A Road Trip in The Faroe Islands – Part I

Why visit the remote and northerly Faroe Islands? A volcanic archipelago of 18 islands situated between Iceland and Norway in the most turbulent part of the North Atlantic might not seem like the most promising destination for a road trip. However, as I found recently, the islands proved to be an epic setting for a motoring holiday .

The Gift of the Gulf Stream

The Faroe Islands are located on the 62nd parallel in the North Atlantic, northwest of Scotland and about halfway between Iceland and Norway. The island’s closest neighbours are the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. 

This is generally a rather chilly part of the world; the Arctic starts only a couple of parallels up at 64.2°N. The icy Bering Sea, The Sea of Okhotsk on the Eastern coast of Siberia, Alaska and the Hudson Bay are some of the cold and rather inhospitable neighbourhoods at this latitude.

Fortunately, the Faroe Islands sits right in the heart of the Gulf Stream. This creates a temperate marine climate with minimal temperature variation. The average temperature ranges from around 3°C in winter, which is very moderate for so northerly a location, to an admittedly rather cool 12°C in the summer. The harbours never freeze and snow is short lived.

The Connected Archipelago

Like north west Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetland, the Faroe Islands are notoriously windy, resulting in extremely choppy seas. In years gone by this severely restricted travel between the 17 inhabited islands – especially in bad weather or at night.

This presents few problems today as the islands are well connected by an impressive series of sub sea tunnels, making it easy to travel across them by car. One sub sea tunnel even has a roundabout – the world’s first undersea roundabout, AKA the jellyfish roundabout. The Faroe Islands have a good infrastructure, with an excellent road network. Over half the islands’ electricity is produced from sustainable sources like wind power.

The archipelago is 113km (70 miles) long and 75km (47 miles) wide, with an area of about 1,400 square kilometres (540 sq. mi.). This makes it slightly larger than half the size of Luxemburg and the 170th largest country by area.

A road trip is an eminently practical proposition.

The Wild Beauty of The Faroe Islands

The Faroes are also an utterly beautiful and somewhat otherworldly place to visit.

You will never be more than 5 km (3 miles) away from 1100 km (687 miles) of spectacular coastline. This is deeply indented with fjords, dotted with imposing sea stacks and has many steep rocky cliffs, many of which are populated by colonies of seabirds.

Looking out to Kalsoy island from the coast at Gjógv

The rugged landscape, composed of volcanic rock and sculptured by glaciers, has high mountains, deep valleys and many waterfalls. Nothing much grows above ground, so the contours of the land are always on show and the treeless slopes contribute to the islands’ wild beauty.

With all this on offer, the Faroe Islands are a landscape photographer’s paradise.

The two photographers in our party took a medium format Hasselblad System V film camera, a Nikon F3, a Leica Q2, a brace of modern Nikon digital cameras and a selection of lenses from 24mm to 500mm. I also made use of my iPhone Pro, especially from within the car. We were both pleased with the results, some of which you can see in this article. You will find the main black and white photo gallery here.

Constantly Changing Light

Although the archipelago sees less than 850 hours of sunshine per year, the northern light is ideal for photographers and artists. The light is never the same for long; the changeable maritime climate produces brilliant sunshine one minute and misty hill fog the next. Rainfall and cloud are both frequent.

Why visit The Faroe Islands?
A sunlight valley under heavy cloud.

Our Faroese skipper on our sailing trip out to the sea stacks joked that it rains 300 days a year. That’s an exaggeration, as it only rains for 210 days! You can of course pick the month of your visit, and June has the fewest wet days at 12. As they say in The Faroe Islands (and in Iceland), “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Inevitably we encountered some rain on our trip, but it didn’t trouble us.

At this latitude the sun is also up (but not always visible!) for nearly 20 hours at the summer solstice.

A Fascinating History: Settlement of the Faroes

Unlike most of the world, human colonisation did not occur in pre history. Evidence of settlement on the Faroe Islands goes back to the mid-fourth century, though the people are unknown. This was followed by Irish monks in the eighth century, who may have established Christian communities.

Norse settlements followed in the ninth century, resulting in a Norse culture. The name Føroyar (Faroe Islands) is derived from old Norse and means Sheep Islands. The Faroese language, which is closely related to Icelandic, derives from the Old Norse language of these Norsemen, which developed into modern Nordic languages in the mid-to-late 14th century.

It’s possible there is some Gaelic language in Faroese as place names such as Mykines, Stóra Dímun and Lítla Dímun may contain Celtic roots.

The conversion of the islanders to Christianity came c. 1000 from Norway. In the same century the Faroe Islands may well have formed a stepping stone beyond Shetland for the journey across the North Atlantic to America. The islanders established their Althing (parliament), later named Løgting, at Tinganes in Tórshavn, the capital city.

The islands became a Norwegian province in 1035 and passed to Denmark with the rest of Norway in 1380. Later the islands became a Danish royal trade monopoly, which inhibited economic development for many years.

A Fascinating History: The Faroese Strike Back

Rising Faroese national identity and a shift to fishing as the islands’ main commodity led to the end of the Danish trade monopoly in 1856. Faroese national identity was further strengthened in the 19th century by the creation of a written Faroese language and the restoration of the Faroese Løgting (parliament). This body first sat in 825 and is likely to be the Parliament with the longest unbroken tradition. The Thingvellir of Iceland and Tynwald, on the Isle of Man, also make claim to this distinction.

The British occupation of the Faroes to protect against German incursions from occupied Denmark changed life in the Faroe Islands and strengthened demands for home rule. This resulted in autonomous status in 1948. As part of that move, Faroese was also given equal status with the Danish language.

Faroe Islands
The beautiful village of Gjógv.

The Unspoilt Faroe Islands

With a low population density, minimal industrialisation and tranquil untouched landscapes, the Faroe Islands offer a beautiful pristine environment that’s hard to find elsewhere.

The most substantial contributor to the the low level of industrialisation is the percentage of fishing and aquaculture in the thriving Faroese economy. This contributes virtually all the income from exports (around 95%). There is plenty of room for both of these activities: the Faroe Islands has self-identified as one of 15 Large Ocean States (LOS) with a maritime zone of 271,000 square kilometres. You will see Salmon farms in fjords and bays throughout the islands.

It’s also a very safe place with one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. At the date of our visit, you wouldn’t quite be able to count the prison population on your fingers, but you could get pretty close! The prison is famous for its location, which has possibly the best views of the spectacular fjord Kaldbaksfjørður.

As you can see from the word ‘Kaldbaksfjørður’, the written language looks both Nordic and magnificently old. It contains the letter ‘Eth’ (ð) which is also to be found in Old English and Middle English.

Faroese Culture and Art

The Faroese people have a distinct cultural identity, rooted in their Norse heritage and many local traditions, including a long tradition of ballads (kvæði) and songs. These have helped to keep the Faroese language alive for centuries.

This is accompanied by modern Nordic design sensibilities, which are visible in many of the newer buildings.

For art lovers there are several galleries of Faroese Art to enjoy. The work we saw, which spans the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, really enriched our experience of the islands.

Heading for Drangarnir, the Faroe Islands’ most famous rock formation

Faroese restaurant culture has changed drastically within the last decade, particularly in the capital. It is now much more common for Faroe Islanders to eat out and traditional Faroese food has become part of a burgeoning dining scene with new restaurants emerging regularly. We ate very well during our stay.

Why Visit The Faroe Islands? Why Not?

I hope this short article answers the question ‘why visit the Faroe islands?’ Yet, as I write this another question occurs to me: why did it take so long for me to visit the Faroe Islands?

In part II of this post I’ll describe the packed four day itinerary of our Faroe Islands road trip.

Back to Film with the Nikon F3

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt’s been a while…

Before I went back to film with a Nikon F3 in 2016,  my previous film camera was a Canon IXUS, 20 years ago.  This was a point and shoot compact which took APS film, a short lived film format from the nineties. My photos from that time date from before I actively studied photography and the shots aren’t the best.  My APS films were developed on standard machines, not the specialist ones they had been designed for, which further compromised the results.  This then, is the real start of the story of my film photography journey.

A Fortunate Find

Whilst staying with friends in Stockholm in 2016, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.

The Nikon F3 model I picked out showed signs of wear and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was quite taken with it and bought it on impulse.

An Early Model

This was my first Nikon film SLR. A bit of research revealed that the F3, the successor to the legendary F and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras. It was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001, despite being superseded by the autofocus  F4 in 1988.

That’s a long run – especially as according to the MIR site, work on the F3 started back in 1974, barely three years after the debut of the Nikon F2!  The formal design process started in 1977 and a prototype was ready by late 1978, which is when NASA came knocking for an automatic exposure control camera for the Space Shuttle.

A check on the serial number showed my F3 was an early model from 1981, not the more common HP (High Eyepoint) variant introduced in 1982. The HP model is identical to its predecessor except for the finder (DE-3), which allowed those wearing glasses a better view of the entire frame. This became standard on the F3, which became known as the F3HP.

Finder Tradeofs

I don’t wear glasses when shooting, preferring to use a diopter, and in this case that’s an advantage, as the trade off the HP model makes to make the whole viewfinder visible from slightly further back is fractionally lower magnification (0.75X compared to 0.8X). The F3 is also slightly lighter than the HP variant as the finder HP finder weighs a little more, though the HP finder has slightly improved rubber sealing. Unless you wear glasses, there isn’t much in it.

Five Finders

The F3 has five finders (all interchangeable) to choose from: eye-level (DE-2), eye-level HP (DE-3) waist-level (DW-3), sport (DA-2), and high-magnification (DW-4). The F3 also offered a right-angle viewing attachment (DR-3) and an Eyepiece Magnifier (DG-2). I’ve stuck with the DE-2 my F3 came with.

F3 Exotics

Beyond models based on finder variants there are several more exotic models of the F3. The best known, and probably the most desirable, is the F3/T titanium model, which is a similar in weight to the regular F3 but will no doubt take knocks even better.

There was also a ruggedised F3P Press/Professional model, the F3 AF autofocus model and the weighty F3H F3 High Speed, a motorised speed demon that could shoot at 13 frames per second.

The autofocus Nikon F3 AF, which became available in 1983 with 2 autofocus lenses, was Nikon’s first entry in the world of AF technology. The Nikon F-501 arrived in1986, and the Nikon F4 in 1988. 

The F3 Electronics Controversy

Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  Electronic shutters and dependence on battery power for anything more than a light meter was initially resisted amongst Nikon professional shooters. Their initial response was to remain loyal to their fully mechanical F2s and eschew the F3.

This controversy apparently continued for years and may still continue. As one blogger wryly commented as recently as 2019: “I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh…right…we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka “Knights of the Order of F2″ (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.”

The fears of Nikon pros at launch turned out to be unfounded as the F3 was demonstrated itself to be just as bulletproof as as the F and F2. Nikon was committed to increasing reliability – as an example the F3’s shutter was designed to last an incredible 150K actuations, increased from 100K for the F and F2. However, to give photographers more confidence in the new technology Nikon built in a backup mechanical shutter into the F3 that operates at 1/60 sec.

In practice, the F3’s batteries last a very long time (compared to my Leica M6 TTL for example) and the tiny LR44s are easy to carry as spares. I also have an F2 with a Photomic head, and it is excellent, but my F3 gets used more.

The F3’s Horizontal Shutter

There was one other issue that had he Pros using other Nikon cameras, at least for some shoots, was the slow flash sync speed. The F3 has a horizontal travel shutter which, given the 3:2 aspect ratio of film, takes longer to operate than a vertical travel shutter. The 1/80 second maximum sync speed was the same as that of the F2, but well below the semi pro models (FA, FM2, FE2) with vertical travel shutters, which offered 1/250 second. The F3 was the last of the Nikon Pro cameras with a horizontal shutter – the F4’s went the other way.

Longevity versus Mechanical Cameras

Over time electronic components can be the Achilles heel of older film cameras and initially I thought the Nikon F3’s LCD which displays the shutter speed might be a weak spot. The display in the viewfinder, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR), is just a display window so is not subject to deterioration, but LCDs don’t always age well. They can become harder to read over time and eventually stop working entirely. Nikon predicted they would only last about seven years or so with pro usage! 35 years after leaving the factory my well used F3’s LCD is holding up perfectly well. The F3’s manual controls also mean that the camera can still be used without the LCD display, although not with automation.

The last point to consider in the electronic vs mechanical Nikon stakes are that electronic shutters usually maintain their accuracy over time better than mechanical shutters.

F3 Surprises

One surprise to me about the F3 was that it was styled by an Italian design legend: Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man who styled the Ferrari 250 GT Bertone, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Bertone, and much else. 

Another surprise was that there were Space Shuttle versions of the F3. These had large magazine backs of different capacities and various other modifications for use in space. It wasn’t the first Nikon in space however, as modified Fs were used aboard Apollo 15 and Skylab.

Upgrades and Repairs

Before I could shoot with my new purchase I needed to get it serviced and replace the missing motor drive coupling cover.  Reading a little more, I learned that my camera was fitted with an unusual focusing screen, a plain matte screen which lacked the usual split image rangefinder spot.

The F3 is highly modular. It’s 5 interchangeable viewfinders could be paired with 15 interchangeable focusing screens. These vary from the standard central split-image microprism rangefinder screen to those for very specific use cases such as close ups, astro and architectural photography.

Mine was fitted with a Type D, which is used for close ups and with long lenses.  I called Greys of Westminster and ordered the more usual Type K type rangefinder screen, a new coupling cover and a -2 diopter.

It’s easy enough to remove the F3’s finder to change the screen. Sliding the grooved buttons on each side of the finder back towards the eye piece releases the front of the finder which can then be lifted out and removed.

All that remained was to take the body into my local camera shop, imagex, who sent it away for a much needed service, at a very reasonable cost of £69.

Adjusting to the F3

It wasn’t difficult to get used to the controls of the F3.  They are simple and the dials on the top plate of were familiar looking, as I was shooting with the  retro styled digital Nikon Df at the time, and the F3 only offers aperture-priority automation and manual operation.

I did fire the shutter accidently with the backup mechanical release lever (‘what does this lever do? doh!’) to the right of the lens beneath the ‘exposure memory lock’ button (AE-L on modern cameras).

The only adjustment I thought I might need to make was to get used to the heavily centre-weighted metering system, apparently a request from Nikon Pros looking for greater precision.  Metering is TTL and reads the light over the whole focusing screen, but nearly all (80%) of metering sensitivity is set to the central 12mm, whilst the rest of the screen gets the remaining 20%.  The F4 flipped to 60/40, though it’s not clear why. In practice the heavy centre weighting hasn’t presented a problem, even when I forgot about it, but that maybe because I shoot with very forgiving black and white negative film.

The F3 was the first in the F series to put the meter in the camera body. Previous models, which had the meter in the prism, featured 60/40 centre-weighted metering. This is also the case with the last of Nikon’s film cameras, the rather wonderful FM3A.

One little control that isn’t at all obvious is the Multiple Exposure Lever on the far right of the top plate. This enables you re-cock the shutter without advancing the film.

The Wind On Wind Up

Something I came across though reading, rather than a problem I encountered, is that the F3 metering and shutter operates differently during wind on. By design, the F3 fires the wind on frames of the film at 1/80th second using the mechanical backup shutter. I have read that this is to speed up loading a film in low light or if the lens cap is on. I’ve also seen this attributed to preventing needless long exposures in A mode. Some photographers have experienced this beyond frame 1, perhaps as the result or a mis-indexed starting point or mechanical slippage of some kind. This feature has caused me no problems, but has been the source of some aggravation in the forums.

The Nikon F3 in Use

Once the camera was back I bought some Ilford HP5 400 film and headed for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I shot some of the statues in various galleries, whilst I also visited the excellent Paul Strand photographic exhibition.  Initially I kept looking at the back of the camera to see what I had shot, only to be greeted by cardboard film type insert on the camera back.   My first keeper is shown above – I really liked the grain and the tone of film and I was hooked.

From the Nikon F3 onwards…and backwards

Since I bought the F3 I have acquired several other Nikon film cameras – most notably the mighty F6 and the hybrid mechanical/electronic marvel that is the FM3A, both of which you can read about in detail on this site from the preceding links.

I’ve also gone back to the start of the F series with a late F from 1970 and an F2 from 1975, both of which are excellent cameras. I particularly like the way you can see rangefinder DNA in the F’s baseplate, which evolved from the Nikon SP rangefinder. The prototype for the F was built on an SP model, adding the distinctive mirror box and pentaprism of the SLR, and a new lens mount, the F mount. The letter F comes from re-F-lex.

F3 Film Nikon
A scene from the Faroe Islands, shot with the Nikon F3

Though some of my photographer friends love the later Nikon F4 and F5, I have never taken to either of them – preferring either the earlier F, F2 or F3 manual focus cameras or the final F6 pro model. 

I’ve taken the Nikon F3 with me when I’ve travelled, including some fairly harsh environments like the Faroe Islands, and it performed very well. I thought about taking my FM2n on that trip, as it is lighter, but the more rugged F3 inspired more confidence.

The Go Anywhere F3

The Nikon F3 remains one of favourite manual Nikon film cameras. Unlike other more expensive classics, such as Leica M6 or Nikon FM3A, which most photographers (including me) fret about in use, my F3 presents no worries at all. It is extremely rugged, affordable to service (or replace), and easy to use.

I bought it slightly beaten up and it’s so tough I am comfortable taking it anywhere. I have 50mm and 28mm (Voigtländer) pancake lenses to keep the form factor to a minimum – the F3 and both pancake lenses easily fit into a small camera bag. It is versatile: the shutter is fast (up to 1/2000 second), and though I haven’t needed them to date, there is a PC connection (but no hotshoe) for flash, and it will take a standard cable release. It takes great pictures. What more could you ask for?