Photography Etiquette When Travelling

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Don’t be THAT person. I certainly don’t expect everyone to be a serious photographer but with the advent of the cellphone and the resulting ubiquitous Selfie everyone seems to think they have a right to be rude.

It appears to be part & parcel of our new uncivil global culture. It used to be just the ugly American that got the bad rap for uncouth behaviour but other cultures now seem to be following our lead. And it’s not just the young folks who are guilty.

Nowhere is this new rude behaviour more evident than at our world’s most iconic tourist destinations. If Joel and I could afford to hire private guides to authentic locations (with serious photography in mind) we would but it’s prohibitively expensive for the everyday traveller and especially for the budget traveller (backpackers & trekkers) like us. I try to keep my blog posts positive and studiously avoid the temptation to dwell on petty irritations, frustrations and false drama that permeate so many blogs these days. But sometimes the frustration just boils over.

Like I said earlier if we could afford private guides we would. We’ve done so several times before while trekking Latin America and they are indispensable when shooting wildlife in strange and out-of-the-way locations—but they are usually affordable in both Latin America and Asia—not so much as we travel east through Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, England and Eastern Europe. To see the sights we are having to hookup with non-photography commercial tour groups. These groups are not helpful to serious photographers—you gotta trust me on this. But you do what you have to do.

Common courtesy in these groups is nonexistent and photography etiquette is completely unheard of. I’m an old guy (I turned 70 this past May) and grew up with manners and consideration for others. When I travel with a group like that I leave my tripod and filters back at the hostel, guesthouse or local hotel. I don’t want to get in the way of others or slow them down in any way. Just a little consideration in return would be nice but it rarely happens. I get it—I’ve lived too long for these folks and I am just taking up room in their eyes but I wouldn’t trade places with them for a million dollars.

I don’t particularly like being a crotchety, grumpy old man but this new world order (with its lack of civility) drives me bonkers. We’ve taken two daylong excursions into Iceland’s hinterland to see the sights—and the sights have been beautiful. But the human behaviour on display during these excursions has been atrocious and downright disgusting. We’re not big on the group dynamic anyway (we prefer the solo experience) but we try to behave appropriately when forced to mingle with the herd. We will often choose to bypass iconic tourist spots in favour of lesser known authentic sights.

Some observations—if you do any of these things yourself (doubtful if you’re reading this blog on a regular basis) then stop it. Just STOP IT. The whole time the bus is travelling to its various locations no one is looking out the window to see the sights, their little deformed thumbs are dancing over their cellphones. Seriously folks? The minute the bus stops everyone is clambering for the exits, it doesn’t matter if it’s their turn or not. They literally run to the scenic wonder with their Selfie-stick and cellphone in hand and start doing stupid shit (you look like idiots).

Then they start elbowing and jostling their way into other people’s shots (like mine). And if that’s not enough they ignore all the signs and safety warnings and cross barricades and ropes to further spoil the photographs of others. I have been whacked in the head with Selfie-sticks (several times) and physically shoved aside because I was in their way. Once they get their dumb-ass grinning mug shot they continue to hog the best vantage point so others can’t enjoy the benefit of the location. Then they all run back to the bus or cafe so they shove copious amounts of slop down their gullet.

Simultaneous with downing thousands of calories (they don’t need) they get those gnarly little thumbs moving again. It’s all just mindless behaviour and shallow to the extreme. Then it’s off to the next destination to repeat the same aforementioned routine ad nauseam. We’ve come to learn (the hard way) to stay on the bus until the herd exits, then enjoy our stroll to the scenic beauty that awaits, mill around until the idiots are done with their idiocy and then try to really appreciate what’s before us while they head back to the bus. It’s not the best solution but if I mix in the fray I’m going to hurt someone.

This would be a good time (after my rant) to say the locals in Iceland are wonderful. They are kind, courteous and helpful. This rant is directed at my fellow travellers (not all of course but a very high percentage). Iceland is a beautiful country and if you can afford to travel its hinterlands solo (rent a car or hire a private guide) then do so. If you’re budget constrained like us you will probably have to suffer the indignities of the commercial tours. The tour guides and bus drivers have been wonderful, it’s the damn passengers I’m railing against. Don’t be one of those people. 

Note: In my future posts I promise to regain my emotional equilibrium. My frustrations rarely, if ever, involve locals or the indigenous—it’s my fellow travellers that often get my goat. You might be glad to know that the ugly American stereotype is quickly being overshadowed by other cultures. We’re still known as fat, loud and overly friendly and polite (we tip food servers) but for sheer rudeness I will gladly pass the gauntlet to the Chinese, Russians and French (and despite what you might think I am not a racist). Yeah—I know that’s not politically correct but like I said before I’m old now. SFD  



Southern California Is on Fire Again

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Southern California is on fire again. I was born and raised in Southern California, more specifically San Diego. I am no stranger to the wildfires that can rage through the area. My family, dogs and I survived the massive Cedar Fire that destroyed some of our neighbour’s homes—and a few years later went through the experience again.

Just a week ago Joel and I were finishing up our visit to the USA in Murrieta, CA and now it’s all on fire. Freezing our butts off in Iceland it’s hard to comprehend that it’s hot and on fire in a place we just left. Fires are burning around Murrieta as well as many other places around the state but my son and granddaughter are safe.

Wildfire season is late this year and although unusual it’s not unprecedented. Typical fire season occurs in September with the onslaught of the Santa Ana winds which can propel flames to over 80 mph. These raging Southern California fires are impossible to put out, the best you can do is to try to contain them until the winds die down and they can be extinguished. It can literally take weeks to tame these raging infernos.

The Cedar Fire of 2003 caused significant loss of life and major property damage. The community I lived in, San Diego Country Estates, was evacuated as was most of Ramona and Julian. We elected to stay behind to protect our property knowing we had a swimming pool to take refuge in if circumstances got too grim. I had two law enforcement officers as neighbours and promised to keep an eye on their homes in exchange for allowing us to stay. Good thing I did because I did chase off some looters on the second day. We were without power for about a week and all the cell phone towers burned to the ground.

It was a pretty intense experience and the fire got very close—just one block over—and destroyed two homes with wood shake roofs. Thankfully our home had a Spanish tile roof that didn’t catch fire. We used propane gas to cook on the barbecue, candles to see by and we had enough canned goods after we had consumed our perishables in the refrigerator. Southern California wildfires are nothing to mess around with, they are devastating and dangerous. They are a regular part of living in California (like the earthquakes) just like other states deal with tornadoes and hurricanes.

Iceland Photo of the Day

South Shore Iceland (1/5s @ f/11 ISO 100 @ 24mm Handheld)

I think this was my best photo from yesterday’s shooting. I’m surprised this image even turned out because the shooting conditions were frightful with super cold weather and gusting winds topping 35 mph—the resulting windchill was a heart stopping, eyeball freezing -22°C/-8°F. We arrived late at South Shore (4 p.m.) due to an accident and it was already pretty dark with winter’s twilight quickly fading; one of our group slipped and fell on the slippery ice at a glacier we were visiting and broke both of her arms—not just one arm but both arms. Our eight-hour exploration suddenly turned into eleven hours.

I was travelling with a group of non-photographers so I didn’t have the luxury of carrying my tripod and filters with me. Non-photographers can be very impatient with serious photographers while they themselves are busy taking their ubiquitous selfies with their iPhones and iPads. As the light quickly faded I got down low on one knee and braced my camera as best I could. I exposed for the sky and hoped I could recover the shadows in post, I shot at 1/5s handheld (between gusts of wind) and prayed that my camera’s image stabilisation would work.

Shooting at 1/5s also provided some slight motion-blur in the wave action and preserved my ISO 100 setting to help ensure a high-resolution image. I had my aperture set to f/11 to keep both foreground and background in sharp focus—all the while the light continued to fade. In post (Adobe ACR and PSE11) I was able to even out the exposure in my CameraRAW file (lifting shadows and dampening highlights). I spent quite a long time in post recreating the scene I had viewed with my eyes. I didn’t want to over-process my photo because I wanted it to stay true to the scene—I wanted it to remain natural. I think I succeeded.

This is an example of when excellent equipment really does play a part in the final outcome. If I had used a tripod and filters I could have gotten the same result with a lesser camera and lens combination, but shooting handheld in the dark changed everything. I used my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame DSLR and Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens to get this shot. The low-light, high dynamic range ability of the 5D Mark IV and stellar image stabilisation of the lens (four to five stops) gave me the ability to come away with a decent shot. The message is: never give up on a shot.

Stephen F. Dennstedt


Today Was Colder Than a Witch’s Tit

Today was colder than a witch’s tit (if you’ll pardon the expression). Duh—it’s winter in Iceland so you would expect some cold days now and again. We’ve been here a week and this is definitely the coldest day we’ve experienced so far. How cold was it? It was a heart stopping, eyeball freezing -10°C/14°F with wind gusts of up to 35 mph (windchill -22°C/-8°F). I know my friends on the American east coast and midwest (not to mention my Canadian friends) have all experienced colder weather but it was cold enough for me. We were out of the bus for 30-50 minutes at a time so that was plenty of time to freeze to the bone.

One unfortunate accident to report. While visiting a glacier (our next to last stop) a lady in our group slipped on the ice and broke both arms (not just one arm but both arms). That delayed us somewhat because our guide had to stay with her until an ambulance could be dispatched to transport her back Reykjavik for treatment. Our eight-hour excursion turned into eleven hours but accidents like that can happen (to anyone). As I mentioned in an earlier post I slipped five minutes after leaving our guesthouse on our first walk into town. It happened quick and it hurt—however I only suffered bruises and not broken bones.

Iceland is truly beautiful in the winter so I can only imagine how much more so it is in the spring and summer months (I’ve seen photos). Although there are a fair number of people here I don’t think we’re dealing with the throngs of tourists who historically descend on this tiny island-country in the milder seasons. And thank God for that. I also think we’re getting a bit of a break on our room rates compared to the peak season—again another blessing. I don’t see any respite when it comes to food prices however, they remain astronomical. Our free all you can eat breakfast buffet at our guesthouse has been a lifesaver.

Our all day excursion yesterday took us to Iceland’s South Shore—about two hours south from Reykjavik (our return trip took two and half hours because of slippery road conditions and wind). We visited two waterfalls, one glacier (where the poor lady broke her arms) and finally finished up at South Shore as the remaining sun dipped below the horizon. It was there that we experienced our coldest weather (and strongest winds) of the day although it had been mighty cold everywhere else too. Driving back to Reykjavik in the dark we kept our eyes peeled for a glimpse of the Northern Lights but no luck. It’s a bit hit & miss.

This was our last foray into the hinterland and we will be leaving Iceland early on Tuesday morning for Dublin, Ireland. The weather forecast calls for continued cold until then and then more snow the morning we leave. Some might question our decision to visit Iceland in the winter but it was our only opportunity to see this beautiful country before heading to Europe. We don’t have the luxury or financial flexibility to be flitting back and forth between locations in our travels. We basically travel in one direction and try not to backtrack too much. In Latin America that direction was mostly south and now we will be heading mostly east.

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Meeting Our First Icelandic Horse Up Close

Icelandic Horse

Today’s temperature is 0°C/32°F with an 11 mph wind and snowing (windchill at -5°C/23°F). There is a 70% likelihood of more snow throughout the day, but it was beautiful waking up this morning to a light dusting of new bright snow covering everything. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for a temperature of -5°C/23°F with a 13 mph wind and no snow or rain in the forecast ( windchill at -14°C/7°F). Some will find these continued weather reports boring while others might find them interesting and informative. I for one am just trying to wrap my head around this cold.

Icelandic Horse

We were out all day yesterday seeing some of the countryside that makes Iceland so famous. Early in our excursion we met our first Icelandic horse, a small furry critter that looks more like a pony—but Icelanders are quick to point out that they are horses not ponies (scientifically speaking). Icelandic horses weigh between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 lb) and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) high, which is often considered pony size, but breeders and breed registries always refer to Icelandics as horses.

Icelandic Landscape

They are capable of five distinct gaits, the first additional gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed; it is also comfortable and ground-covering. Interestingly, no foreign horses are allowed into Iceland and if a local horse leaves the country they are not permitted back in. This is due in part to disease control efforts but more importantly to keep the breed pure. They have a reputation for friendliness and if this guy was any indication I would have to agree. The breed comes in many coat colours, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey, palomino, pinto and roan.

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photo From Today’s Icelandic Excursion

1/50s @ f/4 ISO 100 @ 50mm, Handheld

It was cold today in Iceland. The high temperature was -3°C/27°F with partly cloudy skies. When I took this photo it was 4:00 p.m. and the sun had already dropped below the horizon. I think it was the best photo of the day with its crimson sky, white mountain peak and shadowed foreground. This time of year the sky is often blown out white so I was lucky to capture a few wispy clouds and the beautiful evening crimson colour. I took this photo with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 24-70mm f/4 IS USM zoom lens.

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photography 101: Preparing for a Photo Shoot

Stephen F. Dennstedt

How do you prepare for a photo shoot? I always (or almost always) prepare the night before. What photography kit I pack with me depends on what I’m going to shoot and what the anticipated shooting conditions are like.

So, most of you know brother Joel and I are in Iceland. Tomorrow morning, when it’s still dark outside, we are being picked up at our guesthouse for a full-day excursion into Iceland’s hinterland. Reykjavik is really neat but—

It will be great to finally get out of the city limits to explore the countryside. The forecast calls for clear but cold weather. With good lighting anticipated I shouldn’t need any of my super fast lenses (f/1.4 or f/2.8) and my f/4.0 to f/5.6 image stabilised lenses should be more than adequate. This excursion was booked through a commercial tour operator and not specifically designed with photographers in mind. Not the best situation I admit but I will try to make it work. That means minimal gear: one camera, two lenses and no tripod or filters. Left on my own I would normally have time to set up for long exposures.

Atacama Desert – Northern Chile

I will be competing with iPhone and iPad photographers for the most part so this will be more of a run & gun shooting situation. Again, not my cup of tea but lacking our own transportation and mobility requires us to travel with a group. I’ve done this before and though it can be frustrating a photographer can still manage some good shots with proper effort and experience. Getting isolated environmental shots without gobs of people in them is another challenge when photographing iconic, heavy-travelled locations. My camera will be my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame DSLR.

Perito Moreno Glacier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

My two lens choices will be my Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens and my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens. With these two stellar image stabilised lenses I can shoot everything from macro to super-telephoto. I wish I had the time to shoot long exposures with a tripod, polarising filter and ND filter but such is life. You do the best you can with what you have. It will still be amazing to get out and about in Iceland and for that I’m grateful even if it’s not exactly the way I want to do it. At least I’m here and doing what I love to do. Keep your fingers crossed.