In May 2015 I co-led my annual Autumn workshop to the South Island of New Zealand with co-nature photographer and friend Phillip Bartlett. Our 2015 masterclass workshop was a brand new itinerary that had been designed to provide us the best possible opportunities for photography utilising a number of different locations as bases in the South Island. We forgo trying to ‘do everything’ in the South Island in a single trip and instead focused our efforts on certain key areas to really maximise our chances to get everyone the best photographs.
The South Island of New Zealand is home to some of the most spectacular scenery and landscapes in the world. It is no coincidence that Peter Jackson chose this part of the globe to film the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings movies. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one see and photograph precipitous mountains plunging into temperate rainforest and wild ocean beaches in so short a space. New Zealand is home to an unbelievably diverse range of subject matter, all packed together in a very small land area. Glaciers, majestic mountain ranges, moss-covered rain-forests, hidden valleys, and ocean-beaten coastlines are among the incredible array of natural wonders found there. It is an island of ever-changing weather and spectacular light conditions. It is a country made for photography.
This masterclass landscape workshop was about maximising our time photographing in some of the most spectacular parts of New Zealand. Our small group size of just six photographers provided us a really small intimate group that enabled us to put in some long hours in the field in some of the most spectacular parts of the South Island. The workshop ran for 12 days (11 nights) and we stayed in good hotels which were functional and clean. We utilised several primary locations as bases from which we travelled to each shooting location. We had a good mix of weather and light during the workshop and although we encountered some rain in the Fox Glacier area we were still able to maximise our opportunities with some extraordinary light and conditions.
Day One: Christchurch to Twizel: Our workshop began as we departed Christchurch headed for Twizel, which was our base of operations for the next three days. The Twizel / MacKenzie area is surrounded by spectacular mountains and lakes, and is adjacent to the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, home to New Zealand’s highest peaks. We arrived at our lodging in the mid-afternoon and settled in before going out for our evening shoot of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mt Cook. We were fortunate get some lovely last light on Mount Cook from our vantage point.
Day Two: Twizel: We left our lodging pre-dawn and travelled up into the mountains to be in position for first light on the mountains. We worked the landscape in the Tasman Valley as the sun rose before returning for breakfast. Following breakfast we were out in the field again exploring the rugged terrain and Autumn colour. We returned for lunch and a short break, departing for the mountains again for the late afternoon light and sunset.Day Three: Twizel: Another early start as we set up to photograph first light and sunrise on the mountains. After breakfast we travelled off-road in our 4-wheel drives deep into the heart of the MacKenzie wilderness to photograph where few others venture. This part of New Zealand’s South Island offered us incredibly unique photographic opportunities in a very remote wilderness setting. We returned for lunch and a break before we headed out again for our last light evening shoot in the mountains.
Day Four: Twizel – North Otago: After being surrounded by mountains for the past three days, we departed on day four for the open spaces of the east coast. We arrived in the afternoon and, after taking a short rest, we split into two groups. Group one loaded up their long lenses for photography of the endangered Hoiho (Yellow-eyed penguin), which come ashore in the late afternoon after a day fishing at sea. These fascinating and very rare birds are so-called by Maori because of their distinctive high-pitched call. Our second group photographed sunset at the iconic Moeraki Boulders.Day Five: North Otago – Te Anau: Sunrise on day five found us on the beach shooting the other-worldly and alien Moeraki Boulders, unusual spherical rock formations embedded in the sand that make for wonderful photography. This peculiar natural phenomenon is contrasted beautifully by the wide-open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. We then left the coast and made our way west to the lakeside town of Te Anau, located on the fringe of the Fiordland National Park. We arrived late in the afternoon and photographed by the lake shore late into the evening.
Day Six: Te Anau: We departed well before sunrise and headed deep into fjord land to photograph the spectacular mountains and lakes that make this area so famous. Getting well off the tourist trail we travelled off road to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular and least known areas.Day Seven: Te Anau: We spent a full day in the Milford Sound area of the Fiordland National Park. We photographed dramatic mountains carved out by glaciers, lush rainforest draped in mosses and lichens, and crystal-clear rivers. We then returned to Te Anau, arriving in the late evening. We also took a cruise up the Sound to photograph the cascading waterfalls and precipitous mountains that plunge hundreds of metres into the ocean.
Day Eight: Te Anau – Wanaka: We began with a sunrise shoot on the shores on Lake Te Anau. After breakfast we travelled north through Central Otago as we made for another lake town: Wanaka. We arrived in the early afternoon and left soon afterwards for our shoot location, overlooking Lake Wanaka and the mountains.
Day Nine: Wanaka – Fox Glacier: We arrived at the heli-pad pre-dawn and were transferred up into the mountains to capture the sunrise over Lake Wanaka from a unique vantage point. After breakfast we left the lakes district behind us as we travelled over to the West Coast and our base for the next three nights: Fox Glacier. Along the way we stopped to photograph forest, waterfall and coastal scenery. We arrived at the village of Fox Glacier in the early evening and were straight up in the helicopter for doors off aerial photography over the spectacular Southern Alps.
Day Ten: Fox Glacier: Day ten greeted us with rain showers but we soldiered on and were able to capture some interesting reflections of the Southern Alps in the dark tannin stained waters of Lake Maethson. We also had a chance to catch up on some image editing and processing after breakfast as well as looking at the uses of Tilt Shift lenses for landscape photography. After lunch we explored a nearby rainforest, the perfect place for contemplative macro photography. In the evening we travelled down to Gillespies Beach to photograph the dramatic surf and drift wood formations in some fairly typical west coast wild weather.
Day Eleven: Fox Glacier – Greymouth: Day eleven again greeted us with sporadic rain showers, so we left Fox Glacier behind and headed north to the small sea-side town of Greymouth. We photographed the spectacular pancake rock formations and blowholes at Punakaiki in dramatic seas late into the afternoon and during the best light of day at sunset.Day Twelve: Greymouth – Christchurch: We departed Greymouth well before dawn and made for a quiet out of the way, and little known location where we could photograph some wonderful trees in a serene and peaceful lake. We had torrential rain on our last day of photography that really worked to our advantage – creating a lovely soft ethereal contrast in the trees. We concluded our workshop back in Christchurch with flights out in the late afternoon.
Our 2015 Masterclass workshop provided us with some fantastic opportunities to create really unique images and it was an absolute pleasure to share it with all the participants. The South Island of New Zealand is a fabulous country for landscape photography and should be high on any landscape photographers wish list of places to visit and photograph. Our 2016 New Zealand South Island Masterclass Workshop is already sold out, but you can still register to go onto the wait list or to be amongst the first to be notified when dates for 2017 are finalised.