Lake Wanaka

Why every outdoor photographer should go to the islands of New Zealand

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Pack your bags for the Islands of New Zealand

If you are serious about your landscape photography then sometimes you have to go to where the best compositions can be found.  Some people think Iceland is the best.  Some think my homeland of Scotland is up there with the best.  Others believe that China and Southeast Asia are Mecca’s for landscape photographers.  However, I strongly suggest that you save some cash up and get yourself on a plane to the Islands of New Zealand. ( That is unless you are in New Zealand already, then that would just be silly). 

In this blog, I’ll try and explain why this location beats every other hands-down for a place to get outdoor images.  I’ll also tell you how to plan and execute a successful photography trip to this beautiful country. 

When to go?

Actually, you really can go anytime.  I would suggest missing mid-winter as it’s quite hard to get around when the weather is poor.  Also, midsummer is full of those pesky creatures, you know, the tourists and the other ones, sandflies.

So, in my opinion, it’s best to go around the fringe times of early spring or late autumn / early winter.  Going at these times means you still get the snowy peaks and great light as well as foliage and fewer people at the better-known sights. 

I’ve just completed a tour in early autumn.  Although everything was great, it would have been even better had there been some more snow on the mountains. 

Now, you have to remember that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere (for those who didn’t do geography at school).  So that would be October / November for spring and May / June for early winter. 

What to take with you…

Gear, Gear, Gear, why do we always care so much about gear?  Well, for this trip you will need to ensure that you have wide and telephoto lenses.  There are so many opportunities for epic landscapes and compressed shots of mountains.  The night sky is so good here I would also advise having a fast, wide, prime lens for some great Astro shots.

Now, I found a while back that my 70-200mm telephoto lens was just not giving me the reach I needed.  I also have a 1.4x and 2x extender. This increases the aperture, so I decided to ditch it and have opted for the 100-400 L lens.  This, for me, is my go-to telephoto lens.  It’s just crisp and sharp, and at 400mm it’s great for wildlife too.  For wide-angle, I opted for the 16-35mm F4L.  It has stabilisation, and I don’t need anything faster than F4.  However, I also have the 14mm F2.8L Prime lens for astrophotography.  You could get a 16-35mm F2.8L lens and combine those both (but it is costly). 

The Night Sky
The Milky Way comes out in The Catlins

Gear tips

The best gear advice I can give you is to invest in a sturdy tripod.  A good tripod is an absolute must for windy days, long exposures, astrophotography and time-lapses.  A cable release is also an excellent investment unless your camera can shoot from your smartphone. Still, in my opinion, I try not to use things that wear down my camera battery, and wifi / Bluetooth do just that.  Make sure you pack warm clothes and waterproofs, the west coast of the South Island makes Scotland look like a desert when it comes to rainfall, and Scotland gets its fair share of rain let me tell you.

Car or Camper that is the question?

This was a big question for me. I have travelled with a camper in Australia and have taken a 4×4 and tent in Southern Africa.  So weighing up which to take here was a big decision for me.  As for cost, campers are quite expensive in New Zealand.  I worked out how much it would be for the camper, campsite costs and fuel.  Then I worked out the price of a hire car, fuel and hotels.  It worked out a lot cheaper for hotels.  This was a surprise to me.  The next issue was to find hotels/motels close to where the best locations where.  This took a little planning, I’ll give you some ideas on the routes to come.

Example route for the South Island

If you travel to the South Island, then this is where you will get the epic landscapes.  Not that the North Island doesn’t deliver, it’s just that the South Island has epic in abundance and you don’t have to travel far to get diverse scenes.   

I would suggest you start your trip in Christchurch.  This town is a great place to pick up your hire car or camper and stock up with essentials.  Once you are ready to head off, we shall go to one of the most amazing scenes on the South Island, the lakes and Mt. Cook.  

On the drive to Mt. Cook (Aoraki) National Park take the Route 1.  Then take the 79 and finally the Route 8.  Be prepared for your arrival at Lake Tekapo.  Not only does the blue lake stun you with its beauty, but it also opens up to the mountains behind and gives you a glimpse of what is to come.

Best Toilet break in the Islands

At Lake Tekapo, there is The Church of the Good Shepherd.  This is a bustling tourist attraction.  This small church sits at the side of the lake and can add a pleasant subject to your composition.  However, when I visited the church and the carpark were under some major renovation.  Probably because of the number of visitors this place receives.  If there is one thing you should do when you are in Lake Tekapo, you should visit the public toilets.  Yes, I assure you, this is a once in a lifetime experience, read my wife’s blog on that note.

Lake Takapo, South Island
On the shores of Lake Tekapo

Now for Mt. Cook

Once you are done with Lake Tekapo and have enjoyed the toilets, set

Peters Lookout
The winding road to Mt. Cook

off for Lake Pukaki and the journey to Mt. Cook, this is only a 20-30 minute drive from Tekapo, and the scenery starts to open up.
Firstly, head down to the lakeside to get some images.  Then drive down the side of the Lake towards the National Park (Route 80).  Make sure you stop at Peter’s Lookout on the way down for some compressed shots of Mt. Cook.  Also, pop back out of the car park to get a winding road shot as it heads off to the distance and the mountains in the background.


Lake Pukaki
The view over Lake Pukaki to Mt. Cook

We stayed at Glentanner Holiday Park.  From there you can head off on a short walk to the lake or go further down the road to the town of Mt. Cook.  Here you can find plenty of other accommodation and camping options.  When in Mt. Cook National Park, there are some great walks to viewpoints and glaciers.  There are some more arduous hikes which will test your climbing skills.  This is where Sir Edmund Hillary trained before achieving the first ascent of Everest in 1953, and you will soon understand why.  You can also get a helicopter trip here around Mt. Cook and the Glaciers if you have some spare cash.

Mount Cook, South Island
The towering mountain and its scale

Heading to the Islands coast

After staying in the Mt. Cook area, where you also get some amazing night sky opportunities.  Head off towards the coast down the Route 83.  This will take you through some more rolling hills until you reach Moeraki.  On the beach here there is an excellent opportunity to get a seascape image of the Moeraki Boulders.  These are natural spheres that lie on the beach.  We stayed at the town of Hampden in the Moeraki Boulders Motel as a sunrise shot is probably your best bet of getting the best light.  Get there early as it does get busy with tourists just after sunrise.

The Moeraki Boulders, South Island
Sunrise at the Moeraki Boulders

After Moeraki, head down to Dunedin for a nights rest in the town before heading off for The Catlins.  Leaving Dunedin, there are numerous options for seascapes.  We decided to take the coast road and check out the headlands and lighthouses on the east coast before arriving in Tahakopa in The Catlins.  We opted for an Airbnb here and the night sky was just amazing.  There was no light pollution at all, and the Milky Way was out in all its splendour.  There is plenty to see and do in The Catlins but a few to not miss are The McLean Falls (I did not name this), Florence Hill Lookout and Cathedral Cave.


The McLean Falls, South Island
The aptly named McLean Falls in The Catlins

A drive to the Fiordlands

After leaving The Catlins, it’s time to head to The Fiordlands and the quaint little town of Te Anau.  From this base, you can spend a week alone shooting fantastic scenery.  Head off on an immensely scenic drive to Milford Sound.  Take a boat trip and view the scores of waterfalls pouring into the sea and sit back, relax and take in the majesty of the lakes and mountains.  Accommodation choices in Te Anau are fantastic.  Be sure to book well ahead as this is the gateway to the Fiordlands and bus trips full of tourists are frequent. 

Lake Te Anau, South Island
The jetty at the Yacht Club, Lake Te Anau

From Te Anau, we head north to Queenstown.  This is like a small alpine town full of tourists.  We stayed here for a few nights and actually took a scenic flight to Milford Sound, which I highly recommend. 

That Lake Wanaka Tree

Once you have had some rest and recuperation, we head off north to the town of Wanaka.  Here you get to take a photo of that famous tree.  We stayed here for one night.  I got up extra early and claimed my spot at 6:30 when it was still dark.  Only a few minutes later, more photographers turned up.  By sunrise, I guess that there were 20 – 30 photographers.  So, my advice, you snooze you lose, it’s that simple.  We stayed at the Edgewater Hotel, which has a path that takes you directly to the tree.

Lake Wanaka
That tree at Lake Wanaka

From Lake Wanaka, we head North West over the Haast Pass.  Keep your camera ready here for some fantastic scenery.  This is one of the best road trips on the South Island.  Vast views from high up on the pass, long blue lakes, rugged mountains and calmness all around take you out to the weather torn West Coast. 

On to Glacier country

Once on the coast, we head towards Fox Glacier and the town of that name, where we stay for the night.  Take a hike up to the glacier in the afternoon then rise early to take a short drive to Lake Matheson and a small hike to reflection point.  If you are lucky and the rain has stopped, and the clouds clear you can get a beautiful shot of the glacier and Mt. Cook reflecting in the lake.  This is the reverse side of what you have seen before.  I wasn’t so lucky with the rain, but it was still very much worth the visit.

Lake Matheson
Reflection Point at Lake Matheson

Past the Glaciers

From Fox Glacier, we head past The Franz Josef Glacier.  If you haven’t seen a glacier yet, this is your last real chance.  Then on to the town of Punakaiki where we stop for the night.  Here you can visit the Punakaiki Rocks on the coast.  The rock formations here are a sight to see, and if you get decent weather, a sunset shot here is a must.

On our way to the north-west coast, we stopped in Murchison for the night.  I managed to get some images of Lake Rotoroa and the waterfall at Maruia.  This was created by an earthquake when the land simply just dropped by some 30 feet.

Maruia Waterfall
An earthquake created the waterfall at Maruia

A little bit of Island hippiness

From Murchison, we headed to the town of Marahau on the north-west coast where we stayed the night and captured a lovely image of the Split Apple Rock.  Then we took the fun drive over the Abel Tasman National Park to Takaka.  A hippy town full of wonders and a gin distillery.  We keep driving from here up to Puponga where we stayed the night in an Airbnb.  This is the most northerly point of the South Island, and we visited the famous Wharariki beach to view the seals and take a sunset shot of the amazing seascape.

Split Apple Rock, South Island
The Split Apple Rock
Wharariki Beach at Sunset
Wharariki Beach at Sunset

After another dark sky night here we headed to Nelson for a night.  Then took the scenic drive over to Blenheim for some very well earned wine tasting.  From here it’s a quick and easy drive to Picton where you get the ferry to the North Island.

In the time we had in the South Island there is still so much more to see and do than we achieved.  This just shows how amazing this place really is.  When I return, I’m sure I’ll take a different route and see more amazing sights I didn’t see this time around.

Example route for the North Island

We arrived in Wellington on the ferry from the South Island.  I’m not much of a city person, so I decided to start straight away with a drive to the spectacular Mt. Taranaki.  This is a standalone volcano on the west coast close to New Plymouth.  We stayed the night at Dawson Falls which is on the south side of the volcano and planned to do a pre-sunrise hike up to the Pouakai Tarn for a reflection shot of the volcano.  Unfortunately, the weather was not on my side, and I was advised it might not be a good idea to tackle on my own as its a 2-3 hour uphill hike to the tarn.  I settled for a sunrise shoot and a visit to Dawson Falls which are worth the small trek from the Dawson Falls Lodge where we stayed the night.

Off to Tongariro

From here we headed off to the middle of the North Island. This is an epic winding drive through rolling countryside, dirt road canyons and mountain passes.  We eventually arrived at the Tongariro National Park, where we had a lovely Airbnb and a view of the Volcanoes in the park from our front porch.  This is known to some as Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings movies, and we had some magnificent sunsets and sunrises here.  You get the sense of awareness here as they test the eruption evacuation warning alarms daily in the town as the volcano is still active.  One thing you quickly realise about the North Island is its geothermal activity is pretty high, and it’s not uncommon to see steam hissing from the ground.

Mt. Ruapehu
Mt. Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park at Sunrise

Napier, the Art Deco Town

From here we headed off to the east coast and the peculiar but charming town of Napier.  It has some very picturesque Art Deco architecture throughout the town and is very much worth the nights stay if you have the chance.  We stayed in the town where there are plenty of accommodation options, and I opted for a sunrise shot at Te Mata Peak, which is only a 30-minute drive to the town of Hastings. Here you get a glorious view of the mountain range and towns and coastline below.  You can drive to the top of the peak, so for me, it was a no brainer to capture this image.

Te Mata Peak
An easy drive for a sunrise shot at Te Mata Peak

From here we planned to head northeast and around the coastline.  Time was catching us up, so we decided to head to Taupo for the night.  Here you could visit some thermal areas and the waterfall at Huka Falls.  This is a magnificent sight, but as for the thermals wait until you visit Rotorua to get the best experience.  I went for the sunrise shot at Huka Falls.  It’s easily accessible from the road and car park (which doesn’t open until 8 am, but you can park outside).   Take the hidden track in the car park on the left to get the best viewpoint.  Not the tourist path over the bridge.

Huka Falls
The Huka Falls at sunrise before the tourists arrive

The north coast

From Taupo, we headed to the town of Whakatane on the northern coastline.  Here I photographed the Whakatane Statue on a rock just off the mainland.  There are also some epic views from the viewpoint on the hill, just out of the town of the Ohope beach.  This is one of the longest beaches in New Zealand.

Whakatane Statue
The statue at Whakatane

We took the road back from Whakatane to Rotorua (also known as RottenRua to some) where we stayed for a few days.  This is at the

Rotorua Geyser, North Island
Tourists dwarfed by the Te Puia Geyser in Rotorua

heart of the thermal attractions and by god, you know when you have arrived.  The constant smell of sulphur in the air is just unbelievable.  It’s like living inside a rotten egg that had rotten egg children to add some more rottenness to the act.  Spend some time here visiting the geyser at Te Puia and the mud-pools.  Then head off to the next adventure at Middle Earth!

Anyone who visits the North Island and is remotely interested in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit movies should visit Hobbiton.  Let’s just get this out of the way, we went, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We stayed at an AirBNB only 2km from the movie set and had a great night watching the stars also.

Hobbiton, North Island
One of the Hobbits houses in Hobbiton

To the Coromandel

From Hobbiton, we went to The Coromandel.   It’s time to photograph Cathedral Cove on the northeast by the town and beach of Hahei.  This lovely little beach town has options for motels and camping so you can ensure you get a good nights sleep before rising early to do the hike to Cathedral Cove for sunrise. 

During the summer the car park at the start of the trail is closed.  So start your hike for sunrise in the town at the bottom of the hill.  Once you take the 20-30 minute walk uphill to the car park, you then need to walk for around an hour on a trail.  This passes two other coves.  This means uphill, downhill, and around the coast, you go, not an easy morning hike.  But once you arrive here, you know, it was worth it.  A lovely secluded cove with a cave and sea stacks, what more could you ask for? Well, in my case some clouds wouldn’t have gone amiss 🙂

Cathedral Cove
The sun rises at Cathedral Cove

From here, we headed to Auckland, where our journey ends.  Again, not unlike the South Island, there is still so much more we didn’t see and we never even managed to venture north of Auckland which has so much to offer, but still, it was amazing in the time we had, and I’m delighted we took this route on our first visit.

In Summary

If you are a landscape photographer or an outdoor photographer, then I cannot stress how much you need to go here.  The opportunities for images, and the diverse nature of the landscape in a relatively small area, is just too much of a chance to pass.  It will test your skills but reward you with some images you will be proud of.  It will take you to places and scenes that are genuinely jaw-dropping.  You will experience weather and nature at its purest.  If you love art, then here is where you will find your Mecca, New Zealand is just incredible.


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