Off to a great start

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
.8 seconds
ISO 50

It’s a little ironic that on my first day back from New Zealand, I’m (finally) starting a blog post about the start of my winter workshops there. When I departed for New Zealand about a month ago, I had the best intentions to post several times per week, but soon realized there was going to be precious little time for that. I’ve processed a few images from the trip, but have only just scratched the surface of what I’m certain will turn out to be the most photographically rewarding four weeks of my life. But the rewards of this trip turned out to be so much more than photographic, and I have some great stories to share.

First, a little background

I’ve been leading photo workshops for a dozen years. From the outset my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have had a reciprocal workshop relationship: he assists a few of my workshops, and I assist a like number of his workshops. In 2013 Don and I added a collaborative workshop at the Grand Canyon during the monsoon season (lightning photography)—instead of the workshop being owned by one and assisted by the other, we share the planning, marketing, and leading responsibilities 50/50. The Grand Canyon workshop became so successful (and enjoyable for both of us) that we’ve since added collaborative workshops at the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast.

The next frontier

The New Zealand workshops take our collaborative workshop model to a new level. Not only are they our first international workshops, they’re much longer and more immersive. We’ve always provided lodging, but for New Zealand we added transportation (including a driver) and many meals.

Organizing a 10-day, 5 town workshop half-way around the world adds unprecedented layers of complications. Not just finding the best photo locations with good backups for weather closures, but also arranging lodging, meals, and permits. Though we’d scouted our locations thoroughly, had the permits, lodging, meals, and transportation arranged, we had no idea what it would be like photographing, eating, and traveling with a group for many consecutive hours, every day for 10 days. It turns out that our anxiety was completely unfounded.

It’s a sign

After the workshop orientation we hit Glenorchy Road on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for our first sunset shoot. Following a preliminary stop at Wilson Bay, where we were treated to beautiful light on the peaks across the lake, we headed farther down the road to our sunset destination—a spectacular view of the Humboldt Mountains (among others) above the lake. The sky looked especially promising for something special, so as we drove I gave everyone a quick primer on photographing a sunstar.

We pulled up to the vista just before the sun dropped out of the clouds. With just a few minutes until it disappeared behind the mountains, everyone scrambled out of the Sprinter (the 16-passenger Mercedes van that would be our chariot for the next 10 days) and set up. The sunstar window opened and closed quickly, but it was followed by a show of color and light that turned out to be a harbinger of upcoming good fortune.

I haven’t processed those images yet, so I’m sharing this one from the previous sunset, when I photographed a sunstar from the same location. (Honestly, the group got a much better sunset than this one.)

Why winter?

Ever since Don and I scheduled this workshop, I’ve had to answer the “Why winter?” question. Most photographers get it—not only does the lower sun angle make the light better, the mountains are covered with snow, and I’ve always felt that winter weather makes great skies. And a New Zealand South Island winter isn’t much different from the kinds of winters we get in Northern California and Oregon. During the four weeks we were in New Zealand, we dealt with lows in the 20s and 30s, and highs in the 40s and 50s—cold, but unlike the summer heat most of you endured while I was in New Zealand, nothing that couldn’t be easily handled with the right clothing.

Over the next few weeks I hope to share enough New Zealand winter images that I hope will further prove my point. Until then, below you’ll find a collection of winter images, from a variety of locations, for a little vicarious cooling on a hot summer day.

New Zealand 2019

A Winter Gallery

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Escaping Summer

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter
15 seconds
ISO 50

(If you subscribe to my Image of the Month e-mail and this post seems familiar, it’s because I borrowed the text from my June message.)

I just checked the date of my last post, I couldn’t believe how long it’s been. But I have a good excuse, I swear: I’ve been busy. Busy taking pictures, busy leading workshops, busy checking in and out of hotels, busy staying warm (really)….

But I’m not complaining—not even close. For the last three weeks I’ve been in New Zealand. The day I left home, the high temperature in Sacramento was 100 degrees. Less than twenty-four hours later I deplaned in Queenstown, New Zealand to a refreshing 40 degrees (or, as we say Down Under, 5 degrees). While this winter chill is a nice bonus, I’m here on New Zealand’s South Island mostly because winter is hands-down the best time to photograph this spectacular country. Last Thursday (or, as you say Up Over, Wednesday) Don Smith and I wrapped up our first ever New Zealand Winter workshop, but after two weeks of down jackets and wool hats, I’m not ready to return to summer, not even close.

It’s impossible to pick my favorite thing about this trip. I could cite the all-day cruises on Doubtful Sound (though we learned it should really be named Doubtful Fjord), plowing through glassy water framed by towering cliffs and plunging waterfalls, and shadowed by leaping dolphins. Or the breathtaking helicopter ride onto Fox Glacier, where we explored blue ice-caves, climbed through gaping crevices, and observed firsthand that a glacier is so much more than a featureless sheet of ice.

But it’s not just about the big stuff here in “Lord of the Rings” land. Something else that’s starting to sink in about New Zealand is the routine beauty that’s pretty much everywhere I look. Snow-capped peaks in all directions, daily sunrises and sunsets that become almost monotonous in their beauty, and pristine glacial lakes and streams with blues and greens that rival anything in the Canadian Rockies.

This image is from last Thursday’s sunrise, our first workshop’s final shoot. Carved thousands of years ago by massive glaciers, Lake Wakatipu is one of New Zealand’s largest lakes. Arriving just as the first hints of dawn touched the clouds, we watched the scene slowly materialize out of the darkness like a developing Polaroid. The snowy peaks appeared first, followed soon by textured clouds above the turquoise lake. As the sky brightened further, the opaque lakebed transformed into an intricate mosaic of colorful stones.

I moved along the lakeshore until I found a group of protruding rocks to anchor my frame. To emphasize the foreground, I dropped low and framed the scene with a wide lens. I used a neutral density filter to enable an exposure long enough to smooth the gentle waves rippling the lake surface. The long exposure also gave me the opportunity to savor the sublime scene and say a small prayer of gratitude that my trip is not over yet…

Join Don Smith and Me in New Zealand in 2019

New Zealand  So Far (believe me, I’m just scratching the surface)

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Greetings from Tomorrowland

Gary Hart Photography: Overcast, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Overcast, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
ISO 200

One of my favorite childhood books was “Upside-Down Town,” about a little town where everything was opposite the rest of the world. People walked backward so they could see where they’d been, stores paid people to take their goods, and (my personal favorite at the time) schools were only in session on holidays.

That’s kind of the way it feels visiting New Zealand in July. When I left Sacramento it was 110 degrees. After a week on Kauai (I was working the whole time, I swear), where it was tank tops and flip-flops 24/7, I arrived in the teeth of a Queenstown, New Zealand winter. Every day has been some variation of gray and drizzly, with high temperatures around 40 (that’s Fahrenheit—still haven’t embraced the Celsius thing) and lows in the 20s. Overnight my summer-wear was replaced by fleece, wool, and down full body armor. But I’m not here for comfort, and New Zealand has reminded me why winter is my favorite season for photography.

Of course this Southern Hemisphere winter in July wasn’t a surprise, but it definitely was a shock. Other adjustments (driving on the left; to leave a building, we don’t look for the Exit, we have to find the “Way Out”; and what’s with these power outlets?) have been relatively minor. And I’m still not used to the fact that as far as my wife and family back home are concerned, it’s pretty much always tomorrow here.

But one thing that’s universal is beauty, which is simply off-the-charts here. I was last in New Zealand in 1995, and though I wasn’t here as a photographer (in my previous life I traveled to train programmers), I found New Zealand so beautiful that I carried a camera on my seven-mile sunrise run each morning. Now I’m back with my good friend, frequent partner in crime, and fellow professional photographer, Don Smith. We’re here to scout for a New Zealand photo workshop that will debut in June (winter!) of 2018.

Our first couple of days were in the Queenstown area, where we explored the shores of the spectacular Lake Wakatipu. We could probably do an entire workshop in the Queenstown area, but that would only just scratch the surface down here. Today (tomorrow to you) we’re in Te Anau, having just returned from an all-day cruise on even more spectacular Doubtful Sound. Other locations on this week’s itinerary include Wanaka, Milford Sound, and Fox Glacier.

I’m sharing here my first of what will be many New Zealand images. On the road from Queenstown to Te Anau, we skirted the shore of the south arm of Lake Wakatipu. It had been raining on and off all day, a light rain with no wind, ideal conditions for photography. The snow-capped mountains that flank the entire west side of the lake were shrouded in clouds, but the light was great and we stopped at several locations to photograph.

Rain felt imminent as we pulled off at an unmarked roadside vista, hopped out for a quick reconnaissance, and rushed back to the car for our gear. Taking different routes to the lake, we each found scenes that excited us. Don concentrated on a creek flowing into the lake near the car, while I walked a hundred yards or so up the shore toward a tree topping a dark rock that sloped into the lake, pausing to click a frame or two along the way.

The crescent-shaped beach was naturally sheltered, especially down in my direction. With no wind or waves to disturb the surface, the lake surface here was like turquoise glass that clearly revealed the small, smooth beach rocks continuing beneath the water, and returning crisp reflections of the cloud-shrouded mountains across the lake.

Using the tree and sloping rock to frame the right side of my scene, I played with a variety of compositions. I started with a foreground that included two or three microwave-size rocks lodged in the beach and protruding from the water, gradually moving closer to the tree until my scene was simplified to what you see here. I could have stayed and worked this spot for hours, but soon the wind kicked up and a light rain started and it was time to move on. Later today we’ll drive back by this spot and my fingers will be crossed that the mountains will be out and I’ll get an opportunity to capture it differently.

After four days in New Zealand I’ve completely adjusted to the weather, can now quickly navigate my way out of any building, and am pretty confident I’ll be okay with the left-hand drive thing by the time I fly home. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that according to my airline itinerary, I’ll actually arrive home before I left. Tomorrowland indeed.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

A Cloudy Day Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

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