Photographing the Faroe Islands
Denmark’s Faroe Islands are a variation on a theme for any landscape photographer who knows Iceland. The Faroes are also in the North Atlantic, also volcanic, but tiny compared to the land of ice. Whenever I visit Iceland, I’m reminded that volcanic islands are how a landscape looks at the early stages of plant and animal diversity. And Faroe is even more primal.
Given the visual and geological similarities, I’ve combined my Iceland and Faroe photographs into one portfolio. If you know my site, you’ve probably noticed that each of the portfolios has its own distinct style and color palette. That makes it easy for someone to find similar photo art works for their home or office.
So the Iceland and Faroe portfolio provides a sustained focus on landscape abstraction and composition. It’s a color portfolio (with exceptions) but often the images look like black and white given the limited palette. As a result, these images are popular with those comfortable with abstraction. Not surprisingly, I’ve also had lots and lots of Scandinavians respond to the simplicity and power of these images.
These art photos are also popular with high school and college kids. Probably because there’s a mythic power here. After all, several of the Iceland locations were featured in Game of Thrones. Note: Link in title goes to the image product page.
The Klakkur overlook (above), on the eastern island of Bordoy, is a perfect example of how close the Faroe Islands are -- close enough that the ocean channels look like fjords. Also notice that Kunoy, the center island in the image, has a salmon farm in front of it. That’s a huge industry on the islands.
To find Klakkur, I drove over (and under) three Faroe islands to get to the town of Klaksvik. But Google didn’t have directions there and I couldn’t find a road up to the overlook. I ended up chatting with a local, a millennial working at the local sports store. He wanted to know about the Lakers, I wanted travel directions. Given how little I follow the Lakers, I got the best of the deal and was quickly driving a dirt road along the cliff edge.
Hardly anyone was up at Klakkur that morning, getting blown around by the wind. The islands are further south than Iceland. But the wind has the same cold edge. But from up here the islands are like massive green dominos on a navy blue sea.
The high cliffs north of Vestmanna are a nesting ground for migratory sea birds. The cliffs are high here, too steep even for the Faroe sheep to trust. And the cave-like entry is guarded by monolithic sea stacks.
Most of the iconic spots I shot here were spots I discovered on photo web sites or the Faroe tourist info site. And I mostly drove and hiked to each instead of relying on tours. But the Vestmanna bird cliffs require a boat tour. And like all general tours, the photographer can only shoot what the tour operator has planned. But I was able to get a few images that captured the majestic quality of the cliffs here and the birds that fly in and out during the nesting season.
The Múlafossur waterfall (above), just below the town of Gasadalur, is probably the highest on the islands. There’s something magical about a big waterfall out there in the North Atlantic. And that was starting place for my post production work in Photoshop and Lightroom. I treat each location like a puzzle that needs to be solved – looking for the best light, figuring out the right composition, palette. Then in post, I listen to the reality of that place, the inner connection I felt when visiting a mythic waterfall in a faraway place.
So I framed the falls as a balancing point for the big cliffs. The backlighting of the island helped. Plus in post, I explored the textures of this spot, the hills and meadows up here in the northern part of the island of Vagar and the hard edges of the volcanic cliffs. The post work doesn’t distort the original image in any way. It’s more about bringing more depth, light and color to what’s there … as a painter might do, with layering and brushstrokes. So what you’re seeing here is a mixed genre image, a photographic painting.
One of the more intriguing spots on the Faroe Islands is Lake Sørvágsvatn, the lake on a cliff above the ocean. This perspective is enhanced for the viewer because in this part of Vagar Island, the cliff rises and curves back on itself.
This distinctive cliff has a name, Slave Cliff (Trælanípan in Faroese) since this is where Viking slaves would get tossed down to the sea for one reason or another. And the spot is strange to be sure. These are some of the highest cliffs on the island and the shot requires a certain closeness to the raw cliff edge for its visual power. I've tried to capture that feeling of vertigo as well.
Geituskorardrangur Sea Stack
Geituskorardrangur is just past Lake Sørvágsvatn. You hike past the lake’s outlet to the sea, the Bosalafossur waterfall and climb up to an observation point looking northwest.
At just under 400 feet, Geituskorardrangur is one of the most monolithic sea stacks anywhere. Plus the lava’s been shaped into something almost organic. There was nothing of human scale here but me. And the framing is a balance of the foreground edge, that giant shark’s tooth sea stack and the distant cliffs. It was a full afternoon’s hike, out past the lake over rough terrain but worth it. After all, how often do you find yourself in a place built to this scale.
As per usual with my landscapes, there’s no composite work. But there’s a depth and texture in the visual elements that typical photos don’t have. So instead of photographic flatness, the eye starts to enter into the image as if the place was a three-dimensional – which of course it is. The result is that like a landscape painting, your imagination gets involved.
The strange seascape on the western edge of the Faroe Islands seem a vision from an ancient Nordic Saga. The angled top of Drangarnir sea arch and behind it, Tindholmur, an island as sharp-edged as a knife. It’s a difficult spot to hike to – we got dropped off by small boat. So the spot looks desolate for a reason. But the stripped down geology of the place keeps the focus on composition and simplicity.
The Witch's Finger peak is another strange Faroe seascape that captures the imagination. This spot, like Drangarnir and Geituskorardrangur is on the western island of Vagar. Most tourists stay at the capital city of Torshavn on Streymoy. But my approach on my photo expeditions is to be as close as possible to the locations I’m likely to shoot. And Witch’s Finger was less than a mile from my BnB.
Puffins may well be the coolest birds out there. They’re not big. Not great fliers – they seem barely in control on the wing. But when puffins gather, they carry an air of comic wisdom -- like a Charlie Chaplin with feathers. And on the Faroe island of Mykines, puffins come back to gather at the mothership.
Mykines requires a ferry trip from the harbor at Vagar, it’s way out in the Atlantic. And there’s a tiny town there plus a little café, church and a bunch of sheep. But in summer, the cliffs here are full of puffins. They dig into the soft dirt to lay and once the chicks are able to fly, the birds head back to the ocean with their new family members.
Faroe has only one city but lots of tiny coastal hamlets. Saksun, a village built in the old sod hut style, is probably the most charming. But getting there was a pain, driving a stick-shift rental on 1 lane roads over the steep hills. If two vehicles meet on that lane, they play vehicular musical chairs.
The place itself, with the houses wrapped in a thick sod blanket, invited you to lose yourself. And in my framing, I lead the eye from the stream into the dank meadow and the curved inlet beyond. All of which helps evoke the feeling you get of depth, of being there – as an early Viking would have experienced it.
After a week in the Faroes, I got myself Covid tested (again) and headed off to my next shooting spot, the Dolomites. You can find several of those image on my Instagram page here.