These are the very same concepts I kept in the forefront of my mind every time I left my casa particular with the intent to photograph. It’s also important to note that a lot of these tips aren’t exclusive to Cuba and can be applied to street and travel photography all over the world. I’ll also be including a fresh set of tips from Cuba in part 2, so stay tuned!
Consider Ditching The Neck Strap
I know, I know. A neck strap is often regarded as a support system for some photographers even beyond the obvious protection it provides. There is a certain comfort afforded with having your camera dangling around your neck or off one shoulder. However, it’s also worth considering what your objective is.
My primary goal while walking around Havana and Trinidad was to capture life as it happened, to get out of the way and be a silent observer. Having a camera bobbing up and down off of my neck doesn’t aid much in keeping that obscurity. It’s something I witnessed countless times by some of my fellow photographers who joined me on the trip. They’d walk down a random street and as they passed by, everyone stopped what they were doing when they saw a big camera hanging down.
It’s worth making the point that I’m not against straps. Quite the contrary, actually. I love the Slide camera strap, made by the wonderful folks at Peak Design. I use it very often when it’s appropriate.
However, when it comes to discreet street photography, I like keeping my approach to how I handle my camera very simple. The only accessory I use with my camera is a hand strap called the Clutch, also made by Peak Design. This hand strap allows me to securely hold my camera without worrying about accidentally letting go of it. So, as I’m walking down the street, I usually have my arm down and my camera resting against my leg or just behind me.
Now, instead of focusing on where my camera is, I can concentrate on simply looking at the world unravel right in front of me. When I see a moment of interest, there’s no fumbling to grab my camera because it’s already in my hand. I just lift it, compose and fire. And for those times when I need a break from holding my camera, I just clip my camera to the side of my Everyday Messenger Bag using the Capture clip, both products also by Peak Design (I’m a huge fan of Peak Design’s products if you couldn’t tell by now).
Experiment With Different Focal Lengths
Here’s the thing. In my experience, photographers tend to gravitate towards the wider end of the focal length spectrum—usually hovering between the 16-24mm range. This is a wonderful range if your aim is to capture environmental portraits—a person or people and their natural element. The flip side to that is it becomes difficult sometimes to separate the person from the rest of the scene because so much is being included within the frame.
That’s why it’s so important to experiment with longer focal length, somewhere between 70-100mm. Aside from the benefits of lens compression, you also gain a wonderful way to bring direct focus to your subject. It becomes much easier to separate your subject from the rest of the scene. In fact, I’ve become a big fan of longer focal length prime lenses. One of the most used during my visit to Cuba was the Zeiss Batis 1.8/85.
Using longer focal lengths was especially important while in Havana and Trinidad because of how busy the streets were. In addition to the streets teeming with people, there were chaotic spiderwebs of electrical and telecommunications wires strewn everywhere. All of this made it very challenging to isolate a particular person engaged in a particular moment. It wasn’t impossible to do with a wide-angle lens, but I certainly preferred the opportunities that presented themselves when I used a longer focal length.
Experiment With Different Angles
There’s no denying the obvious pull to capture a person head-on. In other words, you’re facing them and they’re facing your camera lens. If I had to guess, I’d say that the bulk of portrait photos that I’ve ever seen have been taken head-on. In my experience, though, the primary downside to this direct perspective is that you’ve likely made your presence known to your subject. It’s hard to overlook the business end of a lens when it’s pointed right at you. Now, if your aim is to capture the essence of this person while they’re aware of it, then play on. However, I’d also ask you to consider your position relative to your subject.
Whenever I found myself walking down some street in Cuba with the rest of the photography group I was with, I noticed that almost all of them would default to positioning themselves right in front of a subject. Aside from this leading to a bunch of similar photos being taken by several photographers, it also destroyed any chance of being able to observe life unfold naturally for the locals (and the photographers).
My MO was to capture a person simply living, blissfully unaware of my existence, and I found great success when I considered different vantage point and perspectives. Aside from the obvious invisibility that you can afford yourself, you further open up a bunch of different compositional options as it relates to angles, leading lines and vanishing points. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express that there certainly are benefits to head-on portraits. In my book, though, taking a head-on portrait should include some sort of context to help bring the photo to life for the viewer.