It’s difficult not to fall in love with New Zealand, and especially the South Island! One could easily say that it is Photographer’s Paradise, which is actually one of the un-official nickname for Aotearoa.
After spending a year exploring the South Island, I’m sharing with you my favorite photography spots you cannot miss in the South Island! It includes well-known places as well as hidden gems. This guide will take you through the entire island. I put the list in anti-clockwise order so it could help you planning your itinerary (saving the best for last!).
1. Rotokura / Cable Bay – Nelson
Just 18km north-east of Nelson, Cable Bay is a great spot for walking, snorkelling, boating or kayaking! Walking up the hill will offer you a beautiful panorama over the sheltered bay and Pepin Island just in front of you.
Evidence of Māori occupation in the Rotokura area dates back to about 1150 AD! The area was well-known for being a great fishing ground! The laying of New Zealand’s first international telegraph cable gave the bay its modern name.
To get the best view, don’t stop at the first viewpoint and go uphill a little bit more. The track is just marked by red-tipped poles but is still easy to follow. You will probably encounter some cows and sheep on your way!
Tip: Despite the Māori name Rotokura meaning “red glow of sunset on the water”, I personally think that sunrise is the best time to walk up the hill as the first rays of sun rise behind the mountains.
2. Wharariki Beach
Close to the northern tip of the South Island (Farewell Spit), Wharariki (read: Fara:riki) beach is the most perfect place to enjoy a mind-blowing sunset. If you are lucky enough, you might as well spot some seal pups hanging around!
It is a 1km walk from the carpark through rolling hills before emerging out in the beach with the Archway Islands right in front of you.
3. Lake Rotoiti Jetty
In the Nelson Lakes National Park, the tiny village of St Arnaud lies on the northern shore of Lake Rotoiti. There, a couple of scenic piers give great photo opportunity.
In front of the jetty is Mount Robert, which is also one of the best day hikes in the South Island.
Tip: If you want a mirror lake, your best chance is at sunrise.
4. Lake Matheson – Fox Glacier
Located on the West Coast, Lake Matheson offers a stunning reflective panorama of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. It is a 5-min drive from Fox Glacier town and a 30-min drive from Franz Joseph Village, so it is a great spot to combine with a trip to the Glaciers.
The walkway will take you around the lake in 1h-1h30, and offers 3 viewing platforms, each with stunning views. It is one of my favorite photography spots in the South Island.
Tip: The trees-framed photos were taken at the View of Views at the top end of the lake, but the Reflection Island viewpoint offers similarly magnificent vistas. Again, you have more chances to get a mirror lake at sunrise.
5. Blue Pools
On your way down the West Coast, right after Haast Pass and 1h away from Wanaka are the Blue Pools. Located in Makarora, it is an easy and short walk with swing bridges through a beautiful beech forest.
6. Roy’s Peak
The iconic viewpoint overlooking Lake Wanaka is the reward for a 2-3h steady uphill hike. Although being quite popular, it is still one of my favorite spots in Wanaka and is one of the best hikes in the South Island.
However, don’t stop at the lookout and hike up all the way to the summit. It will give you stunning views over the beautiful Mount Aspiring and Lake Wanaka.
Tip: Most people tend to hike up before dawn in order to see the sunrise from the lookout, which is quite impressive. But because it’s a mountainous region, clouds are often covering the lake until quite late in the day. We personally chose to hike to the summit and go down to catch the golden hour over the lake. And it was magical as the fog suddenly vanished uncovering Lake Wanaka.
7. That Wanaka Tree
This symbolic willow tree just off the shore line of Lake Wanaka is probably one of the most photographed trees in the world!
Sadly, on March 2020, someone cut off the famous lower branch that was hanging horizontally out over the water… But even without it, the tree still stands up, weathering the lake’s rises and falls like it always does for more than 80 years.
Tip: Although beautiful all year long, and both great at sunrise and sunset, I believe that Autumn is the best time of the year, as the leaves turn golden. This happens usually around mid to late April.
8. Queenstown & The Remarkables
Just 5 minutes walk out of the town center, One Mile car park offers the most fantastic view over Lake Wakatipu, toward the Remarkable Mountain Range and straight over to Cecile Peak and Walter’s Peak.
Whether it be the sun rising above the Remarkables or the last light hitting Walter’s Peak, you can’t go wrong with this spot! It is definitely one of the best photography spots in Queenstown.
9. Milford Sound
Although being the most visited tourist attraction in the whole of Oceania, it is still one of my favorite places that will literally take your breath away. It is admittedly a long road from Queenstown (3h30) and still a 1h30 drive from the closest town of Te Anau, but the road is one of the most spectacular ones in the South Island and there is a lot of stunning stops on the way to break it down.
The impressive Mitre Peak, one of the most prominent peaks in Fjordland National Park, is often the background of a photography but the foreground can include various elements such as driftwood, moss-covered rocks, grassland or boardwalks. Milford Sound offers a multitude of different compositions and you will never get tired of it! I think I’m safe to say it is one of my favorite photography spots in the South Island!
Tip: Most people visit it as a day trip from Queenstown. Whilst it might be a time saving option, it is far from the best one in my opinion. Considering that only 1% of the visitors spend a night in Milford Sound, I would choose to be part of this 1% and witness the spectacular sunset and sunrise.
By the way, it is actually not a sound but a fjord! A fjord is an underwater valley carved by glaciers. Because these valleys are below sea level, they have been inundated with sea water, creating the fjords we see today. Like a fjord, a sound is a valley that has been filled with sea water. However, a sound is formed by the flooding of a river valley, not a glacial valley. This means that the topography is usually less narrow and more gently sloping than a fjord, but it is no less spectacular.
10. Purakaunui Falls
Purakaunui Falls is one of the many amazing waterfalls in The Catlins region, but they are certainly the most impressive. It is a short easy walk (20min return) to get to the lower viewing platform, which makes for stunning photography opportunities.
It is a great little trip combines with the nearby McLean Falls, amazing as well.
11. Nugget Point Lighthouse
Two photography spots here for the price of one! Both the Lighthouse and the actual rocky outcrop known as the Nuggets are stunning spots.
Located on the Southern part of the East Coast, they are remote but not too far from the waterfalls in The Catlins, mentioned above. This place is also home to some of the world’s rarest penguins, the yellow-eyed penguins with their distinctive lashes. You can try and spot them at Roaring Bay, just on the side of the road, close to the Lighthouse. Early morning or sunset are the best times for viewing as they either leave or return to their nests. The are is also one of the only places where you might see seals, sea lions and elephant seals in the same area (make sure to bring your binoculars!). If you watch the water for a while, you might see Hector’s dolphins, especially around sunrise.
Tip: Sunrise might be the most scenic time of the day as the sun rises above the ocean. But astrophotography is also amazing, with the Milky Way rising directly behind the lighthouse.
12. Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders is one of the highlights of the East Coast! Those sphere started to form over 60 millions years ago at the bottom of the ocean!
I personally like to think those boulders are some kind of dragon’s eggs hahaha
Tip: Always pay attention to the tidal times as the boulders can only be see at low tide.
13. Steampunk HQ – Oamaru
My personal favorite spots in the South Island is in this amazing museum in Oamaru! Close to Moeraki Boulders, Steampunk HQ museum offers an interesting collection of retro-futuristic sci-fi art, movies, sculptures and sounds, including New Zealand’s version of the Infinity Room! Entrance is NZD10 and so worth it!
14. Clay Cliffs – Omarama
Just 10km west of Omarama are these natural rock formations: tall pinnacles separated by narrow ravines. Those otherworldly formations are made up of layers of gravel and silt, originally formed by the flow from ancient glaciers over a million years ago.
15. St Peter’s Lookout
On the road to Aoraki/Mount Cook, another of the most amazing drives in New Zealand, is this beautiful lookout. St Peter’s Lookout showcases the winding road, New Zealand’s tallest mountain and the icy blue water of Lake Pukaki, making for one of the best photography spots you cannot miss in the South Island.
WARNING: It should go without saying it but always be super careful when taking photos on this road. It can be quite busy at any time of the day and cars are passing by at 100km/h and they WILL NOT stop for you!
16. Hooker Glacier Lake
The glacier lake at the foot of Aoraki/Mount Cook is stunning all the year long. The carving of the Hooker Glacier creates icebergs that float toward the south end of the lake, making for interesting foreground subjects or dramatic details.
It is a 10km flat return hike to this lake which crosses 3 suspension bridges. It is one of the great hikes on the South Island and you can easily understand why!
Tip: I would recommend going there for sunset to get the light and colors on the southwestern face of Mount Cook.
17. Church of the Good Shepherd
This little chapel, right in the international dark sky reserve in Tekapo, is a must see for everyone.
If you are looking to do astrophotography, make sure to have the least cloud coverage and the lowest moon luminance for the best astro-photography!
Tip: The church is now fenced and gates are open between 8am-8pm (summer) and 9am-5pm (winter). Be sure to check the sunset hour to plan your best time to visit if you want a photo on the church grounds with the stars.
Otherwise, standing from outside the fences will still give you plenty of astro-photography opportunities!
Note that you cannot park in the church car park anymore. The closest carpark is in the village center, just a nice stroll away along the river to the church.
Here are my personal favorite photography spots to get you around the South Island of New Zealand! If you want some more inspirations, Marta Kulesza is also sharing her favorite 18 Most Photogenic Places on the South Island of New Zealand and Rach Stewart shares her favorite 7 Lakes in the South Island to photograph. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to reach out! And don’t forget to tag me in your stories or photos on Instagram if this article inspired you!
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