Who doesn't love crunching through leaves underfoot while marvelling at the myriad of autumn tones from copper, to burnt orange and bright sunshine yellow?! But it's even better if you can capture the scene on camera for all time right?!
Experiencing the incredible autumn colour in the South Island is a given if you're visiting in mid to late April. However every year the colour comes at a slightly different time depending on how dry the soil is and what the weather has been in the months before autumn, so it pays to have some flexibility in when you choose to go. Or if you have to plan ahead I would aim for around 15-20 April in the Mackenzie (Twizel/Tekapo/Lake Alexandrina) and slightly later in the Queenstown Lakes area (Wanaka, Cromwell, Arrowtown and Queenstown) around 20-25 April (since it's further south) to experience the best of the colour in each of these regions.
Twizel really deserves a post of its own - for me it's the heart and soul of where the autumn colour can be found in the Mackenzie and there are almost too many locations to share. Here are a few possibilities for you to explore:
Twizel's biggest lake has lots of hidden spots to explore, the most obvious is on the roadside looking back to the fir trees - there are some lovely pops of colour in the background if the light is right.
If you go into the campground entrance further up the lake and head for the lagoon area there's also some great autumn colour to capture here as well.
At night, the lake is also an amazing spot for astrophotography in autumn, the shallow water providing beautiful reflections, and the orange light from the campsite also accentuates the autumn colours of the trees, and the Milky Way lines up beautifully in the gap down the lake.
Still further again (heading west) near the freedom camping area there are also other groves of trees worth exploring next to the lake.
This always used to be a go-to spot for calm reflections and lovely colour on the trees on the little island in the middle. Unfortunately the trees on the island look dead this year, there's talk that they may have been poisoned which is a real shame as they make a nice feature.
Even without the trees on the island there are some lovely poplars across the lake which make reflections in the water or you can shoot them from higher up the hill looking along the 4WD track - this reminded me a bit of Tuscany!
This is actually my FAVOURITE spot to shoot the autumn colour in Twizel. It's just got so much going for it - there are a few places you can pull in safely off the main road and walk down the hill to the lake edge. I find this spot is regularly calm at all different times of the day, but in terms of the best light I'd come from midday onwards, and if you can come at golden hour you'll be in for a treat with lovely light hitting the trees when the sun sinks low enough!
Something else I love about this spot is that even later in the year, it still looks like an autumn scene (the two shots below were taken in mid winter on different years!)
Why not try a vertical ICM (intentional camera movement shot) for something different too?
If you drive (or walk) around the back of the lake there is a nice area with lots of trees all clumped together where in the right light you can get some lovely shots - ICM works well here too if the leaves have already fallen.
Across the road from Wairepo Arm is Kellands Ponds. The one downside of shooting here is that there are power lines to avoid looking towards the mountains, but it's OK if you compose wisely. This area also tends to lose its colour a lot sooner than Wairepo Arm. We experienced a banger Mackenzie sunrise here on our 2020 autumn workshop, the colours were almost too vivid, and I actually preferred golden hour afterwards when the light got softer.
If you drive up Glen Lyon Road from the town, you can capture a great telephoto shot looking down the road towards the mountains and it looks even better if there is snow on the hils, which is possible though not necessarily a given this early in the season.
Further up (just before Loch Cameron) there is a lovely red shed framed by trees and in the right light (often subdued light is better to reduce shadows in the scene) it can look stunning.
It was quite cool to see such a magnificent carpet of colour and leaves falling in the frame as well, that's the benefit of visiting slightly later in autumn (29 April) once the fall is well and truly established.
This is a wee lake that is often overlooked as it is tucked behind the canals, but is great for a sunrise and golden hour shot in the morning with views towards the Ben Ohau range which is I think my favourite mountain range, I just love the shape of this range and the contrast between light and shadows it often displays.
If you visit the south end there are a number of jetties with trees lined up all along the lakefront so you can take your pick of compositions here - it's rather like stepping back in time fifty years with the quaint, basic baches (or cribs as they are known down south) all along the lake.
Because it's roughly pointing north you can actually shoot here at either sunrise or sunset quite happily for different effect.
You'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to have seen images of Wanaka in autumn. The poplar trees that line the lake front all turn a brilliant colour, and you don't HAVE to get the Wanaka tree in shot, though that can also make a good composition (it was much nicer before it got attacked and lost its branch though - I must admit I haven't been back to shoot it since!).
If you want to go a little further afield I recommend checking out Glendhu Bay, it's always much quieter there and has some lovely spots for a composition including driving further past the bay and looking back towards Roy's Peak.
The whole of the Cromwell area is super photogenic in autumn with all the leaves on the stone fruit trees turning many different shades. One of the better locations to see this enmasse is Jackson Orchards. There are rows of trees pointing towards the Pisa range and in the afternoon you might even be lucky to catch a sunstar through a gap.
The drive through Kawerau Gorge is stunning in mid afternoon when the light is catching on the poplar trees yet parts of the gorge are in shadow. It makes sense to drive this way if you are planning on visiting Cromwell, so you might as well take your time on the journey, and there are plenty of spots to pull in and stop for a shot. I liked the contrast of the autumn colour against the barren brown hillsides and colourful river flowing through.
The roads in the area between Queenstown and Arrowtown are also worth exploring. There are many tree lined driveways awash in colour or distant views to the mountains with poplars to capture. Just be mindful that driveways are private property so don't just go wandering up them, it's best to stand at the roadside if you are shooting them unless you have actually been given permission to go in further.
Have I saved the best till last? Possibly! The words Arrowtown and Autumn go together like peas and carrots (good old Forrest Gump reference). Every autumn Arrowtown holds a festival for five days (usually around 20-25 April). If you don't mind crowds, you can head there then, but if not try to time your visit slightly before or after. Last year I was lucky to be there the day before it started and I pretty much had the place to myself at sunrise. The old policeman's hut is probably one of the most famous NZ autumn compositions, but even just wandering around the walkways along the river can make a lovely shot.
Don't forget to return to capture the golden hour light on Arrowtown hill in late afternoon - it's really worthwhile too!
One thing I have noticed on my autumn travels is that the Mackenzie tends to show a lot of orange colours, whereas the Queenstown area tends to be more reds and yellows so it is definitely worth exploring both regions. There are plenty of other places around Mackenzie and the Queenstown Lakes area worth exploring in autumn not listed here, and once you are in the regions, it pays just to drive around and see what locations capture your attention. The time of day and weather conditions play a huge part in how you see any particular scene, and if you have allowed yourself plenty of time it is worth visiting a location more than once at different times of the day too.
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