Lake Matheson: A Guide to Capturing The Best Reflections in New Zealand

Being a narrow island nation, New Zealand is used to experiencing wind, and lots of it, so there's no guarantee that you'll be able to turn up at any location round the country and experience calm reflections for photography. But there are certain spots that are known to produce amazing reflections on a regular basis and Lake Matheson on NZ's West Coast is the best of them all to get that perfect NZ landscape photo.

Why are the reflections at Lake Matheson so special?

When you've seen one reflection, you've seen them all right? Not quite! Lake Matheson's claim to reflection fame is because you're actually seeing NZ's tallest peak Mt Cook and one of its sister peaks Mt Tasman reflected in the calm waters. Not only that, but the natural tannins in the lake create a very dark brown tone to the water which increases the reflectivity of whatever is happening above - even better!

Lake Matheson Sunrise Reflection
Lake Matheson at Sunrise, 1/40 second, ISO 100, f/8 at 61mm

When is the best time to see the reflections?

Like most places in New Zealand, the calmest time of the day is often at sunrise, although sunset can also bring a natural calming of the day's wind as well. If you're very lucky you can visit during the day and still see the waters calm, but your best chances are definitely at either end of the day. I've shot here twice at sunset and three times at sunrise and each occasion was incredibly different and unique as you can see from these images.

Lake Matheson is also a great place for astrophotography if the skies are clear as it faces roughly east where the Milky Way rises. But don't worry if there is a bit too much moon on your visit as you can also get some great shots of the mountains by moonlight as well.

Lake Matheson by Moonlight
Lake Matheson by moonlight, 20 seconds, ISO640, f/2.8, 22mm

Where are the best places to get a reflection shot?

Luckily for us photographers, the kind people who created the tracks around Lake Matheson did so knowing that there were amazing views to be had along the way, so there are 4 quite different viewpoints that provide lovely and different views of the lake. The best location for photography is called Reflection Island as the track has been built out a little way onto a landing providing the most unobstructed views.

Another spot worth checking out is the View of Views (in the photo above) which is an elevated view through the forest to capture the mountains and lake, this provides a really nice frame to shoot through. Around the other side of the lake closer to the starting point is the Jetty Viewpoint for a slightly different and closer angle of the mountains.

What lens should I use?

The great thing about photographing at Lake Matheson is that you have a lot of choice when it comes to focal length. Using a wide angle lens is going to allow you to include more of the forest surrounding the lake on each side, but I've found the shots I like best from here are shot at around 30-70mm so a mid-range zoom is going to work the best.

Shot at 49mm

Also don't forget that using a long zoom will give you another perspective altogether, if the mountains have great atmosphere with clouds and lighting it's worth shooting between 140-300mm as well.

Shot at 240mm

How long does it take to walk around the lake?

To walk right around the lake will take about 1.5 hours but you don't have to do the whole walk if you don't have time. The walk anti-clockwise to Reflection Island takes about half an hour at a reasonable walking pace. You might expect that the walk around the lake is all flat but there is quite a lot of undulation along the way, you will definitely get a sweat up if you're trying to make it there in a hurry for either sunrise or sunset (which has happened to me too often!).

What is the best time of year to visit?

Any time of the year is great, but to ensure a decent amount of snow on the mountains, you'd be best to aim for winter and spring. I've visited here twice in early June and early October and I was lucky that there had been recent snowfall on my winter visit so the mountains looked very impressive, and there was still plenty of snow hanging around on the peaks in October too.

Moody Lake Matheson Sunrise, 1 second, ISO100, f/11, 70mm

What is alpenglow and will I see it?

One good reason to visit Lake Matheson at sunset is the opportunity to see alpenglow - the reddish sunset glow that is cast on the mountains since they directly face the sun setting in the west. To this day, this sunset is one of my top landscape photography moments in New Zealand. Watching the light on the mountains turn from yellow to gold, then a copper red alpenglow (just as the sun set) followed by pink and purple hues before finally fading to night was pretty spectacular. The shots below were all taken over the course of half an hour at sunset.

Golden Hour Glow, 6 seconds, ISO100 f/5.6, 27mm
Lake Matheson Alpenglow, 0.6 seconds, ISO100, f/10, 48mm
Last light at Lake Matheson, 2.5 seconds, ISO100, f/5.6, 57mm

Where is Lake Matheson and how do you get there?

Lake Matheson is located on the West Coast, 5 minutes west of Fox Glacier and 30 minutes south of Franz Joseph Glacier. If you're on a road trip the Fox Glacier TopTen Holiday Park is a great option and it's only 5 minutes up the road which means you get to sleep in longer for sunrise. It's about a 3 and a half hour drive north from Wanaka or 2 hours south from Hokitika, but don't race to get here as there are so many other amazing views to see on the drive up or down the West Coast.

What's the weather like?

NZ's West Coast is notorious for being very wet - it's the first part of the country that receives all the rain from the Tasman Sea so it can be hard to get a good window of weather - that's why if you get a fine weather forecast you should jump at the chance to stop in here. Being on the West Coast means it is also home to the dreaded NZ sandfly - they are usually out in abundance apart from if you happen to visit in midwinter and the temperatures are near zero - so bring insect repellant! Even if you can't see the mountains, it's still an amazing view - who knows you might even be lucky and capture a rainbow reflection!

Have you been to Lake Matheson, and did you get to experience the stunning reflections? Or is it still on your bucket list?

To purchase a print of Lake Matheson, visit my Print Store.

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