Arctic Norway photography holidays

"Last winter, at the end of the first day of this trip one of our travellers said to me, 'If I don’t see another bird for the whole holiday I’ll go home happy.'” For Geraldine Westrupp of our specialist operator Wild Photography Holidays, the appeal of the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway is abundantly clear. The birdlife here is absolutely prolific, and framing it against these snowy and richly atmospheric landscapes, you’re going to come home with a pretty exceptional portfolio of images.
Here are raucous colonies of guillemots and kittiwakes, near-deserted villages, lighthouses that keep lonely watch over the Barents Sea and big, moody skies across which the Northern Lights will sometimes flash, bathing the wilderness in electric green. Here too are historic whaling stations, hard-toiling fishing communities, and hangovers from the infamous 17th century witch trials that saw almost 100 local women burned at the stake. This is Troms og Finmark, the most northeasterly part of Norway, bordering on Russia and Finland. It takes effort to get here, and when you do arrive the landscapes have a raw expression to them, like hands that have been labouring on a crab-fishing boat all winter.
“Tourism is very important in Vardo,” says Geraldine of one key location. “The fishing industry collapsed, the place started to lose inhabitants and become run down. One of the big draws is the unique bird life and this is what’s drawing tourists in the winter months, when the landscapes are truly arctic.” Just as the green shoots appear when the winter snows recede in May, so there are signs of a resurgence in this region, one built on its unique natural heritage and its appeal to tourists, most especially to those that prefer to explore through a lens.

Subjects

A typical photography trip in Arctic Norway will cover three or so locations. Båtsfjord is a bustling fishing port surrounded by a white-blanketed expanse, where the lakes freeze over winter, the tree boughs bend under the weight of the snow and the aurora borealis are familiar guests. Here you can stay for a few days in a comfortable, family-owned guesthouse overlooking docks that buzz with activity, heading out on frosty mornings and returning with the sunset for hearty home-cooked meals that use locally sourced ingredients, especially the fish of course.
You might huddle in a floating bird hide in search of Steller’s and king eider, long-tailed ducks and black guillemots, then take out a boat to scoot around the coast in hope of capturing them in flight. Another day might find you clambering aboard snowmobiles for a thrilling journey out to an isolated lighthouse, where you’ll pause for a winter barbecue – maybe salmon with juniper berries, maybe strips of reindeer steak.
Then there is Kongsfjord, a village ‘lost in time’, where you’ll stay in a beautifully restored wooden house on the seashore. “Our friend Ase and her husband bought the whole village,” says Geraldine. “It was falling into disrepair and she’s done a wonderful job with restoring these colourful houses. The result is authentic but very attractive and classy.”
Here your photography subjects will include rusting boats half-buried in snow drifts, maritime bric-a-brac in the local shop that serves as a museum, and the working harbour where more likely than not you’ll see the fishermen hauling out king crab, one of the region’s delicacies. Responsible Travel’s Joanna Cooke visited the region a few years ago: “We joined a crab fisherman on his boat and headed out into the Barents Sea, the small boat bouncing off the cold water. In the near distance raptors circled, 'sea eagles!' someone shouted. The man explained that in his native Scotland sea eagle numbers were only just starting to recover, and now here there were seven or eight simply hanging out. The fisherman shrugged his shoulders and stopped the boat, indulging us as we lined up our cameras.”
Vardø is Norway’s easternmost town, where even in summer the tundra-like temperatures barely scrape 8°C. Once a thriving fishing community, now it has a sense of abandonment that is sad but hauntingly beautiful, and full of potential for the photographer. This was the focal point of the 17th century Finnmark witch trials, echoing those of elsewhere in Europe, and Massachusetts. The Steilneset Memorial, positioned on an exposed stretch of land overlooking the sea, pays tribute to this stain in the history books.
Birds are the big attraction here again: nesting in late winter, and scrapping over territory. Fugleflåget is considered one the most important bird cliffs in the country, with 15,000 pairs of kittiwakes noisily breeding alongside guillemots, cormorants and razorbills. The occasional white-tailed sea eagle is not unknown. You might also take a day-trip over to the island of Hornøya, where you’ll encounter Atlantic puffins, black-backed gulls, eider and European shags along with more guillemots and razorbills. The noise and smell and constant movement as the birds aggressively defend their turf makes for an absorbing experience.

Our top Photography Holiday

Lofoten Islands summer photography holiday, Norway

Lofoten Islands summer photography holiday, Norway

Midnight Sun Photography in Norway's lovely Lofoten Islands

From £3150 9 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2020: 13 Jun
2021: 12 Jun
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Photography or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities

Photography tours of Arctic Norway usually last around 11 days, and take place in March, when snow drapes heavily over the landscapes. The ambience is moody and the Northern Lights are likely to make an appearance. At this time of year there will be many birds but aside from dedicated birdwatchers, few other tourists.
These are small group trips, numbers capped at around 12 participants, and led by accomplished, experienced photographer guides there to offer you the level of support and advice that you need. If you’re new to photography they’ll be able to help you rapidly raise your game; if you’re already confident, they’ll be able to provide valuable feedback and constructive criticism. A highlight of photography holidays such as this is the opportunity to take part in group review sessions, usually held across one or two evenings. Participants assess each other’s work efforts for creativity, technique and narrative in a positive, supportive atmosphere.
It’s important to remember that no prior experience is necessary, and while it will help if you already know your way around your equipment, you’re as welcome to turn up with a smartphone as you are an expensive set of cameras and lenses.
Locally owned accommodations and restaurants are used throughout, and local suppliers employed too whether that be for snowmobile tours, boat trips or airport transfers. Tourism is vitally important to this remote region, especially in the sparsely visited winter months. From dropping into museums, art galleries and shops to staying in welcoming guesthouses, your trip will be directly impacting the communities you visit.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wild Photography Holidays] [All photos: Wild Photography Holidays]
Convert currencies