One of the brightest jewels in New Zealand’s crown.
The South Island of New Zealand has a great diversity of beautiful locations, and they are all relatively close together. From glaciers and snow-capped mountains, to fjords, rainforest and waterfalls, you can see and photograph a remarkable variety of landscapes in “photographers’ heaven”.
At the epicentre of all of this beauty is the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Named after the tallest mountain in New Zealand’s Southern Alps at 3,724m, there’s an abundance of photographic opportunity both within the park and in surrounding regions.
Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook
Where is it?
Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a four hour drive from Christchurch International Airport, or a three hour drive from Queenstown airport. It is situated next to Lake Pukaki, a stunningly beautiful turquoise lake.
Getting there, getting around
You can fly directly to Christchurch or Queenstown from Australia. Flights to Christchurch International airport are more frequent, however landing in Queenstown – which is surrounded by mountains – is more spectacular.
If you are flying into New Zealand from other locations you may well fly into Auckland in the North Island where many international carriers arrive. Connections to Christchurch or Queenstown are frequent. Once there, you’ll need a car or a camper van. If you’re keen to take great shots, you’ll need independent transport.
When you arrive, around every corner is another stunning vista, which is a frequent distraction for drivers. Although the roads are well made, you need be more alert than usual for erratic drivers; take extra care.
When to go
Spring (September to November) and Autumn (March to May) are usually the best times to go. Winter can lead to some terrific shots, but you’ll need time and the ability to be comfortable with potentially icy road conditions.
The biggest issue is obviously the weather; located in an alpine region, cloud cover often presents a frustration to getting the shot you want. The best results come from time and persistence, so don’t rush the trip.
What gear to take
I’m a big fan of travelling light, so typically I might take one main camera body and three lenses. A back up camera body is worthwhile insurance.
On my last New Zealand trip I took a Canon 5D Mark ll body (full frame 35mm), a Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 21mm lens, a Zeiss Distagon f/2 35mm lens, and a Canon 70-200mm f/4 zoom lens. I also included a Canon Extender 1.4x to give extra length on the zoom if needed. I never bother with standard lenses; I’m not generally fond of “normal” shots.
If you want to shoot wildlife, you’ll need a longer lens, say 300-400mm+.
I always shoot on a tripod, and take a laptop, cards, card reader and backup storage.
So in short, a wide, intermediate-wide, and a long lens covering about 21mm to 300mm range on a full frame sensor camera will be great (unless you wish to shoot wildlife). This range can be covered with a couple of well-chosen zoom lenses if you prefer.
Also essential are wet weather clothing and a small umbrella to cover the camera should you wish to shoot in stormy weather. A small torch can be of value, and good walking shoes or boots are recommended.
Specific places to visit
There’s an embarrassment of choice. You may wish to stay in the Aoraki / Mount Cook village where there are ten short walks nearby, and everything is on your doorstep. There is also a Department of Conservation Office at Aoraki / Mount Cook where you can obtain detailed information on walks and activities within the National Park.
Hooker Valley track
One of my favourite hikes is the Hooker Valley track, which is about a three hour (plus shooting time) return trip on a well-made track. It gives you a great walk, suspension bridges, and a view of Aoraki/ Mount Cook over the glacier lake. Early morning often presents the best light and clarity, and it can allow you to beat the cloud cover which comes in on an otherwise sunny day. A general pattern is that cloud often builds around late morning/early afternoon. Have patience and allow plenty of time; you might have to return to a favoured spot a number of times to get the best light.
You might also consider staying at the nearby town of Twizel which is about a 45 minute drive from the Aoraki / Mount Cook village. Twizel places you within easy shooting distance of Lake Pukaki which is in front of the mountain range, and is the logical place to shoot towards Aoraki / Mount Cook. It’s also within easy striking distance of Lake Tekapo and surrounding mountains. Whichever you choose, book accommodation as early as you can as there is always high demand for rooms.
There’s great opportunity to shoot around Lake Pukaki with the mountains in the background, and there are many areas of interest to explore around the nearby Lake Tekapo. The Mount John observatory overlooking Lake Tekapo is also worth the effort for a commanding view of the region.
Take time to plan your shots, and aim to shoot in the “golden hours” of light around sunrise and sunset.
Article by Peter Dunphy
Peter Dunphy is an AIPP accredited commercial landscape photographer with over 30 years’ experience. Peter owns and operates Great Photography Adventures which runs photography expeditions in the South Island of New Zealand. Find out more at www.greatphotographyadventures.com