Lofoten Islands

NORWAY

I can’t get Norway out of my head. I’ve been there four times to photograph, in addition to visiting with family members. And still, I want to revisit the region who’s people and landscape I’ve come to admire.

This land of the Vikings shares a border with Sweden, Finland, and Russia, comprising the western part of Scandinavia. Norway is well known for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize that it awards, the winners selected by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. But it has not always been a peaceful place, its history laden with confrontations involving Denmark and Sweden, and the devastating German invasion of 1940.

But these days, Norwegians consistently rank among the happiest on earth according to popular surveys.The Nordic model seems to be working well here, a type of free market capitalism with social benefits that include free education and universal healthcare. The geniality is palpable when you engage with its people, who seem to embrace a commitment to equality and an emphasis on family.

LOFOTEN ISLANDS

Red fishing shacks, sharp peaks jutting into the sky, and fjords filled with blue green water — these are the main elements that drew me to the Lofoten Islands. I didn’t even know these islands existed until 2012. That’s when I came upon the images of well-known Scottish photographer, Bruce Percy. His photos depicted colorful fishing villages amidst splendid mountains and turquoise fjords. I knew had to go.

Sunrise over the fjord at Reine. The person on the jetty is Scottish photographer, Bruce Percy.

The Lofoten Islands are an archipelago that hang off the northwest coast of Norway in the turbulent Norwegian Sea. These untamed islands are known for dramatic scenery that includes quaint villages, steep mountains, deep fjords, surf-swept beaches, and a regular display of the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights shining brightly over the Norwegian Sea

Fishing remains the big industry here, with stockfish (made from spawning cod) a popular export used as a base for many food dishes, Italy being its largest consumer. Lofoten also has a strong connection to the Viking Age, with archaeological digs finding evidence of Viking settlements on the islands.

BEST TIME TO PHOTOGRAPH

Winter is my favorite time of year to visit. It’s certainly not the easiest time to be here, but I think it’s the best months for photography. In winter, the mountains are snow-capped and the Northern Lights are a common occurrence, whereas, during the warmer seasons, the bare-top mountains are less photogenic.

Sunset over a white house at the intersection of two fjords taken in September

So far, I have come here in September, February, and March. And February is my preferred month because fresh snow is more likely. It also snows in March, but rain becomes more frequent as spring approaches.

The fjord at Reine captured at dusk in September

You might think that an archipelago inside the Arctic Circle would endure insufferable weather during the cold season. But in fact, it’s generally mild here in winter. Due to the warm Gulf Stream, the Lofoten Islands have a much milder climate than other parts of the world that lie at the same latitude.

The elusive Northern Lights generally make appearances between September and mid-April, although February and March tend to be the peak months for sightings.

The Northern Lights over a rocky beach on a full moon night

May to mid-July is the period of the midnight sun, when the sun sets near midnight and rises again two hours later. If you come in summer, the only way to photograph sunrise and sunset is to be out at night.

GETTING THERE

You can reach the Lofoten Islands by ferry or by air. I prefer to fly into Oslo, and then take a two-hop flight to Leknes to get on the islands. Scandinavian Airlines flies to Bodo, and from there, it’s only a 25-minute flight on regional carrier, Wideroes, to reach Leknes. That hop from Bodo may be short, but it’s a very scenic leg, flying low over uninhabited islands scattered around the Norwegian Sea.

Red shack on the Norwegian Sea with approaching rain storm in the distance

You can rent a car at Leknes Airport, and easily drive around the archipelago since most of these islands are connected by bridge. Leknes is located on the island of Vestvagoya, but the most popular Island in the chain is Moskenes to the south. Moskenes includes the beautiful village of Reine, the most frequently photographed town in the island chain, hence also the place with the most photographers.There’s rugged beauty everywhere on these islands, so I would recommend exploring several of the islands to break away from the crowds.

Long exposure on rocky beach in the town of Uttakleiv

Food and accommodations on the Lofoten Islands are sparse in winter. Luckily for us, the infrastructure has not yet grown to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. Outside of Leknes (the airport town), there are few hotels and restaurants, which helps preserve the rugged atmosphere of the islands.

Yellow cottages in the harbor at Ballstad

Although there are small B&Bs spread around the islands, I find it best to stay in a Robu — an old fishermen’s cabin. These are seaside fishing cabins nicely modernized to accommodate the influx of visitors. Most fishermen’s cabins are traditionally painted red, although some are painted a deep yellow color. The Lofoten Accommodation page is a good place to start exploring lodging options.

Typical red fishing cottage in the village of Hamnoy

There are few places to eat around the islands in winter, and the food is very expensive. But there are grocery stores, so we usually alternate between cooking food at the Robu (they have stoves), and eating out.

PHOTOGRAPHERS BEWARE

I did say that the Gulf Stream helps to keep winter temperatures mild in the Lofoten Islands, but there are exceptions. I’ve been here in February when we were confined to our Robu for the better part of two days due to a severe winter storm. The weather changes rapidly in these parts, at times ravaging the coast. So, be prepared for extreme weather if you come here in winter. Snow, rain, sleet, and strong wind are all on the menu. Also, be sure to bring ice-snow grippers for your boots. Ice regularly forms along all outdoor surfaces, making walking a hazardous affair without grippers on your feet.

Solitary red shack on a calm and moody lake

I suggest that first-time visitors come with someone who knows the geography, especially in winter. There’s safety in numbers when exploring a rugged terrain like the Lofoten Islands, and driving can be tricky here at times. You may want to consider joining a small photography tour to ease your first-time logistics. Back in 2013, I encouraged my photographer friend, Tom Mackie, to add the Lofoten Islands to his list of European tours, and he’s been running one or two winter tours here since 2014.

More and more photographers are coming to the Lofoten Islands. When I was here for the first time in 2012, I don’t recall seeing any other photographers. But over these last five years, the beauty of the place has been widely discovered through photos, which has caused a significant increase in winter visitors. So, if you plan to come here, I suggest that you do so before the islands turn into another Iceland.

Olstinden Mountain behind the blue-green waters of a fjord

The airport at Leknes is the most convenient place to rent a car (Europcar). However, be sure to reserve early as there’s a limited stock of vehicles at this small airport. Given the increase in winter photography, also plan on making your lodging arrangements early since photo groups are now booking at least a year in advance.

My last visit to the Lofoten Islands was in 2016 and I miss the place already. In my opinion, the untamed beauty of these islands represents the best of Norway. Be bold, explore, and be safe!

3 thoughts on “Lofoten Islands”

  1. We loved Lofoten. We were there two years ago when there was less snow on the mountains. Based our trip in a Robu in Reine and had a great time with our Icelandic friends and a couple from Paris who kept us in stitches. From my perspective your advice is right on. Only challenge we found was renting a car; the US price was twice as much as the same car from the same agency as our friend from Paris paid.

    On my list to go back.

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