Four Days in Havana

Four Days in Havana

For over 10 years, I had dreamed about visiting Cuba, specifically Havana. This past November, my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I enthusiastically said, “Cuba!”  Direct flights had just started from Tampa and this was a golden opportunity to experience the island I had wanted to visit for so long.

Well, my wife gives the best presents…

Photos first, story second.

I have to start with the cars. They are such an icon of Cuba and I never got tired of them.

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An old Chevy rumbling down the Malecon.

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Dilapidated beauty on the Malecon.

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Car owners seem very proud of their classic cars. I found that most owners dressed in the same colors as their car. This guy was no exception!

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Sunset along the Malecon. The light in Cuba is spectacular!

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Detail of an American classic with Che. He is remembered everywhere in Havana.

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As these cars are over 50 years old and Cubans have limited resources to keep them running, they are always breaking down. Despite this, the Cubans find a way to keep them alive!

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Havana is full of color!

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Overhead view taken from my AirBnB.

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Sometimes the cars are just a shell of their former selves.

If the cars are icons of Havana, the people are its soul. Never have I found such interesting and photogenic people.

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I love this man’s dark complexion with the stylish white hair. I bet this man has some stories to tell!

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This man was in his doorway and his yellow shirt against the blue door just popped. I had to have his portrait.

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Young Cuban leaning against an old American classic. Again, I love the yellow against the blue. The colors in Havana do not disappoint!

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I found young Cubans take their fashion seriously. Their hair is no exception.

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Boys along the Malecon.

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A Cuban smoking a Cuban. I love the tones of brown in this image.

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While baseball is the most popular sport on the island, many young people could be seen playing soccer/futbol in the streets. Most are supporters of either real Madrid or Barcelona.

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I saw this guy with a Che tattoo and asked him for a photo. I don’t know who’s scarier, Che or this man’s stare.

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The light coming into this man’s home had him perfectly lit.  Again, color seems to be everywhere you look.

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Music is deeply rooted in Cuban culture and it is played all over Havana. In the more touristy area of Old Havana, this man dresses up and plays for the tourists.

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I found that many Havanan hang out in the doorways of their homes. I took this opportunity to engage with the locals as best I could with the little Spanish I know. This man was very friendly and was more than happy to pose for me.

I focused my efforts on the people of Havana and the classic cars. As I was going through my photos I found I didn’t take too many images of the sites. This is reason enough to go back, right??

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Street in Central Havana

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Stairway in the Basilica San Francisco de Asis. I loved the light pouring in from the left. Just above this staircase were tons of bats!

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Dogs and cats roam the streets of Havana. Here a cat hides from the morning sun.

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The light from the church window looks like the Cuban flag.

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Jose Marti Monument and the Cuban Flag. Marti, Cuba’s George Washington, has ties to historic Ybor City in Tampa.

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Sunrise over Havana.

Havana hits you in all your senses!

Its loud! The 50+ year old cars rumble down the road with their diesel engines. Music is everywhere.  It’s either being played live or coming out of someone’s home. All day, all night. My ears and attention were in a constant battle of cars vs music!

It has a smell! Mostly diesel fumes from the old American cars. On some streets it smells like garbage or sewage. By the end of the day walking around in the hot sun, I also had a smell!

It is full of color! Havana is more colorful than any place I have traveled. The pastels, the bold, the vivid.

The food! I had read that Cuba is not a culinary destination. I beg to differ. The ropa vieja, the garlic chicken, the beans and rice, the croquetas! I never had a bad meal, although I did my research and picked a few places based on high ratings on Trip Advisor (see below).

Havana has a dilapidated beauty. A unique charm. Old colonial Spanish architecture left to decay under a communist regime. Cuba is probably one of the last remaining places that makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. As tourism increases and money flows in, some areas are being restored to their former glory. It is a double-edged sword; more tourists means less authenticity. More touts, more women dressed in traditional clothes vying for pesos, more tour groups from cruise ships crowding the narrow streets of Old Havana.

I spent most of my time in Old Havana and Central Havana. When I travel to photograph cities, I don’t have an agenda. I just wander. I make sure to try to hit all the sites but am more interested in watching local life unfold before me.  My favorite photos are the unexpected events. This is what I did in Cuba.

How did I travel to Cuba?? Under the category  “Support of the Cuban People”, one of the twelve authorized categories allowed by the US government. To comply, I stayed at an AirBnB in a private room in an apartment of a local. It was eye-opening as he and I were able to talk openly about life after Castro and what his thoughts were for the future of his country. According to him, things won’t change after Raul steps down. Starbucks and McDonalds won’t be coming anytime soon. The only thing that is coming is more Americans. I had similar conversations with taxi drivers. With regards to Starbucks, only the American tourists would go there because 1) Cuba has such a rich coffee culture that Starbucks would be a step down to the locals and 2) Cubans wouldn’t be able to afford to go to Starbucks.

What I enjoyed most about my four days in Havana was getting lost and exploring the beautiful city. Most of the people I interacted with were kind. And the music.  You cannot be in a bad mood while listening to the Afro-Cuban sounds emanating out of every nook and crannie of Havana.

What I found less than appealing were the touts (or jineteros). Everyday I was approached numerous times asking 1) where I was from and 2) if I wanted to buy a cigar. Everyday they told me it was the last day of a national holiday where locals could sell cigars on the street. I had read about the scam prior to arriving so I was on-guard. From what I understand, you are sold dried banana leaves rolled to look like a cigar. Don’t fall for it. Buy cigars at a hotel or ask your AirBnB host. I also found Havana can be dirty at times. Food scraps are left in the streets for the dogs and cats (and watch out for the dog poop). Other garbage piles up and is taken away the next day. The street is the garbage can in some areas.

After four full days in Havana dealing with the heat, the diesel fumes, and the jineteros trying to sell me cigars, I was more than ready to come home to my family. Only after I listened to some Buena Vista Social Club while editing these images, I realized I am ready to go back!!

And finally, a huge thanks to my wife for understanding how important this trip was to me!

Recommendations

When in Rome

10 years ago on my first trip to Rome, I walked into a gelato shop and started ordering in Italian (I don’t speak it but I know my food). I said something like, “cioccolato e caffè” or chocolate and coffee, my two favorite flavors. The man behind the counter asked if I wanted to order in English. I responded by saying, “When in Rome…” He then asked, “What does this mean?”

Its the little encounters like this that stay with me.

Iceland!

Iceland! What a beautiful country. Vast, massive, epic.  Unlike anything I have seen before. We only scratched the surface of this amazing country on our recent visit. The photographs I have taken do not do this magnificent land justice. OK, photos first, then words…

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Lone horse on Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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Behind the Falls, Seljalandsfoss

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The eruption of Geysir on The Golden Circle

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Jukulsarlon

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Skogafoss from Above

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Icelandic Horse

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Gullfoss on the Golden Circle

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Kirkjufell on Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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Moss covered lava rocks, South Iceland

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Reynisfjara

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Close up of Basalt columns on Reynisfjara

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Church on Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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Skogafoss

 

Iceland is an amazing country. You cannot truly experience it without having the freedom of a rental car (disclaimer: I hate tour buses. Always have. I don’t like being told what I am going to see and how long I get to see them. I prefer to have the ability to stop where I want, when I want, and for how long I want. Rant over!).

Our journey started with a direct flight from Orlando to Reykjavik on Iceland Air. We got into Iceland pretty early, picked up the rental car, and headed to the AirB&B we rented in the heart of Reykjavik. The price of the AirB&B was half of what we would have paid for a hotel and we had a kitchen and laundry. We slept until the afternoon and then spent the remainder of the day walking around downtown and picking up groceries for the week.

The first full day we visited the Golden Circle. More like the Bronze Circle, am I right?? Is this thing on?? While a major tourist route just outside the city, we found it a little underwhelming. Once you see other places in Iceland you might feel the same. The highlights were the Geyser and Gullfoss, a huge waterfall.

The next day we ventured out to the Snaefellnses Peninsula. This did not disappoint! This is the location Jules Verne used for his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. The scenery changes drastically on this drive from lunar landscapes to majestic mountains, to windswept seascapes. There are tons of Icelandic horses here. Towards the end of our drive we visited Kirkjufell and the small, charming fishing village of Stykkishólmur.  Stykkishólmur is featured in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  It’s a full day but hey, when you have 22 hours of daylight, you have to take advantage of it! I highly recommend this drive. By the way, in the movie, Walter Mitty ‘travels’ to Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan.  It was all filmed in Iceland. That’s how diverse the landscape is.

Another day, another drive. That’s not a bad thing. This time we started by spending 3 hours at the Blue Lagoon. I highly recommend this. After a relaxing morning, we headed east to our final destination for the day, Skogafoss, a tall and powerful waterfall. Along the way we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, a unique waterfall that you can walk behind! Warning! You will get wet!! When we got to Skogafoss, the late afternoon light was fading and it was time for dinner. We stayed at Hotel Skogafoss. It’s a nice place to lay your head and you could see the falls from your room!

The next morning I got up around 5am and the sun was already out. I had Skogafoss all to myself!! Take that tour buses and your rigid schedules! I was like a kid in a candy store, taking long exposures of the falls, climbing up top to get a different perspective, and just soaking in the falls themselves. What is it about humans and water, especially waterfalls? It is the sound? The sight of them? The negative ions? Is it the fact that the same life-giving water we need to survive can also carve out rock with its power and persistence? After that adventure, we drove east to Jokulsalon, the glacier lagoon. What a site! Everything is blue! About 70 years ago, large chunks of glacier ice began calving off the melting glacier and floating out into the lagoon. The pieces then float out to sea. The ice here is said to be over 1000 years old and pure. If you get close to the ice, you will see how clear and clean it is. Heading back west towards Reykjavik, we stopped at Reynisfjara, a black sand beach with impressive basalt columns. We liked it so much we went back the next day.

At this point we had two full days left. The last full day was dedicated to downtown Reykjavik and another visit to the Blue Lagoon. So that left one driving day. We chose to go back to Reynisfjara with stops at the volcano museum and Dryholaey. Both highly recommended. The volcano museum focuses on the eruption in 2010 that halted air travel in much of Europe. We hit Skogafoss on the way to the beach (really, my wife just wanted to see more of the baby lambs playing in the field near the falls). Usually midday isn’t ideal for photography but when it comes to waterfalls, rainbows are created in the mist! On the way back to Reykjavik we stopped at Seljalandsfoss again. This time it was late in the day (9pm) and the late afternoon sun was shooting through the falls. Much better experience the second time around (and once again, no tour buses this late!!)

Last day was spent wandering around Reykjavik. We didn’t spend much time here so I can’t really say too much about it. We ate dinner at the AirB&B most nights (around 10:30pm).

We definitely want to go back to Iceland and visit the Westfjords and North Iceland. I would love to do a glacier walk and go whale watching. We would do it slightly different by renting a small camper. It seemed to be the way to go as a number of people had two person campers rented from here or here. Oh, and I would definitely fly on Iceland Air again. Its top-notch.

The photo stuff.  I brought my Nikon D700 and the following lenses: 20mm, 24-70mm, and 70-300mm. I thought about bringing my 70-200mm but it weighs too much and I would never use 2.8 in Iceland. I used the 20mm 24% of the time, the 24-70mm 53% of the time, and the 70-300 23% of the time. I also brought a polarizing filter and a few ND filters for the waterfalls. And a tripod. Heavy duty as the winds can be strong. I also had plenty of microfiber cloths on hand as I was constantly wiping my lenses from the spray of the waterfalls. I brought tons of memory cards as I didn’t want to lug a laptop on vacation. I also brought my Fuji X100s but it pretty much stayed in my bag. Its more of a street camera.The one thing I wish I had brought was another DSLR camera body as I found myself switching lenses quite frequently. My need for a specific lens changed as much as the varied landscape of Iceland!

Things I would highly recommend are the Blue Lagoon, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and Jokulsalon. On your way to Jokulsalon from Reykjavik, you will hit two great falls, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.

I would skip the Golden Circle if time was limited. If you have been to Yellowstone, you have seen a better geyser in Old Faithful.

About Iceland. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The people are the friendliest I have ever encountered (I got the rental car stuck on the side of the road by being overzealous for a photo.  Within 5 minutes 2 cars full of Icelanders stopped and offered me help. I was towed out in minutes). Our AirB&B owner, Svava, was very kind and helpful. She was a great host. Iceland is safe! Mother nature is more of a threat than humans in Iceland. English is understood and spoken everywhere! We didn’t really try Icelandic food. It’s largely seafood and lamb. After seeing all the baby lambs in the fields I wasn’t allowed to eat lamb in front of my wife 😉 If you are an American there is one thing you need to know. Gas. The pumps won’t take US-based credit cards as we don’t have a specific PIN. You have to plan ahead and buy prepaid gas cards. Most of the stations aren’t open 24 hours so you will want a card that will work at the pump (those are open 24 hours, unmanned).

Follow me on Instagram @timschultzphotography or visit my website at http://www.timschultzphotography.com. For print sales and licensing of images, please email tim@timschultzphotography.com.

 

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My wife jumping for joy that we are in Iceland!

A Week in Tuscany and Rome

My wife and I spent 8 days driving, walking, and eating our way through Italy and it is one of my favorite trips to date! We spent the first four days driving around Tuscany in a little Fiat 500 and my wife gave me a funny look when I told her I purposely rented that car.  We stayed just outside San Gimignano in a villa on a working olive tree farm I found on AirB&B. It was quiet, surrounded by vineyards, and the most important quality, affordable. Seriously, you would pay two to three times more at a hotel and the experience wouldn’t be as memorable.

In my opinion, if you are going to Tuscany, you have to rent a car! It allows you the freedom tour buses and train schedules can’t give you. I have never liked tour buses. I have only used them for day trips to Stonehenge while visiting London and to visit Neuschwanstein Castle from Munich. They are limiting and just follow a tourist agenda. Be a traveler instead. Your experience will be enhanced. Renting a car allows you set your own schedule, pull off the side of the road to take a photo or to stop at a fruit stand, and to go where you want to go. Get the GPS with the rental! Its a lifesaver. You won’t eat up your data on your phone and will make it easier to get around.

We visited San Gimignono, Siena, Greve in Chianti, and Lucca (and Pisa since it was close. I begrudgingly posed for a stupid ‘prop up the tower’ picture. The things you do for love).  On our drive to Rome for the last part of the trip, we stopped in the charming Umbrian hilltop town of Orveito. All of these towns (sans Pisa), have so much charm that you can’t believe it’s real. My wife and I looked at each other and said we would be back. This is huge. While I like to be a repeat visitor to a location, my wife likes seeing a new place each time. For her to want to come back says something about Tuscany.

For photography, I would place Italy up at the top. Not only does Italy ooze charm (there is that word again) but I have rarely seen light like I saw in Italy. The sunrises and sunsets have a soft, pastel watercolor look to them that is enhanced by the centuries old brick and colorfully painted buildings. I love Paris but her skies just don’t compare. Paris has a soft, overcast quality to them, which is ideal for black and white photography. Italy is full of color!

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Grape vine in Tuscany

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Old bicycle resting on a wall in Lucca

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Looking up at the Torre del Mangia in Siena

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Typical wall in Lucca

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San Gimignano from atop the Torre Grossa

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View of Lucca from atop the Torre Guinigi.

View of Siena from atop Torre del Mangia.

View of Siena from atop Torre del Mangia.

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Cypress Trees in Tuscan Countryside

Grapevines and San Gimignano, early morning.

Grapevines and San Gimignano, early morning.

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Detail of the Tower of Pisa

The Tower of Pisa. The tourist magnet.

The Tower of Pisa. The tourist magnet.

Rome. Where do I begin? This was my second time here and this time around I spent more time eating and soaking up life than visiting museums and sites, although I did drag my wife around to more sites than expected. Rome is a small city compared to other places and easy to get around. It is very walkable. While the metro doesn’t go to all the sites (every time they dig for a new line, they seem to hit Roman ruins), they can get you to the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, and the Vatican. Cabs are relatively inexpensive and sometimes can be an adventure! We toured the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza Navona, and Campo di’ Fiori. The last two days were more about slowing down and taking our time. We took long lunches and just hung around the sites. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you shouldn’t attempt to see it all in a day or even a week.

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Colosseum refection, sunrise.

Colosseum with sun rising behind it.

Colosseum with sun rising behind it.

Colosseum with morning sun coming through the arches

Colosseum with morning sun coming through the arches

Fountain outside St. Peter's Basilica.

Fountain outside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Old man reading morning headlines, Spanish Steps

Old man reading morning headlines, Spanish Steps

Columns at St. Peters Basilica, late afternoon sun.

Columns at St. Peters Basilica, late afternoon sun.

Castel Sant'Angelo, early morning sun.

Castel Sant’Angelo, early morning light.

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Roman Forum

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Roman Forum

Fruits and vegetables in the Campo di' Fiori. We spent a few hours here people watching and eating the fresh produce.

Fruits and vegetables in the Campo di’ Fiori. We spent a few hours here people watching and eating the fresh produce.

Statue at Capitoline Museum.

Statue at Capitoline Museum.

Smoker, Campo di Fiori

Smoker, Campo di Fiori

Old Fiat 500. The quintessential automobile of Rome.

Old Fiat 500. The quintessential automobile of Rome.

If you find yourself in Tuscany and/or Rome, do yourself a favor and check out the following restaurants and attractions:

La Prosciutteria (Rome).  http://www.laprosciutteriaroma.com/ Prosciutto, porchetta, and pecorino! All served on olive wood boards with roasted artichokes, sun dried tomatoes, and olives. It was so good, we went there twice. Two locations in Rome (went to the one near Trevi Fountain) and a few others across Italy.

Jul’s Kitchen (Tuscany). http://en.julskitchen.com/ I surprised my wife and scheduled a Tuscan cooking class. Giulia is the best! We started at the local produce store and then onto the butcher shop. We learned how to make a number of Tuscan dishes and part of the fun was getting to know Giulia! I cannot recommend the experience enough!

San Gimignano (Tuscany). Quaint, small, hilltop Tuscan town with narrow streets and a number of towers. The best gelato in Italy is here at Gelateria Dondoli http://www.gelateriadipiazza.com/

Campo di’ Fiori (Rome). The farmer’s market since 1869. Its touristy to some degree but the food is fresh and the people watching is fun. Wash your fresh vegetables with the ice cold water (free) coming out of the two fountains on opposite sides of the piazza. Grapes from Sicily, the freshest cherry tomatoes you have ever had, pomegranate and oranges squeezed right in front of you for a refreshing drink.

Drive the Chiantigiana (Tuscany). This is wine country. Rolling hills full of vineyards and olive groves, with plenty of wineries to stop at. This is like Napa but way better.

Climb a Tower (Tuscany). Almost all small Tuscan towns have a tower that you can climb for breathtaking views. In fact, the tower in Lucca has an oak tree growing on its top!

Follow me on Instagram @timschultzphotography or visit my website at http://www.timschultzphotography.com. For print sales and licensing of images, please email tim@timschultzphotography.com.

Ciao!!

Oh, and here is my wife in that perfect Italian light I wrote about. She is a saint for putting up with my driving on the Autostrada, dragging her across Rome, and stopping to take photos.

Karin posing for a photo just outside our Tuscan villa.

Karin posing for a photo just outside our Tuscan villa.

Plan But Don’t Plan

I recently read an article by a photographer I respect. He gave all these tricks on how to scout locations before you go on a trip, like using Google Maps, Flickr, geo-tags, and other sites and apps to help you get that perfect shot. While I agree with some of the ideas he shared, I don’t agree with trying to plan shots or to be at a certain location at a certain time. Will you be fulfilled if you recreate the same shot someone else posted to Flickr or 500px?

I plan my vacations.  The flight, the hotel, maybe a few restaurants. If its a big enough place, I even plan out the days to maximize my time there. One thing I don’t do is plan my photography.

I love to wander. Some of my favorite images just happened. A random encounter. A chance opportunity. You can’t force it. If you do, you will be disappointed with the results.

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Simplicity (or The Art of Balancing City Travel with Photography)

We study the guidebooks, we conduct internet research, we ask our friends. We don’t take planning a trip lightly. After all, if you are like most people, your vacation days are precious and you want to make the most of them. I am a travel nerd. I can stare at a map all day. If I went on Jeopardy, I would hope for categories like; World Geography, Famous Landmarks, Culture, Travel, and Beer. When I was traveling more frequently a few years ago, I would use a minimum of 3 guidebooks. My favorites being DK Eyewitness Guides (great for visually planning your trip and to see what may interest you), Rick Steves’ Guidebooks (essential for tricks and tips, such as don’t visit the Sistine Chapel in the morning. Wait for the crowds to thin and go in the afternoon), and either Moon, Lonely Planet, or Time Out Guides to round out my research. Most of these can be found at your local library, no need to buy them! And don’t bring them on your trip. Write down the important stuff or upload it to your phone.

As a photographer, I want to capture it all. In order to fully enjoy your trip and also get the images you want, you have to plan accordingly. While I may have a few cameras, a few flashes, and an arsenal of lenses, I choose not to bring them all with me. There are two reasons for this. First, If I were to carry all of my gear around with me, my neck and shoulders would be hurting at the end of each day. I go on vacation to recharge, not to come home broken. Second, if I have too many choices, I may spend more time switching lenses or deciding what to use, possibly missing a great shot. I am a big believer in one camera, one lens. Currently I have a full frame Nikon DSLR with a 28-300mm lens. This is a great set-up for me. Occasionally, I may bring a small 50mm 1.8 with me for shooting at night. Its so small that I don’t even know its there sometimes. I have recently purchased a used Fuji x100s off eBay. Its light, silent, and small enough to carry everywhere. I can’t wait to try it out on my next vacation. In the past, I have gone to Paris with just the 50mm lens. In New York, I only used the 85mm.  It was liberating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you bring with you if you don’t use it. It also doesn’t matter what you are shooting with. Some of my favorite images were taken with a entry level Minolta film camera with a third party lens. The important thing was being there, enjoying your time off. And being there is easier with one camera, one lens.

Happy World Nutella Day!!

Happy World Nutella Day!!

Happy World Nutella Day!! What better way to enjoy Nutella than on a crepe! Or how about Nutella on French toast with caramelized bananas at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa?

When I started traveling it was all about the famous sites. Now, while I appreciate the sites when I travel, I value the tastes, smells, and sounds even more. Experiences like savoring a warm crepe with Nutella on a cold Parisian night while accordion music plays in the background. Touristy? Yes. Memorable? You bet your ass it is. Have you ever walked down 6th avenue in NYC in the winter and get hit in the face with the smell of chestnuts roasting?

One of my favorite memories in Rome was walking in the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori. The late afternoon sun painted everything a warm orange. The vegetable stands were filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. I bought a handful of cherry tomatoes and washed them down with ice cold water from a nearby water fountain (there are 2500 in the city and some date back to 1874). The feeling of the warm sun on my face, the sweetness of the tomatoes, the church bells ringing, and the sound of Italian being spoken around me is what I remember most of that trip. Sure the Coliseum was grand and the art was amazing but the combination of the tastes, smells, and sounds will forever be burned into memory.

That whole saying about stopping to smell the flowers? Its true. Life is more enjoyable when you use your other senses.

Roma!!

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