A guide to the most stunning photographic destinations in New Zealand.
A fantasyland for landscape photographers, New Zealand offers a remarkable canvas of photos ops that are so stunning it’s pretty much impossible to choose the best, or even a top 10. So we chose 15. But this list is still just the surface of the photo possibilities NZ has to offer. We encourage you to visit as many of these spots as you can, but then get creative by finding new angles, and fresh ways to tell the story of these legendary settings.
And, a great thing about this list is that it doubles as a guide for must-see New Zealand destinations, especially for intrepid travelers who don’t mind a little hiking and alotta adventure.
1. The Alone Tree at Lake Wanaka
We can almost guarantee you nodded and thought, “Yup, seen this image before,” when you saw the crooked tree above. It’s one of the most iconic images in New Zealand. As it gives off a mystical Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones vibe, we feel this tree is most photogenic at sunrise or sunset when vibrant colors mix with a hint of darkness.
After you snag your shot, which we recommend getting from a rented kayak (as it allows you to capture the tree from various angles), explore the charming town of Wanaka and the surrounding mountains and farmland.
2. Purple Lupins at Lake Tekapo
If you’re exploring New Zealand in mid-November to early December (New Zealand’s summer) head to the banks of Lake Tekapo where fields of otherworldly lupines bloom. While most photos from this area are up close and personal with these flowers (which are actually an invasive species in NZ) it could be interesting to snag a bird’s-eye-view shot with a drone.
One of the most convenient places to stay in the area is Three Rivers Lodge, as it’s a two-minute drive to the Tekapo village.
Note: While you’re here, be sure to check out #6 on our list.
3. Milford Sound
We tried to pick just one spot to feature in the Milford Sound fiord, located in Fiordland National Park, but couldn’t – it’s all so good. This utopian location will easily drain your memory card, as it features the jaw-dropping Mitre Peak, soaring cliffs, dramatically dark waters, a tapestry of rainforests and waterfalls, including Stirling and Bowen falls, and communities of fur seals, penguins and dolphins.
The best way to capture this area is by boat, as you’re able to get into coves that are near impossible to access by foot. To capture unique images, we recommend spending a few days getting to know the area and how it interacts with light.
4. Cathedral Cove
One of the most famous photography destinations on New Zealand’s North Island, Cathedral Cove offers a classic shot of the water framed by an arched cavern. While you should definitely grab this image, there are ample opportunities for creativity and originality in the area, as the trail, pumice breccia rock, wide beach and surrounding pohutukawa trees provide a variety of nature-made subjects. Sunrise is one of the best times to seize the beauty of this area.
Between May and September you can access the trailhead at the top of Grange Road, from the Cathedral Cove Lookout parking lot. The rest of the year, you’ll need to park in the Hahei Visitor Car Park on Pa Road, where you can catch a reasonably priced shuttle from the lot to the Cathedral Cove trailhead. However, know that the shuttle only runs from 9am to 6pm, which isn’t ideal for those wanting a sunrise shot.
You can also make the 20-minute walk from the lot by following Hahei Beach until you reach the footpath. From there, start the 45-minute hike to Cathedral Cove.
If you’re hoping for a more unique vantage point, hop on a kayak tour.
5. Roy’s Peak
While you have to work for it, the 360-degree views of Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka from Roy’s Peak are worth the effort. One of the highest peaks in the region at 1,578 meters, this photo op requires an uphill, 5-mile trek that usually takes five to seven hours round trip - a hike that will make the resulting images that much sweeter.
Regardless of the time of year you’re visiting, bring layers, as the exposed trail and peak can get chilly. In addition, pack plenty of food and water.
You can find free parking at the base of the trail. However, the lot fills up quick, so arrive early to snag a spot and have plenty of time to summit and return before dark.
Note: This trail is closed October 1 to November 10.
Another Note: Don’t be discouraged by a socked-in day, as the peak is almost always above the cloud cover and provides photos that rival those captured on a clear day.
6. Church of the Good Shepherd
Located on the south shore of Tekapo Village, this itty bitty, old, stone church, built in 1935 as a memorial for those that settled the land, emanates a quaint charm that’s a stark contrast to the imposing alps in the background. While photos of the church during the day are spectacular, this setting is known for astro photography - it’s not uncommon to see numerous tripods lined up beside the church at night (but read our note below if you want to be one of them.)
The weather changes quickly here, so if the sky isn’t to your liking, give it 30-minutes and it will probably shift. In addition, be prepared to Photoshop people out of daytime images, as it’s usually filled with tourists – and for good reason. You can avoid these crowds by visiting at sunrise, or after sunset.
Tip: Spending a few quiet minutes of contemplation before you start snapping will help you soak in the essence of this sacred space, and hopefully capture an image that’s different from the thousands of others taken here.
Note: Professional photographers are required to get a Private Property Use permit. In addition, if you’re wanting to do astro-photography, you must join one of the church’s night tours. And, this is a no-fly zone for drones.
7. Whangarei Falls
Flowing in one of the northernmost areas of New Zealand, the 26-meter high Whangarei Falls offers photographers a lush setting for landscape photography. To capture various angles of this curtain waterfall, check out the three viewing platforms above the falls, and the gravel track along the shore beneath it.
8. Nugget Point Lighthouse
Built in 1870, this lighthouse is perched on a headland above an intriguing crop of partially submerged rocks. These boulders, which the English explorer Captain Cook thought looked like nuggets of gold, inspired the nugget moniker.
Especially dramatic on a partially cloudy day, this spot is best photographed from the right side of the trail leading to the lighthouse, as it allows you to capture both the lighthouse and the “nuggets.”
And be sure to bring your telephoto lens - there are almost always fur seals in the surf, in addition to the chance of spotting the world’s rarest penguin (Yellow-Eyed Penguin), sea lions, elephant seals and dolphins. Your best chance of spotting these creatures is during sunrise or dusk.
9. Hobbiton (The Shire)
Whether you’re a fantasy geek like us or not, you’ll have to roll up your tongue after witnessing this whimsical hobbit community – aka The Shire - built into an idyllic hillside for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
During your tour, where photography is obviously allowed, you’ll explore many of the 44 hobbit holes built on this 12-acre pocket of Middle-earth, and will even have the chance to experience a banquet feast in the Green Dragon Inn. The various tours allow you to explore The Shire during the day, or at dusk.
10. Castlepoint Lighthouse
Standing 52-meters above sea level, Castlepoint is the tallest lighthouse on New Zealand’s North Island. While this spot has a lot going for it, one of the most intriguing features is a long boardwalk winding to the lighthouse, serving to draw the eye to the main subject of the photo.
If you can make it here after a storm, you’ll likely be treated to a wonderfully eerie light that provides the makings for a captivating photo. In addition, windy days often produce massive waves crashing against the jagged headland.
Videographers can score a unique time-lapse video by capturing Castlepoint’s lightshow, which occurs every 15-minutes between sunset and midnight.
For directions to the parking lot, click here. From there, an easy 10-minute walk takes you to the beach below the lighthouse, where you can then take a concrete path to the boardwalk.
11. Nelson Street Cycleway
If you want to mix some urban texture into your New Zealand album, head to this hot pink bike and footpath that offers killer views of Auckland’s Sky Tower. Because metroscapes are often lacking in color, this pop of pink sprinkles originality on this city shot - although it’s a mega-popular site for Insta-photogs – but that’s okay! Yours’ will be better ;-)
12. Peter’s Lookout at Lake Pukaki
A primo composition of icy blue water, the tallest mountain in New Zealand and a winding road converge in photos taken at this pull-off on the road to Mount Cook, off State Highway 8. To score an image that’s different from the rest, try to shoot at sunset on a day that has an interesting cloud pattern (easy, right?!)
13. Mount Aspiring National Park
This is a hallowed location for photographers where you can pretty much close your eyes, point, shoot and end up with a gorgeous photo. I mean, numerous scenes from Lord of the Rings were shot here, so come on, it’s obviously epic.
With that said, there are certain sections that are truly spectacular, and a must-try date location for you and your camera. First off, don’t miss Blue River, which lives up to its name by flowing with water so blue it looks like it’s filled with the tears of an elfin ice queen.
Next up, Rob Roy Glacier Track. This three to four hour hike will take you past the Rob Roy glacier, river valleys, cliffs, bluffs and alpine vistas that will make you think you’re on a glory-filled adventure to a mountain filled with Orcs. And make sure to take photos at the suspension bridge.
Finally, there’s the astounding Routeburn Track that connects Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park. Tackling this trail takes three days and backpacking skills, but is well worth the sweat, as it will take you past vistas we’re pretty certain will change your life.
14. Lake Marian
At the base of a hanging valley in Fiordland National Park is Lake Marian, a small turquoise body of water that’s a dream for mirror (aka reflective) photography. Although the lake is the treasure at rainbow’s end, the trail to the lake (about 4.4 miles roundtrip) offers a beautiful trek past moss-covered forests, waterfalls and a river.
Tips for reflective photography:
Capture your image early in the morning.
Shoot in calm weather. But if you have to shoot in the wind, use a long shutter speed (around 120 seconds) to smooth out a rough surface.
Keep the entire scene in focus by using a narrow aperture (around f/11)
Use a fast shutter speed.
Focus on a focal point in the water.
15. Waiohine Gorge Suspension Bridge
If you’re afraid of heights, this bridge will test you. But pushing past that fear will make the stunning photos you take of the gorge from the bridge’s bouncy surface (don’t worry, it’s safe!) all the more satisfying.