I could say that New Zealand sparked my passion for landscape photography. I first visited the country in 1997, long before I considered myself a photographer. The incredible sights captured my imagination like nowhere else and the pictures I snapped with my compact filled me with joy. It was not to be until many years later and after a second New Zealand trip that I actually built up the confidence to purchase an SLR and start learning, but the seeds had been sown. So, ever since I became a ‘proper’ photographer I have been keen to return to New Zealand and capture the wonderful scenery properly!
Some places live up to their reputation. New Zealand is one of those places. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful countries in the world and certainly seems to be comfortable with such a prestigious accolade.
Just as well really, considering the tremendous effort us Brits have to go to just to marvel at this spectacular country. After a day and a night on a plane, and no less than four airports to pass through before reaching my destination, photography should have been the last thing on my mind. But all the anticipation of finally arriving in the Land of the Long White Cloud filled me with such eagerness that I barely gave Christchurch a second glance as I headed out of town.
To be fair, Christchurch is a lovely city. I had visited the capital of the South Island on my two previous trips. But on this trip I had little desire to hang around a city no matter how pretty it was. New Zealand is all about the outdoor experience; I only hoped I could do justice to this wonderfully diverse country.
And diverse it is. The incredible mountain range, the Southern Alps, stretches down the backbone of the South Island providing jaw dropping backdrops to a whole variety of photographic locations. A little further south-west offers dense tropical rainforest, interspersed with the occasional glacier. East is countryside that is so similar to the Scottish Highlands, you would have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that you are the other side of the world. Add fiords, waterfalls, stunning coastline and rolling fields to the mixer and you have a life’s worth of landscape photography to capture, all in 3 weeks!!!
So down to business – where to go? When presented with so much variety you should be careful not to overstretch yourself. I chose to restrict myself to the South Island, considered by many as the more picturesque of the two main islands that make up New Zealand.
Arriving on the West Coast around an hour before sunset I found an unfamiliar stretch of beach and began to look for suitable foreground. Soon I stumbled across some smooth sandstone ledges, sculpted and coloured orange by a tiny stream that spilled onto the beach in a series of little waterfalls. Such fantastic foreground deserves to be photographed and so I set up my Canon EOS 5D and tripod positioned low on the rocky ledge. Using my trusty 17-40L wide angle lens I chose a composition which made a foreground feature of the cascading water while the cliffs and sea stacks provided the ideal background. The sunset colours had not yet arrived and, with heavy clouds in the distance I captured a series of atmospheric images bolstered by the intense orange colours of the sandstone rocks. The first images I capture on a trip are always the most stressful; so I felt pleased to have made such a promising start.
A week later I found myself at one of the most popular and spectacular sights in New Zealand. Milford Sound (actually a fiord) is an intensely beautiful location, possibly more stunning that any of the Norwegian Fjords I have visited. It is positioned in the wilderness that is Fiordland National Park yet is easily reached via a 3 hour drive on a well paved winding road which cuts into the heart of this mountainous region.
As I arrived into the visitor car park at Milford Sound the sun was setting over the sea, casting magical golden light along the fiord. I was already familiar with the location from several visits in previous years so I knew exactly where to head to. Rushing to the waters edge, I was dismayed to see that I was too late to catch the golden colours. However, such locations offer incredible opportunities to landscape photographers whatever the weather so I was certainly not going to pack up just yet!
I took several exposures throughout the next 30 minutes or so, until the darkness put an end to proceedings. My final image was a monster 120 second exposure, taken at the waters edge with mountains soaring over what became a tranquil fiord, the water smoothed to perfection by the long shutter speed. Throughout the long exposure I watched the tide creep up around my feet and gradually isolate me. But I was not about to give up and retreat; experience with landscape photography has taught me that wet feet is a small price to pay to capturing something special. And I was pleased to see that I was not wrong. After I had splashed through the shallow water back to dry land I reviewed a great evening’s work. With Milford Sound in the bag, a major objective for my New Zealand trip had been achieved and I began to relax.
Over the next couple of weeks I pottered around the country in my camper van, stopping regularly to photograph waterfalls, lakes, mountains and dense green jungle. As I moved further east, the landscape suddenly changed. I had arrived in Central Otago, the Scotland of the Southern Hemisphere. Huge lakes, grassy hills and mountains dotted with deciduous trees – a stark contrast to the scenery I had previously been exploring. As luck would have it, I had arrived at the peak of the autumn colours; not something I had planned but definitely a welcome opportunity. New Zealand is not overly known for its autumnal show of colour, but it really should be. After four trips to photograph New England in the fall I feel qualified enough to declare that New Zealand can compete with North America for fall colour, albeit on a far smaller scale. These trees are not native to New Zealand, being planted by European settlers in the 1800’s, yet have now firmly imprinted their mark on the countryside providing patches of intense yellow and orange throughout the landscape.
I arrived in Wanaka right in the middle of their Festival of Colour which celebrates the peak of the season. This glorious alpine town is a delight at any time of the year, but in the autumn when the lakeside is awash with yellow it is something special to behold. On a beautiful blue sky morning I wandered the edges of Lake Wanaka looking for compositions. I chanced upon a single tree, which at certain times of the year would be found growing up out of the lake itself. I set up my camera on its tripod and fixed my Lee circular polariser to saturate the colours. The mix of blue sky and yellow foliage is an irresistible combination, which are accentuated with the use of a polariser. I exposed several shots, capturing the single tree as perfect foreground, while the town and tree lined lakeside also played an important background role.
The next leg of my journey brought me to the East Coast, and the wonderful geological formations known as Moeraki Boulders. Along with Milford Sound, Moeraki Boulders were high up on my wish list of images to capture on my New Zealand trip, and for very good reason. Coastal seascapes are my favourite photographic subjects, and when shooting in these locations I always seek beaches with interesting rock foregrounds. I have yet to visit ANYWHERE with such intriguing rocks as those of Moeraki. They are an absolute dream for photographers – large smooth rock spheres, known by geologists as Septarian concretions (and to most other people as giant turtle eggs!) which are found dotted randomly along the sandy beach. I couldn’t begin to explain how they were formed, but I certainly could try to photograph them.
Being the East Coast, my intention was always to capture these boulders at sunrise. After a quick reconnaissance the evening before to look for compositions, I arrived well before sunrise and was delighted to see that I was the first person on the beach. A high tide had retreated throughout the night, washing the beach clean from footprints and ready to photograph!
I set up my camera to initially take some long exposures in the blue twilight. Due to the reflective sheen on the wet sand the contrast between sky and ground was low meaning I only needed to use a low strength ND graduated filter. I attached my polariser to reduce the light reaching the sensor and therefore extend the shutter speed. I find the ethereal effect of long exposures on water extremely appealing, and so I often go for the longest shutter speed possible. In this case, I was using the camera bulb mode to hold the shutter open for around 100 seconds.
I stayed on the beach for around an hour, taking many shots as the sun rose in the sky. The boulders are such fascinating subject matter that finding simple effective compositions was relatively easy. But as the sun rose higher and tourists began appearing on the beach I packed up and headed back to the camper van.
A perfect end to a perfect trip. As I headed towards the airport I was incredibly pleased with myself; I had achieved just about all my objectives for this visit and after all these years had faithfully captured this spectacular country in all its glory.
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