A set of photos from Tromsø and the Lofoten Islands, in Northern Norway, 2020.
If I'm honest, I'm slightly sheepish about sharing photos from Lofoten, as I think it's a landscape already covered by 80% of landscape photographers, and 90% of Instagram users. But after our first visit to Norway's fjords in 2016, we wanted to get back and see some more of this spectacular and culture-rich country. In particular on this occasion, we were keen to see the mountains in their winter garb. So Lofoten became the front runner as a destination, with the opportunity to combine it with a Tromsø 'city break'. This was primarily a holiday, and I decided if I was going to take photos, I was keen not to repeat the classic shots you see everywhere. I didn't do much location research as I wanted to see as many of the places as possible with fresh eyes, and to pick out some scenes and subjects that appealed to me at the time, without being influenced by other people's photos of the same places.
I'm hoping this post will appeal to anyone who like images of the Arctic and it's varied landscapes, and to anyone else who's considering a trip to Loften, who might be looking for reassurance that it's still a worthwhile destination. I'm not going to go mad on location details, as you can find that elsewhere, and part of the point of this post is that there are spectacular and anonymous views everywhere you look. But I'll include some little bits of advice on logistics at the end, based on our experience.
Lofoten is a rugged set of Islands, sitting at 68° North, and jutting out into the Norwegian Sea. It's known for it's steep-sided mountains with angled peaks, that rise straight out of the sea or fjord edge, as shown here. Dotted around the Island chain are characteristic colourful houses and fishing huts ("Rorbu").
Landscape photography can be tough on a blue sky day, but it would take more than a little sunshine to wash out the colour of these wonderful little houses. These two photos were from a community consisting of around twenty permanent residents. My kind of town.
It must be a tough place to live though. This serene looking landscape hides the reality of the situation, with only the sculpted foreground snow offering a hint at just how strong the wind was as it ripped its way down the fjord and over this hill. I think the wind was about as strong and cold as anywhere I've ever been. I didn't need a tripod to shoot in this daylight, but I had to brace myself and lean into the wind to stay even remotely steady.
Those familiar with Lofoten might know this mountain. I wasn't familiar with it before we went, but I've recognised it in photos I've seen since. But I haven't looked it up, as it will forever be know to me as "Pointy Boy", which it was dubbed at the time. We could see this mountain from our accommodation, and I took this photo on a morning walk. I love the steel-grey sky, with the hint of warmth trying to burn through.
The same almighty mountain here, a few minutes later. Perhaps I should have picked just one of these, but I like long-focal-length mountain photos, and these are quite different in character and tone.
This is a fairy tale mountain which sits alongside Trollfjorden - an inlet with a rich history and dramatic surroundings. This has to be the kind of scene that inspired the geography of Disney's Frozen.
Another view from that area. I preferred both of these two in black and white, which really emphasises the contrast and ensures that the mountains are the main focus of the image, rather than the blue of the sky.
In truth, you don't need to go to somewhere as spectacular as the Lofoten Islands in order to take abstract photos. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take any while you're there. These are three wind-sculpted snow scenes that caught my eye.
Beaches & Coastlines
Lofoten is best known for it's coastal scenery, and this was a very popular beach near to where we were staying. There were photography groups here both times we visited, but I didn't realise how popular it was until I got home, as I've seen photos of it almost every day since!
Ah here's Pointy Boy again. It took a few days for me to realise that the best time to shoot wider landscapes in Lofoten was either before sunrise or after sunset. When the sun is up on these cloudless days, the camera renders everything in a very harsh and contrasty light. Compared to during "blue hour", when the sky becomes darker than the snow-covered mountains, which remain lit in a very even reflected light. Up until this dawned on me, I wasted a lot of shots on daylight scenes which looked amazing to the eye, but which simply don't translate through the mechanics of a camera. This one was post-sunset.
OK, I caved here, and took one of the prescribed photos that everyone takes. One of three classic compositions I swore I wouldn't replicate. But you know what, when you're there and you see this scene in front of you, it really cries out to be photographed. This is the small fishing community of Hamnøy, and there are versions of this photo everywhere, so I'd be surprised if anyone hasn't seen it before. It's taken from a bridge which can sometimes be packed with 50+ photographers, all taking this shot. Fortunately I had the spot more or less to myself, so I figured what the hey. Mine is neither one of the best or one of the worst, but it is mine, and I'm glad I recorded the scene as it was when I visited, despite the lack of originality.
The biggest problem I had in Lofoten was the constant struggle to capture landscapes with a wide-angle lens, which is not really my intuitive style. I prefer the more natural proportions you get from a medium focal length, as well as longer telephoto scenes. But there's something about the geography of Lofoten that really lends itself to a wide angle, and I think therein lies the key to it's recent boom in popularity. Unlike a lot of grand landscapes and national parks around the world, Lofoten is on a relatively small scale, and wide angle lenses are great for capturing the sea, the cliffs, and the mountains all in one shot. It means that these scenes are perfect for a smartphone camera, which is also very wide-angle. Wide-angle landscape photography is also very popular on social media as it can create very dramatic images with dynamic compositions that pull the eye in, so people want to take those shots.
After a few days I realised I was wasting time trying to get good wide-angle photos. I needed to play to my strengths and also align more with my personal taste, to capture the landscape in the way that comes naturally to me, rather than trying to do what the scene seemed to dictate. Is that giving up? I don't know. My struggle with wide-angle landscape photography is a long one, and I didn't want to spend my holiday fighting with it yet again. And what do you know, I captured my favourite photo from Lofoten at the medium/long focal length of 70mm. Finally on our last day, we had some dramatic cloud, I'd cracked the focal length, and I took this shot of the rain coming in from the North.
I was gutted we only has this characteristic arctic sky on our last morning, but at least we did get some in the end.
Tromsø Arctic Cathedral
I thought I'd end this post with something a little different, from back in Tromsø. I don't tend to get involved in much architectural photography, but this building is a real jewel in the crown of arctic Norway. Those crafty Norwegians have a habit of putting real thought and originality into the design of their modern buildings, in a way I wish more countries would. They rightly place value in the aesthetics of a structure, as well as the function. I remember from our trip to the fjords how many of the public toilets are architectural masterpieces! When you see even a toilet as an opportunity to inspire culture, you have the kind of mindset that builds a more positive society.
Officially known as Tromsdalen Church (or "Ishavskatedralen" in Norwegian), it's generally referred to as "The Arctic Cathedral" for the benefit of simple tourists like me. It's not something I was all that excited about before we went, but like all great design it reeled me in like a siren. It's a fantastic triangular concertina-like atrium, which is tallest at each end, and lower between. It's a joy to behold, and even more fun to photograph.
This is probably my favourite photo of the entire trip, and it's hard to explain why. It's just one of those photos that rewards you the more you look. And I've sat and stared at it several times. We're looking at the middle of the front of the cathedral, from a slight angle. So you can see the various layers of the building, each casting a triangular shadow but letting light in between which shines through at regular angles. There are lots of angled structural supports visible within, which break up the regular lines, and they're at odds with the strong black grid of the front windows. At the bottom of the image you can see a hint of the organ pipes, of which there are almost 3,000 inside.
Lastly, here's a view of it with some context; hinting at the the arctic landscape which surrounds it.
And if you like the look of this building, check out the Tromsø aquarium, which looks like it's tumbling over.
Travel and Logistics
The Loften Islands are surprisingly difficult to get to considering how popular they are. I get the impression most visitors fly to Oslo, then to Bodø, then hire a car in Bodø and take it on the ferry to Moskenes at the South Western tip of Lofoten. A lot of the photo tours meet at Leknes airport, which again requires a connecting flight via Oslo or Tromsø. We wanted to see Tromsø, and with an easy direct flight from nearby Luton airport, it seemed like the obvious option for us. To get between Tromsø and Lofoten, we took the express ferry from Tromsø to Harstad. This is a three-hour boat providing fantastic views of the fjords, which would be worth the money as a sightseeing trip alone. It was a great way to get to Lofoten, and by hiring a car in Harstad (at the north of the island chain) we were able to make our way down at our own pace, and see all the sights along the way. After a week, we dropped the car and flew back to Tromsø from Leknes to have a couple of days in the city.
Lofoten itself was as spectacular and beautiful as I expected, but it felt in real danger of becoming a bit of a Disney Land for photographers more than a natural spectacle and working fishing community. Everywhere we went we saw minibuses of photo tours parked up by the side of the road, or in the town car parks. It was kind of sad, and something I really didn't want to be part of. In the hour before sunset, hoards of people would turn up at the beaches by the minibus-load, to capture their version of it, none of them wandering more than 50 metres from the car park. At least they were easy to keep away from as we walked up the beach to find some space and views of our own, but it does sum up what the honey-pot locations in Lofoten are like now. Thankfully I didn't feel part of the photography crowd, as we were doing holiday stuff too, and seeing the place for ourselves - engaging with the culture, and interacting with the place rather than simply mining it for photos and moving on. But I don't know. Maybe I'm being too critical of others, or too short-sighted about myself by comparison. It was a wonderful place, but I don't think we'll go back anytime soon. As a holiday destination we really enjoyed it, but have seen it now. And as a photographer, I'm more inclined to return to less crowded locations.
Reflecting on the Photos
I wouldn't say I'm over the moon with the photos I took in Lofoten, but I guess I was never going to be. What are the odds I'd find something that millions of other visitors missed, or that we'd even have better weather/light than other photographers. But I think they're a nice set, that give a flavour of what the Lofoten Islands are about. Apart from the Hamnøy classic, I resisted taking any other shots I'd seen before, and I can say with a clean conscience that all the other photos, including the Arctic Cathedral were original compositions that caught my eye at the time. That's important to me because I think it's slightly futile to try and take the best version of other people's photos, but I am the best at being me, and if I can take photos following my own instincts and preferences then I can at least end up with an authentic gallery of photos, which express my feelings and the way I see the world.