This is the first of a series documenting our photography trip to New Zealand in 2016.
Introduction:I’ve mentioned a few times in recent posts that Catherine and I recently traveled to New Zealand for two weeks. For such a famously beautiful country, nature photography featured quite heavily on the trip. This trip served as the latest and culminated source material for my post Travel Photography: Packing for the Big Adventure. I won’t go over the points of that post again here, but if you are interested, there are a number of corollaries between it and our New Zealand experience. For this series of travel blogs, I intend to publish five posts detailing each of the major geographic phases of the trip — mostly two-day blocks. As always, you can follow the link to our Flickr page for more images. Our plan was to start in the South Island, circle it in a counter clockwise direction, and then fly North to North Island, and make our way from Wellington in the south to Auckland in the north, with several stops planned along the way. This way, if the weather was getting cooler in what was their fall season, we’d be ahead of the onset of winter by moving to increasingly warmer latitudes. It all sounded good, and it also started really well, too. Unfortunately, Catherine and I have been very busy with other things this year, and this trip came upon us rather unexpectedly. As a result, we didn’t have the time to plan everything out as well as we would have liked. There were gaps in our planning for the second half of the trip, and some of the days, such as our time in Christchurch and Wellington, just ended up being travel days (mostly driving, with one plane ride) with no real time to do anything else by the time we reached the hotel. So, I will be skipping those portions of the trip, despite there likely being some great things to see and do in those places. One of the factors of our limited time, which any travel brochure on driving in New Zealand will tell you, is that while the roads are good, we couldn’t trust the travel times our navigation system (Catherine’s smart phone and rented portable WiFi) was telling us. Everywhere took longer, because like all tourists, we were inevitably slowing down to look around us, and stopping frequently to take pictures. Secondly, while the Southland is sparsely populated, the further north we traveled even in the Southern Island the more traffic we came across. It was nothing compared to what we are used to in the States, but most of the roads were single lane, and the North Island was more crowded still. By the time we got to Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city), traffic was as bad as in any major metropolis. That isn’t to say, however, that driving in New Zealand was stressful. It wasn’t at all. The roads were wide and well-paved, and there was usually plenty of shoulder to pull over. The tourists can be a source of irritation for the local drivers, however, so they ask that you slow down and let them pass you whenever they come up behind.
Queenstown, Arrowtown, and Wanaka (2 days):Our first stop in New Zealand was in Queenstown, a tourist spot on the long, winding Lake Wakatipu in the South Island. Flying into Queenstown was an experience in itself, as a good portion of the large airliner’s landing route wended down and in-between the Southern Alps. After we navigated through the small airport and got our rental car — a hilariously fingernail polish pink Toyota Yaris — we drove into town. They say first impressions are everything, and it took only a few minutes before Catherine and I were blown away, literally ready to move there on the spot. New Zealand immediately jumped to be among our favorite places in the world, and everywhere we went afterward reaffirmed that. The entire country, no matter where we went, was that jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Even the days of farmlands that we later drove straight through — having gotten somewhat used to the scenery — still made us giddy with how beautiful it all was. The autumn April weather was cool, requiring only a sweater and/or light jacket, and neither windy or rainy. That excellent weather held throughout most of the trip, with only a few exceptions. There was some fall foliage, but mostly evergreens. Everywhere we went was extremely clean — I would say amongst the places we have visited, New Zealand seemed second only to Japan in the lack of litter — and not at all crowded. What people we did meet, however, were all exceptionally friendly.
Queenstown itself was a lovely, small and modern tourist town, tucked along a serene lake in a bay-like formation, and surrounded by forested mountains. There were many good restaurants (a common theme throughout the trip), and not too expensive with the current exchange rate. As we spoke to the locals, though, they all spoke about how Queenstown was apparently growing in population and getting more tourists than the town could handle. I can only wonder what it was like before the migration started. We spent some time wandering the restaurants and shops, and the small, picturesque beach area both in the morning and evening. Catherine, always the birder, took a lot of pictures of ducks we had never seen before (we may do a post on New Zealand birds later), while I focused on landscape photography. As usual, I used my 12-40mm Pro extensively, but I also took a lot of fisheye images, as I am trying to get better at composing landscapes with my 8mm Pro Fisheye lens.The first side trip we did while in Queenstown was to drive to Arrowtown. This quaint and tiny tourist town is a great place to see New Zealand’s fall colors, and there are many historic shacks along the river, former homes of Chinese migrants during New Zealand’s gold rush. We walked along the forested trails and took pictures of the tiny hovels, in some cases no more than reinforced burrows. Along the way, we stopped to take some panoramas of the picturesque Lake Hayes — a perfect day for it. The title image is one of these panoramas, and I also used a portrait of Catherine and me in my last post, Travel Photography for Amateurs: Packing for the Big Adventure. One of the major attractions is a gondola ride to the peak overlooking the city. There are a number of things to do on the summit. So, on our second night we decided to go up and join a stargazing tour. I am a self-professed space geek and have always enjoyed astronomy, though my knowledge is mostly limited to Science Channel documentaries. Before the tour started, we had the chance to shoot the town vista while the sun went down, and I have included day and night examples of both in this post. The stargazing tour group was large, but the guides were very accessible and had enough telescopes so that everyone was able to see the features of the southern sky. Of course, most of these were objects that cannot be seen in the Northern Hemisphere. The other attractions at the top of the mountain included a restaurant and some more extreme activities, and at the base of the gondola was a bird sanctuary (which we didn’t have time to see). Knowing that New Zealand was a good place for it (unlike where we live in eastern United States), I took the opportunity to try out astrophotography for the first time. The guides were kind enough to let me spend a little extra time doing it, and even let me continue shooting after the rest of the tour had left and they were cleaning up. Even though we were above the city, Queenstown was small enough not to cast too much light pollution. For the first time in my life, we were able to see the Milky Way clearly. The night was clear, but the moon was very bright, which hampered my results a bit. I used the 8mm Pro fisheye, and manually focused the lens to infinity (which is easy to do for such a wide lens). Because the moon was so bright, I did not need a high ISO, but I still played with different ISO/shutter speed combinations to see what would happen. I left most of the rest of my settings at default, for better or worse (fortunately, they were probably pretty close to what they should have been). The shots looked great on the LCD screen, but I was less happy after seeing the results on the computer back home, which I attribute to my lack of experience in choosing the right settings, or perhaps in post processing. Nevertheless, I think the 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye looks to be a great astrophotography lens. Its combined wide focal length and fast aperture work well with the genre. The image shown here is the one I felt turned out the best. Though this was my only time photographing stars, I did do some moon shots later on in the trip that I felt turned out rather well, and which I will be detailing in a later post. Next, we crossed the scenic Crown Range, a much rougher, higher and drier terrain than in the previous locales. The road took many switchbacks through the mountains overlooking the valley floor, and we stopped frequently to take images of the vistas below us. We shot both wide angle and fisheye, and even played with perspective by using the Diorama Art Filter. This was also the first time we started seeing Harrier Hawks, which look like the Northern Harrier from the U.S. These predators are common throughout New Zealand, but we weren’t having any luck photographing one with our preferred raptor-photography method of drive-by shooting. Whenever we were ready for them, they wouldn’t come close. Whenever we were totally unprepared, they seemed to be all around. I don’t think we got any shots of one that I really liked, and we didn’t have the time to wait around for a better opportunity.
On the other side of the range, we visited Wanaka Lake, and ate lunch in the tourist town (relatively crowded by Southland standards). We would have liked to see Glenorchy as well while we were in the Queensland area, but ran out of time. So, the next morning we had an excellent breakfast at a beachfront restaurant, discovered the joy of Flat White coffee (which we are now seeing in smaller quantities in the States), and headed south.