We’re coming up on another return to Havana, Cuba to teach a 7-day workshop, but last year it was City #43 during my 100 City Project. So, it’s time for my favorite city’s edition of first impressions.
For many photographers, Havana is a dream destination. Not many cities have been photographed like Havana, providing everyone a picture and feeling of the city even if you’ve never been. Havana more than deserves its reputation as one of the best cities around for photography, though. For me, it’s almost like if you created the perfect city for street photography in your mind, it would be Havana. It has it all going for it, but it’s also much more than the cliché you might see in many of the same photos of the city. It’s made for walking everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. So that’s what I did this trip, with just under a month devoted to this city on my last visit.
So here are my first impressions of Havana, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Havana
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. Explore everywhere, every direction
Havana is like a street photographer’s playground. It feels like it was designed from a photographer’s dream checklist. Culture, Vibrance, History, Character, Authenticity, Colors, Contrast, Photo Friendliness, and Endless Places to shoot, all wrapped into a package that makes it so walkable that you can just step outside and head in any direction. Around every corner and down any street, you’re bound to find interest to capture. There’s almost too much interest so you do have to reign in that focus and not get carried away snapping everything you see.
Saying this, it’s almost like I shouldn’t create a guide for Havana, but I still will because most photographers don’t take advantage of all that Havana offers. They stay exploring around Havana Vieja when they should be exploring everywhere. Which leads me to my #2….
2. Even better outside of Vieja
Havana Vieja is great and without question deserves your time, but it’s not like that signature frozen-in-time atmosphere is only found there. While many cities have an old town, Havana possesses this character throughout the city, but most comes without the tourism and polish.
I’d recommend exploring any, and all, of these surrounding areas below:
- Plaza de la Revolucion
- Diez de Octubre
Centro can feel just like Old Havana that you might not know you’ve crossed into it, but it still has less of a touristic feel. Vedado is a nicer area of Havana and runs by the Malecon and ocean. Regla is a very short ferry ride from Old Havana taking you to a more peaceful and industrial side of the city. The last few areas listed above give a wide view of local city life in Havana, and are where I ended up spending most of my time shooting. Diez de Octubre became one of my favorite main roads to walk south endlessly. I spent whole days walking this long street down and back, passing through many interesting areas with a real local atmosphere. Photogenically, it has more than enough of that Havana character too. With so many amazing areas to visit in Havana, you must make the Vieja only one part of your photo visit here.
3. Extremely photogenic city, but focus and watch out for cliche
When it comes to photography, Havana is at the top. It attracts photographers from all around the world, and for good reason. There’s no place like it, while arguably being the most photogenic big city in the world, in my opinion. Some cities have a neighborhood that is famous and attracts photographers for its character. In Havana, this is the whole city. Everything feels photographable, but that can be a problem too.
For one, you might feel like snapping away at everything, especially if this is your first time here. It’s all new and filled with so much character, it’s almost too easy to shoot in. Sometimes, this can be overwhelming and end up losing focus or sight. You might end up with more decent shots in a day compared to other cities, but you were too excited to be yourself as a photographer and didn’t look for more. Decent shots are fine, but you still need to find something special if you want the photo to be special.
And then, more than any city other than maybe Paris, you have to watch out for the cliché. This city has been photographed so much, you end up seeing the same photos. In Havana, the uniqueness really seems to attract the cliché too. Close your eyes and picture Havana. What do you see? Old cars and cigars. And that’s what nearly every photographer sees too. But there’s so much more to the city than this, that I feel it cuts it very short. Those clichés are photographed for a reason, though, and those old cars are beautiful. But they can still be captured in a more unique way where it doesn’t feel so cliché. You just have to treat Havana like any other city and find the real interest, not just the initial photogenic newness of Havana.
4. Favorite photo friendly city
Not only is Havana one of the most photogenic cities in the world, it’s also one of the most photo friendly. Even better, though, it’s the perfect type of photo friendliness for street photography. Places like India are very photo friendly too, but eyes are always on you, waiting to pose for your camera. This isn’t a problem in Havana. They’re not too curious about you, but they’re just as photo friendly. Unless it’s one of those oversized cigar ladies or a Fidel look-alike looking for money, no one will be bothered if you take their photo. Either they’ll laugh or more likely, they won’t care at all. Sometimes they’ll even invite you over for a drink (this happens to me here more than anywhere else I’ve been).
People live outside with their doors open enjoying their vibrant culture and rarely mind letting you into their world for a few photos. It’s great for street photography and even greater for the experience.
5. Everything is old. Ruins to cars.
One of the aspects that Havana is famous for is it’s frozen-in-time atmosphere. This is also something many photographers love about the city. It provides character you don’t find elsewhere today. We’re already attracted to older photos of cities because of that nostalgic character, but you can’t travel back in time. Havana, though, gives you the closest option.
You won’t find McDonald’s, Starbucks or other modern businesses and advertising covering the city streets. Instead, you find a city that feels like it was before all that took over. The buildings are old, and many times crumbling, but they’re also beautiful and filled with character. Of course, there’s the famous classic cars filling the streets too. And then more than anything, there’s the people and life of the place. Everyone’s outside living life like they have forever. You see old photos of kids playing in the streets of New York, but in Havana you can still capture it today. There’s other cities that feel old and back in time in many ways, but it’s different here. You get that urban atmosphere feeling still, but in a package that feels it really hasn’t changed much compared to every other big city in the world.
6. Very Colorful
It’s no secret that I love color and there might be no city more colorful than Havana. Bright, vibrant colors are surrounding you everywhere you go. From the buildings and walls painted in a variety of colors to the people wearing just as much color. Some cities have one area that is covered in color, but in Havana it’s everywhere. I like using color to complete or add to a photo, with the life still being the centerpiece, but on my last trip here I put a little focus on trying the opposite. Havana’s colors were just too much for me not to put them as the centerpiece in a short series.
So to see some of the variety of colors this vibrant city has on display, you can check out this side series here.
Link: Havana Colors series
7. Exchange for Pesos & Save Money
A big piece of advice I’ve learned from traveling to Cuba is to exchange for both Convertible and Local pesos. Cuba has two forms of currency, one is their local peso (CUP) and the other is the convertible peso (CUC). The convertible peso is always equal to the US dollar, and currently exchanges to around 26 local pesos. So there’s a big difference between the two. When you exchange foreign money here, they’ll always convert it to convertible pesos, and most visitors assume this is the currency they must use here, but it’s not. As soon as you exchange for the convertible pesos, just push some of it back under the counter and they’ll covert that to local pesos. You can use either currency most places. So why is this important? It can save you money. Many locals and businesses are happy to try to charge you the local peso price, but in convertible pesos with no exchange rate. That means the sandwich costs 5 local pesos and they’ll try to take 5 convertible pesos, ripping you off 26 times the price. Also, many restaurants will convert the local peso price, always giving you a bad exchange rate. Using local pesos saves you any trouble you might run into, as well as saving you money.
Havana can feel expensive for most tourists, but in actuality, it can be a very budget destination. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that charges so much more to tourists, but it’s easy to work around. A regular tourist meal in the Vieja can cost $15, while that same meal will cost $3 at another, more local restaurant. Pizza and sandwiches are easily found for 50 cents at quick stop windows throughout the city. And while taxis are a huge rip off here, you can take shared collectivos for only 50 cents, while riding in one of those old classic cars they charge $25 plus for in the center. If you want to save money, Havana is all about going where the locals go and paying in local pesos.
Street Photographer’s Playground
In my opinion, Havana is the closest thing to a street photographer’s paradise as you’ll find. It’s a playground of history, character, age, colors, texture, light, life, vibrance and more. Everywhere you walk, you’re surrounded with so much life, in both the people and the city, that it can be overwhelming for photography. You might want to capture everything, including the cliché. But if you bring it in a little and really explore and experience the city, Havana will reward you like no other city can.
If any of you have been to Havana before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Havana, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)