Shooting New Zealand – Part 2

Shooting New Zealand – Part 2

Part 2: Travel and photography in the land of the long white cloud

Those of you following this series will know that Part 1 focused on photographic equipment and shooting locations in the South Island.

The thing about New Zealand is that you could easily turn your entire visit into a photographic safari — there’s a lake, valley, mountain, gorge and rainforest around every corner and, best of all, scenic lookouts abound to give you grand vistas of these settings. For us, 3 hour drives turned into 6 hour photographic adventures as we were ‘forced’ to stop at almost every look out to take in the scene and compose for that stunning view. If you’re planning to take your camera to NZ, plan ahead and leave plenty of time in your travel for photographic pit stops. We used the Lonely Planet as a guide to help us identify potential photographic stops en route from A to B. However, the LP isn’t written for photographers, so you’ll need to also do some online research to help you identify areas of photographic potential.

Enter Google Images and Flickr. A casual search of a location keyword in Google Images and Flickr will present a host of images taken by others in that area. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find pretty specific details of the location. Then, a quick jaunt into Google Maps, and Bob’s your uncle. Look for and follow New Zealand photographers who are active on online photo sharing sites such as Flickr and 500px. But here’s the thing — when you get there, find your own way of interpreting and capturing the scene. We’re so often looking for “that postcard shot” that we forget that in trying to achieve it, we’re simply replicating someone else’s idea, someone else’s picture. So — bring your own creative angle when you’re there with your camera.

The weather in NZ is changeable (and that’s an understatement). Don’t judge your photographic options for the day based on inclement weather in the morning. We’d often wake to thick clouds and dull diffused light that obscured views of nearby mountains, only to find that the fog and clouds burned away by about 9.30am, revealing heart-achingly picturesque scenes. And even when the weather seems to work against the kinds of shots you’re dying to get, don’t despair. Work with the weather — if the light is grey and there’s not a patch of blue in the sky, then shoot for dramatic, moody monotones.

Shooting landscapes of any kind teaches us patience. You need to wait and see if something changes. En route down from Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu in the North Island, we stopped at an area overlooking the plains below. I noticed that the clouds were shifting and that shafts of sunlight were illuminating parts of the patchwork landscape below. After firing off a few frames of the volcanic landscape, I turned my attention to the view below, which consisted of rugged hills bisected by a meandering highway. At different moments, the sun would illuminate parts of the landscape below, highlighting a hill or a stretch of the highway or both. It was a matter of waiting, looking and then grabbing frames when the light looked right.

If you’re into photography, then New Zealand is a veritable cornucopia of photographic inspiration. But you’ll need time to watch and wait, and a degree of flexibility in your travel plans to allow for photographic exploration (and waiting and watching — it’s a bit like fishing).

I left the travelogue in the last article at Glenorchy in Otago. Glenorchy, Queenstown and Wanaka provide so much photographic fodder that it would be easy enough to spend a week or two here. There’s also a bevy of adventure sports for those looking for adrenalin pumping experiences to punctuate their more sedate photographic activities. After Glenorchy, we headed to Wanaka, passing through Cardrona, a small town that looks like it had been created as a set for an American Western film. Wanaka, a large tourist town, has a fantastic lake that features what is perhaps the most photographed single tree in New Zealand. It’s right on the shore close to town and accessible via a lakeside trail.

From Wanaka, our journey took us inland and up the ranges to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The glaciers themselves make very arresting subjects — either from lookouts close to their terminal end or from the air (via a chartered flight or if you, like us, did a heli-hike where you’re taken by chopper to the glacier and then led on a merry hike across its frozen surface).

After Franz Josef, we turned north along the coast to Punakaiki — where a stop at the remarkable Pancake Rocks is a must. Nikau palms are found in this region, giving it a sub-tropical feel. The drive along the west coast highway also reveals the coast and its impressive sea stacks – pillars of rock standing in the ocean, worn away by wave action over the millenia. Our final destination in the South Island was Picton, where we booked passage on the Bluebridge Ferry to cross the Cook Straits to Wellington in the North Island.

If you visit the North Island, then make sure you set Tongariro National Park as a photographic destination. This is the volcanic heart of the North Island — Mount Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu and their neighbour Mount Ngauruhoe, which featured in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as Mount Doom (Orodruin). It’s easy enough to understand why Peter Jackson selected Ruapehu as the landscape of Mordor in the films — it’s a rough, rugged region of very deep and steep cliffs and soaring mountain walls, complete the the presence of volcanic mounds.

Rotorua or as the Kiwis call it, Roto Vegas, is another popular North Island destination. There’s no avoiding the fact that Rotorua is a tourist town. On the drive in, we passed billboards advertising volcanic parks, Maori cultural experiences and venues where you can enjoy a bath in hot springs and mud. They even bottle Rotorua mud — apparently, it’s great for your complexion! Despite its touristy nature, Rotorua is worth a visit for its geothermal landscapes of hot spring, incipient volcanoes and geysers.

If volcanic photographic adventures is your thing, then a trip to White Island off the coast at Whakatane is a must. You can arrive by copter (very expensive) or via a 1.5 hour each way boat trip. White Island is NZ’s most active volcanic site and all trips to the island include a hike to the rim of the volcano. It’s mind blowing (and lung bursting, thanks to the sulphuric fumes emanating from vents) stuff to see and shoot.

Finally, no Tolkien fan (and, alas, I am one) can visit the North Island without a stopover at Hobbiton near Matamata. I’ll say no more and let the photos of Hobbiton below speak for themselves. 🙂

New Zealand is picture-book perfect and there is a real sense that its people and government appreciate and value the beautiful natural landscapes it has to offer. Many New Zealanders we met showed immense pride in this aspect of their country and many were more than happy to offer tips for places to visit and photograph.

It’s definitely a place worth a revisit — and, in fact, I’m planning to head there in March 2015 and opening up this trip to other photographers keen to come along and learn how to shoot awe-inspiring landscapes. You might be keen to join me — if so, drop me a line via the Contact Us section of this website.

For now, I’ll leave you with more images of New Zealand — from both the South and North Island.

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5 Comments
  • Jodie Hoori

    18/04/2014 at 10:57 am

    Awesome Seng. Such a beautiful place. Glad you enjoyed the trip. It is such a photogenic countryside. Can’t wait to get there settle in and get out and about. North & South. Winter, Summer, Autumn and Spring. Not a big place but has such an abundance of beautiful places. If you do head back in 2015 I may just join you.

  • Kayleen

    18/04/2014 at 3:13 pm

    Seng, your photos are amazing. Ian and I are looking at going to NZ next year.

  • sengmah

    18/04/2014 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks Kayleen! It is a photographic paradise! Will you and Ian be heading there in March 2015?

  • Nola Sumner

    23/05/2014 at 1:09 pm

    Delighted you had such a great trip to my home Seng. Your shots do it justice so thank you.

  • photography

    09/01/2015 at 3:18 pm

    Your photos are amazing,love the beautiful New Zealand.

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