‘bunch of bananas-sized’ hand, on the wide shot. Plus of course, there is so much more complexity to the background to think about, simply because you are getting so much of it in. Notice both shots, whether tele or wider were shot at f/2.8. It’s not for everyone but it’s an aperture I am comfortable with.

A farmer in Vinales Valley taken on the 70-200mm lens.
A farmer in Vinales Valley taken on the 70-200mm lens.
Leonardo in his tobacco drying shed taken on the 16-35mm lens
Leonardo in his tobacco drying shed taken on the 16-35mm lens

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