Adventure Journal Main Menu: Esper E-letter #25, Winter 2009-2010

Hi from Norway to all my Friends and Fotography Fans! I’ve enjoyed a full and exciting fall and winter in 2009/2010 with my photography business and traveling, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here. I always said it is unfortunate when people allowed their work to permeate into their personal lives, yet here I am doing the same in this newsletter. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re doing something you love to do, that you’re passionate about, which for me is photography.
From May to August 2009 I was in Iceland traveling, hiking, and photographing, and I talked about those adventures in my last newsletter. Since then, I spent the autumn season at my family’s home in Long Lake in the Adirondack region of the USA, photographing and being a bit of an office nerd editing photos and working on maintaining/promoting my photography business, Wildernesscapes Photography. On some of my panoramas, I spend hours, sometimes even a whole day, stitching, correcting, and enhancing the multiple (up to 50) image files that I composite into a final panorama. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I think it’s worth it when I print out a flawless 8ft wide panorama.
(Note: this next paragraph gets introspective and you may wish to skip ahead.) I’ve also been in the gradual and sometimes even subconscious process of formulating a vision and a plan for my photography business, which is necessary to do if one is serious. Most photographers out there that have a desire to show/sell their work in some capacity, begin with an website, hoping to get enough internet traffic trickling in from the world’s billion people on the net, because it’s a numbers game after all. That’s what I believed, actually, back in 2006 after getting back from photographing in New Zealand, with a newfound desire to sell my photography. And so not knowing anything else other than I needed a website to promote myself, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book for ‘website developer’, and ended up spending thousands of dollars for a custom website that I don’t use anymore. But we all have to begin somewhere, don’t we? And so once I had a website yet no sales, and continued to photograph landscapes around the world without real direction, and I decided that photography was really wanted I wanted to do in life as a career (by 2008), I started to realize that I need to have direction and drive in my photography business if I was ever going to make it. So I decided to capitalize on my local roots in the beautiful and vacationing area of the Adirondack Park, and I focused on becoming an established Adirondack photographer. And that’s now where the majority of my income comes from. I’m just contemplative right now, because I’ve skiing and hiking in the Norwegien mountains for the last month, alone, in the dead of winter, and that gives you a lot of time to think. And I’ve been thinking of where I came from, and where I’m going in my photography business.
So this is my current vision: I believe to make it in the photography business today, you have to specialize; you have to be known as the go-to person for a specific area of photography. Specialists also make more money than generalists, in any profession. Yet you also have to diversify yourself, because it’s just so competitive out there. So, how to specialize and diversify simultaneously? You have to focus on a few niche areas. I’ve identified three niche areas for myself: panoramic Adirondack landscape (fine art) photography, panoramic adventure photography (featuring people/adventurers in epic landscapes) for stock photo agencies, and adventure photography workshops and photo tours (capitalizing on my in-depth locational knowledge of places like the Adirondacks and Iceland). So whatever I’m doing in my photography business, from now on, is going to be targeted at developing and promoting one of these three areas.
So, this past fall, I was photographing landscapes and adventure photography in the Adirondacks, my home. I also attended a premier adventure photography workshop out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, photographing professional outdoor models alongside industry-famous pros like Corey Rich and magazine photo editors like Sabine Meyers. Of course, I stayed an extra week and backpacked an awesome route north to south through Grand Teton National Park, photographing other clueless backpackers from behind trees, and more-aware alpine marmots and mule deer from a few feet away. Gone are my days of going fast and covering 25 miles in a day – instead you’ll likely find me hiking back and forth for an hour on the same 25 foot section of trail, with a remote camera trigger in hand. So I guess this is where I’m forced to merge profession with personal life, like I talked about before, but I’m okay with this.
I am currently following some leads in the adventure stock area, so I decided to build up my adventure stock portfolio even more by traveling to Iceland and Norway for 2 months in January and February 2010. (I began conscientiously doing adventure photography on my Denali mountaineering expedition back in 2007, then followed it up on Aconcagua, and finally got more serious about it half way through my Iceland travels in 2009). The original idea for this Nordic winter trip was to get some epic 360 degree panoramas with a glowing tent high up in the snowy mountains with the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) overhead. I’ve seen a lot of northern lights photos, but none like I just described. My car I owned in Iceland over last summer never sold, so I also had a 4x4 car waiting for me to use in Iceland, and Iceland and Norway are two of the best areas for viewing the northern lights. So this is the how the trip was born.
On a whole, my Iceland and Norway trip was successful, in terms of the photos I think I’m coming home with, and in the adventures I had. It had its difficult times, though. It’s been very cold in Norway, dropping as low as -28 Celsius, and camping out in a tent night after night in these temperatures is very tiring and unpleasant; I have to scrap off a handful of frost each morning that condenses on the inside of the tent, and my sleeping bag gets wet enough after a few nights of this to become an ineffective insulator so that I’m still shivering in my sleeping bag all night, even though I’m wearing 4 layers including a down parka. Iceland was incessantly windy, making setting up a tent not so fun, but also not so cold, so at least I could sleep in car, with the gusts of wind rocking my car and putting me to sleep. I’ve also found it challenging always doing adventure photography solo, always having to set up a tripod and remote trigger so I can be in the frame. It lends itself ok to those epic wide panoramas with a small person in them on the edge of a cliff or something similar, but more difficult to capture motion and up-close spontaneity. I did capture in Iceland of Norway one night each of spectacular northern lights overhead my tent in the mountains like I envisioned, but overall the aurora activity was quite low and disappointing this season. It’s forecasted to increase in 2012, however, so maybe I’ll go back then.
My Iceland travels focused on going back to areas I had visited this past summer, which I thought would lend themselves well for adventure photos, such as my favorite area of Iceland, the West Fjords. I finally visited the East Fjords which I managed to somehow completely run out of time to visit after 4 months this past summer, and attempted a trek through the mountains around Akureyri where I put myself in needless danger by trying to cross a high glaciated mountain pass (or more like a ridgeline) when it was getting dark in a snowstorm with zero visibility and extremely high winds and freezing temperatures. That’s a recipe for disaster. But I also came away with some unique photos like bouldering on a sea arch with crashing waves and wading naked in the icy ocean at dawn, which you can see on my website.
I thought Iceland was expensive, but when I arrived in Norway, I was shocked at the prices I found – the equivalent of $10 USD per gallon of gasoline, $20 for a burger meal at McDonalds, $12 for a gallon of windshield wiper fluid, $100 for a parking ticket in Oslo (which I’m not going to pay because I don’t think they can find me with my Icelandic-registered car). For Norwegians, the cost of living is tolerable, as a low wage employee still earns over 100 NOK per hour, or the equivlanet of $20-25/hr, and a lot of things are provided by the state for free, like healthcare (but they also pay a large portion of around 50% of their income as taxes to fund this system). I guess Icelandic prices would have been equally atrocious before their economy fell and the currency devalued in 2008.
I brought my car over on a ferry from Iceland, and stopped at Denmark’s highest point of land, where a nice park is located at the top of a hill with surrounding farms. But just in 2005 Denmark changed the location of their highest point to another hill a few hundred meters away, so I visited both spots and hoped I wouldn’t have to return to a third discovered spot sometime in the future. I planned on driving around Norway for a month and living out of my car as I usually do wherever I go, but with gas prices as is, it was cheaper for me to park the car for 10 days and fly up to Tromsø in northern Norway, above the arctic circle. I did a memorable 4 day snowshoeing trip through deep snow through some mountains in the area, waiting for the northern lights in the bitter cold, and looking out across the frozen land of Finnmarksvidda with a cold evening purple haze above. I hitchhiked across the border into Finland (without my passport as I had left it stashed with my other duffel bags in some snowy woods somewhere outside the town of Kongsvinger where I had parked my car (the woods are always safer to leave your valuables than in your car by the way)) and rented a snowmobile and drove across the snowy and bleak Lappland area for a hundred kilometers to the highest point of land in Findland, Halti. I had a few (well, maybe more like one) $15 beer with an Australian girl before retiring through a blizzard to my tent set up in the city cemetery (no one ever bothers you in the cemetery; you just sleep there along with everyone else.) After these adventures, I flew back to southern Norway to resume my travels by car, but I forgot where I had parked. Ever have that happen to you too? No, I don’t mean where in the parking lot; I mean I forgot the name of the town I had parked in and took the train to the airport from. So after some helpful Norwegian man went through a list of towns that “begin with the letter ‘K’ and is about an hour outside of Oslo”, and I picked one that sounded familiar, I did get back to my car and found my hidden cache of goodies in the woods. I then did a great 5 day hut-to-hut cross-country ski trip through Rondane National Park. I had heard that hut-based ski trips are very popular with Norwegians, but it turns out several Danish and myself were the only other people crazy enough to go skiing in this cold weather so ‘early’ in the season. The Norwegians wait until March and April to do these ski trips, with warmer temperatures, longer daylight hours, and more settled weather. So, while melting snow to drink on my camp stove, and putting a candy bar down my underwear to unfreeze, I longingly looked at a photo in a tourism brochure of a bikini-clad girl riding a horse through the same lake I skied across earlier that day. Still, I really enjoyed my first ski trip of this type, and took some excellent skiing photos for my portfolio, which is why I was out there in the first place. After this trip, I attempted to summit by ski Galdhøpiggen, the highest mountain in Norway, but the fickle weather prevented me; at least I enjoyed some challenging telemark ski descents.
Right now I’m actually sitting in a ferry going over from Norway to Denmark, as I’m retracing my car-ferry route back to Iceland. But I’m stopping in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean for a week, to do some more hiking and adventure photography. The islands are a treeless and windswept small group, all well connected by innumerable tunnels, and are semi-independent from Denmark, with surprisingly around 50,000 inhabitants. They were voted “the world’s most appealing islands” by National Geographic recently, and the peninsulas and terraced mountains dropping into the channels between the islands are something I’ve never seen before. It would be a lot greener and more pleasant in the summer to visit, but I never know when I’ll be on another ferry passing right through the islands again.
I spent so much money traveling in expensive Norway, that I decided to travel to one of the last great cheap travel destinations of the world, Southeast Asia, for 2 months in May/June 2010. I’m really excited about this trip, which is just for personal travel and adventure, and not about photography. I tend to like colder countries with not too many people, but everyone that I meets that’s traveled to SE Asia loves it and wants to go back, and its one classic thing I should do to say ‘been there, done that’ while I’m still young. The idea of 80 degree weather and a billion people scares me to death, so this trip I’m doing differently with a small light backpack and staying in hostels. I met a Norwegian girl named Raghnild on the Lonely Planet website’s travel forums, and we’re planning on traveling together for the two months. So at least when I feel lost in a huge crowded hot city like Bangkok, it’ll be great to have a travel buddy with me. And have someone to share the experiences with, like scuba diving in Thailand and taking river boats in Cambodia during the rainy season and exploring the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and bartering on who-knows-what counterfeit good in the local markets, because being a typical tourist is no fun alone. We really have no specific itinerary, as we hear it’s better that way because we can be more spontaneous.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal is another classic trek of the world, that won’t be around forever as they slowly build roads up the valleys of both ends of the circuit. So I’m hiking this for about 20 days in April before meeting up with my friend in SE Asia. It’s a tea house trek, where you stay in lodges each night, and apparently you make quite good friends with the numerous other world travelers on your same trekking schedule as you, that you spend the evenings with. While in the Kathmandu area, I have no desire or intention to climb any serious peak, not the least being Mount Everest. The Himalaya Mountains are a high-altitude mountaineers’ mecca, but not mine. Aconcagua in South America is the highest I plan to probably ever climb; peaks like Everest are too expensive, too popular, and too dangerous for me
While driving a snowy Norwegian road, I had the sudden idea to work on a coffee-table-format photography book with the working title of “Treetop Views of the Adirondacks”. A sub-niche of my Adirondack landscape photography, climbing trees to get better views over the surrounding forests and taking panoramic images while hanging onto swaying treetops was a natural thing for me to do. As a boy I loved climbing trees around our log house in the woods. I also snapped lots of photos with my 35mm point and shoot film camera alongside my mom on our frequent family travels, and got frustrated when my prints I got developed never looked like the large calendar photos of America’s national parks. And in high school I really wanted to have my own business for the independence it gives. Combine those three things and you can picture me today. Sometimes you have little idea where you’re going in life, but when you look back, it suddenly all comes together, and you see the seeds being planted in your life that led to where you are today. I’d even call that God directing your life. My treetop photography is part fine-art, part documentary photography, and it’s one of my deliberate attempts to try to find unique ways of photographing the same landscapes that have been photographed for generations, which is what all photographers should be doing. And there are many great views of the rolling mountains and the colorful forests below, that can’t be seen unless you climb a tree on the top of a forested mountain. So, this coming year when in the Adirondacks, photographing treetop panoramas is going to be a big focus of mine. In case you’re wondering, white pines, hemlocks and spruces are the best and easiest types of trees to climb, as they often have branches starting from down low on the trunk if they are in a bit of an open area in the forest. And I have climbing rope and ascenders so if the first branches start too high up, I can throw or shoot the rope over a branch and jug up the rope like big wall climbers do. My book will be out sometime in 2011 available on my website and in local Adirondack gift stores and bookshops.
Perhaps the biggest new news right now about my Wildernesscapes Photography business is the introduction of adventure photography workshops and tours. I’ve wanted to offer them for some time, but the timing wasn’t right until now. You have to be established to have any credibility to offer photography instruction, and in order to be established and known you have to build up a large body of work, have a professional-looking website, and be making some sales, all of which take time. I have great hopes for this area of my photography business. I firmly believe that while more and more people buy affordable DSLR cameras for themselves, and there is hence less demand for fine-art photography from other people (professionals like myself), these same people will want to know how use their cameras and take better photos for themselves. In 2010, I am starting out by offering a 2 wk adventure photo safari in Iceland, utilizing my 4x4 car I own and all the great photographic locations I’ve know from living in the country for 5 months, and a 1 week active photography workshop and tour in the Adirondack Mountains. These workshops are all about in-the-field photography and situational instruction in a small-group adventure tour format. They offer incredible value for the sheer intensity and diversity of our itinerary, at a price that’s much lower than other photo tours being advertised (many of which are already booked up for this coming summer). You can read more about the workshops on my website, under the ‘worshops’ link at the top.
Whew, that’s all the news from Wildernesscapes Photography for now. Thanks for your support and friendship, and I hope you’re life is enriched a bit from this letter too.

Johnathan Esper
Wildernesscapes Photography