I’ve been coming to the frozen Arctic since 2010. It was Bruce Percy who first piqued my interest in places like Lofoten, with his minimalist but elegant depictions of lonely mountains plunging into fjords under a layer of frosting. Arctic Norway has been a strong pull for me since that time, a place I wanted to return to again and again.
What drew me was the monotone palette of the landscape. Shades of white.
Snow hides everything you don’t want to see. It silently arrives in the depth of night and fills in the gaps, wipes away the footsteps from yesterdays photographers and leaves you a clean slate to work with every morning. Snow clones out the messy bits better than any Photoshop session. Snow adds drama to mountains and contrast to coastlines.
Snow is gentle, soft and easy to work with. When it’s -10 degrees outside you can brush the snow off your camera like fluff. When you stumble sideways the snow catches your fall with a big embrace. Snow drifts slowly from the sky instead of pelting you. It’s kind and precious.
When the sun is out the frozen north is magical. The light is kind and full of angles and the landscape looks just like the brochures. You don’t get many days of full sun in the winter, but the ones you get are treasured. On a two week tour of Norway this year we had five days that were brilliantly sunny, and the other days offered everything you could imagine to contrast.
Almost every day the sun makes a showing, often in the most dramatic way such as peaking beneath the clouds and turning a snow covered beach gold and pink. There’s a particular shade of pink in the Arctic that is filled with orange hues and I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the world. It’s my favourite colour. Some days we get more snow than sun but that’s why the Arctic is so beautifully dressed in white.
Some days you get little more than grey. These are not wasted days, rather these are opportunities for slow shutter work that reveals another facet of the Arctic. Grey is never grey anyway, it’s either dark and moody or streaky and silver or cold and blue. Just a little processing is all you need to turn grey into yay. On these days we grab the tripod and a few ND filters and pick a spot by the water to work some very long exposures.
2 seconds, 10 seconds, maybe even 2 minutes.
If the skies have a little definition then those 2 minute frames look extra nice with zooming clouds leading into your composition. If the waves are lapping at your feet then a 2 second frame might let you keep a little structure in the water while emphasising the “motion” of the ocean. Time is relative.
Working with shades of white and grey demands patience and a little confidence. You have to give yourself the freedom to let the camera see what your eyes cannot. A few rocks and a rickety boat house can quickly turn into an image of magnitude. Places like Lofoten are not defined by a single iconic scene either, there are literally thousands of spots to stand with a tripod and make magic. On a cloudy day.
You almost need a new word for cloudy in the Arctic. Cloudy suggests something is missing, or withdrawn, when really something extra is given to the moment. Cloudy is "serene" if you can offer a little of your own serenity to match it.
Back on the desktop I take my long exposures of Lofoten coastline and bring out a little more character through processing. I did a series called “Lofoten in Blue” a few years ago where I pushed the colours into the cool hues and heavily desaturated. Art mimics life. This processing style emphasises the cold of the Arctic, but in a pretty way. It evokes the sense of frozen and leaves just the bare minimum of tones in the frame. Slow and cool.
The other bonus for photographers in Arctic Norway is that abundance of comfort on hand once you’re done with shooting. The cabins are always toasty warm, the wifi is always free and the kitchens at our favourite locations offer seriously delicious meals using local fish and plenty of smiles. I’ve even found a handful of gorgeous little cafes between Lofoten and Tromso where I can enjoy handmade cinnamon scrolls and a really good espresso coffee. Norway is expensive, but you get what you pay for.
My biggest struggle in the Arctic is finding somewhere to park a vehicle when you see a shot you want. That same snow that makes everything so pretty also makes pulling over to the side of the road completely impossible. Even the dedicated lookout spots are not always kept ploughed by the local council. You simply have to be patient in the Arctic, you have to enjoy the views and hope that a few of them will make it into the camera.
Short days and long nights usually sends my body into hibernation mode, but the Arctic offers up Auroras in the nights to help ensure you don’t get too cosy in that nice warm cabin. If the sky is clear then we assume that some aurora activity is possible and keep an eye out for it. We typically get two big shows of “Nordlys” during a two week trip. Some nights are modest for the camera, others are epic. We once stood in the fjord near Henningsvaer for three hours while the Northern Lights went crazy in every direction.
On the last night of my last tour we wrapped a fine meal and stepped outside expecting to see snow. Instead we saw stars. A modest glint of green could be seen in the north, so I went out with the camera and watched for changes. By 9pm the lights were dancing and we called back to the cabins to sound the alert. At 11pm we were standing on the top of a hill, overlooking some stunning scenery, and finally decided to call it a night.
The clouds were rolling through all night, revealing one patch of sky for ten minutes, then closing in before revealing another. We got some nice shots, but mostly we enjoyed the moment as a farewell to Lofoten.
This is what I appreciate most about my time in Norway, the ephemeral and the lovely. Some photographers tackle the Arctic as though it’s a beast to be conquered, in search of their own epic glory and to boast of their collection of images with boldly rich in colours. Most of those colours are so enhanced on the desktop that they look more ridiculous than Donald Trump’s hair. When I see those super-saturated images on Instagram I feel disappointed because I know that Lofoten and Tromso are really so much more lovely, more gentle and more charming.
Like that shade of pink and orange that fills a snow covered landscape at dusk, the true colours of Arctic Norway are very delicate and have a calming effect on the soul. Like fishing boats retreating with the tide in a fjord. Like a bowl of freshly made fish soup for lunch. Like the wave and wiggling of an aurora shining just a little brighter than the stars.