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 photographed at an outdoor gym in Old Havana 10 years ago, and when I explained that to the manager, she gave me access. I photographed this boxer with the 35mm lens. He told me he’d been a professional for 15 years.
All Photos © Maynard Switzer

We were walking on a Havana street one night when we heard music playing. When we peeked in the open door he invited us in. He spoke a bit of English, and my daughter translated the rest. As I photographed, another passerby took a look. This is an available-light shot taken with the 24mm lens.

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.

Schoolgirls on a Trinidad street.

Two residents of Trinidad. The city was a port destination in the days of the Spanish trade. Supposedly the stones that make up the streets were once the ballast in Spanish ships.

In Trinidad, I photographed a Quinceañera festival, which celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday.

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.

In Trinidad the 85mm lens allowed me to isolate this man from the surroundings.

I photographed this woman in the city of Trinidad using the 24mm lens. She told us she’d been weaving baskets for over 50 years.

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.

The 24mm lens was a favorite for working the streets. I was standing in front of the capitol building in Havana when I shot these people in what I think started out as a ’56 Ford.

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.

PasadenaTrainer's picture

Great photos! Thanks for sharing!

marry's picture

I've been dreaming about going to Cuba all my life and your pictures make me want to get there as soon as possible! I wonder if a road trip would be safe there though, RV Nation has some amazing campers and I;m willing to get one for the occasion.

elaine02's picture

I can't remember the last time I had such a long road trip, I've been avoiding them for years. I guess I got too old to sit in a chair for too long, even long airplane trips are tiring for me these days. Thank God I know a few tips to beat jet lag to help me cope with them!

neal25's picture

Your photos are awesome. I was thinking to go somewhere and you gave me an idea.I really want to go to Cuba with my friends. Recently I bought Forest River RV Cherokee from https://www.bigdaddyrvs.com
I will go there as soon as possible.
Thank you for sharing these photos and told us before going on the road.