Welcome to Havana, let your photographic journey begin!
Havana is the only place in the entire world where you can find so many American cars pre-dating 1960 still in everyday use. Prior to the embargo, when the United States ended the importation of cars and car parts, Cuba was the leading importer of American automobiles which arrived by the boatload from nearby Florida. Today these old cars are considered by many to be a national cultural asset and a key draw for the tourism industry.
Unofficial estimates speculate that upwards of 60,000 Yank tanks are still rolling down the roads in Cuba today. They come in all makes, models, colours and their condition ranges from showroom museum pieces to Frankenstein mash-ups using Russian truck and farm equipment parts.
Classicos and Alemndrones
The Cacharros Particulars, or Classicos, are the pampered and polished beauties that have been lovingly maintained by a single family for multiple generations. The Classicos evoke a sense of nostalgia in many folks, showcasing the iconic design and style of a bygone era: massive chrome grills and bumpers, swooping tail fins, and lots of accent details. As a photographer, I simply can’t resist all that luscious chrome, the lines, and the variety of colours they show off. Photographing the Classicos in a city as unique and photogenic as Havana is a dream scenario every photographer should cross off their bucket list!
At the other end of the spectrum are the Almendrones, seemingly held together with bondo, duct tape and chewing gum, a testimony to the ingenuity and improvisation of Cuban mechanics. The Almendrones are the unofficial group taxis that run on various arterial routes and are used by Habaneros to get around in Havana. The nickname Almendrone literally translates to “big almond” and the origin of this term reputedly stems from the nondescript and utilitarian body shape of these cars that does resemble an almond.
A friend of mine in Havana who regularly uses Almedrones commented on the importance in the daily lives of Habaneros: “The Almendrones are our taxis. We may not have a car but we still need to move every day. Thank God for the Almendrones because the bus is not so good for travel. Only people that do not have much money take the bus. The Almendrones are for when you have a little more money.”
Taking it to the streets
Before you hit the streets to chase the Classicos and the Almendrones let’s give some thought to what makes a great photograph and how we can best focus ourselves to maximize the results of our efforts in the field.
Recognize and accept that the street photography environment is fluid and ever-changing. You can’t control the colour, make and model of the car or when it rolls by you unless you hire it for a photo shoot. You can’t control the weather, nor can you control what else is travelling thru the environment during you photo shoot.
The positive here, at least for me, is the immense satisfaction I feel when I am able to overcome these challenges and get “The Shot”. That image becomes exponentially more meaningful to me because of the effort I had to expend to get it as well as the good fortune of the opportunity that was bestowed upon me in that moment.
Are you a great story-teller?
A great photograph tells a story. Photographically, your goal should be to create images which capture the Almendrones and the Classicos in ways that highlight their characters showcased against the backdrop of Havana life. The best way to accomplish this is to frame these cars interacting with a variety of secondary subject matter, such as people, a visually compelling environment, or both.
Remember, before you press the shutter the frame is your blank canvas… what will you choose to fill it with? Invest some time and effort in your creativity. Strive to make your images richer with the addition of a secondary subject.
An interesting secondary subject will provide context and contrast for the story of the Almendrones and the Classicos and in so doing enhance the overall image. As you will quickly discover there is no shortage of compelling secondary subject matter in Havana. You can literally “pose” a passing car against a background of multi-coloured colonial architecture, revolutionary signage, a movie theatre, a cross-walk full of people, and of course the Malecon.
The recipe is simple so get cooking!
Look for a background that appeals to you, dial in your aperture and shutter speed, wait for a Classico or an Almendrone to drive by, and then press the shutter. Check your first few shots. Do you see anything in the frame you need to eliminate, like overhead wires, signage, a lamp post, a shadow, etc.? Can you eliminate the distracting element by altering your focal length (zoom), changing your depth of field, or your shooting location or stance? If so then make the adjustment and shoot again.
It is always beneficial to put your camera down every so often and take a moment to assess the environment. Observation and anticipation are key elements of street photography that will enable you optimize your creativity while on a shoot. Photographing Classicos and Almendrones is a fantastic way to develop awareness and anticipation. You pan and shoot a moving car and then it is gone. You lower your camera and begin scanning the area for the next car. Once you see one up comes the camera. You take the shot. Down goes the camera and the search begins again.
Remember to change it up, add a dash of creative spice!
As the old saying goes variety is the spice of life! When you have found a location you like you need to work it. This means experimenting with your photographic inputs. Making a regular effort to experiment will a) improve your photographic skill-set, and b) produce a diverse and interesting folio of work from your Havana sessions.
When photographing Classicos and Almendrones you can change it up and add some creative spice by playing with the following variations:
• Pan faster, Pan slower, do not Pan at all
• Vary your aperture and / or your shutter speed
• Vary your shooting angle: overhead or low to the ground, or tilt your camera left or right
• Vary your shooting location by moving 10 feet to the left or to the right
Cars and People
Another way to tell the story of the Classicos and the Almendrones in Havana is to capture their interaction with people. In Havana the stories of these cars and the Habaneros are everywhere. It is up to you to hit the pavement with your eyes open for opportunities and your camera at the ready.
So where exactly do you start your journey? In Havana pretty much anywhere! The Malecon is frequented by people and it offers two compelling backdrops: the sea and the promenade to the north, or crumbling Colonial buildings to the south. Gear up and hit the Malecon in the late afternoon for the best light and perhaps a spectacular sunset!
Havana bus stops often serve a dual role as taxi stations and so they are natural gathering places for Habaneros in need of transportation. Find one set against a colourful colonial building façade and then wait for the Almendrones and the Classicos to drive by and take a panned shot at a variety of speeds. If the pan works out you will have the car in focus and the people and the background slightly blurred. Try reversing the equation by not panning and simply letting the car drive thru the frame using a slow shutter speed. Now the car should be a colourful blur while the people and the background remain in sharp focus.
Last Words: Grab your Passport!
Stepping up to take on new photographic challenges can stimulate, inspire and motivate your creative growth as a photographic artist. In my opinion there are few photographic environments as unique and as visually rich as La Habana and so there is no better place to challenge yourself and to put yourself in the path of creative growth. What are you waiting for? Grab your passport and book your trip!