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Travel Photography Tips for Photographing Norway

Norway is the country of the ancient Vikings and modern-day indigenous Sami reindeer herders. It’s a land of towering fjords, dancing Northern Lights, Polar Nights and Midnight Suns, and rugged sea coastline. In the far north (in places like Svalbard) you’ll find reindeer, Polar Bear and Arctic Fox. With quaint, colorful seaside villages to the modern metropolis of Oslo, Norway is an incredible country for travel photography with a tremendous diversity and natural wonder to photograph.

In this article and video, I cover great locations to photograph in Norway, where to go, travel logistics, how to get around, travel planning tips, photographing people, visiting and photographing the Sami reindeer herders, Arctic photography, photographing the Northern Lights and gear to bring. This video is also a great resource for general travel information on visiting Norway.

Northern Sami Inga Eira with one of her reindeers. Eira and her husband Ole help run a local Sami experience called SamiCamp just outside of Tromso. It's a wonderful way to meet Inga, her family, some of their reindeer and learn about what her life was life growing up in a semi-nomadic reindeer herding family. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Best Locations

What kinds of locations you want to visit and photograph depends a lot on the types of photography you like to shoot. Norway is a great destination to photograph landscapes, wildlife (particularly Arctic wildlife), indigenous Sami reindeer herders, cultural moments, people, food, and architecture. Norway has something for every photographer.

Below are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Oslo, a modern metropolis excellent for city and architectural photography

  • Bergen’s historic Bryggen district and architecture. Like more town’s in Norway – Bergen is a quaint seaside town with a strong history tied to the sea, fishing and trade. It’s historic colorful district called the Bryggen is one of the best preserved historic wharfs and a great place for travel photography.

  • Take the historic railway to Flam. It winds through stunning gorges and beautiful countryside ending in the heart of fjord country.

  • Hike through the dramatic fjords – great for nature and landscape photography. A few great spots to consider are Trolltunga, Greirangerfjord, Jotunheimen National Park and Preikestolen.

  • Take a boat ride through Sognefjord, one of the most beautiful fjords in Norway. It’s a great way to capture unique angles and travel photography shots photographing the fjord from the water. Sognefjord is a wonderful place to linger and worth a night or two to photograph the town and the beautiful surrounding fjords.

  • Lofoten Islands – The Lofoten Islands is a magical place where Orca Whales and Humpbacks come to feed on herring. Colorful, well-kept fishing villages dot the shores of rugged, dramatic fjords and sea cliffs. Dubbed Scandinavia’s most beautiful islands they are a great place to spend a few days exploring and photographing.

  • Senja Islands – Senja Islands is like the Lofoten Islands but without all the tourists. Rugged coastlines, epic views, quaint seaside villages and plenty of wildlife watching make this island a great place for landscape, wildlife and travel photography. It’s also a reasonable drive from Tromso making it an accessible place to reach.

  • Roros – Roros is one of the best kept secrets in Norway that may not say a secret for long. It’s a popular destination with locals, and is starting to be discovered by intrepid travelers. Roros is a UNESCO world hertiage town and one of the most unique towns in Norway. A historic mining town it looks like Norway’s version of a Wild West village with medieval-styled timber buildings. It’s a fascinating place to photograph. Around Roros you can visit southern Sami family and their reindeer at Rorosrein, take a dog sledding excursion and explore deep into the earth in an historic mine. There’s a lot to photograph in Roros and well worth the visit.

  • Tromso – Tomso is a great base or starting point for exploring the northern part of Norway and the Arctic circle region. It’s located above the Arctic circle (which is an exciting enough reason to go) and easy to reach with flights from Oslo and other cities in Norway. The northern part of Norway is the best place in the world to see Northern Lights making Tromso a great place to visit December to early March when the Green Lady is busy dancing across the sky. Everything seems bigger in the northern region of Norway. The fjords and peaks around Tromso are breathtaking and seem to dazzle even more covered in snow in the winter. Around Tromso you can spend time with the northern Sami reindeer herders, learning about their culture and traditions. It can be a wonderful opportunity for travel and portrait photography – be sure to ask permission before taking photographs. During January and February humpback and orca whales come through the waters near Tromso, so if you’re big into wildlife photography time your visit for this yearly migration. Renting a car in Tromso is easy to do (even in the winter) and the area around Tromso is great for both landscape and travel photography.

  • Norway’s Arctic Region – Norway’s Arctic region is a land of reindeer, Arctic Foxes, Polar Bears, Sami culture, rugged landscapes and of course the Northern Lights in the winter. It’s worth braving the cold to visit this unique and magical place in the winter.  There’s a lot of photograph.

  • Svalbard – Svalbard is known for it’s Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes. It’s well worth the trip to see and photograph the incredible Polar Bears. Do your homework and go with a reputable company that prioritizes conservation, the bears’ safety, and knows how to stay “bear safe” while visiting Svalbard.
Hiking through Utladalen Gorge to Vetti Farm with local adventure guide Torunn and her horse Frysning. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Roros is a historic mining town located on the Finnish border. It's one of the coldest places in Norway, routinely reaching -50C! Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Travel Logistics

Norway is an easy country to get around and photograph. As a very tech savvy and enabled country nearly everything if bookable online. It’s also a credit card culture – with very few businesses wanting cash. You don’t need to worry about carrying much cash – everywhere takes credit card. Some of the best times to visit Norway are in the shoulder seasons of the Spring and Fall and during the winter months – particularly February and March. The summer is usually packed with tourists and large cruise ships. Norway’s transportation system is excellent. The roads are well maintained and easy to drive. And there’s a good network of incountry flights and trains that let you easily connect up far apart regions of Norway. I recommend flying or taking the train between regions and then renting a car in each region to get out and explore that part of Norway. For example, you can fly into Tromso, rent a car at the airport and then drive around the Arctic region of Norway.

Nearly all Norwegians speak excellent English, making it even easier to travel through the country – as well as ask locals for their favorite epic lookout locations and most beautiful hikes (this can be a great way to get off the beaten path and photograph new locations). I still recommend learning a few works of Norwegian – it goes a long way in making local friends and starting conversations with locals. People really appreciate when you try to speak a couple of words of Norwegian.

Photographing People

People in Norway are very friendly and welcoming. I find if you explain your project or why you would like to make a photograph of them, they are usually quite open to it. It helps a lot if you learn a couple of words of Norwegian (such as hello, thank you, do you speak English). It usually even breaks the ice more. Planning a project in advance or having a portraiture goal also can make it easier to both photograph people and come away with quality photographs for your portfolio. Also, think in advance how you can connect with them – on a personal level. For example – if you want to photograph traditional fisherman, see if you have any relatives or friends or even ancestor who was a fisherman. This can give you a great point of connection when approaching local fisherman. Connections like this can help people be a little less wary when you  ask to take their photo and can help you make stronger portraits. I find a warm smile and being honest about your intentions, as well as what you want to use the photos for, goes a really long way. Also, offer to share the images with your subject. We’re increasingly more connected these days. It’s easy to get someone’s email address and email them the images.

Local mountaineering and kayaking guide Torunn Todal Laberg and her retired race horse Frysning at Ultadalen Gorge. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Trine Larsen's family are coastal Sami from the northern region. She and her husband help run a local Sami experience - teaching travelers about the Sami culture and heritage. In this photo she is playing the traditional Sami drum. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Photographing and Spending Time With The Sami Reindeer Herders

The Sami are the indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples living across Sapmi – today Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of Russia. Traditionally Sami have pursued livelihoods in coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding. But they are best known for their semi-nomadic reindeer herding. Today only 10% of Sami are involved in reindeer herding. In Norway, reindeer herding is legally reserved for Sami people. There are a number of ways to meet Sami families. The easiest is to attend a Sami experience run by a Sami family. Many Sami reindeer herding families are supplementing their income with tourism experiences where you get to learn about reindeer husbandry, Sami culture, traditional food, and traditional music and legends. Many of these smaller Sami experiences are run by one or two families and can be a great way to connect with a Sami family and their reindeer to photograph. To spend more time with the herds, there are a number of Sami herding families that have started trips to visit their extensive herds on the Arctic tundra. These trips can be better if you wish to really get deep photographing Sami culture and way of life, but they also require more time and financial investment. If you have limited time and financial investment spending a day or two at a Sami experience can be a great way to photograph the Sami. Always ask permission before taking people’s photograph and I recommend contacting the Sami group prior to attending their Sami experience to ask if its ok for you to photograph and explain the kinds of images you’d like to make – especially if you want to do more than document the experience.

Visiting a local Sami family and group is a unique chance to get up close and personal with a reindeer or two, learn about their unique biology (did you know that reindeer form their horns by kicking them with their back hooves!), and take a reindeer sled trip through the snowy Norwegian landscape. Featured here is the reindeer experience with Rorosrein in Roros - a wonderful local Sami experience run by Eva Nordfjell. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Standoff between a male reindeer and Ole Eira, a Sami reindeer trainer and herdsman. Photo credit: Genevieve Hathaway.

Photographing the Northern Lights

Photographing the Northern Lights in Norway can be relatively easy, you just need a few things:

  1. Clear skies
  2. Little to no light pollution
  3. Head out to photograph on the Full Moon, or the days before and after the Full Moon
  4. Interesting scenery/subject matter.

Clear skies are very important for photographing the Aurora Borealis, if it’s cloudy you won’t see the Green Lady (as its termed in Norway). You also need really dark skies, lucky the Arctic region of Norway is sparsely populated so it’s easy to drive to dark sky areas. The darker the skies the easier it is to see and photograph the Northern Lights. How bright and colorful the Aurora Borealis is depends on how close the evening is to the Full Moon, with the night of the Full Moon being the best night to photograph the Northern Lights. Without the light of the moon the Northern Lights are actually a greyish colors – it’s the light of the moon that gives them their bright green coloring. Schedule your trip to correspond with the days around the Full Moon to give yourself a couple of nights to photograph the incredible Northern Lights at their most colorful. Also choose your location carefully. Head out during the day to scout the best locations for the northern lights. You want a wide open spot not in the trees or in narrow canyons. You also want a dark place with interesting landscape, interesting foreground elements and leading lines that lead your eye to where the Northern Lights will be.

In the northern part of Norway (above the Arctic Circle) if there is any solar flares (even 0.1 KP values) and clear skies plus a relatively strong Moon – you will see the northern lights. How vibrant color there is and how strong the color is depends on how full and big is the moon – the more full the moon the brighter the Northern Lights.

Also be sure to use a tripod. You need to put your camera on a steady surface so you can shoot longer exposures. Camera settings to use: you want your aperture as wide open as possible. Ideally f/2.8 or wider. You want your ISO as high as possible but not so high that noise becomes a big issue. I usually try to shoot around 4000 – 5000 ISO. I find 6400 ISO has too much noise for my preference. A lot of this will depend on your camera and the amount of available light on the night you’re shoot. Remember you want to shoot on the night of Full Moon if you can. The more moon light the better the Northern Lights will pop with color. Lastly you don’t want to slow your shutter speed down too far. The Northern Lights are moving so you don’t want I super slow shutter speed. I find usually around 1/8 is good – but you may need to play with a little faster and a little slower depending on the amount of ambient light.

The Northern Lights can happen any time starting at sunset, so arrive at your desired location just before sunset and then wait for the Green Lady to arrive.

Gear

What gear you use is a personal preference and often determined by what you will be shooting. Below is the kit I bring on my travel projects in Norway. In the above video I go into more detail about why I bring each item.

Travel Photography Kit:

  • Sony a7iii
  • Sony 16-35mm f/2.8
  • Sony 24-70mm f/2.8
  • Sony 70-200mm f/2.8
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
  • Lee Filter System
  • Tiffen Circular ND filter
  • Gitzo GT1545T Travel Tripod

Genevieve Hathaway is a travel and documentary photographer and filmmaker. She is passionate about telling stories that empower women, local communities and conservation. Genevieve is the founder and storyteller-at-large for ArchaeoAdventures.

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