Cuba: A Paradise for Underwater Photographers


In 1962, Cuba nationalized the properties of US citizens and corporations. Since that time, the US government has imposed a financial embargo on Cuba, effectively preventing US citizens from traveling to this Caribbean island. In January, 2015, the United States and Cuba started to improve diplomatic relations. President Obama visited Cuba, in March, 2016. Now it is easier for US citizens to travel there, on commercial flights from major cities, including New York. You need a license to go, but this is unproblematic—and good news for all photographers, including underwater image-makers.

Being an Island Nation, Cuba has 3,570 miles of coastline for divers to explore. One of the best areas is the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), an archipelago that is an underwater national park and a three-hour boat ride from the southern fishing village of Jucaro. This marine park has been a no-take reserve since 1996. Avalon is the only dive operation with a permit to operate in this area. Lindblad Expeditions visits the area with limited diving under Avalon's permit. 

The coral and sponges are healthy and the marine life is diverse, but the stars of the show are the sharks. The dive guides bring a metal box filled with dead fish on the dives. To attract silky sharks, the box is suspended just under the boat; for gray reef sharks, the box is placed on the reef. This brings the sharks in close. Photographers need to use wide-angle lenses to get the best results, so we used the Olympus OM-D E-M1 cameras in Aquatica housings.

The Olympus 9-18mm and Panasonic or Olympus 7-14mm lenses are excellent choices. Feeling brave, we also used the Panasonic and Olympus 8mm fisheye lenses—working within a foot of the subject, this focal length provides dramatic results—and believe me when I tell you that placing yourself between a group of sharks and dead fish is an invigorating experience. 

We used the same lenses to photograph the tarpon, turtles, groupers, and schools of tropical fish. Tarpon scales are very reflective and are a challenge to photograph, so to light them properly, we used two Olympus UFL-3 strobes mounted on Beneath the Surface arms and brought them all the way out to the side.

Using two-section arms, with each section being at least eight inches long, is your best bet. It is also a good idea to feather the strobes away from the subject, lighting the tarpon with the soft edge of the strobes. The circle of light of each strobe needs to overlap, so the lighting looks even. This will prevent hot spots on a fish that will otherwise resemble a large, swimming mirror.

The Olympus UFL-3 supports Olympus RC mode, and shooting TTL, we could access exposure compensation using a menu on the camera. Besides being able to tweak the correct exposure, we created light ratios, with each strobe set to a different power level. In most cases, a two-thirds difference works quite well.

We had the opportunity to snorkel with young American crocodiles in the park’s mangrove. These animals are not aggressive, but can be opportunistic, and it took some thrashing about in the water to get their attention. Once we did, they would swim over quickly with mouths open, showing their sharp teeth. They seemed to be more interested in their own reflections in our dome ports than they were in us.

Besides Gardens of the Queen, Avalon has a boat at the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Cienaga de Zapata (Bay of Pigs). Getting to the dive boat is an adventure. First, you board a small speedboat that runs quickly through the canals leading to open water. Once in open water, we transferred to another boat that took us to the live-aboard Georgiana.

The wall at Cayo Blanco was spectacular—beautiful coral and sponges created a vibrant vertical vista. Using wide-angle lenses, this was the prefect background for photographing our dive buddies while large schools of grunts circled the wall.

We recommend using macro lenses on most of the other reefs in the area. Shrimp, arrow crabs, squid, and nudibranchs are a few of the tiny inhabitants, which we captured with the Olympus 60mm macro lens.

This lens has a field of view comparable to a 120mm lens on a 35mm camera (20°) on our Micro Four Thirds cameras, allowing plenty of distance from the subject while still filling the frame, offering the advantages of not scaring shy subjects, as well as allowing more room to position our strobes. The disadvantage was that we were too far away from medium-sized subjects, although we still managed to use the lens to capture portraits of larger fish.

A trip to Cuba would not be complete without spending time out of the water, in Havana. This historic city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is so picturesque, you could just point a camera in any direction and get a great photo—wandering the streets of Havana was like entering a time machine.

Using the Olympus 14-150mm f/4-5.6 II lens offered flexibility, since the lens has a long zoom range. At times, we changed to wide-angle and fisheye lenses to vary the look of our photographs.

The most noticeable sight in Havana is the abundance of American automobiles from the 1950s. Cuban ingenuity for adapting household products and Soviet replacement diesel engines has kept these vehicles on the road for the last 50 years. Known as “Yank Tanks,” many of these classic cars are taxis. Photographing them is addictive. Moving in close to the cars and using a fisheye lens adds an interesting perspective.

Much of the architecture in Old Havana imitates styles from Madrid, Paris, and other parts of Europe. Many of these proud buildings are deteriorating due to the lack of funding for maintenance. Anticipating more US tourism, however, many of these buildings are being renovated and the city’s infrastructure is being upgraded—a step in the right direction because this gorgeous old city should be preserved. We do hope that as time goes by, the city can be improved without losing its character.

Combining the city’s architecture with the Yank Tanks produces intriguing images. The Capitolio, Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso (Great Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso), and Morro Castle are just a few great locations. Shooting at night using a slow shutter speed could be effective—buildings will remain sharp while lights of moving cars will show lots of motion blur.

One lucky evening, while visiting Morro Castle, the sky was filled with heat lightning. We used long exposures and were able to catch lightning in our images. In many cases, the lightning would strike twice within a second. If we opened the shutter immediately after seeing the first strike, we could record the second strike.

While most of the world has been visiting Cuba for years, it has been off-limits to the citizens of the United States. Now that diplomatic relations have improved, US citizens can experience this interesting island nation both above and below the water line.

Larry Cohen and Olga Torrey have been traveling the world documenting their experiences above and below the water and have been published internationally. Cohen can be reached to answer underwater equipment photo questions at [email protected]. The pair will be giving a presentation on Cuba in the B&H Event Space, December 6, 2016, at 4:00 P.M. You can make a reservation to attend the event in person, or watch it live-streamed on the Web. Cohen and Torrey will be running photo workshops in Cuba. For information, email [email protected].



Superb series Larry and Olga! They are beautiful images with wonderful color. As for the sharks and crocodiles...well, I will gladly leave those up to you to capture.  :-)

Amazing photos! Cuba is on my bucket list of places to visit before the classic cars disappear due to mordernization.