Walking the Streets of Havana, Cuba With the 35mm Film Canon AE-1 Program

Walking the Streets of Havana, Cuba With the 35mm Film Canon AE-1 Program

Back in April, I ventured on a trip to Havana, Cuba with the lofty goal of capturing the culture and people there within with my favorite little 35mm film camera. With the recent news that President Trump plans on buckling down on all travel and trade to Cuba, I'm all the more grateful than ever to have made the trip when I did. The Cuban experience is easily the most surreal of any international travel that I have ever experienced. 

The natural inclination when most of us think about Cuba, is to think about vintage cars and cigars. My experience in Cuba was so much more than that. Cuba is other-worldly. Cuba is an alternate universe take on the Latin American culture. Cuba is both what is and what could have been. To understand how this place developed into this phantasmagoric destination, we need only look into the recent past of its people. Cuba has a unique political and societal journey over the last 60 years that has left it unmolested, from a certain point of view, but also wildly underdeveloped and forced from another. 

Havana Cuba 35mm filmAs always, I gathered up my trusty Canon AE-1 Program with a generous helping of 35mm rolls of Fuji Pro 400h and I hit the streets. This has been my film camera of choice while traveling for about a year now. It's really compact and easy to use, both of which I count as extremely important when planning on walking streets, hiking, and for just general all day exploring. It also gets tremendous results and at $150 for a high quality used one, you really don't have to worry about the possibility of theft like you would for a newer and bulkier DSLR. 

And then of course, it's film. You hear it all the time, but it's useful to say again anyway, you can't beat the visual aesthetic that goes along with film. Especially for a city in Cuba that is stuck in the 1950s like Havana is. It's just perfect. The heavy grain, the colors, all of it. There's an additional layer specific to Cuba as well. Even before Trump's announcement of more stringent travel boundaries, Cuba was very weary of camera equipment. For example, it's a federal offense to use a drone at all. In general, I'm a big fan of a slim camera bag while traveling, but in this case, it was even more true. 

Fisherman in Havana Cuba 35mm FilmWhat makes Cuba truly unique is the clear and vibrant Latin American culture that has been distorted by the taint of political communist revolution. On one hand, the people are open, friendly, loud, and bright, but it's counterbalanced by a dominant government hand. For example, in order to access the internet, you need to purchase "internet cards", which are only sold by the government. Think of going to the DMV every time you needed to access the internet. We waited in line for an hour to purchase ours. Many of the restaurants are government sponsored as well, which simply means that their menus, quantities, prices, and ingredients are all standard across the board. In fact, the only restaurants who are allowed to deviate from this standard are the ones built in homes. The strong government hand is why we see so many vintage cars. Back in 1960, Cuban officials took possession of US businesses in Cuba, and the US government put a trade embargo on them lasting for nearly 60 years. The cars are just the outward symptom of something evident throughout the entire country: Cuba is just now leaving the 1950s.

Below is a collection of my photos from my trip. What's your favorite walking around setup? Do you plan to travel to Cuba soon? Want to read more about my trip to Cuba or see more of my other travels with my little 35mm film camera? You can check those out here at my personal blog. Comment below!

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16 Comments

beautiful shots, just one question : wich lenses did you use for your trip ?

Stephen Atohi's picture

Well, thank you!

The only lens I take is the 50mm 1.4 FD SSC.

Pat Black's picture

did you have any trouble bringing in camera gear? I heard that customs can be a nightmare and I dont need them taking my 5k+ camera lens combo

Anonymous's picture

No issues at all, you just can not bring any drones. I took a bag with a leica m, many lenses, sony rx1, fujifilm instamax and go pro, and no one cared. Pictures here are nice, but refer to the same places everyone shoots when they go to Cuba, if you want something new you need to get away from were everyone goes... I was in Cuba with the family so also shot touristic places :) But if you want something interesting you really need to search...these are some of mine :) https://ailukewitsch.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/quick-visit-to-cuba/

Stephen Atohi's picture

We had no problems bringing in what we did. A DSLR, a point and shoot, and my film camera.

The title caught my attention with the Canon AE-1P. I don't own the AE-1, but I own the cousin, A-1, which I bought in 1980 and still use today. I also added a used New F-1; with two film cameras, one is loaded with B&W and the other with color. My favorite films are Kodak Portra 400 (general purpose), Ektar 100 (outdoors), and Kodak Tri-X (general purpose); I should try Fuji film before Fuji gets out of the film business.

Cuba is on my bucket list of places to visit. I'd love to be able to photograph the old cars. But that doesn't seem possible now that Trump is doing his best to erase that Obama was ever president.

I enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the photos. My wife and I were friends with a Cuban refugee who fled Cuba when Castro took over; Enrique passed away over 20 years ago.

Alex Cooke's picture

I still use my A-1s. :)

I have a couple of them too :) Hard to beat, and that FD glass is just great

Stephen Atohi's picture

I've thought about buying a second one, so that I could load them up with different film stocks. Great input, Ralph! I may just do that now.

I've always wanted an F-1. When I saw a used one for sale, with the AE Finder FN and AE Motor Drive FN, I mentioned it to my wife and she asked "That's their flagship?" I answered "Yes, for the 80's" and she said "Buy it." It was so I could share my FD lenses, but I found having two solved the color vs. B&W problem.

Bil Surette's picture

Beautiful photos, I have an AT-1 that I have just started using, I love it

Michael Holst's picture

I have the exact same camera lens combo and I loved using it but I always seem to have a hard time figuring out the light meter. It reads a bunch of numbers instead of being an old school needle that I'm used to. Do those numbers mean I should be at that f-stop? or is it just a weird thing canon did? My mamiya 645 does the same thing so I'm not really that confident reading the built in light meters.

Whats a general reading for a good exposure?

Stephen Atohi's picture

Hey, there is a light meter and it is a reference to the f-stop! I normally set my shutter first, before I even look to see what f-stop it's recommending. For example, if I'm in low light, I just automatically put the shutter down to something like 60 or 125. If I'm in harsh light, I just immediately put it at 1000. In both examples, that gives me more control over the f-stop. I also have a Sekonic light meter that I'll use in stranger light situations, the on board one isn't perfect. And last, sometimes I'll set up the shot with a DSLR, if the lighting situation is really complicated.

Hope that helps!

Casey Berner's picture

Nice set of photos! I just came back from Cuba as well and did a similar project. I took a Leica M3 from 1962, the same year as the US embargo, and shot around Havana and Trinidad. It felt wrong to try and capture Cuba with a shiny new DSLR. I shot on a 50mm as well and used Potra400 and Viva50 slide film. A set of selects are on my website. http://www.caseyberner.com/cuba

I'm very curious to know if you had any challenges getting your film into the country. Did you have a lead lined bag or were the security folks willing to do a hand inspection of your film?

I'm actually wondering the same thing - did you have a hard time travelling with your undeveloped films? Or did you get them processed whilst you were there? If so, where please :-)
Your photos are beautiful, I'm excited to shoot my own next week!