I’m not kidding when I say New Zealand has to be one of the most topographically diverse countries in the world to photograph, with an incredible variety of landscapes in our tiny island nation of only 268,000 square kilometres. Bang for buck, I’d argue it must be the best place in the world to photograph so many different and distinct landscape formations, I’m certainly never lacking in inspiration for places to visit and revisit!
We couldn't possibly start the list with any other type of landscape, when our mountain scenery is by far the most photographed and admired. The spine of the Southern Alps runs the central length of the South Island, which means you can photograph mountains from almost the very tip of the island to the very bottom, and also from both the western and eastern sides.
Whether you head to the home of our tallest mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook to immediately surround yourself with the highest peaks in the country or whether you choose a more secluded mountain area amongst the alpine scenery and peaks of the Ashburton Lakes, there’s so many possibilities to photograph NZ’s beautiful peaks.
Getting an aerial view of the mountains can be the best way to capture them and if it’s something you can add to your itinerary, I highly recommend taking a scenic flight during sunrise or sunset. Here are my tips on capturing amazing aerial images on NZ scenic flights.
Another great way to get up close and personal with the mountains is to do a multi-day hike on one of NZ’s Great Walk Tracks. Opinions differ which Great Walk is the best for scenery but having hiked both The Routeburn Track and The Milford Track, I’d argue they are equally beautiful for different reasons, you spend longer with elevated views on the Routeburn Track but the walk through the Clinton valley up over Mackinnon Pass and back down the Arthur Valley provides such a variety of scenery!
Mountains in the North Island are a little harder to come by, but with the Central Plateau mountains of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and Mt Taranaki all taking pride of place in the centre of the island, there’s still plenty of opportunities to capture an impressive mountain scene in the north.
Travel to the bottom southwest corner of New Zealand, and you'll find Fiordland (one of my favourite parts of the country!), it's also the remotest region when you consider that some of the fiords here are only accessible by air or sea. The most famous fiord of all is Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) with its distinctive Mitre Peak at the head of the fiord. It lies at the end of what has to be NZ’s best road to travel, through valleys with sheer vertical peaks rising 1000 metres from the valley floor on either side.
Contrast this with the larger but far remoter Doubtful Sound (Patea), which is only accessed by a boat-bus-boat ride and it really feels like you have left civilisation behind. It's no wonder the Maori named it 'The Place of Silence'. Staying overnight here really is the best way to fully immerse yourself in this grand landscape, and better still if you can spend a few days here really drinking in the wildlife and spectacular setting.
For more Doubtful Sound scenery and tips on visiting this remote location, check out Experiencing the Place of Silence: 3 Days in Doubtful Sound.
For more Fiordland locations, check out 11 Epic Photography Locations in Fiordland.
Officially NZ has over 775 lakes that are at least 500 metres in length, and this includes some of the deepest in the world - Lake Hauroko in Southland is over 450 metres deep which is mind boggling! Lake Te Anau at 417m deep is also the largest lake in Australasia by volume so there are definitely some impressive lakes to explore around the country. Nearly 40% of the lakes in New Zealand were originally formed by glaciers, which is also why the clarity and colour of many lakes in the South Island is so impressive! I am a huge fan of shooting lake reflections, especially when coupled with an interesting background like a mountain range. Here are a few that you'll want to put on your list to visit!
Lake Pukaki is the gateway to Aoraki Mount Cook - and on certain days the aqua colour of the lake appears almost appears to be painted on it's that intense!
Hooker Lake & Tasman Lake (Aoraki Mt Cook)
If you visit the twin lakes of Hooker Lake and Tasman Lake in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, you’ll often find yourself surrounded by icebergs floating close enough to touch!
Lake compositions generally need interest in the background like the views of Mt D’Archiac at Lake Camp, or Lake Matheson (check out my Guide to capturing the best reflections in NZ) which has the added benefit of the dark tannin stained water enhancing the reflections of the Southern Alps above.
Walking into a location that takes a bit of effort like Lake Marian in Fiordland (a 4 hour return hike) also gives great rewards. Being tucked away in a steep valley, it's pretty common to get calm conditions here, and when you combine that with an epic fluffy cloud sunset, it's even more spectacular.
But even without an impressive mountain backdrop, subjects like a jetty can provide an interesting element to make a lake worth photographing, or even a tree! Some of my favourite jetties are on Lake Rotorua and Lake Tarawera, and who can ignore the very beautiful setting of The Wanaka Tree with the peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park framed behind.
While a tarn is technically little more than a giant puddle, some tarns are just perfectly positioned to reflect mountain peaks. Possibly the most famous and photographed in the country is the Pouakai Tarn, reflecting the peak of Mt Taranaki perfectly, but you can also find other little tarns in many places in New Zealand with a composition worth shooting.
Below are two with great settings, the tarn on the Hooker Track, and on the Milford Track. The trick with making a tarn reflection more impressive is to get down low - this will make the tarn seem bigger than it is and enhance the reflections of your taller landscape subject.
With a large variation of latitude and elevation from north to south, the variety of forest we have range from tropical forests in Northland and Coromandel, to mossy alpine beech forests in our mountain ranges. On the West Coast which gets significant rainfall every year, there is temperate rainforest and nikau palms to shoot, but even a trip to the imported Redwood forest in Rotorua still provides great opportunities for unique compositions and its one of my favourite places to shoot.
Forests can be quite chaotic places, and it does take some skill to find compositions amongst the myriad of textures and tones, they often look at their best when there is sun or mist breaking through, or if you incorporate a path leading through the forest.
For more on how to successfully shoot forests, check out my 15 tips for capturing fabulous forest scenes.
You can shoot a river anywhere in the world, but what makes NZ rivers so photogenic is the surrounding landscape, whether there’s a mountain view at the head of the river, or a narrow canyon or gorge to frame the flow. Some of the most interesting rivers and canyons are tucked away in remote valleys, so even finding them in the first place can be a challenge. The rivers in the South Island are often the most incredible and unbelievable colours - like the river that flows through Hokitika Gorge, due to the fine rock sediment ground by glaciers further up the valley.
The North Island has its fair share of hidden river locations too, I personally prefer to shoot locations where the water is an interesting colour, there are rapids flowing through, or there is something obviously interesting framing the river (like these 2 canyons) as some rivers in the north can be a bit wide and nondescript otherwise!
We also have a huge number of braided rivers in the South Island and often the best way to see these is from the air on a scenic flight to capture the amazing lines and colour contrasts.
Rivers often give rise to amazing cave structures like at Oparara on the West Coast, and Cave Stream near Arthurs Pass. There are several places in New Zealand where you'll also find glow worms inside caves to shoot in locations like Waitomo and Waipu (but be warned: these little suckers aren't that easy to photograph though as they are always moving!)
With our temperate climate and no lack of rainfalll, we have an incredible number of waterfalls dotted across the entire country. It's almost impossible to pick favourites as I love so many, but my final selections have been chosen for how unique they are in terms of how photogenic the composition is and the setting they can be found in.
Check out my Top 10 Waterfalls to Photograph in New Zealand for more information on these waterfalls and others, including what makes them the best to photograph in New Zealand.
Being an island country with over 15,000 km of coastline, lighthouses are an essential part of protecting ships from running aground in some of the more treacherous areas, and this goes hand in hand with lighthouses being perched in spectacular places. One of my all-time favourite lighthouse locations is Nugget Point, and I've visited there so many times over the years, despite it being almost 1,000km from home!
Another favourite lighthouse is Cape Egmont, it's so unusual to be able to photograph a lighthouse with a mountain peak in the scene, and this location delivers up a very unique view!
For more lighthouses worth visiting, check out 6 Epic Lighthouses to visit in NZ.
Some of our coastal rock formations have to be seen to be believed. In the South Island, there's the otherworldly jurassic looking dinosaur eggs at Moeraki Beach on the east coast, in stark contrast to the flat pancake shaped rock stacks at Punakaiki, or the Archway Islands in the grand and sweeping landscape of Wharariki Beach.
In the North Island, there's the ever-evolving and eroding Three Sisters formations at Tongapurutu on Taranaki's west coast, and the perfect symmetry of the Te Hoho Rock at Cathedral Cove on the east coast. You really are spoilt for choice! Many of these locations can only be accessed at low tide, so it pays to check local tide times before planning your visits.
For more coastal inspiration, visit my Top 10 Beaches to Photograph in New Zealand.
It might be news to you that New Zealand has a desert of its own but if you have made the trip up to Cape Reinga you might have visited and sand boarded at the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes - it’s as close to a desert as you can find in New Zealand, and you could wander for hours in the area among the dunes looking for unique and interesting compositions.
While technically the sky is not a landscape, the fact that New Zealand possesses some of the darkest skies in the world to shoot the stars from means it’s not something we should leave out of this list. We currently boast 5 dark sky reserves, with the most famous and largest being the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve.
You have never seen a sky so full of stars as you can here, the clarity and volume of stars is mindblowing.
With New Zealand's latitude relatively close to the South Pole, you might even be lucky enough to capture an aurora above one of NZ’s amazing landscapes.
For the best chance of success shooting the aurora, check out: 5 tips on how to successfully chase and capture the aurora in New Zealand.
So there you have it, an amazing and diverse array of landscapes from one end of the country to the other. If you weren’t already convinced New Zealand has the most epic scenery in the world to photograph before, then I hope you certainly are now!
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