Guerrilla Lighting in Cuba

Portrait of a man on the street in Trinidad, Cuba.
Light, whether natural or artificial is an indispensable tool in achieving great images. To have more control of the look of my images I make a lot of photos with artificial light. I prefer to use big strobes either in large, light boxes or bounced off white flats when I want to achieve a nice, soft feel but if l am going after a “harder” feeling, I’ll use snoots or grid spots that keep my light source narrow and focused. On my recent trip to Cuba, I decided to try something different. I wanted to shoot some street portraits. I hadn’t been to Cuba in over eight years and I was interested to see not only how the country had changed, but also how the people had changed. I would need a smaller and more portable light source to emulate my large lighting scenarios – guerilla lighting in Cuba – very appropriate.

I immediately noticed that the Cubans I encountered were more forthcoming and talkative than those I had met on my last trip. There was no undercurrent of repression. To visually communicate this, I wanted my portraits to be bright and “open”, not dark or shadowy and moody. I was shooting with a Panasonic Lumix GH3 with the FL 360L flash and the 12-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens. Since the camera and flash work wirelessly, I was able to keep the flash off camera and out of the hot shoe. Before leaving for Cuba, I researched many different light modifiers for these small units. I decided on the Lastolite EzyBox Speed-Lite, a mini softbox, that is an 8.6×8.6 inch (22cm) square unit. I liked this unit because I could set it up quickly and it didn’t take up a lot of space when folded. A softbox this small, however can be a source of harsh light unless it is really close to your subject. In order to achieve the soft feeling that I was after, I gave the flash and softbox combo to one of my traveling companions and asked her to hold it very close (sometimes only inches away) from my subject’s face. Although this was probably annoying to my subjects, by placing the light source close to their faces the reflection of the light from their skin became very soft and diffused. And by adding a slight warming gel to the flash, I was able to achieve nicer skin tones. Keeping the light this close also creates a prominent catch light in the eyes, which draws the viewer into the portrait. I didn’t want to compete with sunlight so I shot most of my photos in the shade. By incorporating colorful backgrounds, I was able to enhance the feeling of the Cuban experience.

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I set the strobe to work automatically with the camera through ETTL and varied my exposures using the camera’s convenient plus and minus strobe control. It took a couple of days of “Guerilla lighting” before I was able to develop a good sense of how to balance the flash and available light. In the majority of cases, I set the camera to underexpose the available light by half to a full stop.

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Tourists riding antique cars through Havana, Cuba.

The Lumix GH3 and the 12-35mm lens make a good, compact package that does not draw attention, which is one of the reasons I like working with it. When I added the soft box to the small Lumix strobe, I had a terrific, portable lighting system that enabled me to achieve the portraits.You can see these portraits and other images of Cuba at http://stock.irablock.com/-/galleries/faces-of-cuba.

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