THE TOP 5 WEST COAST PHOTO SPOTS IN NEW ZEALAND
The untamed beauty of New Zealand's West Coast is one location you don’t want to miss when you are exploring the South Island. The West Coast is where the towering Southern Alps meet the rugged coast of the Tasman sea creating the perfect canvas for any photography lover and adventurous soul.
Nestled between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps, this incredible region of New Zealand offers so much diversity and a taste of what New Zealand might have looked like before humans arrived. From stunning glaciers like Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, the always incredible Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, the cascading waterfalls and ancient rainforests, to the pristine and remote beaches of the western coastline, this place is a photographers dream and promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of New Zealand's untamed wilderness.
In my Top 5 West Coast NZ Photo Spots I will take you through my absolute favourite locations to visit, what season is best, where you need to go and what photo gear you need to take. Whether you're an avid photographer or travelling to explore, I can guarantee an unforgettable experience taking in the magic of the West Coast, where each moment is a memory for a lifetime.
Lets get to it and discover the Top 5 West Coast Photo Spots in New Zealand.
GETTING TO THE WEST COAST NEW ZEALAND
Depending on where you start from, there are various routes for driving the West Coast and seeing all the magic.
PICTON TO THE WEST COAST
If you have come across from the North Island on the Ferry and are leaving from Picton it will take you around 4 hours to drive from the Tasman region to Punakaiki in the West Coast region, which is a great place to start your West Coast journey (see more below!).
QUEENSTOWN TO THE WEST COAST
If you are starting your journey from Queenstown it will take you around 3 hours to drive to the Haast area of the West Coast. Haast is an amazing part of the West Coast to begin your adventures with more on this later in the blog.
CHRISTCHURCH TO THE WEST COAST
If you are starting your journey from Christchurch it will take you just over 3 hours to drive to Greymouth via Arthurs Pass. Arthurs Pass is a beautiful scenic drive and you might find you're stopping along the way to take in the mountains and incredible views.
WEST COAST NZ WEATHER
The weather on the West Coast is influenced by the Tasman Sea, the mountains and the Rain Forest that make up this beautiful region. Most of the weather here is generally characterised by high rainfall and a temperate maritime climate.
The West Coast is one of the wettest regions in New Zealand, with rainfall occurring throughout the year. After speaking with a helicopter pilot on one of my many photography adventures to this area, the clearest time to see the mountains is in the winter. The colder air means that clouds tend to form less around the mountains whereas in summer the climate is more rainforest vibes and cloudy.
The weather on the West Coast can be unpredictable, and it's not uncommon to experience multiple seasons in one day. Always be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions, including rain, fog, and wind.
I have been incredibly lucky on most of my trips (which mostly took place in winter) and have had clear skies and beautiful days on the West Coast.
THE TOP 5 WEST COAST PHOTO SPOTS IN NEW ZEALAND
PUNAKAIKI PANCAKE ROCKS
First up on the Top 5 West Coast Photo Spots list is the incredible natural formations of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Situated along the wild and rugged coastline of the West Coast, these unique limestone formations have been sculpted by the relentless forces of nature over time and are truly amazing to photograph.
The name 'pancake rocks' comes from the layers of flat, pancake like rock formations that have been shaped over millions of years. The most captivating (and guaranteed to give you a fright if you're not prepared) feature of Punakaiki Pancake Rocks is the stunning blowholes that send powerful plumes of water skyward, a dramatic display best witnessed during high tide or when the sea is at its most turbulent.
The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks track offers plenty of beautiful compositions along the way and is a very easy 1.1km loop track that usually only takes around 20 minutes if you're not stopping for photos. Carparking is available across the road at the small outdoor shopping centre and then you will need to cross the State Highway to get to the start of the walk.
I visited at sunrise and had beautiful conditions including wild west coast surf, but I believe the light would be easier to capture and be lighting up the pancake rocks better at sunset with the sun dipping behind you.
Be sure to take with you a wide angle lens (16-35mm or similar) to capture the entire scene and a zoom lens (70-200mm or similar) to get a close up of the waves if the surf is pumping. If shooting before sunrise or after sunset make sure you've got your tripod handy for those low light conditions.
LAKE MATHESON FOX GLACIER
Lake Matheson is nestled just under the incredible Southern Alps along the West Coast of New Zealand with clear views of the magnificent Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on a cloudless day. Surrounded by native bush and wildlife it truly is a photographer's dream come true. Well known for its incredible mirror-like reflections, this serene lake offers a unique opportunity to capture the grandeur of the Southern Alps mirrored perfectly on its glassy surface. There is often morning mist if you’re early enough to capture the sunrise, adding so much atmosphere to an already enchanting scene.
THE LAKE MATHESON TRACK
The Lake Matheson Track is a well maintained short walk that surrounds the lake offering amazing views at each of the three viewpoints available. The full walking track takes approximately 40 minutes as it meanders through native bush and streams. The track begins just past the Lake Matheson cafe and Visitor Centre and is a relatively easy walk with just a few inclines along the way.
REFLECTION ISLAND VIEWPOINT
Of the three viewpoints available along the track, Reflection Island is by far my favourite and where most of my images come from. Around 5 minutes into the trail you will come to fork with signage directing you to go left or right around the track. Take the right hand path and this will get you to Reflection Island first in about 1.5km. Head down the side path and the steps to the platform and there will (hopefully) be your perfect Lake Matheson reflection view!
If you've got a selection of lenses, I would take your wide angle and a mid range lens like the 24-70mm. If you have an ND filter set definitely try out some long exposure photography to get that reflection looking crisp and perfect.
VIEW OF VIEWS LOOKOUT
Not far past the Reflection Island viewpoint on the right hand side of the track you will reach the steps that lead to the View of Views lookout. This is a beautiful elevated view of the lake and mountains and my second favourite photography spot along the track.
The Jetty Viewpoint is a great one for astrophotography as the milkyway lines up nicely but for sunrise and sunset I find it the least aesthetically pleasing for photography. The mountains are off to one side and the composition is quite hard to frame, but it is still beautiful nonetheless and if you need a little rest stop this is a great place to stop and admire the view.
BEST TIME FOR PHOTOGRAPHY AT LAKE MATHESON
I have photographed Lake Matheson at both sunrise and sunset and can honestly say that either is an amazing choice for golden light and reflections. The wind tends to be more calm during these hours and you have a better chance of capturing a reflection.
If I had to choose I would be more inclined to go at sunrise as there are less people around and there can also be morning fog that creates that added atmosphere to the images.
PETERS POOL FRANZ JOSEF
Peters Pool is a beautiful small lake in the tiny town of Franz Josef on the West Coast near Fox Glacier and one of the best views in the Franz Josef area that doesn't require too much effort. The track is a short and easy 1.1km 25 minute return walk and well worth it for the incredible scenery. Carparking is available in the Franz Josef Glacier carpark and Peters Pool is signposted to the left where the track begins.
The lake has been forming and slowly getting bigger over the last 200 years with the melting of the Franz Josef Glacier above.
From the viewpoint and lake edge there are clearings to set up your camera and take photos of the beautiful glacial valley and mountains surrounded by native beech forest and flora.
I visited at sunrise during the winter months when the water was calm and the reflections were absolutely magnificent.
Be sure to take with you a wide angle lens (16-35mm or similar) to capture the entire scene and if you are shooting before sunrise or after sunset make sure you've got your tripod handy for those low light conditions.
Also keep an eye out as you drive from Franz Josef to Fox Glacier for the early morning fog amongst the trees. I shot this image from a roadside pullover just after photographing Peters Pool at sunrise.
The Hokitika Gorge is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. Turquoise blue waters, ancient native forest, limestone cliffs and being transported to the land before time is the feeling I get when visiting this place.
The moment you set eyes on the Hokitika Gorge, you're met with an incredible display of the vibrant turquoise waters. This is a result of the suspended particles of finely ground rock known as glacial flour. As the glacial waters flow through the gorge, they scatter sunlight in such a way that the water appears to glow with an almost magical radiance.
The Hokitika Gorge walk is a 2km loop track on a well formed path that takes around an hour to complete. When I did the walk it was raining but that didn't take away from the beautiful blue water and I was still able to get a few photos. I would love to complete it again in better weather.
My photos in this blog are taken from the rocky outlook about a quarter of the way in on the walk. I went in the early morning as there were less people around - during the day it can get very busy. These images were taken with a 6 stop ND filter as well as a polariser to try and reduce glare from the water.
WILSONS CREEK CHASM HAAST
Once a guarded secret, this location has now become a not so secret spot so I thought I would share it in this blog for people who are wanting to visit one of the most beautiful areas in the Haast Pass.
The Wilsons Creek chasm really is like something out of a fairytale. Mossy green walls, a trickling waterfall, blue glacial water and towering walls of stone creating incredible canyon walls to marvel at as you walk through this wonderland.
The walk into the canyon however isn't the easiest. Although it is very short and only takes a couple of minutes, be prepared to get your feet and legs wet up to the knee at least, and be mindful that the water is SUPER COLD. Like painfully cold! For safety don't attempt to visit this one after heavy rainfall and if you want to explore the canyon further past the 'photo spot' you would definitely need to hire a guide.
To find Wilsons Creek Chasm you will need to head to Fantail Falls in Haast Pass. Just before you reach the falls (if you're driving from Wanaka) there is a small bridge which has a pull over area just before it. This is where you can park your car, and then access to the canyon is by the bridge. You will need to climb down the rocks and cross over the small river to make your way into the chasm.
I have visited Wilsons Creek chasm three times and all have been during the day time. There is not a lot of light inside the chasm so you will definitely need your tripod to shoot in such low light. Being there at midday means you might have a little more light coming through the top of the chasm which will help with those shaded areas.
And there you have my Top 5 West Coast Photo Spots in New Zealand!
Thanks for taking to time to read this blog and I hope it inspires you to visit beautiful West Coast of New Zealand sometime soon.
If you are interested in prints of any of the New Zealand Landscape Photography seen in this blog, please feel free to head on over to my New Zealand Photography Print Store and have a little look around.