6 Pros, on Taking Surprising, and Unique Photos, of Cuba

Cuba is an island full of life and tradition. Discover how to capture the vibrant culture of Cuba with tips from six experienced travel photographers.

Fifty years ago, photographers like Burt Glinn and Alberto Korda documented Cuba on the brink of drastic change. Recently, the country went through another major transformation, precipitated in part by normalized relations between their government and the United States.

From Havana to Trinidad, this nation has been photographed many times over, and still, Cuba continues to evolve. With every visit you’re sure to find something new. Behind the historic architecture and classic American cars, there are countless untold stories waiting to be discovered.

We asked six talented photographers from the Shutterstock collection to reflect on their travels to Cuba. Below, they discuss looking past the clichés, and with help from the locals, they reveal a more authentic and unique side of a famously photogenic nation. Join us as we visit the iconic and hidden corners of this colorful island.

1. “To take authentic photos of Cuba, try going to the more remote villages where there is a more rural lifestyle.”

Diana Zuleta

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Try Remote Areas

Image by Diana Zuleta. Gear: Nikon D610 camera, 50.0mm f/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/500 sec; f4.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was walking through the streets of Trinidad, Cuba, taking pictures of the architecture and the local people at sunset when I saw a ray of light on the ground. I decided that this was a good place to get a photo, and it was simply a matter of waiting and waiting for someone interesting to pass. A man on a bicycle with a child passed by me, but they did not pass over the beam of light, so I kindly asked him to pass again but this time just along that line. He did so, and this has been one of the most downloaded photos in my Shutterstock portfolio.

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Know What Others Have Photographed

Image by Diana Zuleta.

Pro Tip

To take authentic photos of Cuba, try going to the more remote villages where there is a more rural lifestyle. It is a good idea to go out and take pictures at sunrise, around 6:00 AM, when the local people leave their houses and go to work or to the market. At this time, there are not many tourists on the street.

As a female photographer traveling alone, I felt very safe in Cuba. Local people told me that theft is not common and that you can safely walk around at any time. If the place and the light are good, you have to wait right there for something interesting to happen. Before I travel to a new place, I also check out the photos of that place that are already on Shutterstock. That way, I don’t just make more of the same photos but achieve better and less common ones.

2. “Be patient, receptive, and attentive, and respect the local people.”

Maurizio De Mattei

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Show Respect

Image by Maurizio De Mattei. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 24-70 lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; shutter speed 1/125 sec; f8.0; ISO 320.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was hiking in the country around Vinales, in the Pinar del Rio region, with the intention of capturing farmers at work. It was a late summer afternoon when I arrived at a small farm home and glimpsed a group of farmers around an old table enjoying the shadow of a big tropical tree. They were joking and laughing, and I was instantly drawn to them.

I bashfully asked if I could join, and they agreed, asking where I was from and continuing to play dominoes. We started to chat like old friends. People are friendly and hospitable in Cuba, and it is always nice to interact with them. Especially in the evening, they enjoy sitting down outside of their homes, chatting with neighbors and passersby. Frequently, they also play dominoes, sometimes using a board laid on their legs or a kitchen table brought outside just for that purpose.

I shot a number of photographs, and this is one of my favorite photos of Cuba. It represents a lesser-known but truthful aspect of the Cuban lifestyle. The late afternoon sunlight enhances the texture of the farmers’ hands and expresses the intimacy and conviviality of the moment.

Pro Tip

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Learn a Little History

Before visiting Cuba, I would suggest you get a general idea of Cuban history, its famous people, and its local culture (art, architecture, food, celebrations, etc.). Research the popular sites and figure out what other photographers have captured before you. This is the starting point from which you will build your own body of work. Try to visualize new and personal views of iconic places by figuring out different perspectives, vantage points, and moments. Set out on your journey with a travel plan and a tentative list of photographs to capture.

When organizing your travel plan, do not forget to take your time. Visiting Cuba is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s important you have the time to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Cuba, to breathe it in, to explore it on foot, and to discover locations off the beaten path.

Talk to local people and take advantage of local guides who can provide unexpected insights and interesting stories to tell with your photos. Visit your chosen destinations as if you were a local yourself; make repeated visits to see how the light changes, and find ways to avoid crowds. Enjoy Cuba. Be patient, receptive, and attentive, and respect the local people. You might capture fewer photos by following these tips, but I guarantee they will be more meaningful and original.

Here are a few examples. If you’re walking around tourist attractions, it is quite easy to find people with cigars who you can photograph for a buck, but if you walk a little further, you can find fantastic real people for your portraits. Our taxi driver also took us to a place with a scenic terrace, and from there, I captured gorgeous shots of the Valley de los Ingenios.

3. “Allow yourself to wander and spend time with the locals.”

Kimberly Shavender

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Wander

Image by Kimberly Shavender. Gear: Nikon D610 camera, 16mm-35mm f/4.0 Nikkor lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 4 sec; f8; ISO 500.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I traveled to Cuba alone in the spring of 2016 as a freelance photojournalist. I was fortunate to be in Cuba the same weekend Barack Obama and his family made their historic trip, and I quickly learned that most Cubans absolutely adore Americans and they love Barack Obama. I visited Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos, and my favorite location was Old Havana, where I stayed with a local family through AirBnB.

On the morning of this shot, I stepped out of my AirBnB at 6:00 AM, hoping to capture the dimly lit cobblestone streets without pedestrians. As it turned out, my favorite was this long exposure shot of two figures strolling away from the camera, breathing life and movement into an otherwise motionless shot. The four-second exposure was just long enough to slightly blur the silhouettes while still maintaining the shape of the people.

Pro Tip

Allow yourself to wander and spend time with the locals. Do your research beforehand, highlight places of interest, and then head out without an agenda. The ability to speak a little Spanish will also allow you to connect with the locals and hear their stories. Even as a female traveling solo, I felt safe talking with everyone I met. Opportunities for environmental portraits that tell the stories of the creative and resilient Cuban people are everywhere, if you take the time to see them.

4. “Cuba is one of the safest destinations in the Caribbean for tourists, so don’t hesitate to walk around freely.”


6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Take a Map

Image by akturer. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon 16-35 mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f4; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was my first day in Havana, and I felt like I had traveled back in time. Before going there, I had checked out some photos of Havana, and I planned to take photos of the Capitolio building from a different point of view using a reflection or a mirror or something similar. When I got there, this wonderful old American car was parked in the street, and I took some photos of the interior with the Capitolio building also visible in the background.

Pro Tip

My first tip is to go there before it’s too late! I visited Cuba two times, in 2015 and 2017, and I noticed so many changes just in those two years. For a memorable Cuban experience, I recommend staying in a “casa particular.” These are “private homes” controlled by the government. They have two to three rooms and one kitchen, and you’ll live with a local host while you’re there.

Cuba is one of the safest destinations in the Caribbean for tourists, so don’t hesitate to walk around freely. People are friendly there, and you can take fantastic portrait shots-with permission, of course. Before you go, don’t forget to take your map with you because you won’t find one when you’re there. Wake up about 6:00 in the morning; that’s the best time for avoiding the crowds and tourists.

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Go Explore

Walk along the Malecon in Havana. You will find many things there, especially interesting people and sunsets. Don’t forget to take your tripod. Neptuno is a long street parallel to the Malecon, and you will find beautiful examples of architecture there. Paseo de Marti is a long street for pedestrians, and it’s quite active on the weekends. There is always someone there: little flamenco dancers, painters, ballerinas, etc.

If you’re in Trinidad, don’t miss the chance take photos at sunset on Playa Ancon, and don’t forget to take mosquito repellent with you. If you are lucky, you can also see thousands of migrating crabs on the road between Havana and Trinidad in March. It is not possible to see the road because it is full of crabs, but unfortunately, many of them die because they are crushed by the cars.

5. “If you want to have an authentic Cuban experience, I discourage you from staying at a resort.”

Roxana Gonzalez

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Look for Authentic Experiences

Image by Roxana Gonzalez. Gear: Nikon D300 camera, Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm (in 35mm: 27mm); exposure 10 sec; f8.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

“El Morro” lighthouse is a quintessential Cuban landmark built over 400 years ago to guard the entrance to Havana Bay. It’s popular among tourists and locals, and no visit to Havana is complete without a trip across the bay to watch the magnificent views of the city skyline with its famous Malecon running alongside the ocean.

Most pictures of this iconic fortress are taken from the opposite side of the bay and show only a partial view of the landmark and no clues about its relationship to the city. For this picture, I wanted to give a little context by showing both sides of the bay with the sunlight disappearing in the center of the frame.

I decided to shoot a long exposure after sunset to capture the city lights on the left and highlight the silhouette of the familiar structure. With some patience, I was able to sync the shutter with the rotating lighthouse beam, and, as a bonus, some fishermen silhouettes can be seen on the tip of the rocks.

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Interact with Local Culture

Pro Tip

If you want to have an authentic Cuban experience, I discourage you from staying at a resort. Renting a “casa particular” (listings on AirBnB are a great option!) within a city will offer more chances to interact with the local culture and find those moments when exceptional pictures can be taken.

I recommend getting familiar with the areas you plan to visit beforehand so you can group together places of interest and maximize your time. My favorite way to explore the streets is obviously on foot. Old Havana offers great photo opportunities packed in a relatively small area. Always look up for those architectural details that can easily be missed since everything is bursting with activity at the street level. I would try to cover different focal lengths to capture as much as possible.

Look for cultural context. Most streets are narrow and offer a literal window into the daily life of the Cuban people, as they often congregate and share precious moments with their neighbors and friends. Be respectful, and, when possible, ask before you take a photo. A little friendliness goes a long way, so use your social skills (language permitting) and ask locals for tips to find the best locations.

If you can, arrange a ride on an old convertible American car with no roof. The panoramic photography options you’ll find riding along the Malecon and Old Havana offer endless chances to photograph urban views and architectural landmarks. Another good alternative is a double-decker sightseeing bus. These buses depart hourly from the Central Park in Havana, or you can ride Cuban style in a bicitaxi and take some of your best street images!

6. “To find the most beautiful and hidden places, you should travel through the country by car.”

Lena Wurm

6 Pros on Taking Surprising and Unique Photos of Cuba - Ask Locals for Tips

Image by Lena Wurm. Gear: Canon Eos 5D Mark ll camera, 24-70mm lens. Settings: Focal length 27mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f11.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

On the way from Havana to Vinales, we discovered this beautiful Caribbean sand beach, where the locals meet on weekends to repair their Classic cars together. It was a real Cuban open-air car repair workshop, and with the beach, the sea, and the Cuban flag, it was the perfect motif to reflect the atmosphere of Cuba.

Pro Tip

To find the most beautiful and hidden places, you should travel through the country by car. The “real” Cuba can be found mostly off of the typical tourist stops. You’ll get the best tips from the locals, who are incredibly nice and helpful. Some Cuban people are not happy to be photographed without being asked permission; however, if you ask them politely or give a small tip, they will be pleased to take a photo.

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