Looking for Meaningful Landscape Photography in the Arctic

Looking for Meaningful Landscape Photography in the Arctic

Creative pursuits are inherently two-headed beasts. We are all too familiar with being passionate about photography, so much so that we can sink all of our spare time and a good portion of our money in it. Especially when you travel with photography in mind, landscape photography can start to become a trophy hunt. And I can’t blame you. Travel is expensive enough, so you want to make your shots count, right? In this article, I want to present a new way of looking for meaningful shots that may be more interesting to you in the long run.

During my last photography tour in the Norwegian Lofoten, I wasn't that interested in pointing the wide-angle lens towards the beautiful, sweeping vistas that usually captivate me. Instead, I've found myself to be attaching the telephoto lens a whole lot more often than previously was the case. This Arctic archipelago is home to the some of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural landscapes. With a fresh coat of white, the Lofoten Islands come alive as they are host to jagged mountain peaks and quaint red villages by the sea.

Ruins of Eastwatch

The Lofoten have had a cold spill because of a so-called polar split last February. The air mass that's situated above the arctic normally omits almost the entirety of Norway. This is why this gorgeous archipelago is blessed with relatively mild winters and cool summers. But that air mass split into two last month, with one part drifting down toward Siberia. That opened up the door for a chilling easterly wind blowing into Europe from deep within Russia. In the Netherlands, the country which I call home, the Siberian cold had people gathering to skate on the Amsterdam canals. To be honest, we haven't had such a freeze in a very long time. Nor has Norway.

In Arctic Norway, temperatures plummeted to -15 °C during the coldest nights, even freezing up the heated piping that's quite common there. It wasn't just the piping (and consequently our tap water) that froze, though. Such a flash freeze does crazy things to the natural landscape too. Among frozen waterfalls, strange patterns in the ice, and sapling trees that struggled to survive in the knee-deep snow, I found myself more inspired by the intimate scenes than the stuff that just about everyone seems to be pointing their cameras at.

Lament of the Crystal Cave

Imagine driving along a frozen road at night and entering the "city" limits of Hamnøy, one of those picturesque towns in the southern part of the Lofoten and a prime candidate for travel photography. It is here that most of those “trophy shots” can be had. Crossing the bridge, I noticed some twenty-odd people and numerous tripods that where all trained in a certain direction. At first, I thought this was the venue of some sort of internationally significant sports game, but those cameras weren't equipped with telephoto lenses. 

The action was supposed to be going on in the sky, of course. Or so the photographers had hoped. The Aurora were not forecast to be active that night, indeed not visible at all. Looking hopeful and cold, we drove along their precariously chosen position next to the icy road and got some proper dinner in a warm and cozy restaurant nearby while that group waited anxiously for a bit of green in the northern sky.


It's truly surprising to me that we freely choose to trophy-hunt like this. And I can understand the appeal of the pursuit of such shots in landscape photography. Just pick one of the tried and tested locations and wait for the light to happen, right? The northern lights can be fairly well forecast nowadays, but it goes a long way if you know how to interpret the data.

Photographers absolutely flock to these locations to get that landscape. To me, landscape photography is a lonely pursuit, a quest of discovery and sometimes a battle against the elements. But I do have to make a confession. It's pretty damn good business if you offer those trophy-hunting tours and workshops on your website. During my workshops, I always ask what inspires participants, and it’s not often that the answer is “to find a unique piece of art in an inspirational landscape.”


We love to be in places that can all but assure us of good results. And when you’re traveling halfway around the world, of course you’re going on a result-driven photography rampage; I get it. It’s just that so many people do. You’re there with more than 20 individuals all wanting the very same shot. This type of landscape photography feels more of a social gathering sometimes than anything else.

My change of heart dawned some years ago, but if landscape photography truly is your passion, I’m sure you will one day ask yourself if there was more to those areas than meets the eye. In the Lofoten, we have discovered innumerable photographic opportunities among the stark, winterly landscape of the Arctic. Sometimes, just looking in the other direction really helps. At other times, a longer lens will help you to see the world with more abstract eyes. Or how about visiting the place when the light “isn’t good”?

Ruins of Barad Dûr

This story isn’t the top ten tips to get you shooting amazing landscape photography on your travels. I encourage you to be open to a new kind of landscape photography, one that is more personal and more meaningful in the long run. Because making your shots count isn’t about capturing what you know to find, but what you imagine to find. Follow you heart for soulful photography that will stand the test of time. Pursue the light and the land for the things that inspire you and try to forget what has been photographed already.


So, how do you create something that's unique, something that's yours? It's the biggest challenge in the history of art and indeed of the creative mind for as long as the human race started evolving it. I will leave you for now with three pieces of advice that will hopefully change things up a bit for you:
  • Ask yourself questions. Opening up an internal dialogue about your own work will not only make you a better photographer in a technical sense, but also a better artist. Ask questions like: "What is it that attracts me to this area?" and "Why do I like what I see here?"
  • Be honest with yourself. In respect to answering those questions, it can be tough to be truthful. Don't be afraid if the answers are along the lines of "to sell images" or "to gain a quick following on Instagram." It's better to know this about yourself early on rather than keeping up appearances.
  • Both wildlife photographers and wedding photographers will agree when I say that you really have to love your subject in order to discover new layers of depth and find something exciting.
Daniel Laan's picture

Daniel Laan is an outdoor enthusiast, teacher, writer, and landscape photographer. While his dramatic landscape photography has gained international acclaim, his pursuit of the light is primarily a means to get to know himself. Daniel teaches introspective landscape photography around the world through running tours and workshops.

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Beautiful work Daniel. "Trophy hunting" is a great way to put it. I'm surprised "to find a unique piece of art" isn't a common response—I guess it's more of a bucket list mentality.

Personally, there's nothing as frustrating as going to a landmark you've seen so many pictures of, and feeling like the best you can do is a lackluster imitation. It's easier to innovate, execute and discover your own style when you don't have preconceived notions =)

Lovely work..i can relate a lot to this

Very good post!