Shooting New Zealand – Part 1

Shooting New Zealand – Part 1

Part 1: What was in the bag and where did I shoot?

I’m just back from a photographic expedition in New Zealand and I thought I’d share some thoughts on shooting travel landscapes in New Zealand. It was an inspiring (nay, mind-blowing) trip and I’ll guarantee that you’ll find landscapes there that would fire up your photo mojo before you even opened your camera bag.

What drew me to New Zealand as a photographic destination was The Lord of the Rings films, which revealed a country with landscapes so diverse that you could find yourself shooting in two very different environments in two successive days. Want alpine landscapes with soaring snow-capped peaks? – No worries! Looking for deep lakes so vibrantly blue that you’d swear that some giant tipped a whole river of blue paint into it? – Check!

What made packing photographic gear for New Zealand easy was the fact that we planned on doing a self-drive trip there, staying at a range of holiday parks. We considered getting a campervan or something similar as our means of transport but decided against it as we felt that we needed greater mobility that a smaller car would provide. In other words, we could “set up base” at a cabin in a holiday park, then head out in a car with tripods and photographic gear in tow to shoot at dawn, dusk and even in the dead of night. That was a great decision as it led to our having a lot more mobility in following tracks and heading into areas that a campervan might find a bit too tight.

So what gear did I use?

  • Camera: Nikon D800
  • Lenses: 14-24mm f2.8 (for night sky shooting), 17-35mm f2.8 (for wide angle landscapes), 24-70mm f2.8 (for mid range landscapes and general walk around shooting) and the 70-200mm f2.8 (when those mountains were just a wee bit far off). My bag was pretty full by this stage and weighed around 8kg, but as I wasn’t back packing this time, this wasn’t an issue as I could select the lenses I wanted to use each time we headed out to shoot.
  • Tripod: Manfrotto 055CX3 carbon fibre with a ball head.
  • Filters: Hoya ND8, Hoya ND400, Hoya circular polariser and a set of three ND grad filters (which I only used once as I ended up bracketing shots for layer mask blending in Photoshop – so might be something could have been left at home).
  • 3 camera batteries and charger.
  • Shutter release cable – one that I had purchased on eBay for around $7.00.
  • Camera material: rocket blower (for sensor cleaning), lens cleaning fluid, a lens pen and microfiber cloth.
  • Apps on the smartphone: DOF Master (for working out hyperfocal distance) and Long Time (for working out ND filter exposures).
  • Apps on the laptop: The Photographer’s Ephemeris (to work out direction of sun/moon rising/setting), Starstax (for stacking star and light trails) and Stellarium (to work out when the Milky Way would be most visible).
  • Post-production software: Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop

We kicked off in the South Island, flying into Christchurch and spending a day up at Arthur’s Pass — a long, but very rewarding drive. Then, we drove to Lake Tekapo for some iconic shooting there — as Lake Tekapo is in a Dark Sky Reserve, I was of a mind to shoot the Milky Way soaring above the Church of the Good Shepherd there, and the location did not disappoint.

We also headed to Mount Cook (Aoraki) and the Tasman Valley Road and Hooker Valley for some classic alpine landscape shooting, and then headed south to Te Anau and Milford Sound. The landscape at Milford Sound is breathtaking and primeval — you could imagine yourself in a Jurassic era when you’re there. But the light was challenging at sunrise and sunset when we were there — due primarily to overcast conditions (wherein the light was flat and drab) or strongly backlit conditions (as the sun would set just behind and to the side of the Mitre Peak there). Still, when in a dramatic landscape, shoot dramatically, and I aimed for strong silhouettes, lead in lines and reflections in my compositions.

After Milford Sound, we returned to Otago, heading to Glenorchy, a very scenic and quiet town on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu (the same lake on which Queentown is located). We’d been blessed with fairly good weather up until Glenorchy when the land of the long white cloud showed us… its long white (and very damp) cloud.

I’ll leave you for now with some images from the first leg of the trip (Christchurch to Fiordland to Glenorchy) below. Part 2 will focus on my personal reflections on shooting in New Zealand — the challenges and the rewards — along with more images from the second leg of the journey, up the West Coast of the South Island and into the North Island. Until then, Haere Ra!

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  • Kayleen

    05/04/2014 at 11:20 am

    thank you for the info on what to take on a holiday. I can now start packing


  • Alex

    22/04/2014 at 11:13 am

    Hi Seng,
    Great article and great photos!
    Just wanted to ask you why you use your 14-24mm only for night sky shooting and not general landscapes as well?

  • sengmah

    29/04/2014 at 5:32 pm

    Hi Alex — I also had a 17-35mm f2.8 lens which was my preferred landscape lens as I could attach filters to it (it has a 77mm thread). The 14-24mm is a specialised lens with a bulb-shaped front element, which meant that conventional filters would not fit on it. So, I used it primarily for wide angle shots of the night sky as the f2.8 meant that it would be particularly receptive in low light.

  • Nola Sumner

    23/05/2014 at 1:07 pm

    Great images Seng. I lived in both Manapouri and Te Anau for 26 years AND worked at the West Arm Power Station for 3 years so great to see photos from there included. I will look forward to Part II now.

  • photography australia

    09/01/2015 at 3:22 pm

    How beautiful the New Zealand,I can now start packing,traveling

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