Catching the Cuban atmosphere with ZEISS
In January 2016, Brian Matiash travelled to Cuba with three of our ZEISS Loxia and Batis lenses. See for yourself which one he liked best!
by Brian Matiash
As a person who was born and raised in the United States—Brooklyn, NY to be exact—my earliest memories of Cuba were more like folklore than anything else. I remember it being portrayed as this far-away land that was illegal to visit and the most valuable possession an American could have was an authentic Cuban cigar. Of course, this is all me recounting what I seem to remember as a kid. Fortunately, I was finally able to form my own real, tangible experiences during my first visit to Cuba this past January. The first thing I realized as I gazed at the in-flight map displayed on the screen in front of me was just how close Cuba is to Florida. I mean, I knew it was close but as we made our brisk 90 minute flight over, the reality truly set in and it wasn’t until I exited the airport in Havana that the full brunt of it hit me: despite being so close geographically, I was in an entirely different world altogether.
After spending nearly three weeks exploring Havana and Trinidad, I’d like to take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned along with some of my favorite photos taken. It’s worth noting that every photo in this article was taken with either the ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 or the ZEISS Batis 1.8/85, both on the Sony a7R II. In fact, I’d say that about 90% of all the 2544 photos I took were taken with one of these two prime lenses. So, let’s use this little fact to segue to a discussion about what gear to bring.
If you want to explore Havana right, you’ll do so on foot. Whether it’s on your own, with a friend or with a local guide, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to simply roam. No matter what time of day—or night—I never felt unsafe or worried. It was my experience that the people of Havana were genuinely kind, courteous, and always up for a conversation. With that said, if you’re going to be walking around a bunch, you’ll have to be extra considerate about what gear you pack. My typical walkaround bag was packed with a Sony a7R II, the Loxia 2.8/21, the Loxia 2/50, and the Batis 1.8/85. These three prime lenses are small, light, and fast. They also cover the gamut of focal lengths that I’d need. Also, the small size of these lenses was a bonus because they don’t scream, “LOOK AT ME, I’M A PHOTOGRAPHER!”
No matter the time of day, you can always find something interesting happening in one corner of Havana or another. And for the most part, the locals are more than happy to oblige you with a photo. However, just because you have a camera does not entitle you to photograph whomever you want. If you find someone of interest, use courtesy and strike up a conversation first. If you’re more of the shy type, simply learn how to ask for photography permission in Spanish: (¿Puedo tomar su foto?) or, at the very least, smile and gesture at your camera. That will usually result in a clear “Yes” or “No” gesture in return. And above all else, respect whatever decision is made.
In other ways, traveling to Cuba is very similar to traveling anywhere else in the world in terms of keeping an open mind while also maintaining common sense. It’s not advised to drink the tap water in Cuba and because it is generally quite hot there, be sure you’re always stocked with at least one bottle of water. Also, because Cuba’s internet infrastructure is quite poor compared to other developed nations, you’ll have to purchase prepaid WiFi cards and connect at one of the main touristy hotels or an “internet park.” With that said, I strongly recommend that you install a map app on your smartphone that supports downloading offline maps. This will make navigating around the city much easier.
Despite the crazy heat, temperamental weather, and vastly different cultures, I had such a memorable time in Havana. It was an eye-opening experience unlike any other I had and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have documented it with my camera. If you have the opportunity to visit Cuba for yourself, I can’t recommend it enough. Just remember that if you want to truly experience it, get off the beaten path right away.