Heading Back to Yucatan on Wednesday

Stephen F. Dennstedt

My son Shawn and I are heading back to Yucatan on Wednesday for a three-week visit. This will be his first visit and of course Merida was my second home for over two years. My brother Joel and I revisited Merida (for three months) on our way back to the USA before continuing our world trek. We’ve been back in the States since mid-March and look to resume our travels sometime in September or October—itinerary pending (but with some interesting possibilities).

I’m excited about introducing Shawn to my many friends in Yucatan and to the beautiful sights inside and outside of Merida (the capital city of Yucatan is Merida). He’s going to meet some really cool people and have some great meals at the local eateries. Merida (the White City) is stunningly beautiful with its wide tree-lined avenidas and historical Spanish Colonial architecture. Hopefully, we’re able to visit the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve and Puuc Jaguar Conservation where I spent much of my time as a photographer.

The many Maya ruins and cenotes that dot Yucatan are obviously a must-see as well has the small coastal fishing village of Celestun with its magnificent biosphere. Izamal (the Yellow City) is a Unesco World Heritage site and another wonderful place to visit. There is so much to see and do in Yucatan that three weeks really isn’t enough time, but we will do our best to cram as much as possible into our short visit. If you ever have the time to visit Merida and the rest of Yucatan you should do it. It is the safest city in all of Mexico and certainly one of the friendliest. It’s not on the beach but the Maya Riviera is only about four hours away by bus and Progresso and Celestun are much closer than that. Here are some recent photos to whet your appetite. Click on the photos to enlarge them for better viewing.

Photography 101: Advanced DOF Calculations

Stephen F. Dennstedt

This video challenges conventional wisdom when it comes to advanced depth of field (DOF) focus calculations. It’s a YouTube video produced by Thomas Heaton who is a young and accomplished British landscape photographer based in the United Kingdom. I’m typically old school traditional when it comes to photography, but I am open-minded enough (I think) to learn new and better ways of doing things.

When shooting near to far landscape scenes photographers strive for maximum DOF. In other words you want your foreground subject matter to be acceptably sharp while keeping the middle ground and background areas acceptably sharp as well. Using a wide-angle field of view (FOV) usually helps with this goal: 16mm, 24mm, 28mm and 35mm are all common focal lengths (FL). Also, a smaller aperture (larger f/stop) increases DOF: f/8 through f/16 are typically used.

Back, for a moment, to conventional wisdom: Conventional wisdom dictates you use the Hyperfocal Distance for maximum DOF throughout the scene. There are complicated algorithms to calculate this distance, and with today’s technology there are even SmartPhone apps that will quickly calculate this focal point for you. But as a general rule of thumb the Hyperfocal Distance in a scene is approximately 1/3 of the way into the scene, this theoretically ensures that there will be acceptable sharpness throughout the image. And this is the conventional wisdom I’ve always used (and depended upon) when shooting landscapes requiring maximum DOF.

1/100s @ f/16 ISO 100 @ 24mm

The above image was shot in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile this past year. It’s not the best example of what I’m talking about because it’s only a low resolution web-size image and the wind was blowing at about 40 knots per hour (blurring the tufts of grass in the foreground). However, it illustrates the goal: I wanted the tufts of grass and sand (in the foreground), as well as the lake and mountains (in the middle ground and background) to all be acceptably sharp. The camera settings included in the caption reflect that goal—my hyperfocal focus point was about 1/3 of the way into the scene. Now Thomas comes along and challenges that conventional wisdom. Damn it.

He makes the case that simply focusing at infinity  will accomplish the same thing. Heresy pure and simple. The empirical evidence suggests that the FL/FOV (wide-angle) and small aperture (f/8 through f/16) is more important than the focus point. And, by God, he makes one helluva a case (with examples). He also explores finding the Hyperfocal Distance by using the DOF preview button on your camera (which can be very problematic when stopping down your lens in low-light—which is often the best time to shoot). I will know better when I prove it to myself, and I will definitely be experimenting with this new information. Anyway, enjoy the video and checkout Thomas Heaton.


Photography 101: Buying Your First DSLR Camera

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Like many experienced photographers I am often asked by folks wanting to move up from their SmartPhone or Point & Shoot camera: What camera should I buy? On the face of it this sounds like a reasonable question. In today’s photography world there is a plethora of choices and no one choice is the perfect or absolutely right choice—as in most things, it depends.

I think one of the first questions I would ask is: Do you simply want to take pictures or do you want to be a photographer? In my opinion there is a difference. If you want to take spontaneous record shots of family, friends, pets, events and vacations I would suggest you consider staying with your easy to use SmartPhone or Point & Shoot camera (there is nothing wrong with that approach). However, if you want to learn the art and craft of photography the choice becomes a little more problematic.

Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia) – Photographed with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II Full-frame (FX) Camera

I’ve been snapping shutters for over 63 years—from the simplest box cameras (film) as a kid to the most sophisticated professional level DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and almost everything else in-between. If you seriously want to pursue photography as an art form and a craft I would suggest buying a DSLR (with interchangeable lenses) or possibly one of the new mirrorless cameras. The two leaders offering these cameras are Nikon and Canon, but Sony is coming on strong. In my film days I shot primarily with Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex but switched to Canon when I entered the digital age. You can’t really go wrong with any of the big three—it’s a matter of personal preference.

In the DSLR world your first decision (after brand selection) will be to decide between a full-frame (FX) sensor or a crop (DX) sensor (there are pros & cons to both). To make the right decision (for you) it’s helpful to consider your budget, the type of photography you enjoy and want to pursue, the degree of flexibility you want and your image output (will you be sharing your photography on social media only or will you be making prints). Another thing to think about is: What skill level do you want to attain? Are you satisfied to stay a recreational shooter (hobbyist) or do you aspire (dream) of becoming a serious amateur or even a professional. Only you can answer those questions.

Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia) – Photographed with a Canon PowerShot G15 Crop-Sensor (DX) Pocket Camera

As a professional I have a need for both a FX and DX camera: the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is my choice for a full-frame DSLR which I use for almost everything non-wildlife related; my choice for a crop-sensor (DX) DSLR is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (which I use primarily for wildlife because of its 1.6x field of view advantage). I’ve included a great YouTube video about the differences between sensors. The video is a little dated (2012) but the information is still solid and useful. Some of the cameras mentioned have since been updated and there are now more choices than ever and at even better (lower) prices.

Note: My cameras (specifically the Canon 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II) are pro-level platforms and are therefore very expensive. There are some great entry-level consumer cameras available today like the Canon Rebel T6 and Nikon D3400—complete kits (camera + 2 lenses + accessories) start at $450 to $500. Check out Adorama, B&H Photo and Amazon for current prices and discounts. I do not get paid for these reviews and recommendations. SFD

Photography 101: Why I Chose the Pelican 1510

Stephen F. Dennstedt

As a turtle on the move I need my shell(s). While I trek the world looking for new and fantastic photo opportunities I carry my home on my back and my office rolls alongside of me. I recently posted an article about my new house, the Osprey Farpoint 70, and now I want to talk about my office. Yep, you CAN travel the world with your home & office (I do it and so can you).

Over the past five years I’ve gained a lot of (hard-won) real-world experience when it comes to travelling with expensive photo gear. I say hard-won because I’ve damaged some gear along the way: I smashed the rear LCD screen on my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, I had to have the rear element replaced on my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens and I jammed the lens cover on my Canon PowerShot G15 backup camera.

My Home: The Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Pack

I am very, very careful with my photography kit when it’s in my possession, but I can’t control what happens when it’s out of sight. Initially I incorporated my office into my home (a home office as it were), but the results (as mentioned above) weren’t always positive. Although I took great care in wrapping my camera bodies and lenses in thick clothes before stuffing them into my pack, I didn’t take into account the frequent inspections my luggage underwent while trekking from country to country. Inspectors typically don’t give a damn how they stuff your gear back into your pack, and so equipment damage occasionally occurs (I can personally attest to that).

My Office: The Pelican 1510 Hard Photography Case

Another situation that arises is airplane travel. The case or pack containing your photography equipment might meet the airline’s carry-on requirements, but the airlines ALWAYS reserve the right to make you check your case or bag if they want to (for any reason whatsoever or for no reason at all). If you’ve ever watched baggage handlers at the airport you have to ask yourself this important question: Will my camera equipment survive that kind of treatment in a soft-sided bag? The airlines are not the only culprits, while trekking around Cuba, Mexico, Central America and South America I experienced many different modes of travel (each with its own unique set of challenges).

I submit the following anecdotal evidence for your review—while travelling high in the mountains of Colombia (in a small bus) they lashed my pack to the top of the bus (it was pouring rain). Yep—it got soaked (thankfully my camera body was wrapped in a waterproof parka, I wasn’t quite so lucky with my clothes). In the jungles of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Amazon I often travelled by Panga (a small canoe or boat) and though it never happened there was always the possibility of my pack going overboard. Other forms of travel included Zodiacs (in the Galapagos and Patagonia), taxis, Tuk-tuks, scooters, bicycles and mostly my own two feet.

Photographing Wild Gentoo Penguins in Tierra de Fuego, Argentina (The End of the World). Large Zodiac is Beached in the Background

If you’re a photographer who shoots mostly at home and travels by car, a good padded soft photography case will usually do the job (Think Tank and Lowepro make excellent bags and packs). But if you fly with your gear, and/or travel internationally with your equipment, I think a bomb-proof Pelican hard case (specifically the 1510) is the way to go. I would also highly recommend the TrekPak insert to conveniently organize your gear. The Pelican 1510 is 100% waterproof (and will float even loaded with gear), it is shock-proof and will easily survive a drop from the top of a bus or the back of a Tuk-tuk, and it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

Typical River Panga on the Rio San Juan (Southeastern Nicaragua)

Like I said earlier, I’ve learned my lessons the hard way—it’s better to be safe than sorry. I now travel with over $15,000 usd worth of photography equipment: 2 Pro-level camera bodies, 5 Pro-level lenses and all the other gear needed to do my job. A Pelican 1510 case is cheap insurance for my investment—don’t cheap out when it comes to protecting your photography kit. For more information click on the links I’ve sprinkled throughout this post, or simply Google (or YouTube search) whatever question you might still have. With my two new shells (home & office) I can now continue my travels around the world with confidence. Note: I receive no money for these reviews, I wish I did.

Travel 101: Always Have a Plan B

Stephen F. Dennstedt

When travelling internationally (especially for long periods of time) it’s always good to have a Plan B (redundancy is prudent). When I say long periods I mean years, not days, weeks or months. The first leg of my global adventure lasted five years (trekking Cuba, Mexico, Central America and South America).

I have been back in the USA since March refreshing my travel kit, both photographic and personal. Five years put a lot of wear & tear on my travel gear: jungles, beaches, mountains and deserts have all taken their toll. You can certainly replenish many things while you’re on the road (and I have) but sometimes American sizes (and quality) are problematic.

An essential piece of kit for me is a reliable watch. I am no longer a slave to time (having been retired since 2011) but there are still buses and planes to catch, people to meet and appointments to be kept. A quartz movement (battery operated) watch is not my first choice. Although you can find batteries abroad (they usually last a year or two) it takes a technician to replace it and once they break the factory waterproof seal the watch is no longer submersible (no oceans, lakes, rivers or even long showers). What choices are left?

Casio ProTrek Analog Dial

I’ve opted for two watches: a multifunction Casio ProTrek solar-powered analog watch (my solar-powered Casio Pathfinder lasted over 8 years before the battery started failing) and a Marathon Milspec mechanical (no battery) watch (it can be manually wound and sports an auto-wind feature). Neither watch is inexpensive at about $350 usd but I value reliability, durability and functionality above all else when travelling (you typically get what you pay for). And with expensive gear you will often find that when you prorate its price over its lifetime it is more economical in the long run.

Marathon Milspec Mechanical Watch

Another piece of travel gear I backup religiously are my prescription glasses, both regular (bifocals) and sunglasses. It’s possible to get replacement glasses while travelling but the quality varies greatly from country to country, and do you really want to wait around (blind) for a week or two while they’re being made? I pack three pair of regular glasses and two pair of sunglasses (all prescription) in my luggage. Make sure you keep them all in hard shock-proof cases and spread them out in various pieces of luggage (main pack, day pack and photography case). Also, keep a current prescription with your other medical information on your computer, iPhone or with your passport.

I buy my prescription eyeglasses online at GlassesUSA.com and they do a great job. In a pinch you can order replacement glasses from them while travelling, but you’re still going to wait a week or two for production and shipping. Better to have backup glasses with you because you never know when you’re going to break a pair accidentally. It happens. If you’re as blind as I am you really don’t want to be stumbling around, and if (like me) you’re a photographer you can forget taking any pictures until you replace your broken glasses. Just a word to the wise.

Travel 101: Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Pack



Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Pack

I will soon be hitting the road again. My son, Shawn, and I will be travelling back to Yucatan, Mexico for two or three weeks sometime in August. Upon our return brother Joel and myself will be back on the trail, leaving San Diego sometime in September or October to resume our world travels. Like a turtle or a crab I carry my home (and all of my worldly possessions) on my back—and I am buying a new shell: the Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Pack. This is possibly a traveller’s most important purchasing decision.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

My travel requirements are a little different from most; whereas most travellers embark on trips lasting a few weeks to a few months, my trips are calibrated in years. For instance I left the USA in early 2012 to trek Latin America, and only recently returned to the States for a brief visit after an absence of five years. In those five years I Slo-travelled through Cuba, Mexico, Central & South America and eventually wound up in Tierra del Fuego—literally the end of the world and the last land before Antarctica.

Magellanic Penguins in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The Osprey Farpoint 70 is a large pack (70 litres) and for most travellers I would recommend a smaller pack in the 40 to 55 litre range. However, being on the road for an indefinite time (years) requires me to carry more gear than normal.  Buying quality gear in American sizes can often be problematic when travelling abroad, and I won’t have the luxury of returning to the USA in a few weeks or months to replace any worn, damaged or lost gear. I won’t go into all the detailed information about this pack, but you can checkout my link to REI and the YouTube video I’ve included.

Stephen F. Dennstedt – Photographer, Writer, Traveller


Photography 101: Shooting With a Single Lens

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I hate humping gear and the older I get the more I hate it. Having said that, however, when I shoot commercially I am forced to carry along a pretty complete kit (depending on the assignment). Therefore, when I’m shooting for pleasure I often just use one camera body and one lens (and usually regret it).

I was recently invited to visit and photograph Jim Hubbell’s Studio, Home & Garden in San Ysabel, CA. You can only visit by invitation so it was a real honor to be asked (it also helps to have connections). This was not a commercial shoot but rather an opportunity to visit and shoot for pleasure. So I took one camera and one lens—and regretted it.

I elected to take my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame camera and my Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens. I knew I would be shooting interiors for the most part but would also get a few exterior (and people) shots. I was tempted to take my Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM zoom for its extra wide-angle field of view, but felt that 35mm on the long end was too short for my people shots. A do-over would be a two lens combination: the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM zoom coupled with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom.

Stained Glass Windows – Interior Shot of Jim Hubbell’s Studio, Home & Garden Compound – Santa Ysabel, CA

The 16-35mm would have been perfect for my interior and wide-angle exterior shots, and the 70-200mm is a great lens choice for people headshots. If this had been a commercial shoot (a paid gig) I would have dragged along my entire kit (two camera bodies and five lenses). As it was I had a blast and shooting with just one lens helps to enhance both your photographic discipline and creative skills. When I recently attended my son’s birthday celebration the only lens I took was my stellar Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art-series lens.

Stained Glass Doors – Interior Shot of Jim Hubbell’s Studio, Home & Garden Compound – Santa Ysabel, CA

I think it’s a very good thing to occasionally limit yourself to just one lens, it forces the creative juices to flow. But it can be frustrating and I certainly wouldn’t recommend the practice when shooting a paid assignment. But photographers, like anyone else, can get lazy. It’s easy to fall prey to formulaic shooting, totally ignoring new perspectives and new ways of doing things. Plus changing out lenses constantly can be a real pain in the ass—not to mention in bad weather it’s easy to let rain and dust into your camera during the lens swap. The next time you shoot try using just one lens.