Lofoten Islands – Week 1

In February I was lucky enough to head off to the Lofoten Islands on another Tom Mackie photography workshop. The Lofoten Islands is an archipelago that hangs off the north west coast of Norway, just inside the arctic circle, and is famed for it’s rugged beauty which has attracted photographers the world over, as well as its production of some of the best fish in the world (found hanging on drying racks pretty much everywhere you look). Being so far north it gets its fair share of wild weather, although because of it’s unique position it benefits from warm air from the Gulf Stream and has the warmest average temperatures relative to its latitude. That didn’t mean it was exactly beach weather though…

On this trip I was going to be joined by Michael Blanchette, a New England based photographer who was in Iceland with me the year before as well, Ed Bacon, from Pennsylvania, Jerry Hughes, a fellow Brit, and Robert Zembowicz from North Carolina. Just like my companions in Iceland, these guys were seriously good, it was going to be another trip where I learnt a lot.

Arriving on the Islands

To get to the Lofoten Islands, I took the long way round. Starting off in Dorset, I got a train to Woking, then a coach to Heathrow, tube to a nearby Hotel where I stayed the night, tube back to Heathrow the next morning, plane to Oslo, then another plane to Bodø, a walk along the icy pavements to another hotel for the night, then a four hour Hurtigruten ferry the next day to Stamsund. By the time I’d met up with the others I’d had quite enough of travelling.

After some dinner in Leknes, and a fairly snowy drive, we made it to Sakrisøy, where we would be staying at Sakrisøy Rorbeur, a tiny island dotted with old fishing cabins converted to accommodation. Not exactly five-star luxury but a great place to stay for a week that also serves fantastic food. No cod drying on the racks outside our windows either, so that was a bonus.

Day 1 – Reine and Vikten

Our first day of photography started early to catch sunrise at Reine, described as one of the prettiest villages in Norway. There was a clutch of photographers there and a few more arrived afterwards, and you could see why, it was a great spot. The clouds were obscuring the sunrise at first but eventually it broke and gave us a lovely lit up mountain reflected in the water.

Reine, Norway at Sunrise. 25s @ f8. ISO 250, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 45mm

This was my first chance to use my newly acquired LEE filters Big Stopper, a 10 stop neutral density filter that effectively stops huge amounts of light coming into the camera, allowing you to capture much longer exposures than would be possible with even the Little Stopper. This allowed me to get a 25 second exposure even with the fairly strong morning light, which smoothed out the water nicely. I just managed to miss a boat that came across a few minutes later and destroyed the reflection which was pretty lucky.

Not a bad start, but the clouds were rolling in, so it was off to Vikten for a nice moody beach shot. Just outside of Vikten there was a rocky shoreline with mountains in the background, a nice setup for something dramatic. After being thoroughly uninspired for about half an hour (and almost killing myself and, more importantly, my camera, on the rocks) I eventually got this moody long exposure as the tide started lapping at my feet.

Moody rocks near Vikten. 59s @ f9. ISO 125, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 38mm

Even more impressive was how close I got the exposure to a minute just by counting in my head. If I was any sort of pro I would at least have used the timer on my phone, but meh, effort.

I did process this image as a Black and White initially, but eventually I decided I liked the blue of the water and dark greens of the seaweed, which I feel made the scene feel as cold as it actually was.

At this point the weather started really turning, so no sunset was on the horizon (pun intended). Back to our cabins for sleep, ready for the next day.

Day 2 – Rain, Snow, Wind, Snow, More Wind.

Yeah…So Day 2 simply didn’t happen. A storm had come in and was throwing rain, wind and snow everywhere. There was literally no point even leaving the cabins. I took a 10 minute walk down the road to avoid cabin fever and that was basically it. I know some of the other photography workshops on the island would have gone out, simply because they were paying for it so they felt they had to go somewhere, but the good thing about these workshops is that everyone is friendly and, most importantly, not insane. It would have been utterly pointless going out in that weather. Oh well, maybe day 3 would bring more luck.

Day 3 – Nope, not much better

Weather was still pretty damn awful, but we escaped and eventually drove to Mryland, on the northern coast of Flakstad. The road there had lots of warning signs about avalanches and falling rocks, and considering the weather we had just had I was constantly looking up waiting for the giant boulder that was going to kill me. Luckily it never came, and we eventually made it to a sandy beach strewn with massive rocks. Looks like more moody beach shots were in order.

Moody rocks near Myrland. 5s @ f8. ISO 320, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 27mm

A slow-ish exposure of 5 seconds gave the water from the incoming tide some movement but kept the distinctive circle around the rock in the foreground. There was a pretty mean sky behind obscuring the top of the looming mountains in the background. Again, I did process this one in black and white as well but it just lost a lot of character. I felt that the subtle, muted tones gave it a more oppressive tone than a black and white did. But I’ve never been a huge fan of black and white and use it very sparingly.

Day 4 – Back in to hiding

Another terrible weather day. I can’t even remember if we went anywhere this day, I think we did, but I’ve got nothing in my Lightroom catalog for that day, so I’ll assume I didn’t shoot anything interesting. I’m trying to retrospectively write this almost 4 months after, so my memory is a bit patchy. On the plus side, towards the end of the day the weather started clearing, and there were decent indications of the Aurora making an appearance…

Day 5 – Aurora Time! Plus some more cabins at Hamnoy.

Sure enough, the weather cleared and we were on for an Aurora! We headed to Flakstad beach, a popular sandy beach surrounded by (surprise surprise) mountains. As we turned up the light show started behind us, but there wasn’t much of a subject to point at. Getting the Aurora on it’s own is all well and good, but without some sort of subject in the photo as well, even something simple, it can feel a bit pointless. So after using that as a test we headed down to the beach and set up pointing towards the mountain, hoping the Aurora would reappear above it. After quite a while of waiting around eventually we, kind of, got what we wanted.

Aurora Rainbow, Flakstad Beach, Lofoten. 6s @ f2.8. ISO 1000, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 16mm

To the naked eye this was pretty faint, but with a 6 second exposure, max aperture and an ISO of 1000 it came out quite clearly. With a touch of reflection in the shore and the way the Aurora seems to come out from behind the mountain like a rainbow it made for an unexpectedly nice composition. I can’t quite decide if the cloud that appears in the left hand side just underneath the Aurora ruins it or helps it, but I’m not a god and couldn’t move it so we’ll live with it.

At around 3am we headed back to our temporary homes, and after less than 4 hours sleep we were up again for sunrise, but god damn was it worth it. We headed to Hamnøy, which was mercifully only two minutes down the road, and set up on the bridge alongside a line of about 30 or 40 other people, so space was at a premium. I found a nice spot, set up and waited. Once again I deployed the Big Stopper to bring down the shutter speed to get some movement in the water. After a bit of waiting, we were greeted with a lovely, soft pink in the sky, and the shutters along the bridge started clattering more fiercely.

Hamnøy Sunrise, Hamnøy, Lofoten. 15s @ f9. ISO 100, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 24mm

This ended up being my favourite shot of the whole trip (so if you want to not bother reading the week 2 blog that’s fine). I did have to use my somewhat limited Photoshop skills to get rid of two cars that slightly spoiled the shot. Can you spot where they should be? I hope not, I’ve showed plenty of other people and they’ve not noticed, so it can’t have been that bad.

That was about it for day 5. We went a few other places after Hamnøy but it was probably my sleep deprived state that left me with not many decent shots to show for it.

Day 6 – Another nasty day

Another nasty day enveloped the islands, and Tom was feeling pretty rough as well, so a couple of us headed 2 minutes down the road in the morning and got this pretty little cabin sitting by the water.

Cabin at Litl Toppøya. 3 minutes @ f9. ISO 125, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 38mm

According to OpenStreetMap this place is called Litl Toppøya. The mountain you see in the background is exactly the same mountain in the shot of Hamnøy from the previous day. This tiny little bunch of islands in a few square miles were proving very fertile photographic grounds. While I was there I thought I’d grab a quick panorama as well, to give a sense of scale.

Panorama at Litl Toppøya. 5 images. 1/15s @ f9. ISO 125, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 38mm

The water was a bit messy in this one, with the requirement to shoot slightly faster for the panorama, but the sky had a touch more drama in it.

And that was pretty much it for that day. The next day we would be leaving Tom behind half way through the day and venturing out on our own, but not before getting a lovely sunrise over Sakrisøy, but that’s for the next post.

Iceland Workshop – Day 5, 6 and 7

This blog is part of a series of blogs about my time on a landscape photography workshop run by Tom Mackie in Iceland. Read the first in the series about day 1 and 2 or the second about day 3 and 4.

Settle in folks, this is gonna be a long one, a lot happened these last few days!

Day 5 – Ice caves, reflections and frisky horses

Day 5 started with a trip to one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been (quite a few of those in this part of the world).

Ice Cave. HDR @ f13, ISO 200, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

‪This was taken in an ice cave which is essentially inside ‎Vatnajokull‬ glacier. The drive there was a pretty special experience on it’s own, with our guide (who was a bit of a legend) expertly driving across rough, 4×4 killing terrain in a modified people carrier. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being inside this place, so I’ll have to just stick another photo in.

Ice Cave. HDR @ f10, ISO 200, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

As beautiful as it was it was a tricky one to photograph. There were three main elements working against us, first of all was the snow. There was an opening at one end of the cave that blew snow straight through the cave. It gave the ground a great, snow whipped texture and kept it looking fresh, but it was a nightmare trying to keep our lenses dry and snow free.

The second thing is the light. It’s actually pretty damn dark to the camera in here and there is a huge variation between the exposures needed to capture the ice and those needed to capture the detail in the snow or near the cave openings. I used bracketing in all of my shots, giving me brighter and darker overall exposures that I could combine into a HDR (High Dynamic Range) in post production, giving me the details in the brighter, snowy areas as well as the darker, icy areas. All of my final shots in the ice caves were HDRs, merged together using the excellent Google owned Nik Filters HDR Efex Pro.

Ice Cave. HDR @ f16, ISO 200, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 24mm

The last problem was one I’d never even considered, sense of scale. It was really hard to get across the size of this place, in certain shots it looks cramped and claustrophobic, and in others it looks vast. To be honest it was both of those things in different areas, but getting across the right scale was tough, hence you’ll notice that there are people in every one of my shots. The people really help drive home the sense of scale and adds a nice human element to the photos that I never would of thought of before coming on this workshop. It’s also a lovely contrast seeing these beautiful, naturally created icy wonderlands offset against the very out of place, almost fragile looking humans with their hard hats and cameras.

Oh yeah, remember I said our cave guide was a bit of a legend earlier? Here’s the proof.

Ice Cave. HDR @ f14, ISO 200, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 24mm

That’s him up there, on the edge of one hell of a drop, just to get us this shot. What a guy. This guy is also one of the only people to go around finding these ice caves for us to explore and making them safe, sometimes by shooting dangerous bits of ice with a shotgun. I’ll say it again, what a guy.

So, Ice Cave down, we headed to Hofn, had some lunch in a petrol station (hey, I never said this was glamorous) and found this spot, despite protests from Mike and me in the back of the van, as we were sure we were just driving down some random farmers track (we’d already been told off by some horse riders earlier for parking somewhere we apparently weren’t supposed to). Turns out we were wrong and were rewarded with this cracking view over a shallow lake.

Mountain Reflections. 2s @ f14. ISO 50, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm

How shallow you ask? Well here’s Tom (in my red jacket) in the middle of it.

Mountain Reflections. 1/20s @ f16. ISO 50, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 26mm

We couldn’t let him go without at least getting a few decent poses out of him.

Mountain Reflections. 1/25s @ f16. ISO 100, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 32mm
Mountain Reflections. 1/25s @ f16. ISO 50, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 70mm

So the day was almost over. We did attempt to see the sunset at Stokksnes, but the land owner had made it a paid for location, obviously wanting to cash in on the increase in tourists. Fair enough, but we decided it wasn’t worth it and headed elsewhere. As it turns out the sunset didn’t happen anyway. We did get to see some more Icelandic horses though, which is always a treat, especially this fella who took a liking to Paul.

Horsing around. 1/500s @ f2.8. ISO 1000, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm

Day 6 – Iceberg beaches, Glaciers and The Aurora

So, day 6. Time to leave our lovely rooms at Hali Country Hotel and start heading back west. We got up early, skipped breakfast and headed straight for the Iceberg beach at Jokulsarlon again. This time we had a nice bit of sun breaking through the clouds. There were quite a few people on the beach already, although nowhere near as many as turned up later, so a couple of us headed a fair way along the beach and found a great Iceberg still standing around the crashing waves.

Iceberg Beach. 1s @ f16. ISO 250, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 44mm

I used a remote trigger and a slow shutter speed and waited for the waves to get as high as they could before hitting the shutter, which captured the movement of the waves going backwards. If I had released the shutter as the waves were coming towards me the feeling of movement would of been lost under a blanket of white foam, but waiting until the water recedes gives it great definition.

Iceberg Beach. 1s @ f14. ISO 50, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 55mm

This iceberg soon was lost to the sea, with the waves almost taking me and my camera with it. I wasn’t quite as quick off the mark as Mike who was stood with me and Tom when the waves came in and would have to put up with wet, black sand filled boots for the next hour or so. After that little misadventure we found this gorgeous, crystal-like iceberg a little further inland but still in reach of the waves and I managed to grab this shot before the waves once again caught me out. The photos were coming out great, but me feet were taking the punishment.

Iceberg Beach. 1s @ f16. ISO 64, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 36mm

Anyway, onwards! And after returning to the hotel, changing my shoes and getting some breakfast we headed to Svartifoss, another of Icelands fantastic and numerous waterfalls.

Svartifoss. 1/100s @ f16. ISO 50, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 @ 105mm

It was a great little hike to get there, although shortly after taking this shot I was sent down to the bridge in my red jacket to be the sense of scale. If you ever go on one of these things, buy a black coat.

After this it was time to plan sunset. We headed to one of the many outlets of Vatnajökull glacier, just east of Svartifoss, and took a walk up the side of a small mountain that perfectly overlooked it. We had a great view of this frozen glacier outlet, and the sunset lit up the place a treat. It was slightly spoilt by hearing large chunks of nearby rock falling down the massive drop into the icy glacier below. Kept me on my toes I guess. It was a nice place to sit and watch sunset, even though I only got one decent photo out of it.

Sunset Silhouette. 1/80s @ f11. ISO 500, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 70mm (heavy crop)

Just as the sun was setting I looked over to where Mike was standing with Alistair and Tom and he happened to be posing a perfect silhouette with his camera against a mountain that also happened to light up at that exact moment. I quickly swung round and grabbed the shot before Mike moved and the light faded away. Since I didn’t have time to switch to my 200mm Telephoto lens I had to quite heavily crop this to get rid of the useless and distracting elements around. I also darkened the foreground to make it a true silhouette, which I think made it much more stark and dramatic.

Aurora time!

So, sun had set and we were back at our hotel. End of the day right? Well, not this day, because this was an Aurora night. A night that I and the others had desperately wished would occur once on this trip. We knew there was one expected, and the conditions looked okay, if not perfect. We were planning to head to a ridge out the back of our hotel which overlooked some nice mountains, so we met outside with our cold weather gear, equipment and head torches (well, everyone else had head torches, I just had my superb night vision eyes…). We started walking but the clouds were out with little wind likely to push them away, so we headed back to check the weather conditions. As we were stood outside waiting for Tom and Alistair to check the weather conditions, I checked which way North was on my (well, my Dads actually) very handy Garmin eTrex GPS and Me, Mike, Peter and Paul looked up hopefully. Nothing but cloud. It was only when we turned around and faced south that we noticed the faintest green smudge in the sky. Mike, who had seen the Aurora before, confirmed that this was in fact the Aurora. So much for the ‘Northern Lights’ eh? Over the next few minutes the faint green smudge became marginally brighter and was extending slightly. We were on for a display, but the weather was still cloudy, so soon we bundled in the van and headed west where the skies were apparently much clearer.

I felt like a storm chaser, except less insane, but it was fun none the less, constantly looking out the windows to see what it was up to. The Aurora still wasn’t doing a huge amount, so when we found a clear spot by a nice Mesa like mountain we pulled over and waited. After a little while waiting it came out in force, and what a sight it was. We stood in the middle of and to the side of the road (it was one o’clock in the morning, no cars were coming) and started snapping. The set up to shoot an aurora is deceptively simple. Push the ISO as far as you dare (I use a Nikon D4 which handles high ISOs with ease), open up your aperture as wide as it goes, spin your focus ring to point straight in the middle of the infinity symbol and then start experimenting with your exposure lengths. I ended up settling for between 10 and 15 seconds for most of the exposures. Too long and you just get vague green smudges in the sky, too short and you probably won’t get enough light to get any detail, especially in the stars or your foreground. We were quite lucky in that we had an almost full moon out, which lit up the landscape perfectly without destroying our photos with glare.

Aurora. 13s @ f2.8. ISO 1000, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

This was one of the first decent shots I got. We were quite lucky to be able to capture the magenta tones you can see at the top of the frame. Normally you only get the green with maybe a smidge of this magenta. If you are super lucky you can see some quite strong reds and even blues, but to be honest, I was just happy to see it. It was mesmerising. Occasionally I’d just stop shooting and look up and around and remember how lucky I am to be out here and seeing this bizarre but awesome natural phenomenon. I was getting frustrated as I kept thinking my photos were ending up out of focus, even though I was sure I’d set the focus right. Turns out I was just being overly paranoid, but this was potentially a once in a lifetime event, I didn’t want to get it wrong.

Aurora. 10s @ f2.8. ISO 1000, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

It soon started getting even more active with these swirling shapes appearing above our heads. The words ‘wow’ and ‘look at that’ were being thrown around constantly. I know it probably sounds like I’m over-egging this a bit but I’m really not, if you have a chance to go see this thing, do it! The way it constantly changes is something that really surprised me, one moment it was like the shots above, the next moment I turn around and this is happening.

Aurora Lightning. 10s @ f2.8. ISO 1000, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

It was almost like an auroral lightning strike. I’ve also rarely seen Auroras in Portrait form, so this was my personal favourite by far. Plus it made a pretty sweet lock screen for my phone.

Soon we started having a bit of fun with it, trying to emulate some shots we’d seen with people in them. Here’s my attempt, with Tom summoning an Aurora, although he looks slightly like a robot with his red headtorch on.

Tom summoning an Aurora. 10s @ f2.8. ISO 800, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

So that was it, Aurora done, and the next day was mostly going to be driving back to Keflavik, ready for my departure. We did grab one last sunset at the sea stacks we visited on the first day, but I would rather end this blog series on the Aurora, rather than the okay-ish shot I got down there. The others were staying for a few more days, but by all accounts the weather mostly sucked, although they did see one more Aurora and got some great shots in between some hair raising travelling. But I didn’t care, I was done. As someone who had not really done any proper landscape photography this was a pretty intensive experience, and I was all Landscaped out. Still, it had been a great week with great people who I learned ridiculous amounts from, and hopefully got some good shots to show for it. I hope you enjoyed reading this and the others in my series. If you did I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section, and remember you can also like my Facebook page, follow me on Instagram or follow me on Twitter for more of my rambling, semi-readable thoughts.