What Are You Willing to Sacrifice to Realize Your Dreams?

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Can you answer that question? I think everyone has dreams, at least in the beginning before life happens. And life, most assuredly, does happen. I look at young Creatives today doing amazing things because they don’t realize they can’t be done. It is surprising what can be done when you don’t know any better. There is a lesson there somewhere. The old adage: ignorance is bliss?

Being a Creative and pursuing a creative career is a tough row to hoe. It’s typically a solitary pursuit and not a collaborative effort. Oh sure, you can have help along the way, but in the end it’s up to you. Life is all about give & take, giving up something to gain something. I’m not sure life was ever designed to have it all—maybe in stages but certainly not all at once.

It’s good to have priorities in life to help you decide what you need versus what you want. For the first sixty-four years I lived a life but not necessarily my life. First I was dependent on my parents, then there were the school years followed by years in military harness, domestic harness and corporate harness. As life intruded my dreams faded away to almost nothing. I wanted to be free, I wanted my time to be my own to do with what I wanted.

What is it that you want out of life? And what are you willing to sacrifice? For me I dreamed of pursuing my photography, writing and world travel full-time. What I was willing to give up was financial security, material possessions and a failed marriage. What I got in return was the ability to live simple, live cheap and live free. Priorities can change, dreams can change and life can change. Life is all about change and adapting to that change. Stay flexible and roll with the punches—life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Here endeth the lesson.

Travel 101: Not All Socks Are Created Equal

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Socks. What can you say about socks? Quite a bit, actually. If you’re a traveller, especially an adventure-traveller, you know how important your feet are. And frankly socks, sandals, shoes and boots are foot-clothing. One word (actually two words) of advice: cotton and polyester are not your friends when it comes to socks for hard travelling.

In the classic Dustin Hoffman movie The Graduate the one word was plastic. If you’re one of my young readers you might have to research that reference. My one word, when it comes to socks, is: wool. Wool is the only material worth considering. Wool breathes and retains its warmth even when wet—cotton socks will not do that.

Wool is tough and resilient and defies foot oder. None of the funk-factor you will find in synthetic socks. Wearing the same pair of socks for many days will prove my point in spades. Blisters are another real concern; blistered feet make walking pure agony. Open blisters left untreated can turn septic and lead to blood poisoning (and in extreme cases progress to gangrene). When I was a kid it happened to me and I was bedridden for a week with blood poisoning.

I never thought much about my feet until I enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen. After that I thought of practically nothing else but my feet. While I was going through my infantry training at Camp Pendleton I humped every mountain in sight with a full field pack weighing about 65-pounds plus my rifle and ammunition—straight up and straight down—the Marine Corps does not believe in switchbacks (switchbacks are for pussies). We hiked the firebreaks for hours on end and I came to appreciate my feet and care for them properly.

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SmartWool Hiking Socks

Functionality: 10/10

Durability: 10/10

Value: 8/10

Pros include: High-density knit sole and instep to guard against abrasion, shock, lace pressure and blisters. Made of 77% super-soft Merino wool for no-itch comfort and warmth, 22% nylon for durability and 1% spandex for dependable stretch. Merino wool naturally wicks moisture for dry comfort.

Cons include: Can be a little hot in the tropics (but I’m usually wearing sandals in those environments). When I buy running shoes I buy them ½-size larger than normal to accommodate the extra bulk (same for boots).

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Alden “Indiana Jones” Boots with SmartWool Socks

Today I buy all of my socks (and most of my other outdoor gear) from REI. Along with Cabela’s you can find almost everything you will need. My sock of choice is the SmartWool hiking sock pictured above for $20.95 USD per pair. Expensive? Yes. But they are so worth it. They don’t become a soggy bunched up mess of cotton when wet and they don’t stink like polyester. I’ve had my SmartWool socks for six years and believe it or not they’re still going strong. If you prorate their cost over their lifetime they will prove their value.

I’ve mentioned before, in my clothing posts, that when you travel the world you are going to get wet (this includes your feet). It’s not a matter of if it’s a matter of when. If you can’t keep your feet dry at least you can keep them warm. I’ve tested a lot of socks since my Marine Corps days and these socks are some of the best. I even wear them with my sandals in mosquito country (a faux pas for men). I don’t care about fashion (or the fashionistas) anymore so I wear what’s comfortable and practical. Mosquitos, chiggers and other biting insects can be a nuisance—so why suffer?

The Yellow City: Izamal, Yucatan, MX

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Pope John Paul (Juan Pablo) made Izamal his first stop when visiting Mexico. It was a really big deal when he celebrated mass in the Yellow City. Izamal is called the Yellow City for a very good reason—yep you guessed it, most of the buildings are painted yellow. Izamal is only a 35 to 40-minute drive from Merida (Yucatan’s capital) but it’s like stepping back a hundred years in time.

When the Spanish arrived in Yucatan they pressed the Maya into service to dismantle their ancient stone pyramids to construct the huge cathedrals that abound. There are still remnants of pyramids in Izamal but they’ve fallen into ruin and their once mighty mass of stone is now mostly contained in the Monastery de Izamal (1553 C.E.).

My very good lady friend, Dolores, makes it a point to get me out & about to see the authentic Mexico. She is my Uber taxi driver, my tour guide and my translator. Her fluent English is much better than my caveman Spanish. We started our day trip at 10 a.m. and by 11 a.m. we were entering Izamal. The day was heating up fast and eventually reached 38°C or 100°F (keep in mind this is February one of the cool months in Yucatan).

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Monastery de Izamal (1553 C.E.)

It is wonderful experiencing Mexico with Dolores because she gives me great insights into her Mexican culture with its rich and vibrant customs and traditions. We drove slowly through the small town and then parked the car to continue on foot. Of course our first stop was at the Monastery de Izamal (1553 C.E.) and it is impressive to say the least. The two photos I’ve included barely do it justice. It is a bittersweet sight when you consider the Spanish forced the Maya to desecrate their own sacred places to build a new sacred place for the intruders.

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Monastery de Izamal (1553 C.E.)

Nonetheless, the monastery is magnificent in its own right. We climbed to the top and even visited the small museum inside. Afterwards we took a few moments to cross over to the main plaza across the street and Dolores indulged in an ice-cream while we sat on a park bench in the shade. The big tourist draw is the ubiquitous and colorful horse-drawn carriages—Merida also has them in abundance. It’s an ideal way to see more of the town at a leisurely pace, especially with it being so warm. Our carriage was all decked out in yellow—makes sense considering this is the Yellow City.

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Horse-drawn Carriage in Pink

They actually have carriages sporting many colors but yellow, blue, green and pink seem to prevail. We climbed aboard and the canopy provided us with much appreciated shade. Clippity-clop, clippity-clop down the cobblestones we went. Our driver pointed out various sights along the way and Dolores translated for me as we travelled through the town. A 30-minute ride costs 150 Mexican pesos or $7.36 USD. Not cheap I guess but worth the price for a fun experience—at least in my humble opinion. I enjoyed it.

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Our Horse-drawn Carriage in Yellow

After our carriage tour we headed to the one big restaurant in town for an early lunch/dinner. It was pretty crowded (lots of gringo tourists in town) but we got seated after just a few minutes. I was dying of thirst and quickly drained three ice-cold Dos Equis beers one after another. I must have been dehydrated because I didn’t even get a buzz on. We had blue-corn empanadas con queso to start and then ordered our main meal—Poc Chuc (grilled pork) for me. Yucatecan food is not your typical Mexican food and is very unique in both presentation and taste. It’s good.

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A View Into the Dining Area

Eating Mexican-style is a slow process by American standards. No hurry, no rush. You take your time and savour every bite and every moment. You’re supposed to linger. The food server will not bring you a check until you specifically ask for it: la cuenta por favor. This is the custom throughout Latin America and I love it. A meal can take upwards of two to three hours and the restaurant will never rush you, unlike the United States. So we took our time. I’m learning to relax at mealtime but old gringo habits are hard to break.

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Watching the Ladies Hard at Work

When we could eat no more (no room for dessert) we wandered out back to watch the ladies working in the outside kitchen. I asked if I could take a photograph and they said yes—photographers, please remember to ask, don’t just start snapping away. We finally waddled our way back to the car and Dolores drove us back to Merida. It was a great day spent in the beautiful Maya town known as the Yellow City. If you visit Yucatan you really should visit Merida and the small towns that surround it. Cancun is not Yucatan—the real deal can be found in Merida.

Travel 101: Pull up Your Big Boy Pants

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Stephen F. Dennstedt – Amazon River Basin

I see that a lot of world travellers wear shorts. I definitely do not fall into the shorts camp. For one thing my old-man white, hairless legs look terrible in shorts but I opt to wear long pants for more practical reasons. Mosquitoes are the biggest reason—around the world mosquitoes kill. Catch a mosquito-born fever such as Malaria, Dengue or Zika and you will quickly become a long pants convert.

Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

See my post Travel 101: The Shirt off My Back for further details about my experience with Dengue Fever up close & personal. Also, in that post, you will find most of the criteria I use to buy shirts also pertain to buying pants. Protection is paramount: from the elements (sun, rain and cold) to the multitude of insects you will meet in your travels. Modesty is also (or can be) very important. Unless you’re staying at a resort location seeing shorts among the locales is a pretty rare sight. And in many venues it’s downright frowned upon.

I mentioned in my shirt post that garments made of quick drying material are almost a must. While travelling you’re going to get wet (it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when). Clothes made of 100% cotton are not ideal for outdoor adventure travel; in the heat and humidity of the tropics they never seem to dry and in colder winter conditions they can actually wick away body heat exposing you to hypothermia (another potentially lethal condition). You will notice that fashion doesn’t really play a role in my travel clothing criteria—it’s all about functionality, durability and value.

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Propper Mil-Spec BDU 65/35 Pants

Functionality: 10/10

Durability: 10/10

Value: 10/10

Pros: Button-fly (no zippers to jam or break), 2-large button-down cargo pockets, 2-rear button-down patch pockets, 2-slash side pockets, tough long-lasting material (almost indestructible), quick drying, moderate price, insect resistant.

Cons: Can be a little heavy for hot and humid tropical wear.

My long pants of choice are Propper Mil-Spec BDU cargo pants. I strongly recommend the 65/35 blend: 65% polyester for its strength, durability and quick drying properties and 35% cotton for its comfort and reduced funk factor. What is funk? Funk is that cheesy oder you smell when your natural body fluids and secretions embed themselves into synthetic fibres. It is not a pleasant smell. I’ve had my Propper pants for six years and although they’re faded and stained they have no rips or tears—I’ve popped a button once or twice but they’re easily sewn back on (unlike a jammed or broken zipper).

These pants are just about pickpocket proof and I can carry my wallet and passport in the cargo pockets with very little worry about theft. Items stored in typical (non button-down) rear pockets are prone to theft. An added advantage of cargo pockets is that you’re not sitting on your wallet or passport and the pockets also store copious amounts of snacks and drinks for long bus rides. Cargo pockets are easily accessed when sitting down (photographers can never have too many pockets). When caught in a torrential downpour your Propper 65/35 pants will dry quickly. Again, you buy these pants for functionality, durability and value—not to make a fashion statement.

Photography 101: Photographing High Contrast Subjects

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Anytime you’re dealing with high contrast in subjects exposure can be tricky. Empirical wisdom suggests that you expose for the highlights and work the shadows in post. For the most part I agree with that advice. With today’s full-frame CMOS sensors (typically 30 MP and up) this becomes easier, if you’re using a crop-sensor APS-C camera (usually around 20 MP) the situation becomes a little more problematic.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing is always an option of course but the result often looks contrived and fake when not done well. Top of the line camera bodies today do a great job of capturing dynamic range while controlling digital noise. I’m a Canon shooter so that would include cameras like the: EOS 1Dx Mark II, 5D Mark IV and even the crop-sensor 7D Mark II. Nikon and Sony have even better sensors on their top of the line models (at least for now).

If you’re a noob the two things you can do immediately to improve your photography is to start shooting CameraRAW files and to learn Lightroom or Photoshop. More experienced photographers know this already. RAW files capture all the information you need to process your images for maximum impact. This post is not a Lightroom or Photoshop tutorial, for that go to YouTube or Google. Everything you need to know is at your fingertips—no need to attend expensive workshops or buy a library full of books. Too much work? Jason Lanier is fond of saying: are you a picture taker or a photographer? You need to ask and answer that question for yourself.

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Galapagos Giant Tortoise – Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecudor

Above is a great example of a high contrast subject: the Galapagos Giant Tortoise. I photographed this brute on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos (2015). The contrast between the bright, white highlights on his head and the deep, black shadows under his shell is clearly evident. This is a tough situation for any photographer. In this case I did not expose for the highlights because no matter what they would be blown out. And I did not expose for the shadows either because I didn’t want to further exacerbate the existing highlight problem. The exposure mode I used on my camera was the Evaluative Mode (sometimes called Matrix Mode) to reach a compromise between shadows and highlights.

I captured this image as a CameraRAW file and initially processed in Adobe CameraRAW (ACR) part of my Adobe Photoshop Elements software. In ACR I refined White Balance, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites/Blacks, Clarity and Vibrance. I then uploaded to Photoshop to further refine my adjustments—after all was said and done I didn’t like the color image. It was boring. I converted the color image to a more retro looking black & white (a start). Straight conversion to B&W in Photoshop is rarely satisfying, it takes more work. In Levels I made sure there were some real whites and real blacks (this automatically increases contrast).

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Giant Galapagos Tortoise on Display in a Sheik New York City High-rise

But Steve, you said that photographing high contrast subjects was the problem. You’re right I did. But in B&W photography (high) contrast is not always a bad thing. Additional adjustments included: more work on highlights and shadows, overall contrast and some dodging & burning. The end result, for me, is a dramatic representation of what I saw that day on Santa Cruz Island. This carryover creature from prehistoric times is now preserved in all of his naturalness and drama. He makes a statement, whether in person or hanging a wall. This image will print large (almost 3 x 4 feet) and looks terrific as an acrylic or metal print as seen above. Click here for details.

Photography 101: Photojournalism vs Other

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photojournalism or editorial photography is different. And there are ethics involved. Unfortunately, ethics today are falling by the wayside in this new world of fake news. The Senior Photo Editor at STAT News magazine recently reminded me how important it is to be honest with your work. Photojournalism has to be real and not posed or faked.

Whether you’re shooting for a newspaper, online publication, Getty Images or the wire services the viewing public trusts you to be honest. Unlike other genres of photography photojournalism is not about art or creative license. Anytime you shoot in a documentary style it’s incumbent on you, the photographer, to retain photographic integrity.

I am very grateful to this particular editor for reminding me that editorial photography has strict guidelines. It wasn’t a breach of ethics on my part but an unintentional faux pas. Having shot for a newspaper I knew all of this of course but during a recent photo assignment I took my eye off the ball. Thankfully, in labelling my photos for publication with the proper exif data, I described the scene correctly. Here is the shot in question.

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Roberto Mejida, M.D. for STAT News Magazine

The image I wanted to capture was a patient consulting with the doctor. In this particular instance the doctor had cleared his patient appointments for the photo shoot and I was left without a patient to photograph. I had my assistant sit in and assume the role of a patient. It conveys the message I was looking for but violated the cardinal rule of photojournalism—it was staged and not real. You might not think it’s a big deal but it is. In entering my exif data I clearly stated that my assistant was posing as a patient.

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Roberto Mejida, M.D. and Colleagues for STAT News Magazine

The editor thanked me for labelling my photos honestly so she could make the necessary editorial determinations. In this case the photo was discarded for another that was real and not posed. I wasn’t intentionally trying to deceive, I was trying to depict a typical doctor/patient scenario that due to circumstances beyond my control wasn’t available to me. The photo of the doctor (above) with his colleagues was not posed and I was capturing a completely candid interaction. Do you see (understand) the difference? Documentary photos have to be real.

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Roberto Mejida, M.D. for STAT News Magazine

The final example from the shoot shows the doctor posing for a portrait. It is a posed shot but it’s not a fake shot. The first example is fake (unintentionally) because the patient is not a real patient. The second example is completely candid and not fake—it is real. This last example, as stated before, is posed but it is also real (and acceptable). I know it seems like splitting hairs but it’s very important not to cross ethical lines when shooting in the documentary style of a photojournalist. Editors rely on your integrity not to fake the shot.

When photographing in the documentary style you have to be very careful with your post-processing: I corrected the white balance and added a touch of sharpening—that was it. These shots are straight out of the camera with no cropping, color manipulation (beyond white balance correction) and absolutely no cloning (removing distractions from the scene). Any further processing is left to the editor (not the photographer). You might not ever do any documentary photography but if you do keep it honest.

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Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

One last example: I am primarily a wildlife photographer. When shooting for myself I shoot and process artistically. However, if I was shooting for the National Audubon Society or another scientific journal I would be shooting (and minimally processing) in the documentary style. Street photography falls into the same category. Viewers and clients have to know your photos have integrity (especially when it’s a paid gig). They have to be able to trust you. There is no room for fake news or fake photos that pretend to faithfully represent real events.

I Am Now a Freelancer for the Boston Globe

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

I am now an official freelancer for the Boston Globe (well not exactly). STAT News magazine is an affiliate of the Boston Globe and as such falls under their corporate umbrella. The photo shoot I was hired for went well and the Senior Photo Editor added me to their approved freelancer registry for possible future photo assignments. Newspapers, magazines and other publications rarely have permanent full-time staff anymore.

They operate with skeleton crews of administrative personnel, and producers of content (articles, photos and design) are hired as freelancers and contracted for specific assignments. There are pluses and minuses to this business model of course. STAT News is a medical publication so all of their articles deal with medical issues around the globe—and I’m a global wanderer. So hopefully more assignments will come my way: they are extremely professional, pay well and on time.

Editorial (photojournalistic) photography is not my favorite genre but it puts food on the table and helps with the travel budget. Plus many of the assignments are interesting, pay well and I always have the option to decline if I want. The editor was somewhat intrigued that I am a roving international photographer and not confined to one specific locale or home base. She was also interested in the fact that I will be travelling back to Asia after a short visit to the USA. Hopefully a few good gigs will come my way while I continue my travels abroad and I’m still a registered freelancer (with press credentials) with my old newspaper The Yucatan Times.

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Roberto Mejides, M.D.

Here is a link to my recent photo assignment for STAT News: The Cuban Hustle. I did not write the article, I was only hired to provide editorial shots to illustrate the article. As a hired gun I had no say in what images were ultimately selected (that is almost always the case in photojournalism) that was left to the Senior Photo Editor. For instance I would have chosen the photo above for inclusion (and they did not) but they did include my favorite photo below of Dr. Mejides showing me pictures of his family back in Cuba—I thought both photos captured the essence of the man and told a story. The article is interesting too and worth a moment of your time.

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Roberto Mejides, M.D.