The photograph of the month for March 2020 comes from my recent expedition to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica (Read the Trip Report). The photograph was actually taken at Enderby Island in the Sub Antarctica islands on our way to the Ross Sea and is of a very rare and highly endangered Yellow-eyed penguin. I watched this penguin for a long time in trying to figure out how I wanted to photograph it and what it was I wanted to try and say about the Penguin and its environment. In the end, I opted for a very shallow depth of field with a 400mm f2.8 lens that really put emphasis on the striking yellow eye but still maintained a sense of the environment in which the penguins live. It is estimated that there are now fewer than 8000 pairs of Yellow-eyed Penguins left in the world; making them the worlds most endangered penguin.
My few days at home in Australia (where a large part of the continent is currently on fire) after my recent Canada winter workshop for Snowy Owls (Read the Trip Report) have already come and gone and in a few minutes I will be leaving for the airport again to start my thirty-day photography expedition from New Zealand to the sub Antarctic islands (MacQuarrie Island and Snares Island) and the remote Ross Sea region of Antarctica.
I have been wanting to visit the Ross Sea region of Antarctica for many years now and am really excited about what experiences we will have during our voyage. The Ross Sea region of Antarctica is an area rarely visited by people and is by any stretch extremely remote. Emperor penguins on icebergs are a real possibility in this region of Antartica and would make for fantastic photography should the opportunity arise. I am also really excited at the chance to photograph the Snares penguin on Snares Island – one of only three species of penguin the world over I have not yet photographed (I still have to chase down the Galapagos Penguin and the Humboldt).
I was hoping I would be able to lay my hands on the newly announced Canon EOS 1DX MKIII in time for this expedition, but regrettably delivery of the new camera will not be until after the conclusion of this expedition (although I have tested a pre-production sample – initial impressions online). As a result I will be packing both my 1DX MKII cameras. I did toy with the idea of taking my mirrorless EOS R but ultimately decided against it as I just find myself reaching for the 1DX MKII every time. This may well be the last outing for my 1DX MKII bodies (assuming delivery of the 1DX MKIII is prior to my 2020 Arctic Fox expedition), which have served me reliably and without failure for the four years I have been shooting with them all over the world. I have not bothered to regurgitate the specifications of the Canon EOS 1DX MKIII here on my blog since that information can be found across countless websites. Suffice to say, I am very excited about the new auto focus enhancements and am very keen to get my hands on one and test it out in the field.
As this is a thirty-day expedition I will be packing the following equipment:
2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII cameras with spare batteries
1 x Canon 8-15mm F4L Fish Eye Lens
1 x Canon 11-24mm F4L Lens
1 x Canon 24-70mm F4L IS Lens
1 x Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS MKIII Lens
1 x Canon 100-400mm f3.5-5.6 L MKII Lens
1 x Canon 400mm F2.8L IS MKIII Lens
1 x Canon 600mm F4L IS MKIII Lens
1 x Sachtler Carbon Tripod and FSB-6 Fluid Head
1 x Pro Foto B10 Light
For those of you who follow my blog, I am pretty much going to be offline for most of January hereon and early February and as a result there will not be updates to my blog during this time. If you are contacting me while I am offline please be patient as it may take several weeks for me to get back to you. See you in New Zealand and Antarctica!
As is tradition on my blog, I like to do a “What’s Coming Up” post for the new year as well as reflect back, and wrap up the year that was (its a great way for me to keep a record of my travels and photography and also helps me prepare for the coming year). Even though I ran less workshops than the previous year, 2018 was a frantic year and when I look back at all the destinations and all of the photography its actually hard to reconcile that it all happened in a single year. It was a year that included some absolutely superb photographic destinations and some really incredible experiences.
In equipment terms 2018 was relatively quiet for me with no major changes to my camera line-up. As I wrote both last year and the year before, the Canon EOS 1DX MKII remains the best DSLR camera I have ever used regardless of price, brand or model. I actually managed to get through an entire year without purchasing a new camera or a new lens! I cannot recall the last time I managed to do that! It was a close call on the new Canon mirrorless camera, but after trying one I decided it did not really offer me anything that would improve my photography at this point. Perhaps future generations of the mirrorless system might better suit my needs.
My gear pick for the 2018 year (I always choose something I actually own) is somewhat of a tough choice as I did not actually purchase a new camera or lens. I did however purchase the newly designed Sachtler Flowtech 75 tripod and this has definitely become my favourite tripod. Its super fast to set up in the field, its light, strong, exceptionally sturdy and extremely versatile with its spiked and rubber feet. I also very much like the flexibility that comes with different positions when splaying the legs.
2019 should be a fairly interesting year in equipment terms. I expect to see several new L series lenses from Canon that will predominantly be in the new RF mount. I highly doubt we will see any new pro DSLR bodies until early 2020 – a 1DX MKIII announcement late 2019 is probable. The much rumoured 600mm F4 DO lens (a patent has been filed by Canon and they have shown a prototype) has not as yet eventuated and my gut feeling is that when it finally does it will almost certainly appear in an RF mount only. In fact, I expect the majority of new lenses Canon releases in 2019 to be in RF mount only.
Last year I am gave the nod to Ragnar Axelsson’s excellent Faces of the North for my book pick of the year. For 2018 I am giving the guernsey to Inherit the Dust by Nick Brandt. Nick has continued to lead the charge in black and white elephant photography; producing absolutely superb imagery that is both emotional and timeless. His style and approach are highly imitated, but rarely if ever matched. Inherit the Dust is a wonderful (although sombre) look at what we are doing to our planet. I definitely recommend you check it out and consider adding it to your library.
Over the course of this year I also published my own favourite twelve photographs here on my blog. Please be sure to check them out and let me know what you thought. I don’t usually have an overall favourite from a given year, although I definitely have a soft spot for the Wolverine I photographed in northern Finland in Autumn this year during a scouting trip. As below, I have a new workshop for Wolverine and Wolves that will kick off next Autumn in Northern Finland (only two places remaining before it will be sold out).
2018 was also another huge year for me both with destinations visited and sheer number of international miles travelled. The year kicked off in early February with a winter workshop to Lofoten (Read the Trip Report). The landscape of these islands are really quite something to behold. Precipitous and ominous peaks that rise straight out of the ocean loom over small fishing villages that comprise of bright red houses lining the shorelines. With a dusting of fresh snow and arctic winter light the entire scene is akin to a fairy tail location and subsequently the photographic opportunities were truly superb.
From Lofoten I travelled to Iceland to lead my annual expedition to photograph Arctic Fox on the north-west peninsula in Winter (Read the Trip Report). This was only the second time I have taken a small group with me into the nature reserve as this is an area very near and dear to my heart. During the expedition the participants made between ten and twenty thousand plus photographs per person which gives you a really good idea of just how many incredible opportunities and encounters with Arctic Foxes we experienced during our time in the Nature reserve. Many of our encounters lasted several hours and on multiple occasions we had the luxury of choosing our backgrounds and angle of view for our photographs.
From Iceland I travelled north to Svalbard for both a personal snow mobile expedition to photograph Polar Bears on the sea ice in Winter and to subsequently lead my annual winter workshop in search of Polar Bears, Arctic Fox, Reindeer and dramatic Arctic landscapes (Read the Trip Report). I spent nearly three weeks exploring the archipelago of Svalbard in winter via snow mobile in temperatures as low as -30º Celsius in search of Polar Bears. Bears were thin on the ground and extremely hard to find this year. In three weeks I drove over three thousand kilometres on my snow mobile and found only one Bear. My winter ship expedition was much more successful with some fantastic bear and wildlife encounters.
From Svalbard I travelled closer to home to the South Island of New Zealand where I lead my annual landscape workshop with my good friend Phillip Bartlett (Read the Trip Report). Although this was a very successful trip for all who participated it was a difficult and somewhat frustrating trip for me as I was suffering quite badly with a torn lateral tendon in my right elbow at this point and was unable to lift my camera for most of the trip. As it turned out I did actually make some photographs I was very happy with during the workshop. I was also finally able to get my elbow back in shape with some very intensive physiotherapy on return to Melbourne.
From New Zealand I returned to Svalbard for my yearly expedition north of Longyearbyen to photograph Polar Bears living and hunting on the sea ice (Read the Trip Report). With our small group of just twelve photographers and our ice hardened expedition class ship we were perfectly prepared for ten days of Arctic photography under the midnight sun and it turned out to be an absolute gem of an expedition. July and August are just a fantastic time of the year to visit Svalbard. With twenty four hours of daylight (the sun never sets this time of year) the opportunities for photography are literally non-stop and we took advantage on many occasions to photograph late into the evening and early hours of the morning.
After a short break I returned to the deserts of Namibia to lead my bi-annual workshop for both landscape and wildlife to this fantastic country (Read the Trip Report). This was my fourth workshop to the desert of Namibia and the first time I had ventured north into the wildlife rich region of Etosha. It was also the first time I have scheduled this workshop for October (instead of April / May when there is often more cloud). October was a deliberate choice for this safari as it is the end of the dry season in Etosha. Water is at its most scarce and the wildlife is thus forced to congregate around the last few remaining watering holes whilst they wait for the rains and the start of the wet season.
I then wrapped up the year with my expedition to photograph Emperor Penguins on the remote sea ice at Gould Bay in Antarctica (Read the Trip Report). The colony at Gould Bay is actually the most southerly Emperor Penguin colony in Antarctica and is also one of, if not the most, difficult colonies to reach. This was my third expedition to this remote region of Antarctica and it proved extremely productive. This was also the first time I have been able to properly explore and photograph one of Antarctica’s dry valleys – a location not far from Union Glacier known as the Elephants Head. I also took the opportunity on this expedition to shoot some video and I hope to get some time in the new year to edit it all together into a short experience video to share here on my blog and website.
All up I led a total of seven separate international workshops and expeditions in 2018 spread across the globe (not including personal work, some local private workshops to the Great Ocean Road as well as one-on-one Print workshops). A brief count tallies up over fifty plane segments and nearly sixty thousand exposures (not all keepers unfortunately!) It was a fantastic year and I just want to thank all of you who I was fortunate to meet, travel and photograph with throughout the year. It was real privilege to share in such remarkable destinations with so many fantastic passionate photographers – thank you.
2019 is ready to get underway and I am really excited about whats in store. In mid January I will be making my first trip to northern Canada in winter to photograph Snowy Owls. Snowy Owls have been on my wish list for many years and I now finally have the right local contact to photograph them in the wild on private land. This exploratory trip is the precursor to an already sold out workshop to photograph these magnificent birds that I will lead back to this part of Canada in late 2019.
From Canada I will travel back to Finland in winter to lead my Sold Out workshop for Wolverine, Wolves, Eagles, Owls and winter landscapes. Northern Finland has quickly become one of my favourite destinations for wildlife photography. Not only does it offer fantastic opportunities for wildlife, but it does so in an absolutely superb winter setting. The opportunities for a landscape draped in fresh winter snow and the stunning Aurora Borealis can make for incredible photography.
From Finland I will travel back to Iceland for my annual SOLD OUT expedition to photograph Arctic fox in the Hornstrandir Nature reserve in winter. Arctic Foxes are unfortunately hunted and shot across most of Iceland making them extremely shy and difficult to find (and even more difficult to photograph). In the remote north-west however the Arctic Foxes are protected inside the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and can be more easily approached and photographed. We will be staying in a small remote cabin that is rustic, but functional and clean and we will have up to 10 hours of good light during the day with which to photograph the Arctic foxes. With luck, we may also see and photograph the spectacular Northern lights.
From Iceland I will travel directly to Svalbard for both personal work (on snow mobile) and to lead a brand new SOLD OUT expedition via snow mobile for both wildlife and landscape in a stunning winter setting. I have been returning to Svalbard in Winter for quite a few years now and have found the opportunities afforded by exploring via snow mobile to be truly unique and very special. Be sure to check out the video below that my friend Abraham shot during the filming of Ghosts of the Arctic.
At the conclusion of the snow mobile expeditions I will lead my SOLD OUT annual winter ship expedition in search of Polar Bears, Arctic Fox, Reindeer and Arctic landscapes. The main focus of this expedition will be Arctic winter light, landscape and wildlife. In March and April the light conditions in Svalbard are magical. The 2019 expedition is long sold out and places are already limited for the 2020 expedition. If you would like more information or would like to reserve one of the remaining places for 2020 please drop me an email at any time.
From Svalbard I will return to Australia for a short break before I lead two brand new back-to-back landscape workshops to the Great Ocean Road and wild landscapes of Tasmania with my New Zealand co-leader and friend Phillip Bartlett. I am really excited about these new Tasmania workshops. Tasmania is still very much an undiscovered gem on the global scene with huge potential for dramatic and unique landscape photography. The first workshop is long Sold Out, but there are still two places remaining on the second trip if you would like to join Phillip and myself. Just drop me an email to register your interest.
From Tasmania I will head north again to Svalbard for my annual SOLD OUT Polar Bear expedition to the High Arctic. We will depart from the small town of Longyearbyen and sail up to the edge of the permanent pack ice where we will spend out time searching for and photographing the king of the Arctic. With 24 hour daylight under the midnight sun we will have hours and hours of light for photography.
We will search the sea ice north of Svalbard for Polar Bears, Walrus, Arctic Fox, Arctic Birds and spectacular Arctic landscapes. Whilst Polar Bears and other wildlife are the main attraction on an expedition such as this it needs to be said that the landscape opportunities in Svalbard are nothing short of breathtaking. Soaring bird cliffs, plunging glaciers and dramatic mountainous scenery means there is quite literally something for every photographer. If you have never been to Svalbard you should absolutely put it on your bucket list. As above the 2019 expedition is sold out, but I am already taking bookings for 2020 – full details on my website in the Workshops section.
From Svalbard I will head to the Faroe Islands to co-lead a brand new ‘small-group’ landscape workshop to this spectacular archipelago with friend Martyn Lucas.The Faroe Islands are comprised of eighteen small rugged and rocky islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between Scotland and Iceland. The island’s position is unique and is the frame for breathtaking views; beautiful mountains, majestic fjords, dramatic sea cliffs; all in all a photographers paradise. The islands have a rich bird life, Including the largest colony of storm petrels in the world and over 305 bird species including Razor Bills and Atlantic Puffins. There are still two places remaining if you would like to join Martyn and myself. Just drop me an email to register your interest.
A few words on Greenland: Home to some of the most extraordinary geology to be found on earth, the red and orange glacial scarred landscape of Greenland stands in stark contrast to the electric blue icebergs that carve off its many glaciers and drift slowly down its precipitous fjords. It is a remote land of untamed and unbridled beauty that is rarely visited and even less rarely photographed. It is an incredible place to inspire the imagination and fuel your photographic desires. There are still a few places remaining on each expedition if you would like to join Daniel and myself. Just drop me an email to register your interest. You can check out a portfolio of photographs from Greenland on my website at www.jholko.com
After Greenland I will return to northern Finland to lead my new workshop for Wolverine and Wolves in a fiery Autumn setting. I first scouted this trip in Autumn this year and found it to be an absolutely superb time of the year for photography in Northern Finland. At this time of year the Wolverines and Wolves are active and the bears have not yet begun to hibernate. Additionally the Autumn colour is in full swing which makes for outstanding backgrounds. This workshop is for a small group of just five photographers – only two places remaining before it will be sold out.
And finally to round out the 2019 year I will again return to Northern Canada to lead my new Sold Out workshop for Snowy Owls. 2019 is going to be a very exciting (and very busy) year and I am looking forward to getting underway. For those of you who have made it this far – A sneak peak into 2020 includes brand new expeditions and workshops to the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica as well as a new and very special expedition to the remote east coast of northern Greenland on the very cusp of winter. More on this later.
I wrote last year that it was my hope that 2018 will be the year I published my new fine-art book on Antarctica. Unfortunately time conspired against me and I simply ran out of days to complete the project. I wont jinx myself by making a statement that I hope to finish it in 2019, but I will say I am going to try and allocate more time to completing this project. I have had some preliminary negotiations with a large international publisher and am now in the final throws of deciding wether to self publish or take up their offer for publication and distribution.
Lastly and certainly not least, I want to wish all of you a very safe and happy New Year and may 2019 be one of amazing light and experiences for all of you. See you in the New Year!
Somehow I managed to let June slip past without a photograph of the month update. Either I am getting old and forgetful or just had too much on my plate (I am hoping its the later). Either way this update is both my June and July Photograph of the month (I will try not to forget August!).
The June photograph of the month was taken on my recent New Zealand South Island Masterclass (Read the Trip Report). We were driving from the small town of Fox Glacier to Greymouth on our last full day and had just left town after breakfast. We rounded a bend in the road when I noticed the wonderful cloud and mist swirling amongst the trees and mountains. We immediately pulled over for a drive by shooting session and the following image resulted. The great thing about this sort of cloud and mist is it is constantly changing as it swirls amongst trees and mountains. I made a number of different exposures over a period of perhaps two minutes, but this is the one that best captures the feeling and drama of Middle Earth. In print this image absolutely swings with wonderful delicate tones in the clouds, mist and trees.The July photograph of the month was taken on my Winter Svalbard expedition this March (Read the Trip Report) and is of the full moon rising over the snow and ice covered Arctic mountains. I almost missed this opportunity – or rather, it is perhaps more accurate to say I owe a debt of thanks to Chris who remained outside to watch for the rising moon whilst the rest of us went inside for a warming drink. We had waited outside for over an hour for the moon to rise and had all but completely given up when Chris came inside to alert us that the moon was finally making an appearance over the mountains (thank you Chris!).
This years Masterclass workshop report is going to be a departure from previous years reports (its also my last New Zealand South Island Masterclass for the next few years). Rather than write my own report I am instead going to publish the report from Sebastien who documented our Masterclass on a day-by-day basis. My sincere thanks to all who participated on this workshop with extra special thanks to Sebastien for allowing me to post a summary of his report here. Be sure to check out his full report (including videos) and more of his photography from our workshop on his website HERE.
New Zealand South Island Masterclass Workshop
I’ve experienced a once in-a-life time photo expedition to New Zealand. This has been a dream come true and thus, I decided to document every location and photo session to share with everyone what this beautiful country has to offer. Every day, I made three to four minute-videos for each day.
It’s a long way from home
I don’t handle long flights very well. I can’t sleep upright and I get a bit claustrophobic after a while. I knew New Zealand was far from Toronto. What I didn’t know is that it was going to be a 23 hour journey to Christchurch. I’m bringing with me all sorts of ridiculous pillows, an eye mask, earplugs and every single gadget you can imagine to keep myself entertained.
Still no passport
My flights departs in less than 24 hours (Friday) and I still don’t have a (Canadian) passport to travel. I’m seriously stressed. You see, only two days ago (Tuesday) I became a Canadian Citizen (hurray) and right after the ceremony, the government takes away any travel documents you may have had earlier (Visa, Permanent Resident card…). They explicitly ask you during the ceremony to wait two business days before you can apply for the passport. Well, I can’t wait two business days or I’ll have to reschedule my flights. No way! I decided to wait one business day and apply for it today at 7 am (Thursday). Phew! I am in their system… I paid a hefty sum to get it as soon as possible and I’m getting my passport Friday morning, only hours before I board. I can breath. It’s sinking in. I’m going to New Zealand.
Itinerary & format
I’m going for 12 days to a place I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met, to do an activity that I’ve never done. In case you were wondering, I’m not going on my own and I didn’t plan this trip on my own. I’m going with a small group of six people led by two professional photographers: Phillip Bartlett and Joshua Holko; I highly encourage you to take a look at their breath-taking portfolios. I’m always a bit nervous of traveling with strangers, but in this case, I already know all these people share a passion for photography, the outdoors, the adventure and that is comforting in a way.
The workshop starts Monday the 30th of April at Christchurch and we’ll be staying in the South Island for the rest of the trip. Some of the places are not accessible by foot or car, so there will be two helicopter trips involved and the opportunity to do some arial photography.
I made it!
I’m exhausted, but excitement is keeping me alive. If you’re reading this on a Saturday, I’m writing you from the future; here at Christchurch it’s already Sunday.
Toronto -> Vancouver = 5 hours
Vancouver -> Auckland = 14 hours
Auckland -> Christchurch = 1 hour
I arrived at my hotel around 9 am, took a one hour nap and now I’m off to explore the town. The group will be meeting after 5 pm, if I make it until then. The adventure begins tomorrow…
Day 1- Christchurch to Twizel
I woke up at 4:30 am, but had a good sleep. We meet at 8:45am at the hotel lobby to drive close to four hours to Twizel where we’ll stay for the next two nights. Time to get a cup of coffee and some food at the Black and White Coffee.
2:00 PM – After making a quick stop at an iconic and very touristy landmark called the Church of the Good Sheppard, we made it to a little village called Twizel where we will stay for two nights. We’ve checked in at out our hotel and we’re off to catch the sunset. The drive was amazing, full of colours and contrasts. There is a mix of autumn foliage and snow which I’ve never seen before and apparently is very rare, so I’m looking forward to shooting some amazing photos. It’s a bit overcast but it’s starting to clear up.
8:00 PM – It’s been a long day and productive day. We went to lake Ohau… A crystal clear turquoise lake surrounded by mountains and despite not having any sunlight, I was able to get a few good shots . I will share a few of them with you tomorrow but for now, I’ll post this one below. We ended up the day going to a restaurant near the hotel where I ate what could very well be the best lamb curry I’ve ever had in my life. Tomorrow we start at 6 am so goodnight for now!Day 2 – Twizel / Mt. Cook
Sunrise is at 7:35 am so we meet at 6:00 sharp to drive to an undisclosed location near Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. It was still dark and for 45 minutes I could barely see where we’re heading but I can see the sky covered in clouds and I’m concerned we’ll even get a sunrise at all. The road is infested with wild rabbits and near the end of our trip, we came close to hitting a dear. I’m awake now.
We finally arrive around 6:50 am but the sky is still covered in clouds, it’s cold and I still have some doubts we’ll see anything spectacular… but then, the mountain peaks start to appear out of nowhere…
I did most of my shots with the 70-200mm lens, mostly at 200. My intention was to get a portrait of the mountains; get up close and personal. This turned out to be a phenomenal morning. No wind, great clouds and beautiful light.
Day 3 – Twizel to Moeraki
Today must have been one of the most challenging shoots so far. By now you may have figured that we’re doing sunrise and sunset shoots and today was no exception. A fifteen minute drive from Twizel at 6:30 am to a secret location to get a fantastic photo of the mountains and their reflection. Setting up our gear was quite challenging as it was not only dark but it was in a “swamp”. The peak of the mountains lit up with a pink glow as the sun started to rise.
Once done, we went for breakfast at 10:00 am and made our way South East to the coast. We’re spending the night at a famous location called Moeraki, known for its beach boulders. It’s a well known place which means you’ll inevitably find the occasional tourist bus, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. According the their official website, “the Moeraki Boulders are a group of large spherical ‘stones’ on Koekohe Beach near Moeraki on New Zealand’s Otago coast. They originally started forming in ancient sea floor sediments around 60 million years ago, and the largest boulders are estimated to have taken about 4 million years to get to their current size. We’re spending the night here to take a few pictures at sunset and another session at sunrise at a time where we should have the place to ourselves.
The afternoon session was the most challenging so far due to the high tide, the waves crashing, the tripod legs sinking in the sand, my bare feet freezing in the cold water and nailing the exposure and shutter speed to get that silky smooth water effect. Without a doubt, this has been one of my favourite sessions so far and I look forward to doing it again tomorrow morning. Here’s one of my favourite photos of the afternoon shoot.
Day 4 – Moeraki to Te Anau
We started our day at the Moeraki Boulders at 6:30 am to photograph them during the sunrise. Unlike last night’s shoot, this time the sun would rise from the sea which will make a completely different photograph with an impressive sky on the background. Luckily for us, the weather was cooperating, there was little to no wind and there were enough high clouds in the sky to add texture and retain the colours. The high tide has passed and this time I was able keep my shoes on.
By 9:00 am it’s over, the sun’s out, the hordes of tourists are in. It’s time for breakfast and to head out for a four and a half hour drive for a completely different challenge. Te Anau which will be our base for the next three days.
We arrive at Te Anau at 3:00 pm sharp, take a break and we head out at 5 to a quick photoshoot. It’s a bit overcast so take a different approach to photographing sunsets and we go for a (4 minute) long exposure. with the help of Joshua and Phillip, I’m able to capture this photo.
We finished the day by going to the Redcliff caffe for an amazing dinner. Tomorrow morning we’ll take our first helicopter ride up to the mountain to a location that is not accessible by car. Should be a good one!
Day 5 – Te Anau (Helicopter #1)
We depart this morning at 6:30 am to take our first helicopter ride to the mountains to get a different perspective. This is a 5 to 10 minute ride just to takes us to the top, but unlike the coming helicopter, this one is closed doors and only meant to get us up there. Once up, it’s starting to rise and we have a stunning 360 degree view. Everywhere I look is a different photo, different light and different composition. It’s a bit overwhelming and need to make a decision before the sun rises. I stick to a composition for a few minutes and work my way from there. One hour later, the photo opportunities are over; the light is flat, but the view is still gorgeous, it’s so peaceful and calm.
Day 6 – Milford Sound
My alarm goes off at 5:00 am. We hit the road at 5:30 and head to Milford Sound, one of the most iconic places in the South Island of New Zealand carved by glaciers. This was one of the places that actually made me come to New Zealand. It rains 99% of the time which makes a very dark and moody shot; and that’s what I’m trying to go for. However, the sun starts creeping in and the sky starts to gain some colour. After I try different angles and walk around a bit, we head to take a two hour boat tour that takes you around the fiord. All of a sudden I’m surrounded by high peaks with waterfalls, fur seals and heavy rain. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
On the way back to Te Anau, we stop a couple of times to photograph the crystal clear rivers and waterfalls next to the road. It’s now pouring and it’s hard to keep the lenses clean.
Day 7 – Te Anau to Wanaka
Today we leave Te Anau and we drive three and a half hours to Wanaka Lake, not without having one last morning session. We arrive on location at 7:00 am and the conditions call for a perfect morning, but we didn’t know we were in for a treat. I setup my tripod as close to the water as possible to get some of the rocks on the foreground. I’m really enjoying shooting during the “blue hour” here in New Zealand, that time of the sunrise (or sunset) where the sun has yet to come out and the scene is used with blue colours. Just a few minutes later, the scene changes completely, I need to quickly adjust my settings, but it’s not enough. I take my shoes and socks off (per Phillip’s suggestion) and I get in the water to get closer to the rock. The water is freezing, it’s not a pleasant feeling but it’s worth the shot. The sky is now bursting in colours and there are some dark clouds in the background and a ridiculous rainbow.
At 10 am leave Te Anau and depart to Wanaka where we’ll spend the night to photograph the Wanaka tree in the morning. After breakfast we’ll depart to Fox Glacier where we’ll spend our last three days and will be taking the second helicopter ride. We’re saving the best for last.
Day 8 – Wanaka to Fox Glacier
At 6:30 am we head towards the Wanaka Tree to get a prime spot before the rest of the tourists arrive. We’re the first ones there, it’s still dark and I immediately setup my trip and start shooting some long exposures (2 minutes). The Wanaka Tree is one of the most photographed icons in New Zealand so it’s hard to get an original shot but that doesn’t make it any less aesthetic. The tree has lost all its leaves and there are some birds resting on it; the scene has an eerie style to it so I go for that look.
We depart to Fox Glacier for the last three nights of our photography trip. At Fox, we’ll be waiting for the right conditions to take an open-door helicopter for thirty minutes to photograph the glacier from the top. This is the cherry on top, but it could very well not happen if we get rain and gust winds for the next three day.
During the road trip, the scenery and landscape quickly change and we begin driving through winding road surrounded by layers of mountains covered by a dense conifer forrest. Rain doesn’t stop and there are waterfalls everywhere you see. We make a few stops on the way to Fox to break the trip. Around 5:00 pm we finally make it to our destination. It’s raining so we call it a day, take some rest and we go for dinner where we celebrate my birthday :).
Day 9 – Fox Glacier
It’s pouring rain in the morning so we get to sleep in. Around noon, the rain seems to stop and while it’s still overcast, we take a chance and we drive about 20 minutes to a couple of place. With little light in the sky, the idea is to work with tonalities, low clouds and local trees and vegetations which makes it a great challenge.
It hasn’t stoped raining so at 2 pm we call it a day. We gather around 4 pm at a local coffee place to review some of our best shots and get some critique by professional photographers Joshua Holko and Phillip Bartlett. At 6 pm we regroup for dinner and we get instructions on how to setup our camera settings for tomorrow’s helicopter shoot over the glacier. It’s trickier than I though due to the fast movement, the brightness of the ice and the vibration and movement of the helicopter. I can’t wait, I’m so very excited about this!
Day 10 – Fox Glacier (Over the Glacier)
Today, to say the least, is the cherry on top, the climax of this trip. Just today, I shot a little over 800 times and that should tell you everything. But without a nice, clear morning, this wouldn’t have happened, so let me start there.
I’m in the final stretch of my trip and I’m just getting used to the timezone, bummer. I woke up at 7:00 and noticed there was more light than usual. I looked outside my window and there wasn’t a single cloud. The grass was covered in frost, there was some mist in the fields and everything looked calm so I decided to grab my camera and get out. That meant changing all the setting I had set the night before to get ready for the helicopter. I don’t have much time before we need to leave so I walk around 10 minutes from our motel to stumble upon this gorgeous sunrise.
At 9 am we head to the helicopter pad which is only a ten minute drive from our hotel. I make sure to wear a lot of layers as we will be flying as high as 9000 ft with no doors so we can get a clear shot, so it’ll get chilly. At 10:30 am, it’s lift off time. It takes us another five minutes to get to the top of the glacier, it’s swift. The pilot takes his time so that we can get the right shots and he is directed by Joshua and Phillip to make sure he has the right altitude and distance. Twenty five minutes later, we come down. I’m overwhelmed.
We go out again at 5:30 pm and the light changes, it is softer…warmer. This time around I try to leave the emotions behind and think a little more about composition, leading lines, textures and abstract shots but it’s not easy.
Day 11 & 12 – Fox Glaciar to Greymouth to Christchurch
Our time at Fox Glaciar has come to an end and for our last photo shoot at this location we head to Lake Matheson at 6:15 am. This requires a 35 minute hike with our headlamps as it is still pitch dark. Once there, we setup our tripods and wait for the light to happen but it’s overcast, and starts to rain. The sunrise never arrives but I’m still able to capture this with a 120 second exposure in the complete darkness.
At 11 am we pack our things and start making our way back to the East. This is a two day drive with a one night stop at Greymouth. We arrive on location at 4:30 pm, set our tripods, look for a composition and wait for the high tide to bring some big waves. What you want is for the water to climb up the the rock formations, into an upwards spray. We wait for about an hour but the tide is not high enough, it’s not happening. I get a “nice shot” but nothing more than a souvenir. Still, we enjoy the view and the weather .
Day 13 – Thoughts and closing remarks.
It’s been a week since I arrived back home to Toronto and I’m still going through more than 2000 shots. Yes that’s a two with three zeros to the right. The variety of landscapes, the changing light and weather conditions and the helicopter rides justify it. This has been an intense two weeks, constantly thinking about composition, shutter speed, aperture priority, exposure compensation, filter options (…) to try to get the perfect shot. It’s hard to make this country justice with just still shot and that’s why I thought of making these videos that hopefully give you a better picture (pardon the pun) about the experience, the landscapes, the vegetation, the winding roads… [Edit – Check out Sebastiens website for the videos].
I’m back with a different perspective on landscape photography and a broader and more refined skills that I will be applying in other photography styles such as street and cityscapes.
What now? In the next week or two I’ll be selecting a dozen or so photos that I will add to my portfolio and that would look stunning hanging on my or anyone’s walls. I will be updating this blog as soon as that happens. In the meantime, I leave you with one last video that sums up the best moments of this phenomenal trip. Thank you for letting me share this with you; farewell.