**A personal note before I begin with equipment suggestions: I had been a Canon user for decades. My first two books were shot with Canon equipment. From decades of being a professional photographer and using Canon and other digital equipment I can safely say there is zero difference in digital chip quality between the major brands. Zero. But (there's always a but) there are two factors that are important in terms of the quality of your images.
1. A.I.Q. Apparent Image Quality. Rather than straight lab benchmarks of things like line resolution per millimeter, etc., what A.I.Q consists of is three factors.
-Sharpness. The least important factor, but relevant. Generally the more expensive a lens the sharper.
-Internal contrast. Same as sharpness.
-Depth of field. By far the most important factor in apparent image quality is shooting with a fast lens wide open. Especially when shooting portrait. The separation you can get with a fast lens (separating the subject form the background) goes a long way to making the image pop. It is for this reason I predominately shoot with fast lens's - 2.8 and faster.
2. R.T.F.T.R.J. Right tool for the right job. Pick the camera (and system) that works for the kind of images you want to shoot. For years I struggled shooting with DSLR cameras and focus (see - Some important information for DSLR owners who use (or want to use) fast lenses below). In short there are issues shooting fast lenses and focus with DSLR's.
So, for mainly reason #2, at the end of 2015, after decades of using DSLR's I switched to a mirrorless camera. Pretty much only for the reason that you can actually see the focus right on the chip - no matter what f-stop I am using. My first experience using it was a revelation. So very much better than using a DSLR camera. No comparison.
Sony has many different lenses, but the above is now my main system.
Here's the downsides I have found so far:
-Camera only has one slot for memory card. My old Cannon body had two slots so I could shoot two copies of every image I took in case a card failed. Not a huge issue, as I have never has a Sandisk card fail. Partial solution to this issue: Use Sandisk cards.
-Not as fast a frame rate as my old Canon: 12 fps vs 5 fps. Solution to this issue: None. If I was shooting sports I cold not use this camera.
-Eats up batteries fairly fast. Solution to this issue: Carry more batteries and use battery grip which holds two batteries at a time.
-Thus-far, not a massive selection of Sony lens.
Some basic upsides:
-Focus on the actual chip, so I can shoot shallow and actually see what I am shooting.
-I can see what my actual exposure is while I shoot. This is a revelation. No more checking the back of the camera for exposure.
-The camera body is really well put together and very easy to use.
-5 axis image stabilization
-Very light and small camera body.
-Amazing video capabilities.
-Can use Canon (and Leica) lenses with adapter.
In conclusion if 35mm photography started with the mirrorless concept and someone suggested a DSLR camera, people would laugh. Mirrorless. It's the future.
Now onto trip prep...
Pack light! Besides paying excess baggage charges by taking a lot of heavy equipment, the kind of photography we will be doing will not lend itself to lugging around a lot of gear – you simply won’t need it and it will get in the way. In general, you should aim to bring 2 camera bodies and 2 to 3 lenses — and perhaps a point-and-shoot. You won’t need more than that, and anything much more will slow you down. Don’t forget extra camera batteries (you should have at least one extra set) and your camera battery charger!
In total, you should have no more than one camera bag-worth of equipment.
A note about bringing two camera bodies: I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to bring two digital camera bodies on the trip. In my experience, a camera body usually dies (I have seen it several times) when someone only has one body with them. For example, the last time I was in Africa, one of my bodies died on me on the first day. I shot the rest of the three-week trip using my backup body. Trip saved. If you don’t have two bodies, you should either buy a second (perhaps less expensive) body or rent one for the trip. Several companies will rent you equipment online and deliver it to you. One is borrowlenses.com. For those of you still on the fence about bringing a backup body on the trip, here's a direct quote from an email by a participant on a recent 12-day trip to Cuba...
"If you would like an additional reminder of the importance of having a second camera body while away please feel free to relate my experience of the first full day in Cuba. By 10 a.m. my original two year old camera just died. Luckily I took your advice and had purchased a used body at the last minute, even though others tried to tell me "cameras don't just die, and you don't make a living off your camera so don't waste your money." I had given much thought to purchasing a second camera body and initially I felt the cost was unnecessary. Well good thing I did take your advice or the trip would have been devastating for me."
If buying or renting new gear – use and test it before the trip to make sure lenses fit on camera bodies, cards fit in the card slot, filters fit on lenses, etc. Also, make sure you have the latest updates for Photoshop and Lightroom (if you are bringing a laptop - which is not necessary).
A note about buying photo equipment in Cuba: If you forget a CF card reader or need to buy extra cards or any other equipment, they are almost impossible to get in Cuba.
Lenses: The two best lenses to have for the trip are an ultra-wide-angle zoom and a wide-angle telephoto zoom. Here are some examples:
- 10-22mm (for APS-C sized sensors; Canon D series, Nikon DX series)
Wide-Angle Telephoto zooms:
If one or both of your DSLR bodies has an APS-C sensor, then a 10-22mm and 28-135mm lens would cover you from 16mm to 216mm. An APS-C sensor multiplies the focal length of the lens by 1.6. If you only have bodies with full-sized sensors, then a 16-35mm lens and a 24-105mm, 28-135mm or a 28-200mm would all be good choices. The popular 70-200mm zoom lens makes a good third lens if you already have the 16-35mm and 24-105mm range covered, as many people do.
If you have some budget considerations, Sigma and Tamron also makes a great set of lenses for Canon and Nikon bodies.
**Some important information for DSLR owners who use (or want to use) fast lenses: Generally, I do all my people photography with fast lenses - f2.8 and faster. The slowest lens I own is actually f2.8. I do not own any lenses f4 or slower. When I use a fast (f2.8 or faster) lens it gives me the ability to create background blurs and make my subjects pop out from the background. Unfortunately, there are two issues that, to my knowledge, no camera company inform their customers of:
Problem #1. For 95% of my work I use manual focus. I think (for many reasons) it gives me better images. The problem is that every current (DSLR) camera on the market comes with a focusing screen that only shows you focus at f4.0. So, what this means is that for lenses faster than f4.0 (f2.8, f2.0, f1.8, f1.4, f1.2) you cannot accurately judge focus. Period. The solution? You need to replace the focusing screen. Not a big deal but you have to know about it (and unfortunately you cannot replace the screen on some cameras). For Canon full frame cameras it is called the Canon Egs Super Precision Matte Screen. It's inexpensive and only takes a few minutes to switch out – after you switch it you'll need to tell your camera that you have switched screens in the menu settings. This screen will then let you accurately manually focus with fast lenses. But, alas, there are no free lunches. The new screen will work fine for lenses up to f4.0. For lenses slower than f4.0 (F5.6, f8.0, etc.,) the screen becomes too dark to work with. So if you have fast and slow lenses you have another problem. My solution is to only shoot with fast lenses so I don't have to keep swapping the screens.
Problem #2. If you want to shoot with fast lenses and don't want to manual focus, you may be thinking to yourself, "well, I don't need that stupid screen, I'll just use autofocus. Problem solved." Um, not so fast. Here's something else camera companies don't mention. None (as in none) of their cameras actually autofocus 100% accurately out of the box. Yep, it's true. Most people these days shoot with slower (i.e. f4.0, f5.6) lenses and they are whom the camera companies market to. So, when your autofocus is missing the mark, you don't really notice it at f4 and f 5.6 as the depth of field at those apertures makes up for the lack of accurate focus. However, if you are shooting with fast lenses then you'll notice how truly bad the autofocus is on most cameras. So, the solution? You have to manually calibrate your camera body with each (yes, each) lens you have. It's a fairly time-consuming and only slightly less fun than a root canal. But it must be done if you want accurate autofocus. I've calibrated about two dozen lenses (including $2,000+ lenses) and not one has been close to accurate autofocus without adjustments. Here's the tool you'll need to do it: LensAlign.
These are very handy to travel with. They are so small and fully featured that it makes sense to bring one with you. New models of point-and-shoot cameras come out so frequently that it's impossible for me to be well enough informed to make useful recommendations. Adding to the confusion is the fact that if you are a Nikon or Canon owner, you are going to wait for the new Nikon or Canon body to come out if you want or need to buy a new camera – you're not really tracking Leica, Olympus, Panasonic, etc. However, there are no such limitations when buying a point-and-shoot. If you have a Canon 35mm system there's no reason why you can't buy a Nikon point-and-shoot, which opens up the possible options from a few to dozens. Point-and-shoots offer almost every option you could want: waterproof, flip screen, HD video, high speed, slow motion, and on and on. If you want to research point-and-shoot cameras (or even DSLRs) this is a great site and lots of fun to play with.
Currently, my favorite point-and-shoot (by far) is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IV Digital Camera – it's expensive and amazing. But there are a lot of great ones on the market.
Bigger and faster is the way you want to go. I use only SanDisk and Lexar (SanDisk being my first choice). I feel they are the fastest and more importantly the most reliable. You don’t want to take a chance on losing images with a substandard card brand (I've seen it happen), and you don’t want to spend your time on a spectacular location downloading images from your card into your storage device. Faster cards not only enable you to shoot faster, but they also lets you download the images to your laptop/storage device faster. Taking into account any budget considerations, you should get the fastest and biggest cards you can afford.
You should have enough cards to last through at least one day of shooting — you don’t want to be downloading images and clearing cards when it’s prime shooting time. Generally, I shoot with 128 GB cards. Make sure you have plenty of empty cards with you when you start the day. You don’t want to take the chance of missing a shot because you filled up your cards. If you are shooting video, you need to at least double the amount of cards and portable storage devices you would normally bring with you. If you have never been to Cuba before you cannot possibly understand just how much there is to take photos of and how fast you can go through cards.
Here's some good memory cards:
Compact Flash Cards:
- SanDisk 128 GB
- Lexar 128 GB
- SanDisk 64 GB
- SanDisk 32 GB
- SanDisk 64 GB
- SanDisk 32 GB
- SanDisk 16 GB
With the new generation of video capable DSLRs on the market, you could write books just on an introduction to shooting motion. Here's some of my thoughts: First let's look at the pros and cons of using a DSLR for video.
Pros: Huge sensor, cinema quality capture, can use existing lenses.
Cons: Huge sensor, bad/unusable audio, very poor form factor, need to purchase a lot more equipment to correct many cons.
Here's some basic principles on what makes the DSLR's so frustrating and so exciting: The size of the sensor can yield cinema quality video. You can use your DSLR to shoot video that is the same (or better) quality than equipment that would run you hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy/rent. But because of the limitations of the form factor and sensor size, it can be difficult to impossible to get that level of quality on a consistent basis.
Shooting motion is very different than stills. With stills you can shoot world-class images by yourself with minimal equipment - to shoot world-class motion you need lots of equipment and usually a crew to help you.
So generally, here are the three different areas of motion that DSLRs can be used for:
1) When traveling, the straight documentary "I was there and saw this" kind of video. No real artistic aspirations at all. You have a video capable DSLR and with the flick of a button can capture some great video and it beats having to carry around an extra video camera. The quality, comparatively speaking, is terrific and it's amazingly convenient.
2) High level video and sound, targeted to broadcast (television, movies, web streaming). The cameras themselves are capable of astonishing quality. Theatrical movies and television shows have been shot with them to great success. However, to achieve this level of quality you generally need to "grip" out your DSLR and it ain't cheap and it's all very heavy and cumbersome - very bad for traveling. Regarding sound: People will mentally overlook small errors in video, but if your sound is not perfect your project will suffer greatly. So, in order to get great quality sound on location you need another piece of heavy equipment that can weigh quite a lot - you need a whole other human being, usually called a sound technician.
3) Motion clips refer to short, 5-20 second clips that have music or other duped audio inserted during post-production. They can be very powerful in multi-media presentations, whether for personal or professional use. They are a very viable source of revenue as stock. The question for this type of motion, specifically captured during traveling, is how can I get the highest, cinema quality video with the absolute minimum amount of equipment (preferably leaving the extra human being at home). This is the type of video we will be touching upon (for those that are interested) on the trip. For these types of clips, there are two pieces of equipment that you cannot do without and one piece that, for this trip, is optional.
1) A neutral density filter. Because there are close to zero options regarding shutter speed and aperture selection when trying to achieve cinema quality video, exposure is controlled mainly via neutral density filters (and ISO adjustment, which is limited). The best filter for DSLRs and travel is the Singh-Ray 82mm Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density Filter. Don't forget to buy step-up rings to fit your specific lenses if you buy this filter.
2) A loupe to view your LCD screen. When shooting video, the viewfinder is blacked out and you need to view what you are shooting on the camera's LCD screen. The two best on the market are: The Hoodman Cinema Pro Kit and the Small HD's DP4 which is an electronic version and really amazing.
3) Tripod and pan fluid head. This is the optional piece of equipment for this trip. If you plan on doing a lot of video and want it to be of a certain high level, you need a great tripod and pan fluid head. Unfortunately, they are usually big and expensive. Usually, video heads do not make great stills heads and visa-versa. I use the Manfrotto 055 tripod and the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 Photo-Movie Tripod Head as it's one of the only heads on the market that shoot both video and stills well. Having said that, I rarely travel to Cuba with a tripod any longer.
There are really three practical options for downloading your images at the end of each day's shooting. You want to ALWAYS make sure you have a copy of each image on two separate drives.
1) Laptop. It is not the best stand-alone option for backup.
2) Laptop + external portable drive. This is a great option. External portable drives are very inexpensive. A couple of 250GB or 500GB USB 2.0 devices are a cost-effective and reliable way to go. I like and trust Seagate drives.
3) Stand-alone data storage. My favorite option and the best of all worlds. They are fast, reliable, and they read most memory cards without an adapter. Most have copy confirmation and preview windows. My workflow is to use two devices and copy each memory card to each device. That way I have a copy of each file on different devices.
External USB Drives
-Seagate-portable Drive (500GB)
Stand-Alone Data Storage
-Hyperdrive 750 GB
-Hyperdrive 500 GB
-Hyperdrive 250 GB
**Remember you'll need two Hyperdrives if you will not be bringing your laptop.
It's not necessary to have a laptop with you - about 50% of the people on the trip will have one. Photoshop and Lightroom are the two pieces of software I feel are invaluable. Adobe's site has trial downloads of both.
Please check that the version of Photoshop and Lightroom on your laptop is up to date. Shoot an image from your main camera (especially if new) and make sure you can open the RAW image file in Photoshop. Frequently with a new camera you will need to upgrade your RAW camera plug-in to read the file.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are afraid to clean their sensor and don’t do it and those who are afraid to clean their sensor and do it anyway. Cleaning your sensor for the first time is like putting a contact lens in for the first time - it kinda gives you a queasy feeling. The truth is, it can be done quite safely (with a freshly charged battery) and if you don’t want to spend huge amounts of time spotting dust out in Photoshop after the trip, cleaning your sensor is highly recommended.
In fact, you can't really even clean the actual sensor. Each sensor is covered by a much more hardier low-pass filter. That is what you clean. There are two kinds of dirt you will find on your sensor: wet and dry. Dry dirt is what you will find 95% of the time. It can be removed by using a blower brush (only effective about 25% of the time) or cleaning aids such as those sold by VisibleDust. The other 5% of the time you will see the wet kind of dirt - you must use a wet swab to remove this.
Here are some of the cleaning products I use...
-VisibleDust Zeeion Blower Sensor Clean
-VisibleDust Sensor Loupe
-VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly 724 (Super Bright
-VisibleDust Magic Cleaner (14.5 x 12") clot
-VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly 724 Travel Kit for Digital SLRs w/ 1.3x Sensors
-VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly 724 Travel Kit for Digital SLRs w/ 1.5x/ 1.6x Sensor
-The DUST-AID Platinum sensor cleaner is a great product for removing any dry dirt on the sensor
Bags, Straps and Other Stuff:
-Bags: It's tough to give a good recommendation for a camera bag, as it usually comes down to what works best for you. I have more camera bags than I know what to do with — I guess it's because I've never found the perfect one. Generally, I like Lowepro backpacks, Tamrac backpacks, and Domke shoulder bags and I love ThinkTank rollers, bags, and accessories.
A nice light carbon-fiber tripod is a good choice. I use Manfrotto tripods and I recommend the 190CX3 carbon-fiber or the 055 I mentioned above. My favorite tripod head is the Manfrotto 322RC2 quick-release system. It's a great travel head for stills, but not for video. If you are looking for an entirely new system (tripod and head), you can buy them together here. The quick-release plates that work with the 322RC2 head are the 200PL Quick Release Plates, and a good bag that will fit both the tripod and the grip head is the 3280BLK Tripod Bag. Right now I'm using the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 Photo-Movie Tripod Head as it's a great head to shoot both video and stills. I've now stopped carrying a tripod with me on the Cuba trips as I found I wasn't really using one. I think you could go without one and not miss it. Unless you really love shooting on a tripod or are doing something that requires a tripod (time-lapse, night photography, panoramas, lots of video shooting, etc.) you should probably leave it at home for the trip.
Same as with tripods, I don't like using them, but they are occasionally valuable. Digital has a better low light response than film, so I'm using a flash less often than I used to; and, like tripods, rarely use one in Cuba. Also, you do not want to use a bare flash — tends to be a bit harsh, so it's good to have a light modifier. Light modifiers are like bags: I have a lot of them and have never really loved any of them completely. I currently think the best of the bunch (when balancing size with portability) is the Gary Fong Lightsphere.
Similar to the bags and flashes — I have too many of them. My favorite is the OP/TECH Pro Loop Strap. Canon makes a great hand strap that I use on all my cameras. It adds to the stability and security of the camera — I don't leave home without it. It's called the Canon E2 Hand Strap. The Nikon version is called the Nikon AH-4 Hand Grip Strap.
Some things you cannot bring with you:
-A stand-alone GPS or geotagging device: Although if it's integrated into a camera or iPhone that's fine. Your iPhone will not function as a phone in Cuba, but you can bring it. I'll have mine with me.
-Photographers vest: They are very handy and a lot of people use them. Unfortunately, a lot of people who use them are photojournalists. Cuba has a long history of being poorly (falsely) portrayed in the American media. The last thing you want is anyone to think that you are a journalist. Nothing says journalist more than a photo vest — leave 'em at home.
-Microphones: Shooting video with DSLRs is very popular now. I will be shooting some motion in Cuba as the island offers some very exciting visual possibilities. The built-in mics in the cameras are quite bad, so most people buy external shotgun mics. Unfortunately, they say the same thing as a photo vest: journalist. Leave your external mics at home. See my notes below on shooting travel motion.
-Big video lights: See above re: journalists.
-Model Releases: Having people in Cuba sign a model release is looked upon by the Cuban government as a commercial activity. And since we are not going into Cuba under a commercial visa you are not allowed to bring or use any model releases on the trip.
Camera Equipment Insurance:
I strongly recommend covering your camera equipment with a personal items rider to your homeowners or renters insurance. The annual premium is nominal and well worth the cost. Camera equipment is often not covered by standard travel insurance policies. A list of equipment with serial numbers is normally required. Check with your insurance provider for more information. If you can't get a rider for your homeowners policy, you can contact a company called Production Insurance who may be able to help you with an individual equipment policy for the trip.
Travel insurance is not included in the workshop/trip cost. Participants are required to have Emergency Evacuation/Repatriation insurance (minimum of $50,000 per person). You will need to send us proof of that insurance, at least 30 days prior to departure date. This is typically a very minimal charge (usually less than $100). You may purchase insurance from any insurance company that offers travel insurance that is valid in Cuba. We recommend a plan that offers coverage for medical and dental emergencies, medical evacuation, missed connections, lost luggage and trip cancellation. The companies I recommend and find the easiest to purchase insurance from online are: Travel Insured and Allianz Travel Insurance.
You should have a great pair of walking shoes for the trip. You should also have a money belt for any extended travel you do, but it's especially important in Cuba, as you cannot use traveler's checks or credit cards issued from American banks — you must bring cash. Please bring a small flashlight for dark restaurants, streets, stairways, etc.
One additional note on the clothes you will be bringing: Besides all the information in the special Cuba PDF about what to pack and the weather, I do want to point out that you should bring one set of "nice" clothes and shoes. If you go to a nightclub you'll be surprised at how spiffy the Cubans are dressed. Having said that, a suit jacket and tie are not necessary for the guys - just a nice shirt will suffice.
Specifically, what currency and how much of it should you bring. The short answer is: $175 US for each day in Cuba. Here's the long answer. As noted elsewhere, you cannot use US traveler's checks and US credit cards in Cuba. So, cash it is. You must exchange your US dollars for the Cuban currency (CUC) once in Cuba. You can bring mostly US hundred dollar bills and exchange your money as needed. If you already have Canadian cash or Euros, bring those, but whatever currency you want to start with, you must change your money into CUC when in Cuba. It's usually not worth changing your US into Canadian or Euros first before going to Cuba, as the saving would be minor.
Generally, you'll be spending your money in Cuba on things such as meals, drinks, tips, some taxis, special events, and so on. So a budget of about $100-110 per day is a reasonable expectation. You may want to budget more if you really like mojitos and Cuban cigars. Generally, I insist people bring $175 for every day you'll be in Cuba. I always estimate this number more generously than I would for other places in the world, as it is impossible to go to the local ATM if funds run out. I'd rather take more money and come home with some left over. Remember, while it is not legal to bring home souvenirs, it is legal to bring home art - and there's some great art in Cuba (we will be visiting the art school and several artists on most trips).
The airlines charge overweight at $1-$2 per pound over 44 lb. per person, including photo gear (subject to change without notice). Additionally, you will be charged $20 per checked in bag. I've never been to Cuba and not paid some overweight, but I travel VERY heavy. So, generally I just tell people to include it as part of the trip cost. Usually, it doesn't work out too bad. Just keep in mind no more than one bag of photo equipment on the plane and make sure that one bag is not one of those huge roller bags. You can take your camera bag and one small computer bag/backpack on the flight to Cuba.
The hotels we will be staying at usually have 110 V power and American style plugs. However, you may need a 3 to 2 prong adapter, which you can get at B&H or a local hardware store. It is also recommended you get a small surge protector. Internet access is relatively easy and there are a couple of computers available in the lobby of most big hotels (including ours in Havana, but not Trinidad). You would simply buy an access card (roughly $8/hour) and then go on-line. There is air-conditioning in the hotel rooms.
Havana and Trinidad are great walking cities, full of wonderful discoveries at every turn. Sometimes I'll walk for hours a day, and other days I'll stay in the same spot shooting for hours. These cities are easy places to wander and still be close to restaurants so that you can get a bite to eat or a drink and rest, and you'll always be close enough to our hotel for a short taxi ride back. Generally, any bus ride that the entire group takes is included in the trip price. If you take a taxi yourself or with a few other people from the group, you will be responsible for that.
-How each day will look:
A question I often get asked is, how much free time can I have? The bottom line is that there is no one in Cuba that will be controlling your time. You can spend as much or little time with the group and me as you wish. Usually, we start each day together and then, as the day progresses, we split apart and go our own ways. I will make suggestions about great areas and will always welcome people to tag along with me. You will, however, have a far richer experience and get much better photos wandering off by yourself or in groups of two or three. Let me reiterate that I feel Cuba is a very safe place, and that you will have a terrific time meeting the people – and you don't need to speak Spanish. While out by myself, I have had wonderful experiences, including being dragged into peoples' homes for amazing conversations and, on one memorable occasion, a dance lesson and a glass of rum. Additionally, there will be one group session with a slide show/teaching presentation, image reviews and I will be available for one-on-one coaching most of the time.
Usually after the sunrise shoot, we'll meet up back at the hotel for breakfast, and then head back to the streets for more shooting. During the day, we'll usually meet for lunch and dinner. Swapping discoveries and favorite places is a great way to get to know the city. I will have a list of events that will be happening, either during the day or in the evening. Cuba has interesting nightclubs with extraordinary Cuban salsa music; it's a great experience (see note above about bringing one set of dress clothes).
Some other things to remember to bring:
- Bring your favorite (at least) 10 images for review and sharing. You can size them at around 2,000 pixels on the long end.
-As I'm sure you may know, Cuba has a shortage of many things that we take for granted. Some of the best things to bring to give to people are soap, toothpaste, aspirin, pens and clothes.
Please don't hesitate to call or email if you have questions!