Vincent Versace and the Nikon D5 in Cuba: Just Add Mint and a Squeeze of Lime

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday September 8, 2016

I'll See You in C-U-B-A

Not so far from here
There's a very lively atmosphere
Ev'rybody's going there this year
And there's a reason
The season opened last July
Ever since the U.S.A. went dry
Ev'rybody's going there and I'm going, too

Cuba, there's where I'm going
Cuba, there's where I'll stay

Cuba, where wine is flowing
And where dark-eyed Stellas
Light their fellers' Panatellas

Cuba, where all is happy
Cuba, where all is gay

Why don't you plan a
Wonderful trip
To Havana?
Hop on a ship
And I'll see you in C.U.B.A.

          --Irving Berlin


Name: Nikon D5
Effective pixels: 20.8 million
Format: Nikon FX Format (full frame)
Sensor Size: 35.9mm 23.9mm
Sensor type: CMOS
Storage media:
CompactFlash© (CF) (Type I, compliant with UDMA); XQD Type Memory
Shutter speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec. in steps of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV, Bulb, Time, X250
ISO range:
ISO  100 to 102,400; expandable to 3,280,000 equivalen
Top Continuous Shooting Speed at full resolution: 12  frames per second; 14  frames per second with mirror up
Full specs: Nikon D5

Vincent Versace

Vincent Versace is what most photographers would casually refer to as a generalist: he’s good at everything he shoots and he shoots pretty much everything. That title’s a bit too simplistic though because the reality is that Versace is actually something of an expert at everything that he photographs and the reason, he says, is because his passion is not for one particular subject but for photography. “I like taking pictures, to me it doesn’t matter what I’m photographing, I just like doing it. I want to photograph landscapes and nature and architecture and people and portraits and street photography, because it’s about mastering all of them.”

One of the benefits of shooting a lot of different subjects, says Versace, is that what you learn about one subject will migrate naturally to the other. “Lessons you learn about landscapes will inhabit how you shoot portraits, and how you shoot portraits will inhabit how you shoot flowers and how you shoot flowers will inhabit how you do buildings,” he says. “Frequently when you look at photographers’ careers what happens is that they get known for a thing or a look and then they get into the groove and then the groove becomes a little bit of a rut and then the rut becomes a hole and the hole becomes a grave.”

His versatility and passion for all types of subjects has allowed Versace to carve a wide swath in the fine-art, commercial and editorial photo worlds. He is one of Nikon’s 16 founding Nikon Ambassadors and is a recipient of the Computerworld Smithsonian Award in Media Arts & Entertainment and the Shellenberg fine art award. His work is also part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. His photos have been published in countless publications, including: American PHOTO, Popular Photography, The New York Times, Shutterbug, Outdoor Photographer, PDN, Petersen’s Photographic, PC Camera and Studio Design. He is also the author of the best selling books From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black & White Technique Known to Mankind and Welcome to Oz 2.0: A Cinematic Approach to Digital Still Photography with Photoshop .

In addition to being a Nikon Ambassador, Versace is also a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens. He teaches both photography and post production regularly at Photoshop World, B&H, the FBI, US Navy Combat Camera, US Coast Guard, Maine Media Workshops and Palm Beach Photographic Workshops (and you thought you were busy). He has been nominated multiple times to the Photoshop Hall of Fame.

I recently had the chance to ask Versace about his recent trip to Cuba, his philosophy of travel shooting and his experiences with the new Nikon D5.

ST: Was this your first trip to Cuba?

VV: This was my ninth trip, I first went in 2012.

ST: Were you flying in from other countries back then?

VV: No, one of the few advantages of being a recognized artist is that Cuba is very sane about how they treat artists. When I went there in 2012 it was under a people-to-people tour to visit artists in religion. So there was a way to get in and I had enough paper that said that I’m a fine artist and so I was allowed in as a part of a cultural program.

ST: How have things changed there since you first visited?

VV: We’re definitely at critical mass there because the first modern hotel since 1962 is about to be put up on the Malecón. What’s happened is that Old Havana, which has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become a tourist trap because the cruise ships go there and so everybody who is in port “for the day” goes there. Which means every third-world tourist scam that you’re ever going to see happens in that area. If you just cross the street into central Havana though, you’re back into real Cuba.

The people in Cuba are the nicest, sweetest most open people I’ve ever met. You’ll also never meet a Cuban with low self-esteem. They’re Cubans. Think about it, for 54 years the United States, the greatest super power on the planet, had imposed an embargo on them and they’ve survived. The way that the Cuban people are toward one another is amazing, there is very very little racism. They are Cubans first and then whatever else they are second. There are no real issues if you’re black or you’re white or you’re Chinese because first you’re Cuban.

ST: Are the old cars really as cool as they seem in photos and are there a lot of them?

VV: They are totally cool and the key to photographing those cars is that you have to stay in one spot and wait. What will happen is you’ll have some of the old cars come by and some of the more modern cars and then some of the more modern cars and more of the older cars and then all of a sudden all of the cars will be old. That’s when you take a picture.

The cars are a blast. The last time I was there I was with a group of 12 people and we rented classic cars instead of a bus so we had four cars, three people to a car. What a hoot is was to go tearing around Havana in these old, old, 50’s cars. I’m into old classic cars, I just have a love for old iron. I just hope that they don’t get sold and shipped off the island. I think they should pass a law that these cars are a national treasure and that they stay on the island. The good thing for them is that they’ll be able to get parts.

ST: Your portraits of Cuban people are very intimate and natural. How do you approach strangers and do you have any advice for people that want to photograph strangers when they are traveling?

VV: The first rule of photojournalism, the very first rule, is that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Back in ’59 when the revolution started the country had a two to four percent literacy rate. Then, when the embargo hit in 1962, all of the American advertising was pulled out of the newspapers and so overnight you had newspapers with a lot of empty pages going to a populace that at that time could not read. So how do you tell the story of your revolution to people who can’t read when you have newspapers that have no advertising in them? Photography. Photography became the way in which they communicated the story of their revolution.  

If you are recognized as being a serious photographer versus a tourist, there is a tendency by Cuban people to say yes, absolutely, of course, you’re telling my story. They are very keen on photography and photography as a pursuit is very big in Cuba. Photography is respected and photographers are very much revered.

ST: How do you diminish that awkwardness that happens when you point a camera at a stranger?

VV: Photographs of people don’t occur at the individual or at the photographer, they occur in the space between the two. I’m capturing the interaction that is a reaction to something that I’ve done that is a reaction to something they’ve done that is a reaction to something that I’m doing. Eventually what happens is that you get into this flow and at that moment you photograph the place that they hide and they open up, they don’t put up a face or a persona, they are just themselves.

Another thing that I do is that I find a place and then I wait for people to walk into that space, so that I’m not the news. If I find a place that I want to be what I find is that people will walk into my stage. By the time they realize that I have taken their picture or that I’m taking their picture, I’ve already taken the picture that took me.

I always marvel at photographers that leave their lens caps on their cameras and their lens already pulled in and locked. They have to take the cap off, unlock the lens and then zoom out to the focal length that they want. If I’m in a target-rich environment, what I do is to extend all of my zooms to their maximum extension. So if I’m using a 28-300mm I extend the lens out to 300mm because I’m walking into the situation and now as I’m walking in I’m already at the edge of maximum distance. It’s easier to turn the lens in than to rack the lens all the way out. Things happen at the speed of life and you have to be prepared for things to happen.

ST: How important is it for people to be familiar with their gear in these situations?

VV: In Buddhism there is the concept that the spirit goes to where the charm is. If I don’t know how to use my camera and I don’t know the camera that well what happens is that I put an immense amount of energy into the camera and that causes everyone that I’m trying to photograph to focus on the camera because I’m putting my focus there. All of a sudden nothing is happening that is spontaneous. But if I view the camera as a pencil or a keyboard, if it’s just something that I know so well that I don’t have to think about it, then I can pay attention to what is in front of my camera. Then I can let the subject pull me through the lens instead of the other way around.

ST: Was this trip to Cuba your first experience with the D5 and what was your initial impression of the camera?

VV:  I had one of three prototypes in the United States. Because I was going to Cuba, Nikon was generous enough to let me have one of the production samples. I have to say that I have never shot with a camera that shoots like that. The D5 is probably the most amazing camera that I’ve ever worked with. It’s definitely a high ISO camera. If you’re going to shoot low ISO I would use a D810 for that. Not that the D5 can’t do that, it most certainly can, and a lot of my stuff is at ISO 200 which is my magic number. But in Cuba there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t photograph. I could stop baseballs in mid throw because I could put the ISO up so high that I could shoot 12 frames a second for 200 frames in RAW at 1/8000th second and with no noise.

ST: How high up did you test the ISO?

VV:  50,000. 80,000. Shooting at 40,000 ISO? No problem. Is there noise? Yeah, but it’s acceptable. It’s definitely noise that can be addressed. We never really believe that a camera can shoot at speeds like 3.25 million ISO, but I shot one picture of a couple that wanted a picture of themselves and it was totally dark. I shot them at around 2,000,000 ISO and what blew me away was that the camera found them and focused on them in no light. Is it grainy? Yes, it is, but the camera did it. As cameras go the D5 is definitely a weapons system. There is nothing that you can put in front of that camera that it is not capable of capturing.

ST: Are there that many situations where photographers would need to go to such extreme ISO speeds?

VV: I’ve gotten into arguments about this, and I’ve had people disagree with me, but my observation is that lower-intensity light is prettier than higher-intensity light. It’s a softer light and if you look at my work, a lot of my work is photographed in lower-intensity light. I’m a big advocate of using available existing light, and continuous light sources like LED instead of strobes. In the type of work that I do if I was using strobes out in the streets the spontaneity would be gone. If you’re shooting portraiture with strobes you have to get the person used to accepting that onslaught of short-burst high-intensity light, versus if it’s a continuous light and they’re already acclimated to it. So having a camera that allows me to go from bright light of being in the street to shooting in a dark doorway and capture all of the nuance on the face at 6400 ISO and have no noise, that’s great. The D5 is the better choice to shoot with you need high ISO speeds more than lower ISO)s. It truly is designed to do that.

One of the other beauties of this camera, and I’ve been doing this since the D610, D750 and the D4s, is that I use auto ISO. I let the camera figure out the ISO based on the situation that I’m walking into. I’ll go from bright sunlight into somebody’s house that’s completely dark with no light at all and be able to produce an image with just the ambient light in the room without touching the ISO.

ST: Who do you think the audience is for the D5, is it primarily photojournalists?

VV:  It’s photojournalism, it’s environmental portraiture and it’s certainly wedding photographers and specifically wedding photographers that do reportage.

ST: Were there other features about the D5 that really impressed you?

VV: Well, the 3D tracking is amazing so that when you’re in a “holy shit it’s moving too fast” situation or “I really can’t see because it’s too dark,” the fact is that that camera can do it. One thing that always gets lost is who do you think really needs a point-and-shoot camera? A professional or an amateur? It’s the professional and the truth is that once I set the camera up, I can focus on what’s important which is what’s going on in front of me. It’s all about the moment and any advantage that I can get I’m going to take. I am a big believer in letting the camera do the heavy lifting whenever possible.

Also, the color with the D5 is just amazing, too—brilliant color and brilliant focus. I shot in Cuba with the 28-300mm Nikkor lens so I wasn’t even using nano glass and these pictures are beyond sharp.

  Do you think the camera’s 4K capability is an important factor for photographers considering the camera?

VV: It should be because where the business is evolving is to a place where what’s required is still shooting still shots, but I find more and more I am asked to do video as well.

ST: Have you done much printing from the D5 and what was your reaction?

VV: Yes I have and there is something to be said for 14 stops of dynamic range! I don’t get impressed easily. I was Nikon’s first beta site and I was Epson’s first beta site, so I’ve been with digital for those two companies since the inception. The combination of the Epson 9000 printer and the new ink set, along with the cleanliness of the files from the D5 produce prints that are breathtakingly amazing.

Vincent Versace workshops: If you'd like to experience Cuba with Vincent, he'll be teaching three new workshops there in the coming months and you can read more about them here. And if you'd like to experience shooting the fall colors in Maine (and who wouldn't?), Vincent will be teaching his Return to OZ: the Colors of Fall  workshop at the Maine Media Workshops this October.

New Product News:

Sigma Cine Lenses. Sigma has announced that they will be entering the ever-expanding cinema lens market with two new zooms aimed specifically at cinematographers. The first two lenses in the line will be an 18-35mm T2 and 50-100mm T2 for the Super 35 format (and APS-C bodies). Each of the new CINE lenses is weatherproof and has luminous paint markings so that you can change lenses in the dark (clever idea!). The lenses will become available around the end of 2016. The lenses will be available for EF and E mount camera systems and an additional zoom and five prime lenses will be released from 2017 onward.

Tamron SP 150-600mm Di VC USD G2 (Model A022). Long lens fans will be happy to hear that Tamron is introducing the new generation (“G2”) of its very successful SP 150-600mm lens, the SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Among the enhancements, says Tamron, is a refreshed optical design and an improved AF speed that is faster and much more responsive with moving subjects—great for wildlife and sports. Delivery of the new lens in Canon and Nikon mounts will start on September 23 in the Japanese market (just in case you’re heading to Tokyo) and soon after in the U.S. market (a Sony A-mount version will be delivered at a later date). Suggested retail price is $1399.


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