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  • Writer's pictureRach Stewart


7 New Zealand South Island Lakes you must photograph

If you are a lover of reflections, shooting ethereal dream like scenes and catching some of the most stunning landscape photography New Zealand has to offer, then look no further than the many lakes dotted around the country in the both the North and South Island.

I have to say it was very hard to narrow this list of South Island lakes down to 7, but these are the lakes where some of my most successful New Zealand landscape photographs have come from. Not only that, they are where I have very fond memories and where the experience behind the photo leaves me loving the place even more.

South Island Lakes New Zealand Map

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Up first, arguably one of the most sought after New Zealand landscape photos, the perfect reflections of both Mount Tasman and Aoraki Mount Cook as seen from the West Coast of the South Island ....



Lake Matheson sunset Fox Glacier

Hidden away just outside of the Fox Glacier township is one of the prettiest lakes New Zealand has to offer.

Lake Matheson's dark tannin stained water means the reflections on a still day are absolutely breathtaking, and next level for landscape photography.

Lake Matheson sunrise New Zealand


The walking track around the lake takes approximately 40 minutes and there are three viewing platforms to shoot from along the way. My favourite view point is Reflection Point. Here both Mount Tasman and Mount Cook can be aligned in the centre of the frame and the native bush just adds to the overall composition.

Lake Matheson astrophotography New Zealand


Lake Matheson is one of those rare locations where it works at both sunrise and sunset, and also has some of darkest skies in the South Island so is perfect for astro photography. It also can be shot using a wide angle lens (eg. 16-35mm or similar) or compressed (per first shot) on the 70-200mm lens.

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Situated in the heart of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, the terminal lake of Tasman Glacier really is one of the most unique lakes in New Zealand and you only have to read about its history to know why.

Tasman Lake sunrise New Zealand

Back in the early 1970's, Tasman Lake was no more than a few melt water ponds on the Tasman Glacier. Now it is 7km long and growing at an accelerating rate. The glaciers in New Zealand are probably the most visual proof of the effects of climate change and how quickly our world is changing.

Tasman Lake aerial sunrise


It is because of the glaciers fast retreat that the lake can often by found with towering icebergs and incredible ice sheets during winter .. my favourite time of the year to shoot this location. Sunrise is my preferred time to shoot, but it works well at sunset also, and astro is a dream with those dark skies!

Tasman Lake sunrise Mount Cook


There are a couple different view points to shoot the lake from. Most of my images are taken from the track that leads to the Tasman River .. about an hour return walk from the carpark. To get the to the river, take the track to the right at the fork. To get the Lake View (higher elevation) take the track to the left. And then of course, there is the aerial option! Visit Mount Cook Ski Planes and Heli for information .. it's well worth it.

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It goes without saying really .. a list of the best lakes to photograph in New Zealand's South Island cant be complete without a mention of the Wanaka Tree. What started as a farmers fence post about 100 years ago has turned into the most famous photographed tree in the world.

Wanaka tree sunrise Autumn


Easily accessed from the shore of Lake Wanaka, the tree is best photographed at sunrise. Once the sun emerges from behind the hills, the light on the tree creates such a serene setting and the colours are incredible.

Winter Wanaka Tree sunrise

The Wanaka tree is a show stopper during any season of the year, but my favourites are probably Autumn and Winter. Autumn the leaves turn a golden yellow along with the surrounding trees along the foreshore, and during the winter the mountain backdrop is covered in snow.

If you're after a more elevated (and epic) view of Lake Wanaka I suggest the Roys Peak hike. It's not for the faint hearted, but its absolutely worth it. You can find more info on DOC's website.

Roys Peak Track Wanaka


Tucked away down a gravel road on the outskirts of Queenstown is one of the South Island’s best kept little photography secrets, Moke Lake. When I first started out in landscape photography, I had heard of this lake, but never seen it. I knew it took a bit of a bumpy road to get there, with a 4wd being a must during winter, which meant there weren’t many photographs around of it.

Moke Lake sunrise Queenstown


I’m happy to report that it is absolutely worth the drive especially when you are greeted with such a stunning mountain backdrop and the serenity to go with it. Moke Lake is actually a Department of Conversation reserve with options to freedom camp overnight for a small fee. Most of my shots are taken from the campground itself, just drive right to the end of the road and you will see it. If you're up for something a little more adventurous, try the goat track behind the campground .. NOT for the faint hearted.

Moke Lake hike from above Queenstown


The lake points south so when there is any aurora action, this is the place you want to be to capture the Aurora Borealis. It is gorgeous at sunrise and at sunset, and capturing the stars is incredible under the dark sky.

Moke Lake summer Queenstown


On the opposite side of the valley from where Tasman Lake resides is the Hooker Valley. The Hooker Valley track (one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks) is one of the best you can do in New Zealand with full views of Aoraki Mount Cook and the Southern Alps the entire way. And the greatest part is the prize at the end .. the magical scene of Aoraki towering over the Hooker Lake, a glacially fed lake full of ice bergs most of the time, and an absolute dream for a landscape photographer.

Hooker Lake Mount Cook

Hooker Lake was one of the spots that eluded me for quite a few years. Each time I tried it, I was dealt with poor conditions, until the 9th attempt where we took our workshop participants down to the lake and were greeted with absolutely perfect conditions.

Hooker Valley Track Winter Mount Cook


Even if you don’t get it perfect, the walk alone is worth it. There are many photo opportunities along the way and this location works at sunrise, sunset and the dark sky makes it perfect for astrophotography.

Sealy Tarns Mount Cook

The Hooker Lake and Hooker Valley Track as seen from Sealy Tarns.

For a detailed blog on the Hooker Lake check out my post Hiking the Hooker Valley Track Mount Cook Photo Guide.

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Nestled amongst the mountains of Nelson Lakes National Park is Lake Rotoiti, a picturesque lake with a famous jetty and home to some rather large eels that lurk below the surface. The small alpine village of St Arnaud sits along its edge and is the perfect place to base yourself while visiting this area.

Lake Rotoiti sunrise St Arnaud Nelson Lakes


The jetty featured in most of my shots from the lake is located at the Kerr Bay carpark. Adjacent to the jetty is the Kerr Bay campground, a perfect place to stay if you're wanting to shoot the lake in the early hours at sunrise and at sunset.

Sunrise at Lake Rotoiti Jetty Nelson Lakes

There are also plenty of day and multi-day hikes within the park where you can gain incredible views of the lakes and mountains in the area. For more info please visit Nelson Tasman.

St Arnaud sunrise Lake Rotoiti Nelson Lakes


Lake Tekapo Lupins New Zealand

Lake Tekapo .. probably one of New Zealand's most famous lakes and a well known tourist hot spot, but for very good reason. Home to the Church of the Good Shepherd (made famous in the James Bond film) and Spring Time Lupines, this little town has a lot to offer for landscape photographers and tourists alike.

The Church of the Good Shepherd sunset winter Tekapo


I prefer to shoot Lake Tekapo (the Church in particular) at sunrise as the sun comes up from behind the Church and colours the sky, and you are also more likely to have less people in your shots. Having said that, this location also works at sunset (picture above), but you will be joined with the many others who are visiting trying to get the same shot.

Church of the Good Shepherd astrophotography Tekapo

The Church is an incredible spot for astrophotography with Tekapo being in the Dark Sky reserve, but again, be prepared to take your turn with others who are also wanting to grab a milkyway shot with the Church.

Lupine season runs from approximately late November to early January, and this is the time where Tekapo is transformed into a spring time paradise bursting with colour. The position of the lupines changes every year, so some exploring is required, but you will always find them growing along the shore of Lake Tekapo and surrounds.

Godley Valley Tekapo Aerial Flight

If you'd like to see some of the most incredible views of Westland and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park from above, I highly recommend taking a scenic flight from Tekapo with Air Safaris and head down the Godley Valley, you won't be disappointed.

That's all for now. As always, Leave No Trace & Keep NZ Beautiful

If you would like purchase any of these images or would like further selection please visit my galleries or contact me.

Check out my North Island Lakes blog for your North Island itinerary

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