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When I visited Reine and Svolvær in Norway’s Lofoten Islands back in 2013, I knew that the three days I had allotted weren’t anywhere near enough to do the place justice. I wasn’t sure when I’d ever get back — given the remoteness of Norway in relation to my home base of Australia — but I hoped I’d get the chance someday, preferably with a rental car so I could explore much more of the islands than I could ever see by bus.
As you know from my announcement last year followed by my account of the worst drive of my life, I made it back to Lofoten a lot sooner than I might have expected. Given I was going to be in the (very general) area for a travel fair in Helsinki, I suggested to my friend Ben Ashmole that we go on a photography weekend in the Arctic. My selling point: the fact that the islands would have just come out of polar night and would have a grand total of 2.5hrs of sunlight per day.
To a normal person, this may not seem like a selling point. Why wouldn’t you wait until later in the year when there was more sunlight?
There are two answers to that question: (1) I couldn’t go later in the year because flights to Europe from Australia don’t come cheap. (2) We’re photographers. We’re not exactly normal.
So as photographers, what did 2.5hrs of sunlight mean to us? Well, it meant that we’d have one continuous sunrise/sunset. The sun would peek over the horizon, stay just high enough to turn the sky every colour of gold, orange, and pink that you could imagine, and then it would disappear again. For two hours either side of this, we would have what is called “blue hour” — twilight that turns the whole landscape blue. Then, if we were lucky, we’d get to watch the northern lights dance over the fjords all night.
Sounds great, right? But did it actually happen? The photos below will tell you that story.
Our drive into the islands started well after darkness had fallen. After landing at Harstad-Narvik Evenes Airport (because one place name wasn’t enough for the airport), we hopped in our rental car and began the 2.5hr drive to Kabelvåg.
Once we’d made it through the snowstorm we’d landed in, the landscape became completely still and silent. We got out a few times just to gawk at the massive mountains surrounding us, and at the spot pictured above, we knew we had to get out and snap a few photos because we could see how perfect the reflections were even in the dark of night. Good thing we did, because nothing was this calm for the rest of our trip.
Unfortunately we didn’t get much time in the village of Kabelvåg, but we at least got to see its streets, draped in fairy lights to help brighten up the darkness of winter, in the blue light of early morning. Here, early morning meant 9.30am. Our body clocks changed so quickly it was ridiculous.
We took a short detour to the small fishing village of Henningsvær on our way south. The sun rose — barely peeking over the horizon and often not visible over the rocky outcrops that sit just offshore there — but it wasn’t quite strong enough to make the northern sky light up yet.
Sunset was still going as we pulled up near a rocky beach between Henningsvær and Leknes.
The sun had finally set by this point. It also ended up being our last photo stop otherwise we were never going to make it to the Airbnb accommodation — owned by Rolf-Helge the amazing Norwegian fisherman — that we’d booked for the night.
We went out hunting for northern lights that night. As you can see, they were definitely there behind the clouds — giving the visible sky a green glow — but we couldn’t see the lights themselves. At least we had two more nights…
Despite the reasonably heavy cloud cover, we had the promise of colour when we arrived in Reine for sunrise on our second day. Unfortunately, it didn’t last for long, and we were left with clouds threatening heavy snow — snow that arrived that afternoon and stuck around all night.
The somewhat dreary landscape — the heavy clouds and the downtrodden grass that had, up until very recently, been hidden under snow — lent itself much better to black and white than it did to colour. I was able to capture a bit more colour when we climbed the hill between Reine and Olstind Mountain…
Now doesn’t that look inviting? Given how cold and blustery it was, I think the last thing on my mind was playing soccer.
Still, my favourite images from the day were definitely my black and white shots. I was happy to at least get a few photos I was happy with even though I only shot about 60 total for the entire day.
The fact that we were stopped from going out looking for the northern lights didn’t really matter when we woke up the next morning to a world covered in a blanket of snow. Rather than looking desolate and forlorn as it had the day before, everything suddenly became a winter wonderland.
After a bit of debate, we decided to go back to Reine rather than go to a new location, since we really wanted to capture the village, arguably one of the most beautiful in the world, with some sunrise colours lighting it up.
We were already pretty happy with the day — and had captured more photos we were happy with — before the sun even came up. We had a good wander through Reine Rorbuer, the fisherman’s cabins where I had stayed on my previous visit, but when pink began to appear in the sky, we hopped in the car and headed to our planned sunrise spot.
Wow. This was one of two shots I had aimed to capture while in Lofoten, but I had no idea I’d be able to capture it at a time when the whole world had seemed to turn into cotton candy. We rushed around on the bridge that overlooks Eliassen Rorbuer (the red cabins in this photo) trying to capture every angle possible while the light was this good…only to realise after 30 minutes that it just wasn’t going away. The mountains stayed roughly the same shade of pink for the entire hour we were there. It was insane.
The last two shots are from the stockfish racks that were on the opposite side of the road to Eliassen Rorbuer. The second rack is the only one I saw in Lofoten that actually had fish on it already. By March, most of these racks would be absolutely chock full of codfish, which would slowly dry out by spring, at which point it would be shipped to places like Portugal, who call it bacalão and treat it as a delicacy.
Eventually, we’d captured almost every angle we could — although I think both of us would have happily run around for another hour looking for as many different shots as possible. Instead, we decided to go further along the E10 towards the end of the islands (which was only about 10km away) so we could see a bit more than just Reine.
We eventually came upon Sørvågen, which had the perfect mix of rocky outcrops, untouched snow, and cabins looking out on the sunset. It was there that we saw the sun for the last time in Lofoten, given that a winter storm was bearing down on us and would be in full force by the next morning.
Given how perfect the day had been, we had high hopes for clear skies and possible aurora watching that night. Unfortunately, by 6.30pm, when I first caught a glimpse of green in the sky, the clouds that would hinder our driving the next day were already moving in. We went out to our planned spot, but the gale force winds blew Ben’s tripod over and made for a not particularly pleasant environment. After a few photos, the sky was completely blocked by clouds. At least we gave it a try though.
I think the photos say a lot more about the success of our trip than I can say in words. Sure, the weather didn’t play nice and stopped us from shooting some of the locations we’d hoped. That said, if we expected to get perfect weather in the Arctic Circle in January, we would have been delusional.
We made the most of our trip and Ben and his fiancé Laura both left saying that the Lofoten Islands were the most spectacular place they’d ever seen — a refrain I myself had uttered two years prior and could only agree with more after this trip.