Street photography was just too easy and so much fun in Cuba. After I would sneak off a candid shot or two, people actually smiled at me or said Thank you. When I smiled back and in very limited Spanish said Hello and introduced myself, doors literally opened. I was welcomed into homes and businesses, and offered a cup of coffee. Once I was even invited back for dinner. Surprisingly, people seemed excited to learn I was from the United States, and California.
If you are planning a visit to Cuba and do not speak Spanish, definitely come with a few Spanish words in your back pocket. Words like Hello, Thank you, and Have a good day or good night, with a smile, are a starting point. I found that people enthusiastically responded when I introduced myself. Giving my first name and where I was from seemed really important. Also, telling someone that they were pretty or handsome, or that they looked like a movie star (with a playful glint in my eye) went a long way. If you like shooting portraits that include children, carry a little noisemaker, or stuffed animal, that you can twirl around to catch a childs attention.
For me, the best time to shoot street life was late afternoon, and early evening into the night. Men gathered together and played dominoes or chess outside on the street; children ran after their balls and each other; small businesses like nail salons and barbershops welcomed customers. Scout the streets during the afternoon, to see where youd like to return. Ask your tour group leader, or other photographers, where you should go. Streets tend to be very, very dark once the sun goes down, so look for streets that have street lamps, lit signs and several operating businesses that should be open in the evening. An occasional headlight from a car also can provide light, so look for streets that get some traffic, but not too much.
For night shooting, I prefer prime lenses. I primarily shoot with a Fuji 18mm f/2 and a Fuji 35mm f/2 lens. Occasionally I used my Fuji 56mm f/1.2 lens. All of these lenses are lightweight, sharp, fast and inconspicuous. I do a lot better job of handholding them at slow shutter speeds. I tend to shoot aperture preferred, and carefully choose my ISO so that my shutter speed is not too slow (unless I want it slow for creative reasons). My ISO might even go as high as ISO 25,600 at times, depending on circumstances. My Fuji X-T1 can handle the high ISOs, giving remarkable results. It is a good idea to test your cameras ISO settings before you travel, so you understand how your camera performs.
There is so much to shoot on the streets of Cuba, that it can be overwhelming. You may consider giving yourself assignments. Like shooting fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters. Musicians and salsa dancers. Barbershops and beauty salons. Don’t forget those classic old cars. I was mesmerized. I shot them fast, slow; I panned, I blurred. I looked for colors and models. I shot them by old, decaying buildings, by public monuments, and by the ocean.
After you find yourself up half the night drinking mojitos or sparkling water, while you are taking photos of musicians and members of the audience (who happen to be smoking cigars, kissing, and dancing), you may as well not bother going back to your hotel to catch some sleep. Instead, go out and walk the streets early in the morning, just in case there is something even more interesting to photograph. On second thought, maybe you should just go back to your hotel and get some sleep.