Photo Adventures In Arctic Norway

June 21st, 2017 by Sean Bagshaw

 

In 2011 I saw a beautiful time lapse video by Terje Sørgjerd. The entire video is of sunset and twilight scenery in the Arctic islands of Norway. Some of the time lapse segments span five or six hours of time and the light continues throughout. It immediately captured my attention and inspired my imagination.

The Lofoten archipelago has become a popular photography destination since the system of tunnels and bridges traversing the 100 miles of islands was finished in 2009. In the winter it is one of the top destinations for photographing the aurora. In the summer, when the sun never sets, you can hike to mountain lakes and scale peaks too numerous to count. But it was the light that Terje found in the spring, a couple weeks before the midnight sun begins, that really intrigued me. In his video, gorgeous glowing twilight stretches on for five or six hours a time. Photographing for hours in my favorite light surrounded by dramatic and surreal sea-to-summit landscapes seemed like a dream. Six years after seeing Terje’s video I finally was able to make the trip myself.

After researching and talking with other photographers who had been there, I knew that the photography locations would be spread out across many islands and hundreds of miles windy roads, bridges and tunnels.  Here in the western US my trusty Toyota truck and pop-up camper are essential pieces of photography equipment, enabling me to camp close to photography locations and be ready to shoot when the light is good and sleep when it isn’t. I became convinced that this type of “sleep where you shoot” approach would work well in Norway too, so I proceeded to look for rental RV’s above the Arctic Circle and plot my course on Google Maps.

My friend, Paul Imperia, is a guy who isn’t afraid of a little adventure. When I emailed him with some details about the trip his reply only had two words, “I’m in!” So, in late April we flew to the north of Norway and spent a couple weeks road-tripping in our rented Viking RV. We christened it the Gokstad after the famous historic Viking ship. The weather was suitably cold, windy and wet for the Arctic in May and the light did not disappoint. The lighting would begin getting good around 9:00 PM and the sun would set about 11:00 PM. Then gorgeous twilight would continue through the night until about 3:30 or 4:00 AM when the sun would rise. By 6:00 AM we would call it a day. We would usually take a “lunch” break about midnight when the light was lowest. Paul is an excellent cook so these breaks would really be gourmet food events prepared in the Gokstad with plenty of wine and perhaps a bit of Scotch.  Living nocturnal lives meant that we rarely saw people in the villages or cars on the road. It was like being in one of those sci-fi movies where you are the last people on Earth. The upside is that we never got off of West Coast time, so no jet lag going or coming.

What follows are some images and stories from the trip. I hope you enjoy. I’ll include some info and links on the trip logistics at the end of the article. If you are interested in visiting this region of Norway and have questions for me, please leave them in the comments below.

 

“Tidal Ice”


I took this on our first day on the road. We flew into Tromso and picked up the RV, and then waited 24 hours for lost luggage to show up. Mine did, Paul’s didn’t. So we decided to drive all night to get to the Lofoten islands and hope that Paul’s duffle would show up at a local airport in the area eventually. We pulled over at 3:30 in the morning, just before sunrise, for our first photo session. I’m not sure exactly where we were, but it was cold. This ice was a cool phenomenon we saw along many of the fjords. I’m not sure exactly how it occurs, but I think a thin layer of ice forms on the brackish water at high tide. Then, as the tide goes out this thin layer covers the shore like a delicate ice blanket. It was so fragile but great for texture and reflections.

Canon 5D4, 17mm, polarizer. 0.6 seconds, f/14, ISO 100.

 

“Arctic Dreams”


This was one of our favorite locations of the trip and we returned here two or three times. The images I took on each visit have completely different characteristics. I enjoy being able to return to a spot and experience it in different light and weather. For me, it is a good reminder that landscape photography isn’t just about the landscape itself, but also the atmosphere, light, mood and experience you encounter while in the landscape. This is one shot, but I did some perspective work on it. My camera was pointed slightly down so the mountains were leaning outward. I copied the upper 1/3 onto a new layer and transformed it so the mountains and reflections would be vertical as they should be…but without losing the wide angle perspective of the foreground.

Canon 5D4, 24mm, polarizer. 6 seconds, f/16, ISO 100.

 

“70 Degrees North”


This is a second photo from the same location. The Lofoten Islands is a chain of rock teeth that rise from the ocean and stretch more than a hundred miles out into the Norwegian Sea. It was a rare and strange experience to photograph tidepools and jagged granite peaks in such close proximity to each other. This is what the light looked like at 11:00 at night, right before the sun actually set.

Single exposure, Canon 5D4, 16-35mm, polarizer, 0.5 seconds, F/18, ISO 100.

 

“In The Night”


Midnight Twilight overlooking the village of Reine, Olstind Mountain and the Kirkefjord in the Lofoten Islands of Norway.

Three images stitched to create the panorama. Canon 5D4, 70mm, f/11, 10 seconds.

 

“Nordland”


There are some recurring elements in most of the photos I made in Norway: ocean-scapes with mountainous backdrops, moody weather and twilight. But those are the precise elements I went there to see…so mission accomplished from that perspective, I guess. We would stay out until our fingers went numb, then we would duck into Gokstad the Viking RV to warm up. It’s hard to see at screen size, but there is a small village across the fjord dwarfed beneath the mountains.

Canon 5D Mark IV, 16-35mm. Perspective and wave motion blend of three different frames. f/11 and 35mm background, f/22 and 20mm foreground.

 

“Stor Buøya”


A small tree reflecting in a small pond on a small island in a fjord next to the big island of Flakstadøya in Norway. Dreamy light courtesy of all-night arctic twilight. According to Ron Jansen, who lives in Norway, “‘Bu’, or ‘bo’, can mean a little hut or cabin. ‘Øya’ means ‘the island’. Stor means large. So most likely, Stor Buøya refers to a time before the road and bridges were there and this island (the larger of two very small ones) had one or a few little cabins on it.

Canon 5D4, 16-35mm at 26mm, polarizer. 3.2 seconds, f/14, ISO 100. Side note: almost all of the images I took on this trip in the 24-35mm range were taken with my16-35mm instead of the 24-70mm I would normally use. On the second day of the trip, I slipped on some slimy rocks and my beloved 24-70 f/2.8 MKII took the full hit, sacrificing it but saving the camera. I spent the rest of the trip getting by with the 16-35 and the 70-200. I’m waiting to hear from Canon if the 24-70 can be resurrected from the dead.

 

“Endless Night”


Endless night is what it felt like we were living after two weeks of photographing through the nights and sleeping during the days in Norway. Paul and I happened on this beach on the Island of Vestvågøy. The maze of fjords, bays and headlands on the islands mean that scenes like this can be found around any corner or through any tunnel. We would look at Google maps to find a particularly jagged shoreline and then see if there was a road that would take us there. Often a long tunnel under a mountain would open onto a remote and windswept landscape like this one. This beach had some cool eroded cauldrons with iridescent algae growing in them. They were fun to work with as foreground elements. Meanwhile, thundershowers moved in from the Norwegian sea, alternately pounding us with wind and hail and exposing small openings in the clouds that would let the late-night light through.

Canon 5D4, 16mm. 8 Seconds, f/18, ISO 100. It has been awesome using the 5D4. The dynamic range capability allows me to capture many scenes like this in a single exposure instead of needing to bracket and blend exposures. I know…Nikon and Sony users have been doing this for years. It’s awesome to now have that as a Canon user.

 

“The Norwegian Sea”


More deep twilight from Norway, but some warmer tones this time. Throughout our all-night photo shoots small breaks in the clouds would let soft twilight filter across the landscape and keep us transfixed. Once the sun set there would be several hours of light like this before the sun would rise again, around 3 AM. So finding the light was just a matter of being patient for an opening in the clouds to come.

Canon 5D Mark IV, 16-35mm at 24mm. Polarizer. 15 seconds, f/22, ISO 100. Developing included tonal balancing for sky and land, split toning and luminosity/color painting.

 

“North Of The Wall”


It was about 2:00 AM when I took this. I was alone on the island of Senja, north of the Lofoten chain. Paul had left for warmer conditions (in Cuba) a couple days earlier, but I stayed to continue getting schooled in what spring in the Arctic is about. I knew Norway would be colder and stormier than Oregon in May, but the marine air, wind and below-freezing temperatures made it feel like we were “north of the wall”. Paul and I made frequent GoT jokes throughout the trip. When it began snowing at sea level I didn’t worry too much and celebrated the opportunity to photograph snow on the ocean shore. But it kept snowing and began accumulating on the road. The only way through the mountains on Senja is to go under them…one tunnel after another. But when it snows too much the tunnels can be closed by avalanches. The fact that Gokstad the Viking RV didn’t come equipped with chains also gave me some anxiety. I hung out on this fjord for a full day in the snow, but with my flight less than 24 hours away I decided I had to make a run for it. A couple hours of white knuckle driving later I managed to navigate through all the tunnels and arrived at the ferry dock on the other side of the island.

Canon 5D4, 16-35mm at 16mm, 30 seconds, f/20, ISO 100. Single exposure worked in Lightroom and then finished in Photoshop. I did quite a bit of contrast and localized luminosity work until I felt I had communicated the mood.

 

“Lunch Break In The Gokstad”

Trip info:

The mid-night sun begins around May 24. The period between the end of April and late May is when the long Arctic twilight happens. The light quality is similar again in late July and August, but then the weather isn’t so dramatic and the snow has melted off the peaks.

We flew to Tromso and picked up the RV there. We rented from Motorhome.no but there are other rental companies in Tromso. It was a 10 or 12-hour drive from Tromso to the very end of the Lofoten Islands. There are airports in the Lofoten chain, but I’m not sure of the availability of RV rentals.

Norway has a general public right, called Freedom To Roam, which means that you can hike and camp just about anywhere as long as you take care of the land. It also means that you can park an RV in just about any pullout along the road. This enabled us to find places to cook and sleep within a few yards of where we wanted to photograph.

Restaurants are expensive and almost non-existent way out in the islands. We stocked up on groceries in larger towns and cooked almost every meal in the RV.

The temperatures ranged from the low 20s to the low 40s, Fahrenheit, but the wind and damp ocean air made it feel much colder. I wore several insulating layers including down, a Gore-tex shell, hat and gloves. I decided to pack a pair of Boggs neoprene waterproof boots and they proved critical for keeping my feet warm and dry.

 

Sean is a full-time photographer and photography educator. You can see more of his images and find out about his video tutorial courses and upcoming workshops, tours and classes on his website at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com.

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  • These are absolutely fantastic. It has been a long dream of mine to travel there

    • Thanks Rajiv! I hope you can make the journey one day.

  • Excellent write-up, Sean. I love how you’ve highlighted the various moods of the same areas. It just goes to show that no two days are the same in landscape photography. Those Game of Thrones references cracked me up. These arctic spires are so eerily reminiscent of both the highest reaches of “The Vale” and indeed “North of the Wall. I’m actually taking a class there with Isabella Tabacchi this February and we’ve just finished planning it out. Your article couldn’t have come at a better time to get us excited past the socially accepted level.

    All the best,
    Daniel (Laanscapes)

    • Hey Daniel! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the tall tales. I’m working on a video from the trip as well…if I can ever get it done. You are going to have an amazing adventure. I can’t imagine what it must be like there in the winter. Make sure to share photos when you get back!

      • Looking forward to the video, Sean! I know how it is with video. Haha. Appreciate it and will keep in touch with the results.

        Thanks!