News from Johnathan Ampersand Esper
2017 Photo Workshops & Tours to Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Adirondacks
Over the past 7 years I've been privileged to guide and facilitate incredible experiences for around 400 photographers, spanning 80+ photography workshops all around Iceland, Faroe Islands, and the Adirondacks Mountains (USA). I thank you for joining me in the past on one or more of these photo tours, and I sincerely hope you came away from the trip with unforgettable photos, memories, experiences, and an enhanced photographic skill and passion.
I am pleased to announce that it's time to broaden our photographic location offerings, and I want to let you, my clients, know what photographic adventures newly await should you so choose to embark on another photographic adventure. About one-quarter of my clients are returning ones, and I hope you'll entrust me again to help you discover these upcoming destinations in 2017. On most trips I can usually offer returning clients a discount, so just ask!
Here's all the destinations we're going to in the next year!
Greenland, Aug 2017 (new location)
Norway Dogsledding, Feb 2018 (new location)
Faroe Islands, July 2017 (brand new type of tour/retreat)
Cuba, Nov/Dec 2017 (new location)
Iceland landscape, fall + winter 2017-2018 (multiple trips each season, ongoing past 7 years)
Iceland fine-art/nude modeling, June 2017 (brand new type of workshop)
Adirondack Park (USA), summer + fall 2017 (multiple weekends, ongoing past 7 years)
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Greenland is a must-see destination for any world traveller, and rapidly becoming well-known among photographers for it's out-of-this-world arctic summer light and giant icebergs. I'm pleased to begin leading photo workshops to West Greenland in 2017, as a brand new destination! If you want to photograph clear jewel-like ice chunks on black sand beaches that glitter like diamonds, then Iceland is for you. But if you want to be blown away by the sheer size and number of gigantic icebergs hundreds of feel tall, floating in the Arctic Ocean and cast in warm pink arctic sunset light at midnight, then Greenland is the place for you!
Ilulissat town is the logical starting point for a Greenlandic photography workshop, situated at the outlet of the iceberg-choked Ilulissat Icefjord, which deposits these huge icebergs into Disko Bay where they drift around for years before melting. There is spectacular sunset and sunrise light that shines through the short summer nights, and to best capture this on the icebergs, we'll photograph from private chartered boats cruising around Disko Bay. We'll also travel to several outlying small village settlements around Disko Bay, for an authentic view of Inuit culture and way of living. Here, small colorful wooden houses built on the rocks next to the ocean are very picturesque and great to walk among with a camera. We'll stay two nights in Qasigiannguit, and two nights in another tiny 50-person settlement on the south side of the Ilulissat Icefjord named Ilimanaq. As this is a brand new destination which the ferry boat company was working on establishing the route to, we're a little behind in announcing this trip (but not too late!), of 16-26 August 2017. These are ideal dates as we'll still do late evening sunset cruises to the icebergs, yet still have the chance to see the first auroras of the new season during our short 4-hour nights. Midday light can be quite harsh, so we'll utilize middays for travel between settlements, and rest time at our hotels, and an occasional indoor edit session.
I'm offering limited-time special pricing for our inaugural 10-day Greenland trip, at just $4800 (pre-discount for return clients) all inclusive of private boat charters, boat transfers between 4 different settlements all around Disko Bay (including the distant Eqi Glacier!), all meals, and guiding. (Price does not include flights to Greenland, from either Iceland or Denmark). Greenland is a very expensive country to travel in, so I urge you to check out all the workshops coming here to Greenland for comparison' sake, and I'm confident you'll find this trip covers the Disko Bay the most comprehensively and affordably! More info can be found here.
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Dogsledding through the Norwegian arctic wilderness in the dead of winter, with just you and your faithful husky dog sled team to rely on, with the dancing aurora borealis in the arctic clear nights, and the exhilaration of photographing running dogs and sleds while hanging onto your own speeding dogsled speeding across the powdery snow. Picture that! This tour is for hard-core photographers willing to be out in in extreme cold (-35C) weather, and physically abled, and up for a true arctic adventure, that will surely give you one-of-a-kind images of the arctic winter wilderness and up-close-and-personal photo experiences with huskies and this way of life. We're spending 8 full days dogsledding through the Dividal National Park in a large loop across frozen lakes and through mountain passes.
On this tour, if you're an accomplished or independent-style photographer, we're inviting you to join us at an at-cost basis, as we simply want to share the costs among 4 people, and you pay same as what I pay. We have 2 so far committed to go. However, if you'll want more help in your photography too and are not as advanced, that's fine too, and all we ask is that you give us a commensurate tip at the end of the trip for any photography guiding we help you out with! We're going with a dog sledding company in northern Norway, Husky Lodge, and all the info for this trip is on the company's website, at http://huskylodge.no/hundeschlittentouren/expedition-dividal/. Please let me know ASAP if you're interested in joining us, as we need to put down deposit payments soon.
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In the Faroe Islands this summer, I'm working with yoga instructor and retreat leader Dr. Justina Law, offering a unique yoga + photography retreat for 7 days,July 8-15, 2017. This is different from our normal photography workshops with intensive itineraries, and will feature a more relaxed retreat environment were there will be offered one or two daily hatha and restorative yoga sessions each day, paired with a daily photography outing during the afternoon or evening of anywhere from 3-6 hours. We'll be based out of a single hotel in the capital city of Torshavn, and our daily outings will go to many classic photography locations around the many islands making up the Faroese archipeligo. Faroe Islands is a charming island nation in the North Atlantic ocean, part way between Iceland and Europe, and you can easily fly there via either point. The Faroe Islands offer a peaceful respite from the busy tourism destinations of Iceland, and have quiet idyllic villages nestled between the steep green mountains and the ocean channels running between them. In many ways Faroe Islands feels like Iceland did 10 years ago - still undiscovered by mainstream tourism, quiet country roads with bountiful maritime and pastoral scenery, countless waterfalls streaming down from the grassy fjord valleys, and tall sea cliffs where millions of seabirds and puffins nest in the summer months.
So we'll photograph all these types of locations on our daily outings, plus grass roofed churches, and dramatic panoramas over the fjords seperating the islands. This yoga and photography retreat will be the first of its kind in the Faroe Islands! Justina our yoga instructor has led tens of retreats around the world, and Johnathan will serve as principal outing and photography guide. It's open to really anyone, even non- photographers who just want to relax, do some yoga and explore your creativity through movement , and enjoy Faroe Islands' sights, while at the same time keen photographers will have plenty of opportunities to shoot and receive photography coaching in the field and a little in the classroom, and guidance from a professional photographer. This retreat is also ideal for couples who may have varied interests, where one is more into photography or yoga than the other. This retreat is offered at an incredible value of just $2465 USD, and includes all nightly accommodation, meals, all yoga sessions and all group photography outings, for 7 days and nights! Signup can be done via either leaders' websites at icelandphotography.com or www.ombianceyoga.com/faroes_retreat.htm.
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Cuba is a country in transition and yet stuck in some uncertain past decade, and unlike any other destination I've been to (and I've traveled to 55 countries!). If just placed in a part of Cuba without any reference points, you couldn't tell in what decade you were in. Horse drawn carriage carts with wobbly wheels and bent axles ply their passenger routes through the city, picking up and dropping off passengers at the central plaza, reminiscent of the turn of last century, while blaring out 1990's Latin regeatone music, and across the street are parked a row of 1950's American classic cars in various states of condition, while young Cubans sit on the curb checking their social media on smartphones at one of the town's few public wifi internet hotspots.
During our 2-week trip to Cuba this past November, we found an endless supply of photographic subjects, centered of course around the Cuban people. Poor rural 'campasino' farmers cutting grass along the road and filling up their horse-drawn carts are friendly and happy to pose for photographers, in exchange for maybe a leftover bar of hotel soap you've forgotten about in your bag. And how about photographing a young man that guides horse riding tours, holding the reins of his horse with the last burst of sunset silhouetting him? Of course no trip to Cuba would be complete without exhaustively photographing the American classic cars, which are in all colors of the rainbow and states of repair, and in addition to walk-by shooting, the best photos come from renting these cars at sunrise to pose them on the cobblestone streets or in front of Spanish forts, cast in golden sunrise light before the rest of Cuba wakes up. There's also the limestone hills called 'magotes' which will offer some outstanding sunrise panoramic landscape shots, crystal clear seas, and tropical waterfalls, for the pure-nature lover. Havana is so rich in photographic potential too, with all it's busy streetlife, and old, delapitated buildings with faded patina walls and crumbling cement, and the iconic Malecon seawall were locals fish.
Our photographic workshop to Cuba will be an approx. 12-day trip in November or early December, 2017, although dates are exact yet as we're still in the planning stages. This trip will be unique among any other photographic tour there, because we want to incorporate a huge variety of subjects and locations to photograph, from rural farm life to decaying city architecture, from staged classic cars to tropical landscapes. Too many other photo tours to Cuba only focus on the street life in Havana and perhaps one other city, to the neglect of really getting a feel for the rest of Cuba. We'll be working with a local guide that's fluent in Spanish and his/her own country, and yet also retain that freedom and flexibility that my trips are known for, such as randomly stopping by the roadside to photograph a passing horse cart in sunset light. And we'll arrange a series of opportunities to photograph portraits of real Cubans in their everyday lives, with an emphasis on rural peoples. Havana isn't forgotten; we'll spend a solid 4 days there as well.
If you're interested, please email me and I'll be sure to fill you in on the details as they get worked out and signup details when appropriate. Cost will be very affordable, around $2200 for the whole trip, plus cheap airfare from the USA.
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The autumn season in Iceland is my favorite time of year to be here, where we can photograph local rural farm culture during the sheep roundups, the yellow colors of turning birches contrasting against black lava, the Aurora Borealis once again becoming visible in the night sky, the remote interior Highlands regions still accessible via normal 4x4 vehicle. And Iceland is noticeably quieter after a hectic summer tourist season. This September 9-20, we have our 3rd annual fall photography workshop around the country, starting in the north and following the changing autumn color to the south of Iceland. The last two workshops have been great, full of photo ops, and if you've only visited in winter so far, consider joining us a second time in Iceland this fall! More info can be found here.
Next winter season we'll again be doing a full compliment of workshops around Iceland, so if you haven't yet been here, now's your last best opportunity! Tourism is still rapidly growing, (let's actually say exploding) in Iceland, with 35% annual growth rates, and mid- 2 million range visitor count projected in 2017! It's certainly not the same country I fell in love with years ago, but it's popular for a reason, as Iceland's nature is still as beautiful as ever. In 2017-2018, we're going to only be offering a visit to a more remote and spectacular ice cave away from all the crowds in once-pristine Crystal Ice Cave, and this is just one (but significant) reason to plan your winter photography workshop with us! We're offering some 'classic' itineraries on the popular south coast of Iceland, and on these will stay close to some famous sights so that we can visit them easily in the dark of night or sunrise to enjoy them more to ourselves. Also on offer is an optionally-segmented series of tours completely encircling Iceland, so you can do a combination of individual trips, to comprehensively see and photograph Iceland. Winter 2018 workshops have now just been posted, so it's great to start thinking ahead and book your space now, before the trips sell out as they did this past season!
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In Iceland this summer, I'm co-guiding a fine-art and nude portraiture photography workshop, set in the backdrop of the Icelandic volcanic sands and Highlands. This is totally different than any landscape workshop I've ever offered, of course, but it is exciting to capture the beauty of the human form set amongst the stark contrasts of Iceland's harsh climate. Chief model photographer will be Vinson Smith, a longtime landscape photography client of mine, who is also an accomplished fine art portraiture and boudoir photographer in Atlanta, Georgia. I'll serve as assistant photographer, and location guide, as I've been guiding around Iceland since 2011. We'll have 2-3 models traveling with us the entire workshop, who will work with and pose for photographers in both wardrobe and nude styles. More info on this trip is on a separate website from my main photography page, at www.naturenudesphotography.com . Trip dates are 26-31 June 2017, and includes a full 6.5 days of photography with our professional models, all transportation, guiding, and wardrobe and some lighting gear.
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And last, let's not forget the Adirondack Park of New York State, USA, my home area where I live, which is equally beautiful, in it's own subtle way. The Adirondacks is easy to travel to within a day's drive from anywhere on the East Coast, yet really feels apart from the rest of the state, with it's pristine forests and lakes and quiet mountain scenery. Autumn is absolutely beautiful with vibrant reds of the maple trees, and offers spectacular foliage scenics. Late summer mornings with fog rising off the lakes are another opportune time to visit. I'm offering small solo-led weekend workshops in the Adirondacks in May, August and September (listed at WildernessPhotographs.com). Also, I work with the region's other top photographers including Mark Bowie, in offering our annually sold-out Peak Color fall photography workshop, based out of the Long Lake and Saranac regions this year. (listed at ADKPI.org).
April 6, 2016: Iceland Tour Blog by Brittany Kunkel
Being a photographer in Iceland, you can't help but subject yourself to an exhilarating and exhausting whirlwind of events. As you drive through the vast, otherworldly landscape, the sights become an endless, irresistible blur of inspiration. Welcome to a photographer's paradise: the land of fire and ice. Read on for an inside look at my 12-day photo expedition across Iceland with Johnathan Esper and Wildernesscapes Photography.
Written by & all photography by Brittany Eliza Kunkel (www.brittanyeliza.com)
February 5, 2016
The first morning in Iceland always feels a little eerie after stepping off the plane around 7 am, and existing in complete darkness for several more hours. I spent the day in Reykjavík recharging for the long journey ahead. In the afternoon, our group met for the first time in our guesthouse café, where Johnathan made introductions. There were eight of us on this first leg of the trip: two Americans (including me), three Australians, one German, one Finn, and one Thai. Each of the members of the group were traveling solo, with the exception of a couple from Australia. Everyone had varying levels of skill and interest in photography, but we were all thrilled to begin this adventure together. Johnathan, from the Adirondacks, was kicking off his ~40th photography tour in Iceland. He breezed through the trip itinerary, before we hurried off to Reykjanes Peninsula to chase the remaining light before sunset.
By the time we reached Gunnuhver Geothermal Area, a deep, stormy blue had taken over the sky, with just a sliver of creamsicle-colored light shining through along the horizon line. Despite the less-than-ideal light, we were in awe of our surroundings. We watched and listened to steam soaring up, up, and away, as snowflakes fell and were quickly swallowed up by the warm ground. We floated across lava formations blanketed by rich green, pillowy moss. We sank into rusty red clay on the edges of bubbling mud pools. In a country enveloped by shades of white and blue for much of the year, it was incredible to experience and photograph a brand new color palette.
As the weather went south, our extremities went numb, so we set off for our first dinner at a cozy restaurant called Kaffi Duus, overlooking the small harbor in Keflavík. By the time we arrived back in Reykjavík, we were all ready to get some sleep before embarking on our trip the next morning.
February 6, 2016
After breakfast at our guesthouse, we said goodbye to Reykjavík and drove off into a grey morning, along the south coast. Within a couple hours, we arrived at Seljalandsfoss waterfall and armed ourselves with microspikes on our boots before piling out of the van. We snapped some photos from various angles with many other tourists, but then a couple of us decided to go for what I believe is the most interesting shot: behind the waterfall.
We precariously climbed stairs hidden under 5 inches of solid ice, battling wind and icy mist. Eventually, we found ourselves alone and sheltered in an alcove behind the waterfall, surrounded by shattered fallen ice. After taking our photos and drenching ourselves (and our lenses), it was on to the next photo stop.
The weather in Vík applied an almost-black-and-white filter to my photographs, whether I liked it or not. It has a sort of ghostly beauty -- the contrast of foamy white waves crashing down on the black sand beach, set against a backdrop of snow-covered cliffs. We spent some time photographing the surf as it flooded under the legs of our tripods, and then drained back into the ocean again. It's a lot of trial and error to get the shot you're looking for, which, in turn, means a lot of running back and forth, and narrowly escaping having saltwater-filled rainboots.
As we continued on our way, we drove through miles of rugged lava fields, coated in fresh snow. The sun finally peaked through and cast beautiful light on the scene, so we pulled over to take some photos. What started as a bleak, colorless day, filled with technical challenges, unfolded into a colorful expression of all that is great about Iceland. We photographed sunset along a rushing stream, which allowed us to capture the reflection of the many colors painted across the sky.
We continued driving along until we reached our hotel for the evening, where we ate dinner and then went to bed, since it was unfortunately too cloudy for a night shoot. It was a little disheartening to have two nights of bad weather in a row, so everyone was feeling anxious about the possibility of not seeing any auroras during our trip. Johnathan told us that he had never had a trip that didn't see the northern lights at all, knock on wood. But, of course, there's a first time for everything, so we kept our fingers crossed.
February 7, 2016
An unexpected sunrise greeted us as we reached our first photo stop of the day, so we shot a set of hot pink glowing clouds before taking off on our hike to a waterfall. We trekked up and down and over small bridges until we reached a cathedral of basalt columns shrouded in towering icicles -- with a waterfall pouring through the center. The stream at the bottom was completely frozen and covered in thick snow, so we explored right up to the base of the waterfall, as well as other vantage points around the waterfall. Before we left, rays of sunlight began hitting the 20 foot icicles surrounding us, which made for a sparkling scene.
On our way out, Johnathan surprised us with a short walk up the hillside to a row of quaint little turf-covered houses and sheds. We photographed some wide angle shots, as well as detail shots of the old, weathered surfaces, and then even threw in an impromptu portrait shoot.
Our next stop was Hofskirkja, a picturesque, turf-covered church surrounded by turf-covered tombs, which were barely even detectable because of the feet and feet of snow on the ground. After capturing the church from all angles, we were on the road again for a longer drive to our guesthouse, sprinkling in a few short stops along the way.
After dropping our luggage at our guesthouse, we headed up to the fishing village of Höfn -- our easternmost point during our trip -- for a delicious dinner. Just a couple hours later, after bundling up with multiple base layers, a sweater, a fleece, two jackets, toe warmers, two pairs of socks, handwarmers, two pairs of gloves, a hat, a hood, and a headlamp, I was standing under the lights, watching our first aurora borealis of the tour. Johnathan walked us through best practices for northern lights photography, including typical camera settings and how to adjust depending on the strength of the aurora.
February 8, 2016
After devouring far too many homemade pancakes at our guesthouse (Johnathan went back for at least 6 helpings), we began the day in the same spot we shot the northern lights the previous night. Now, as the sun rose and cast a warm, golden light on the peaks of Vestrahorn, the wind grew fiercer. Vestrahorn at sunrise is a majestic sight -- and now even more dramatic, paired with fast-moving clouds of black sand.
We wandered around the dunes, searching for the perfect set of leading lines to complete our compositions, all while freezing, getting sandblasted, and having trouble standing in place. Just when we got comfortable and unshielded our lenses from blowing sand, another massive gust would come along and force us to cover up again.
We wandered around the dunes, searching for the perfect set of leading lines to complete our compositions, all while freezing, getting sandblasted, and having trouble standing in place. Just when we got comfortable and unshielded our lenses from blowing sand, another massive gust would come along and force us to cover up again.
When my eyes, mouth, and camera were adequately filled with this fine, black sand, I decided it was time to head back to the van before any more damage could be done. Another client, Beth, was making her way to the van alongside me when the wind literally lifted us off our feet and carried us up and over the road. For the first time in my life, I was truly afraid that I would get blown away. After being thrown down, I huddled close to the ground, hugging my camera to protect it from any more sand, waiting for a calm to make a run for it back to the van. By the time Beth and I reached the van, we were shaken, the van was rocking back and forth, and we had now turned our attention to a tourist completely determined, yet hopelessly chasing his jacket that was blowing across dunes at 75 mph. By the time we left, the man and his jacket were both specks on the horizon.
I spent the next few car rides painstakingly picking sand out of every crevice in my camera and spinning my focus and zoom rings back and forth -- until the nails-on-a-blackboard crunch of sand was ground into a usable, yet still less-than-optimal state.
As we continued on our way, we were surprised by such great light that we made several impromptu stops: mountain views, streams winding through the white landscape, and a pack of Icelandic horses near the side of the road. We eagerly climbed over the fence to play with and photograph a group of 20+ friendly horses, perfectly placed with a stunning mountain backdrop. Next, we went to the harbor of Höfn, where we ate a quick gas station lunch (standard when on the go) and took some photos of old boats. Making our way back west again, we stopped a few more times for reindeer, an abandoned farm, and other scenic landscapes.
At one point, we stopped to take videos of snow blowing wildly across the road. I carefully got out of the van, but made sure to stay sheltered behind it. It was just not my day, though, because I was whipped around the front of the van, unable to even hold in place while gripping with all my strength to the side mirror. My camera slammed onto the hood of the car, breaking part of my lens, and I was thrown to the ground...again. I was shell-shocked for the rest of the day, and had bruises on my legs for the rest of the trip. I'm always willing to give it my all to capture a great photo, even if it means stepping out into unwelcoming weather. But, I did learn a lesson about the power and unpredictability of Iceland's wind, and made sure to be a little more careful from then on.
We arrived at Jökulsárlón and the iceberg beach for an awe-inspiring sunset. We pulled on our rainboots and waded in the surf to capture glowing icebergs tumbling around on the black sand -- their color shifting from gold to red to aquamarine with the falling sun. Hundreds of chunks of ice littered the beach, some towering over me. Of everywhere I've been in Iceland, this place feels the most transcendent, otherworldly.
After dinner at our guesthouse, we geared up for the night and ventured back over to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon for some aurora hunting. A faint green band stretched across the sky, reflecting off the surface of the lagoon between floating sheets of ice. The aurora was pretty weak, so we didn't have a late night.
February 9, 2016
"Don't share these GPS coordinates with anyone," Johnathan warned us before meeting up with an Icelandic guide who would be taking us to a secret ice cave. We boarded the guide's super Jeep, drove a few miles down the road, and then made a sharp turn onto a set of light tracks winding through fresh snow towards Vatnajökull Glacier. We barreled across the snow, up small hills and around boulders for about 15 minutes, and then stopped to hike the final 15-20 minutes to our destination. Along the way, we were presented with rules and safety guidelines, and our guide gave us lots of background on the formation of ice caves, how they change each year as the glacier recedes, how he scouts for new caves at the beginning of each winter season, and how the guides make sure the caves are safe for visitors.
Experiencing the ice cave was nothing short of magical. Rippling rainbows of luminous blue. Layers of history streaked with black volcanic ash. Scalloped edges of ice ablaze with golden sunlight. We took panoramas, detail shots, portraits, and a group shot, of course.
After eating a quick lunch at the Jökulsárlón café and watching seals play amongst soaring icebergs, we made our way to Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon. We trekked up a hill through a few feet of snow, and as we reached the crest, a boundless expanse of snow drifts and icebergs revealed itself in the valley below. Patches of florescent blue ice peaked through the smooth curves of wind-blown snow. The lagoon was frozen solid, so it was ours to explore. We meandered through, climbed, and even sat inside of colossal icebergs. It was quiet and calm and peaceful.
We returned to Iceberg Beach for sunset, where we focused on taking long exposures (with neutral density filters) of the ocean draining away from icebergs. Repeatedly running for the best shot, trying to get your tripod set up in time, getting nearly taken out by waves, and getting your boots full of freezing water is incredibly exhausting.
We were wiped out, so when we checked the weather over dinner, we were given a little bit of relief. The low aurora forecast paired with the heavy cloud cover forecast meant aurora hunting was looking doubtful. We took hot showers and I spent a while rinsing black sand off my tripod legs and out of my snow pants. After hanging them to dry, I crawled into bed, thankful for an early, relaxing night. And then there was a knock at my door.
10 minutes later I was out the door again, bundled up, but with wet hair and wet pants -- turns out blow dryers in Iceland can't accomplish a lot in 5 minutes. About half of the group decided to go out for the weak (and cloudy) display of northern lights. No matter how tired I am, I can't ever find a way to turn down the opportunity to see the lights. You never know when a weak aurora will turn into an epic one. Since the sky, itself, wasn't incredibly interesting, we used flashlights and passing headlights to spice up our photos.
February 10, 2016
Several hours of sleep and then we were wandering across Iceberg Beach again for our final shoot before traveling on to our next destination. I wanted to mix it up -- and stay dry -- this time, so I concentrated on photographing icebergs that were slowly and gracefully sailing out of the lagoon and into the ocean, also taking time to enjoy the seals playfully surfing against the current of the lagoon's outlet. At times, the seals would take a break from the action to watch us intently, almost forming a connection with us.
Our next stop was Núpsstaður, the smallest turf church in Iceland, surrounded by a miniature turf-covered village, all straight out of a fairytale. Even in the colorless dead Icelandic winter, this setting was enchanting. We even got a chance to go into the church, where only a couple of us could fit at a time.
We couldn't resist stopping to see some more horses along our drive to Dyrhólaey, which was our sunset destination. When we arrived at Dyrhólaey, the group convinced Johnathan that the van could make it up the steep, icy mountain road to the top of the headland, mostly just to avoid a treacherous hike. We did make it, but others weren't as lucky when it came time to go back down. We spent a couple hours photographing our surroundings. Cliffs, seastacks, rock arches, black sand beaches, and mountains, all orbited around the Dyrhólaey lighthouse. Wispy clouds drifted in right as the sun was setting. The sky then shifted from one pastel to the next, as we continue to snap away.
When we were ready to go, a couple of tourists with a rental car had gotten stuck in deep snow, with their car lifted off of its wheels. It was beyond any help we could give with our shovel or a team of people pushing, so we drove the couple to a mechanic in Vík. This detour landed us in a perfect photo opportunity, as an incredible moon rose from the horizon up above the seastacks.
On the other side of town, a whole couple blocks away, was where we had reservations for dinner at a warm café. When we left to head to our guesthouse, we watched out the van windows as an aurora stretched across the sky. Johnathan decided to take advantage of this now, instead of stopping at the guesthouse first, so we turned off the road and drove off-road through the snow for a few miles, heading for the DC-3 plane crash site. In the pitch black night, the only directions Johnathan had available to him were the tire tracks of other vehicles, which unfortunately were inconsistent and branched off in different directions at times. Eventually we arrived at the plane, where other photographers were already set up and pretty annoyed that our approaching headlights put a hold on their shots. Once we were settled in, we spent a while taking photos from various angles, lighting up the plane from both the outside and the inside.
Our guesthouse, Lambafell Lodge, was a beautiful rustic log cabin at the base of a mountain. By the time we arrived, it was almost midnight, so after downloading and backing up the day's photos, we went straight to bed.
February 11, 2016
The seventh day of our tour was a hectic day, as we were saying goodbye to one group member, and hello to two new ones. As we made our way back to Reykjavik to make the swap, we stopped at Skógafoss Waterfall. Here, we stepped cautiously onto a thin sheet of ice, with the river rushing along next to us, and underneath our feet. Our tripods were precariously set up on the edge in order to compose the perfect shot with the waterfall reflected in the ice.
In Reykjavik, we stopped at two different bus terminals, got lunch, and then, with our new group members in tow, headed north for the second leg of the trip. By the time we got to Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it was already sunset. We stopped to take photos of a group of horses who were on cloud nine to see us. As we continued on our drive, a charming little church sat illuminated against the darkening blue sky and mountain backdrop. A couple hours later, we ate a late dinner: Johnathan consumed a stromboli the size of a large pizza, and a few people in the group tried horse for the first time. When the food came out, there was no shortage of horse jokes and guilt-tripping by passing around our horse photos.
It was after 10 pm by the time we got to the majestic Kirkjufell for a night shoot. It was fairly clear, and the aurora was already strong, so there were people swarming around the mountain and waterfalls. That created a little bit of a challenge, as tiny blue trails of headlamp light scribbled across our photos, accompanied by the ghosts of photographers.
The northern lights were well worth the trouble. It was as if someone was zealously doodling above us in neon lights -- and we eagerly watched and snapped away for almost four hours. Johnathan encouraged us to explore different areas, but my fingers had gone numb long ago and could no longer work the buttons on my camera, so I laid down in the snow and just enjoyed the rest of the show.
We finally reached our guesthouse in Grundarfjörður around 2 am, and had a long, glorious night sleep, as we finally got the chance to sleep in for the first time on the trip.
February 12, 2016
We started the day at Kirkjufell again, and then made our way up through a winding mountain pass to a rustic a-frame shack alone in the barren white wilderness -- used as a respite by hikers and travelers in need.
Our next stop was Arnarstapi, where we took a hike along the rocky coastline, photographing the waves crashing against cliffs and sea arches. At this point in the trip, everyone seemed to have more confidence and independence, so the group split up, and everyone moved at their own pace. The path ended at a small harbor, where a couple of colorful fishing boats were on their way out to sea.
The Búðir black church set the scene for sunset that evening. A warm veil covered the black and white landscape, bringing it -- and the twinkling, adorned crosses scattered throughout the cemetery -- to life. Our group spread out, photographing the church, the cemetery, and the snowy beach, until the sun sank into the ocean.
We returned to Grundarfjörður for a delicious dinner at a cozy, charming old house that had been converted into a restaurant and transported from another part of Iceland to the town in which it now resides. After dinner, we got ready for our sixth consecutive night of auroras. It was record-breaking for Johnathan (and all of us), so there was no way I was going to pass that up. A large, diluted rainbow of northern lights washed across the sky, but it didn't turn into anything more, so we didn't stay out too late.
February 13, 2016
Snæfellsnes treated us to a mystical sunrise for our last day on the peninsula. The lone peak of Kirkjufell in the midst of a cotton candy sky made for a perfect reflection in an icy lagoon. This was our last stop before dropping off three of our group members at a bus station, and then continuing on the last leg of our trip.
We now had a longer drive to the north, traversing farmland and mountain ranges for several hours. It was actually nice to have a break and relax in the van for a while. We made several stops to take photos of winding roads through frozen wilderness, snow-covered lava fields, and a round sheep-sorting pen used during the traditional fall sheep roundup, called Réttir.
On our route to Akureyri, we took a short detour to visit Víðimýrarkirkja, a small, fantastical medieval-style church from the 12th century that's incredibly still in use today. Turf-covered, painted black, rusty red, and sage green, and enclosed by a green picket fence, this church sits in great contrast to its surroundings.
As the sun began setting, we came upon a sun-drenched scene of horses grazing along the side of the road. We hopped the fence into the field and were instantly encompassed by dozens of horses. Playing with Icelandic horses never gets old, probably because they're like puppies -- adorable, excited, ultra friendly, following you around tirelessly. A short while later, we sat on ice along the edge of a fast flowing river to photograph the sunset.
We continued on our drive for a couple more hours until we reached Akureyri, and ate dinner at a hopping restaurant in the center of town. Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland, but a distant second, with a population of only 18,000 residents (versus ~200,000 in Reykjavik). Iceland's second largest city is smaller than my small suburban hometown in the US, which is strange to think about. A wall of clouds moved in during dinner, so the possibility of a night shoot was out. It was our first night in a long time without auroras, but that was fine by us -- we welcomed a quiet, early night.
February 14, 2016
We awoke to a cloud-filled sky, but made our way to Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. Intense winds blasted mist relentlessly at our lenses, caking them in ice within seconds. It was nearly impossible to keep them clean long enough to take a single photograph. We took shots of the teal horseshoe-shaped falls from various vantage points, and then piled back into the van for our drive to the Mývatn region.
We stopped along the way to hike around the Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters, and a while later at a mesmerizing setting we were drawn to on the side of the road. A solitary tree was perched atop of a snowy mound in the center of a lake, with its intricate branches and a golden sky reflected on the glassy surface. It felt almost supernatural.
Our final destination of the day was the Hofði birch forest, where we went on a serene walk through snow-covered birch trees. As we ventured deeper into the forest, the peeling birch bark revealed rainbows of oranges and pinks beneath, now glistening in the sunlight. Shielded by the trees in the quiet forest, the world felt still, and it was a much-needed break from our hectic itinerary. Everyone also loved being surrounded by trees for the first time during the entire trip. Eventually, we came to the edge of a lake, the snowy landscape lit up in the color of a tangerine, and we stayed until the sun had set.
That night, we checked into our guesthouse, Vogafjós, a series of log buildings set on a sheep and cattle farm. We dined along a glass wall, which separated us from our dinner: cows. A couple dozen cows lined up in an indoor pen, within reach of our table.
After a quick nap, we headed out for a night shoot at Dimmuborgir. By the time we arrived at the lava fields, an aurora was already hovering above us in the sky. We wandered through a city of colossal black lava towers, arches, and caves to find an interesting composition that complemented the northern lights. A narrow trail had been packed down in several feet of snow, and Johnathan warned us not to stray from the path, so as to not ruin future photographs of the fresh, smooth powder. As the lights began to die down, we took advantage of the break and decided to move on to a new location. Our walk turned into a frantic run when an incredibly strong, fast-moving aurora came out of nowhere. The immense lava formations were now working against us, blocking the swirling green light from view. We raced to gain enough elevation, and finally set up a less-than-optimal composition, just so we could capture the lights before they faded again. Three hours and two locations later, we were on our way home.
As we were driving home, we came upon another tour group that had gotten one of their vans stuck in the snow. We offered a shovel and a push, but there wasn't any other way we could help, so they were still struggling when we left. Luckily, they had two vehicles, so they weren't stranded.
February 15, 2016
On our last full day on the tour, we were all completely drained of any energy, and my health was rapidly deteriorating from a cold I developed a few days earlier (I was later diagnosed with pneumonia). Luckily, the dangerous winds and cloudy skies presented us with a break in the afternoon. In the morning, we explored the geothermal area of Námafjall, which was like a lunar landscape, with eerie drifts of steam blowing through the air. The colorful boiling mud pools and active steam vents proved to be interesting subjects, even with a lack of good light. Johnathan warned us to be careful about where we stepped, as the ground is unpredictable and new pools are forming all the time.
Krafla geothermal power station was our next stop. We stepped out of the van into the Ice Age -- everything was encrusted in inches of jagged, windblown ice. Steam and loose snow whipped around us, as we struggled to keep our feet planted on the ground to take photos.
Soon, the frigid temperature and fierce winds forced us back into the van, and we were on our way to the last stop of the day: Mývatn Nature Baths (the Blue Lagoon of the North). Pools of iridescent aquamarine-colored water broke up the snowy landscape, and thick clouds of steam floated across the sky. It was a winter paradise.
We then picked up lunch at a gas station, and returned to the guesthouse for a relaxing afternoon of downtime and an indoor editing session. Johnathan walked us through the elements of a great photograph, and demonstrated how to edit various types of photos, including stitching together panoramas and blending multiple photos for an HDR image. We had our last group dinner alongside our cattle friends again, and then got to bed early since the weather was still too severe to go out for a night shoot. During the night, the power went out, and the wind whistled and blasted huge chunks of snow and ice off the roof, smashing down loudly, directly outside our windows.
February 16, 2016
Dimmuborgir was our first stop of the day, where we watched the sun rise through arches of rock. We took one final group photo and were on our way back to Akureyri. Along the way, we stopped at Laufás, a small turf village and church that took us back a couple centuries in Icelandic history.
By the time we arrived back in Akureyri, it was lunchtime, and Johnathan took us to his favorite Icelandic bakery. After lunch, we headed to the airport, which ended up being about the size of my home grocery store. It took us a minute to read over the security instructions and prepare to go through the security line, and then a whole 5 seconds to walk down the 10 foot empty, security-less hallway until we were surprised by already being at our gate. From the lack of metal detectors and luggage scanners and any actual security guards, I guess they're pretty trusting in Iceland?
We boarded our propellor plane back to Reykjavik and watched as the edge of the arctic faded behind us. The rugged landscape of Iceland passed slowly below us, until the colorful buildings of Reykjavik appeared in the midst of mountains and curving black beaches. Thank you Johnathan, and goodbye to another wonderful Wildernesscapes tour!
For a deeper dive into my Iceland tour experience, watch the video below:
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Celebrating the brand new launch of Icelandphotography.com! This website features the photography workshops & photo tours of pro photographer Johnathan A Esper of Wildernesscapes Photography LLC. Iceland is unforgettable and unique destination; come and join a small group photo adventure of a lifetime! And, we hope you enjoy the new website and the Icelandic images!
Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland and the Adirondacks are worlds apart in just about every way, yet these are two of my favorite wilderness areas to photograph and explore. Many travel publications have recently ranked Iceland among the "top" or "hottest" places to visit and for good reason. (Even if its weather isn't 'hot', at least it's geothermal pools are!) Its geography, culture, and eco-tourism possibilities make it unique among travel destinations.
An Adirondack native, I've found it's easy to overlook great places in one's own realm in search of the next epic destination. The Adirondacks have a charm that grows on you, as one often has to search out its most beautiful spots; one must hike to experience the best views. As a professional photographer, I've been fortunate to explore many of the world's wildernesses, but few places rival Iceland. It offers a multitude of iconic destinations, set amid an otherwise rather stark landscape. Unlike the Adirondacks, these natural gems are more accessible yet still retain a wilderness character, enabling an informed tourist to see the best of Iceland with relative ease.
"Fire and ice" is a common phrase that characterizes Iceland. Being on a 3-way tectonic plate divide, volcanoes are all over Iceland, including eruptions under massive glacial ice plateaus, which in turn create large volcanic-generated floods often wiping out sections of the country's single coastal ring roadway. Twisted old bridge girders left sticking out of braided flood plains alongside the newer bridges are testament to the volcanic floods' metal twisting power. Icelanders and tourists seek out the smaller molten lava eruptions by driving SuperJeeps with large tires over glaciers and icecaps. Sub-glacial hot springs also carve out spectacular hollow ice caves, allowing an intrepid explorer to stand barefoot in a warm water stream under a glacier. These geological processes, along with traditional glacial-melt streams, create a spectacular, otherworldly tableau of blue crystal facets of ice. Some of this ice was a thousand years in the making – can you imagine being the first person in the world's history to witness this newly exposed ice, or to taste the purity of water frozen for a thousand years? This is truly epic.
Iceland is more than fire and ice, of course. Icelandic nature offers much more. Stream banks are covered with the softest, brightest, neon-lime-green moss set amid vast barren gravel highlands. Waterfalls are so abounding through Iceland, people have not even bothered to name them all. One that is named, Dettifoss, is Europe's most powerful waterfall by volume. Natural and developed geothermal hot pools abound, with the naturally heated pools serving as the traditional center of social life for nearly all towns around the country. Geothermal pools and rivers are everywhere throughout the wilderness, offering relaxation and warmth after a hard day exploring some of Iceland's rugged landscape. Landmannalaugar is one popular and completely natural Highland geothermal pool, producing hot springs and bathing pools for Icelanders and tourists camping nearby amid the lava flows and colorful ryolite hills, accessed by 4x4 vehicle only. 10 minutes from the international airport, travellers can soak in the world renowned Blue Lagoon, created by the outflow of a nearby geothermal power plant, with its luxurious silica-rich sky-colored waters.
There is no end to the reasons I love Iceland's nature. Some favorites: Lying on a grassy headland on top of sea cliffs with flocks of puffins flying around you; diving in blue-hued spring water inside Silfra crack between the North American and European tectonic plates, which was filtered for 30 years through lava flows and has a 50-meter visibility; enjoying a photographer's dream of hour-long sunsets of the midnight sun; touring the winding roads around dramatic coastal fjords; freely drinking pure-tasting running water anywhere in the outdoors without fear of contamination; driving 4x4 vehicles expedition-style for days through vast, barren, bleak yet strangely enchanting Highland gravel plains among giant ice fields (always stay on marked routes).
Icelanders also have a unique history and culture resulting from their historical isolation and traditional fishing lifestyles close to nature and the sea. Norwegian Vikings first settled in Reykjavik, the capital, before venturing onward to discover North America. Iceland's settlement history is recorded in the Icelandic Sagas, which are well-read even today. Trolls and elves are also frequently brought up in conversation, and may possibly be found hiding among the weird lava formations everywhere, according to a surprisingly large number of adamant Icelanders. One's imagination can certainly be creative when in a thick sea fog and surrounded by whimsical lava silhouettes. Roads were sometimes even routed around suspected elf hideouts so as to not disturb them. Any visitor can be assured of seeing a troll, however, when viewing rock pillars such as Karl og Kerling (meaning 'old man and witch'), where tardy trolls were caught outside at sunrise long ago and instantly turned to stone.
Modern Icelanders are friendly, resourceful, easy-going, and a pleasure to associate with on one's travels. A common sight is the friendly wave of a passing farmer on his tractor carrying a bale of hay down the road, while a carload of tourists walk in his pasture to pet his Icelandic horses. These horses are well-known for their long shaggy manes drooping over their eyes, an extra gait called the 'tölt', and I think are the friendliest breed of horses in the world; the whole group trots right up to you, expecting nothing but a friendly pet. The local police are friendly and helpful for once. After a vehicle rollover in the Snæfellsness Peninsula wilderness during a winter whiteout, the policemen put on their parkas and helped us roll the car back onto its wheels so we could avoid the expense of a tow truck and keep on going. And of course no tickets were issued, especially the dreaded 'failure to keep right' ticket! You can camp outdoors off the road among the lava fields with no safety concern, as Iceland is statistically one of the safest countries in the world to visit. You can freely walk right up to the deafening hiss of steam from geothermal bore holes, which supply clean energy to Iceland and electricity for aluminum smelters, one of Iceland's major economic activities.
These wonderful nuances of Iceland were undiscovered for me until deciding to visit Iceland the first time. I first read about Iceland as a young boy when flipping through every page of our family's entire World Book encyclopedia series. I recall being enamored by the grainy film photos of sheep and fishermen and geothermal power in the Iceland article, and said to myself that one day I wanted to go there. Years later, after winters I spent hiking in the Adirondacks becoming a winter 46er and 111er, which originally gave me an appreciation for the outdoors, after college, after years of adventurous travelling and living in the outdoors in other exotic places like Patagonia and New Zealand, the time was right for me to finally go to Iceland.
Over the past 5 years I've since returned to Iceland many more times. At first, I traveled there for personal exploration and photography and hiking, and over the years as my photography business Wildernesscapes Photography LLC has begun to grow, I combined my in-depth local Icelandic knowledge with my photographic skills, and I know offer several photography trips and workshops there every year. Even though my travels may be more business-related these days and I no longer have a year open to just travel around a country, leading international photo tours to a place like Iceland can hardly be deemed work, and a great way to combine one's love for the outdoors, travel, and photography.
By now I've driven on almost all the roads in the entire country of Iceland, but the more I see, the longer the list of places to go grows. As small as Iceland looks on a map, it's a big island, with the main ring road 1400 km long, encircling the country. I was fortunate to climb the highest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur, twice. Once I was with a guided group that was roped-up because we crossed heavily crevassed glaciers. The second time was with my younger brother Josiah, who came out to travel with me. Hvannadalshnúkur is even harder and longer to climb than it is to pronounce, believe it or not. Summiting takes a 14-16 hour round trip with over 2000 meters elevation gain in a single day. Both times I was frustrated because the summit, which was initially clear, clouded up just before we reached the top. So I have yet to see views from that mountain. Incidently, I now work with a local ice cave guide Einar Sigurðsson, who holds the record for most number of ascents of Iceland's highest peak, 271 times!
Backpacking trips in Iceland can be challenging due to the harsh weather and winds. My favorite Icelandic backpacking trip was an eight-day crossing of the wild Hornstrandir Peninsula region and across the Drangajökull icecap in the West Fiords. We planned a route starting at a coastal landing called Hesteyri, which once housed fishermen and very isolated families. However, in recent times everyone has moved to bigger towns for an easier way of life. We crossed seven snowed-in passes, hiking along beautiful vacant beaches, among driftwood from Russia's shores, and past abandoned fishing shacks. The biggest challenge in this type of terrain was our exposure to wind and storms; there are few trees offering protection in Iceland. We stopped at Hornbjarg, which is an amazing 1000 ft. sea cliff with a sheer fin of rock, over which one can peer down to the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic fox is the only mammal native to Iceland, and this is the best place to see them; they are dark brown or black in summer and white in winter. At midnight on the Hornbjarg cliffs, we scrambled up a high sea cliff for midnight sunset views of a layer of sea-fog below. In Iceland the night belongs to the adventurer. We continued over additional mountain passes and around fjords to the seldom visited and remote Drangajökull icecap over a 24-hour long no-darkness hike in flawless weather. Traversing ice caps may sound exciting; however, it can be rather discouraging as the flat expanse of definition-less snow beyond you never shortens. But like any adventure, the boring or hard parts are quickly forgotten. For my brother and me this was the first big trip like this together; Iceland made it the perfect destination.
The 55km Laugavegur trek is Iceland's most popular, going from the geothermal hot springs of Landmannalauger in the Highlands via Thórsmörk valley (named after the Norse god Thor) and over Fimmvörðuháls pass between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull over to Skógar in southern Iceland. This is where the famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption occurred in 2010. Along the Laugavegur trek there's a network of wilderness cabin outposts where hikers can stay. Thórsmörk valley was really decimated from the ash eruption, illustrating the changeability and fragility of Iceland's landscape. Once one of Icelanders' favorite camping holiday getaways filled with flowers and birch scrub forests (forests are rare and highly appreciated in Iceland), the ash eruption that darkened skies as far away as Europe also blanketed this valley with a thick layer of ash. When I was driving through the pelting, wind-blown reddish-brown haze afterward, it felt and looked like I was on Mars. On the Laugavegur route, hikers can enjoy 24 hours of daylight and develop their own cycle of rest. From a photographer's perspective, the springtime midnight sun means that sunsets and sunrises and their brilliant colors can last for hours, not minutes, as the sun dips at such a shallow angle into the horizon.
Iceland offers many unique sights and other more familiar ones with a distinctive Icelandic twist. For instance, the English common noun "geyser" originated from Iceland's famous Geysir spouting hot spring. However, unlike the geysers in Yellowstone National Park in the USA, where visitors must stay a safe distance away, in Iceland a laissez-faire attitude prevails, and you can stand mere meters away from the eruptions.
While everyone has their own favorite locations, I've observed some clear winners in my photo groups. Jökulsárlón is a glacier lagoon filled with icebergs, with an outlet into the nearby ocean. Here on Breiðarmerkursandur beach, thousands of glittering icebergs of all shapes and sizes line the black sand beach. Nowhere else is such a stunning scene so accessible. Photographing the scene can be overwhelming, as it's nearly impossible to convey with a camera the awe and scale of the epic scene before our eyes. Every time I go back there, the tides have broken apart or deposited more chunks of ice flowing out from Jökulsárlón, so that what we see one day will vanish to nature the next.
Another favorite summer destination of photographers is the Landmannalaugar region, where braided glacial rivers flow through black lava plains and lush green moss coats black cinder cones. In some places with countless layers of gray and blue it feels as though we are on the moon. Another Highland destination also known for it's colorful geothermal hills is Kerlingarfjöll off the Kjölur 4x4 route, where intrepid hikers can walk among steaming hillsides.
In the winter months only, the Aurora Borealis displays of green and reddish glowing curtains of light in the northern night sky are awesome; everyone should see that at least once in a lifetime. To photograph the Northern Lights, a longer than usual exposure of 15-30 seconds helps bring out the colors more vividly than one sees with the naked eye. At first, night photographers find it a bit difficult to get their focus, composition, and a dozen other technical settings right in the dark, and sometimes simply put down the camera to enjoy the displays of light overhead. In addition to the Aurora Borealis, the ice caves formed under the terminus of some of the glaciers off the Vatnajökull icecap are my favorite winter sights. Otherworldly blue faceted rooms of ice are a photographer's dream and any traveler's definition of an epic location. Formed in the warmer summer months when the glaciers are melting fast, the ice caves are only accessible and stable in colder temperatures when everything refreezes. Blue glacial ice comes from deep within the glacier where air has been compressed out of the ice, whereas the whitish, more crumbly ice most people associate with glaciers is the uncompressed surface layer.
Each group I lead through Iceland is blessed with many varied photographic opportunities that change with the seasons and weather, yet everyone traveling there is impressed by the landscape and country; no one comes away empty-handed.
So these are some of my experiences with Iceland and why I love it so. It's a wonderful and still-wild country. It has changed a little with the recent influx of tourism, but one can still find solitude and open expanses in raw Iceland. It's a place that, like the Adirondacks, grows on you the longer you wander through it. Each time I visit Iceland, I learn and find something new. Many places in the world remind me of one another, but not so in unique Iceland.