This is the second and final entry in a two part series providing an overview of my recent photographic trip across New Zealand's South Island. After finishing off at Wanaka, this second part continues the journey from Te Anau.
Day Five to Eight – Te Anau and Milford Sound
From Wanaka I headed south to Te Anau through Queenstown and past Kingston. The objective of staying in Te Anau was easy access to the world famous Fiordland Highway leading to Milford Sound.
It takes roughly 30-40 minutes of driving from Te Anau to access the stunning Fiordland National Park. From pristine forests to deep valleys to mischievous Kea Parrots, the park has a thousand photographic opportunities.
The Fiordland National Park has over a million visitors a year. So be prepared for the fact that it’s popular and at time crowded. To overcome the crowds, I started my days relatively late, only leaving Te Anua at around 10 o'clock. This timing meant most tourist buses had already travelled up the highway and were at the entrance to Milford Sound by the time I passed through the park entrance. By 5 o'clock most of the day were heading home or back to their accommodation save for those that had permits to stay inside the park. This meant at golden hour, I could quite easily have large stretches of the park to myself.
Walking away with a unique image from inside in the park is challenging despite the beautiful landscape in every direction. The high peaks stay fully lit in bright sunshine until the last moments before sunset while the valleys remain in deep shadow. Graduated neutral density filters were able to help with this, but not always. To work around this lighting challenge, look for areas with consistent lighting and contrast. If you get an overcast day, that’s a bonus, so make the most of it. Find and isolate a strong foreground. You want simplicity in the frame, not clutter from every angle. If you are featuring water in the frame, such as stream or river, use a circular polariser to cut the glare and add a bit of punch to the sky and foliage. If a river or stream features, use it as a leading line to draw the viewer through the image frame. Again, don’t always photograph from where you can stop the car. Be prepared to walk to find a good location. I found several unique and accessible locations this way.
Fiordland National Park
Canon 5Ds, 200mm, 2 seconds, f/18, ISO 100
No special tricks with this image. I just applied a Lee 0.6 graduated neutral density filter to the top half of the image to bring the mountains back two stops.
If you want a chance to capture New Zealand’s most mischievous parrot, the entrance to the Homer Tunnel is where you stand the best chance of finding them. I lugged a 500mm prime lens to New Zealand especially for this. To photograph Keas, simply be patient and the right moment will present itself. In between pulling windscreen wipers off of cars and destroying door seals, they will often sit in groups of two or three on the rocks around the entrance to the tunnel. Approach the Kea’s slowly and you will manage to get a good frame. Keep a clear and natural background and avoid the manmade clutter which appears around the tunnel entrance and the parking lot. If you can’t get close enough, don’t harass them. The Keas will eventually come back.
Canon 1Dx Mark II, 500mm, 1/200, f/8, ISO 800
With a bit of patience, Keas are brilliant to photograph. The trick is to isolate the birds and keep the background clutter free. Make sure you press the shutter when a catch light is visible in the eyes, as this brings life to the animal and the image.
I spent three days travelling in and out of Te Anau along the Fiordland highway. This left plenty of time for scouting on the first day following by planned shoots on days two and three. Give yourself enough time, as the Fiordland National Park rightly deserves it place as one of the world’s most stunning and pristine roads. If offers every conceivable opportunity for the landscape and wildlife photographer.
Day Eight to Eleven – Stewart Island to the Catlins
From Te Anua it was south again to Invercargill and then the port town of Bluff to catch a ferry over to Steward Island. Steward Island is 45 minutes by ferry from the southern tip of the South Island. With just one town and 85 per cent of the island consisting of the Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island is a magnificent and largely unspoilt wilderness area. It offers up stunning scenery and some of the word’s most unique birdlife.
Everything on Stewart Island occurs in the one and only town, Oban. To go anywhere, you need to walk or catch a water taxi. So I recommend that you pack your photo gear appropriately as you are going to need to some serious hiking. I lugged one DSLR body and two lenses around the island; my 500mm f/4 super telephoto prime lens and a 16-35mm f/4 for wider landscape images and a deck of Lee neutral density filters. Add your water and a tripod and the basics for a day worth of hiking and your load starts to add up. So get rid of everything but the bare essentials.
Bird photography on Stewart Island is tricky. Everything is heavily forested and this presents challenge is terms of lighting and clutter on the forest floor. A fill flash can be used to fill in the shadows but this can present a relatively flat, lifeless image. I lugged a 500mm prime lens around to capture to birds, but if I were to repeat the exercise, a smaller 100-400 zoom lens or similar would have been more manageable. I would also suggest giving yourself a little bit more time on the island. I only had three nights on the island and this is probably a bit short in terms of allowing ufficient time for bird photography.
Outside of bird and wildlife photography, Stewart Island is a pristine environment for coastal and landscape photography. With broad sandy beaches emerging from lush forest, there are plenty of opportunities for scenic environmental shots. Throw in variable weather and you can have some interesting combinations. The only challenge is that you need to plan your locations carefully. To be at the best locations during the golden hour, you either have to walk several kilometres from Oban or catch a water taxi (and often these aren’t available for the hours that photographers tend to keep). I spent my nights trudging back to Oban in the dark.
Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island
Canon 5Ds, 16mm, 2 seconds, f/18, ISO 100
Dull, overcast days are no excuse to put away the camera. There are still images to be had. In this image, I tried to keep some movement in the waves breaking across the beach and receding between the rocks by keeping the shutter speed at a relatively quick 2 seconds.
Stewart Island is stunning, if just for the sheer wilderness experience alone. I only got to experience five per cent of the island, but the island and the Rakiura National Park stand as a worthy testament to what can be done to preserve and sustain the earth’s natural heritage. Let's just hope it stays that way.
Day Eleven to Twelve – The Catlins to Christchurch
After a very rough ferry ride back over to Bluff it was then on to Papatowai in the south eastern Catlins region of New Zealand. The Catlins is best characterised as a mix of rolling farmland, forest and rugged coastline. Along the windswept beaches, you will easily encounter fur seals and sea lions. I wish I left more time for travelling through the Catlins. Despite this, over the space of two days, I still managed to visit Waipapa Point, Parakaunui Falls, McClean Falls and Nugget Point.
The first stop was Waipapa Point and the historic lighthouse which was built following a shipwreck in 1881. Standing forlornly among windswept tussock grass, the historic lighthouse makes for a pretty picture. The trick is to find the right angle that isolates a few key elements in the image frame and avoids the masses of tourists and the ugly footpaths which have been carved or worn into ground around it. Admittedly, I only had a couple of hours to spend at Waipapa Point, all while the sun was still high in the sky, but it would be an ideal location for a sunset or nightscape shoot.
Waipapa Point Lighthouse
Canon 5Ds, 16mm, 1/15, f/18, ISO 100
At Waipapa Point, I wanted to try something different and capture a new perspective. The gale force winds added motion blur to the grass and help build the foreground leading to the lighthouse in the distance.
Moving closer to Papatowai, there are a number of short forest walks and waterfalls which can make for dreamy images. The most accessible are McLean Falls and Purakaunui Falls both are which are accessible over well -formed tracks less than 20 minutes walk from the parking lot.
Purakaunui Falls is the most scenic of the two falls and the easiest to photograph as the three tiered falls are presented within a relatively small, natural amphitheatre within the forest. McLean Falls is much taller, cascading down multiple tiers through the forest. I shot both falls relatively conventionally adding just a three stop neutral density filter and a circular polariser. The three stop neutral density filter was used to slow the water while the circular polariser was added to make the foliage pop. When it started raining around McLean Falls, I was able to use just the circular polariser.
For waterfalls, I recommend retaining a little bit of movement in the water, so try not to let your shutter speed drop below two seconds, otherwise you get relatively flat, white ribbons streaking through the frame. In a heavily forested area, the best time to shoot is during the golden hour or during an overcast or rainy day. This provides relatively flat lighting which removes the strong contrast caused by sunshine filtering down through the dense canopy. If the rain falls, do not be deterred and keep shooting, as the causes everything in the forest to glisten and sparkle.
Canon 5Ds, 16mm, 0.4 seconds, f/18, ISO 400
Don't be afraid to boost your ISO in an effort to keep your shutter speed below 2 seconds when photographing flowing water. This helps retain movement in the water and reduces motion blur when the wind inevitably makes the foliage move. To make the foliage pop and cut the glare off the water, I applied a Lee Circular Polariser.
The last location was Nugget Point. With a narrow path leading along a cliff face to lighthouse perched high above a roaring coastline, Nugget Point is draw dropping. With the leading lines created by the clifftop walkway leading to the lighthouse, it is very easy to walk away with good images. I wasn’t fortunate to have a stunning sunset but what I did have a clear overcast day which lit the landscape evenly and helped create a moody atmosphere.
Canon 5Ds, 16mm, 120 seconds, f/18, ISO 100
I wanted to convey how variable and bleak the weather can be a Nugget Point. To do this, I applied a Lee 10 stop neutral density filter in front of the lens. This helped the clouds streak while also removing the people walking along the footpath. To add a bit of drama, I finished the image by converting to black and white. The footpath naturally draws the viewers eye through the frame and to the lighthouse in the distance.
Nugget Point is where you can try out a variety of different shots. For my images, I used a Lee six and ten stop neutral density filter to help remove the people walking along the pathway and flatten the ocean. These were then stacked with 2 stop graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky and the bright areas in the clouds. I recommend giving yourself a couple of hours around the lighthouse to choose and compose your images, as the weather constantly changes. What started at as a relatively clear but overcast day changed to ominous rain clouds back and then back to patchy clouds followed by bursts of sunshine. The best part, is that while you wait for the weather change, you can look down on the sea lions and myriad of seabirds which occupy the cliffs around Nugget Point.
Day Twelve to Thirteen – Christchurch to Brisbane
From Papatowai, it was time to head back to Christchurch and then home to Brisbane. My plan for another early morning shoot along Nugget Point was stalled by pouring rain but I did manage to squeeze in one last session at McLean Falls between the showers. The best part about rain falling is that it ensured that I had the entire falls to myself.
All in all, I travelled approximately 3500 kilometres across the South Island. In my mind, it has to be one of the world’s top landscape and wildlife photography destinations. From rugged mountains with snow-capped peaks to lush rainforests to jagged coastline, New Zealand is ecologically fascinating. The only downside is that this beauty is attracting millions of tourists each year. How New Zealand will manage to sustain this remains to be seen.
As a photographer, I suggest doing your bit by ensuring that you leave nothing but your footprints and take nothing but memories. Stay on the marked paths and be aware of how your actions can impact the fragility of the stunning landscape and environment which surrounds you. Make sure its stays the way it is for other generations.