On The Road: Narrow Focus: Know Before You Go
In early February I went to Cuba for 10 days of photography. Long before I left I knew what I wanted to accomplish. I’d been to Cuba 10 years before, so I knew the basics of what I’d see and what I could expect. This time I narrowed down what I wanted to photograph. I wanted to shoot mostly in the old section of Havana and in the city of Trinidad. People would be my main subjects—people on the streets, in their homes, going about their lives. In Old Havana I wanted to work in the late afternoon and early evening; in Trinidad I wanted to capture people against colorful backgrounds. On this trip there wouldn’t be open country where I’d be shooting landscapes or people working in the fields; there’d be no wide-open spaces, no photos of tobacco fields or expanses of sugar cane.
I’d bring two camera bodies, and I’d be able to lighten the lens load. A 24mm and a 35mm would be the main lenses for the streets and indoors. I added an 85mm for portraits and a 60mm micro for close-ups of architectural details, food, and clothing. And that was it. In the worst-case scenario if something happened to the 85mm, the 60mm, though it’s a little short for a portrait lens, would be an adequate substitute.
The lenses were fast glass—all f/1.4 except the 60mm, which was f/2.8—and that was because I expected low light, I wanted to be able to control the backgrounds and there might be a number of circumstances in which I couldn’t or wouldn’t want to use my flash. I also had an Epson P-5000 digital wallet for viewing and storing images, and I carried a lot of memory cards; there was no laptop on this trip because Internet access was extremely limited and unreliable.
So I’d narrowed the focus: concentrate on people. Essentially, I’d do one thing and do it well. And even though I always expect the unexpected, Plan B wasn’t needed. Things worked out even better than I thought (and hoped) they would.
One evening I was invited into the home of a musician who was happy to talk with me and play some music. With the 24mm f/1.4 lens I was able to capture a variety of spontaneous moments by the light of a single fluorescent bulb. I shot also inside a working pharmacy in which one side of the store was a restored pharmacy museum. And I got to photograph at an outdoor boxing gym in Old Havana.
From Havana I went on to the old colonial town of Trinidad, a World Heritage Site known for its colorful buildings and, increasingly, its appeal to tourists.
When I used the flash it was most often outdoors to fill in some shadows on the streets and help illuminate the faces of the dark-skinned people. I also used a polarizer to enhance the blue sky and, especially in Trinidad, the colors of the buildings.
The Cuban people were invariably friendly and open to being photographed, and I also had the benefit of a translator—my daughter, Erin, who’s fluent in Spanish and wanted to take some photographs of her own. Keeping it in the family helped out in several situations, as we made a much more personal connection to the people we met when I told them that my daughter was my guide and translator. That got a lot of conversations started, and her skill impressed many of the people we met and put them at ease.
And that, too, turned out to be part of the plan.
Maynard Switzer’s website, www.maynardswitzer.com, features several portfolios of his travel images.
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