New Zealand's most photogenic spots

A guide to photographing nature in New Zealand.


In its native Maori tongue New Zealand is called “Aotearoa”, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud”.  And it’s not hard to see why.  Look at satellite pictures of New Zealand and you’ll see two long skinny islands with a smaller dot of land below, defined by a backbone of mountains running almost the length of the country.  If you can see the mountains beneath the long line of white cloud that is.

The Southern Alps that form the spine of New Zealand sit abreast the joining of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates.  The ridge line formed by this primordial union - separating the vast Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean weather patterns either side - throw up the high levels of precipitation that give this country it’s Maori name.  Add in New Zealand’s elongated shape and isolated position in the South Pacific and you have a country with dramatically different geographical and climate regions; home to a wonderfully unique range of native flora and fauna.

New Zealand is distinct from almost every other continent in that its wildlife is not dominated by land mammals - it has only two native species of bat.  But its large areas of uninhabited evergreen forest and sheer miles and miles of rugged coastline provide a natural environment for around 80,000 native species of plants, birds, reptiles, insects and marine life - the greater proportion of which are endemic to this country.  From giant snails to the world’s smallest dolphin, trees that live for 2,000 years and a buttercup that grows 3 feet tall, birds that don’t fly and around 7,500 different species of fungi, this is a land of unique and unexpected diversity.


Three hour’s drive north of Auckland brings you to Northland’s stunning Bay of Islands.  Here you will find the warmest water in the country and a chance to get up close and personal with New Zealand’s large population of dolphins.  There are a number of trip options including the chance to swim with the dolphins - time to get out that underwater camera!

Common and Bottlenose dolphins are most numerous and live in and around the Bay, though New Zealand is home to 13 different species in total, including the world’s smallest marine dolphin the Hector (and subspecies the Maui dolphin, of which only around 55 exist making them the rarest subspecies in the world).  

Also in Northland is the Waipoua Forest on New Zealand’s Kauri Coast and a chance to view the mighty Kauri tree.  It is the largest tree (by volume) in New Zealand with an average  trunk diameter of around 16 feet and growing for up to 2,000 years.  Amongst this ancient forest you might be lucky enough to spot the Giant Kauri Snail, a 3-inch carnivore that lives on earthworms, slugs and other soft-bodied insects.


Travelling south of Auckland brings you to Rotorua’s famous geo-thermal areas with its accompanying strong smell of sulphur.  This is also the hub of New Zealand’s Maori culture as well as home to a number of animal parks where some of New Zealand’s more well known native species can be viewed in gentle captivity.

The kiwi, New Zealand’s native bird and a national symbol of this country, is a small flightless bird which - due to its nocturnal nature and declining numbers - is very hard to view in the wild.  However this fascinating creature can be seen in a number of viewing enclosures, including the “Kiwi Encounter” where you can witness baby chicks as part of a breeding program before they are released into their natural habitat.

Although classified as a bird the kiwi has many mammal-like characteristics.  Like a number of New Zealand native birds it cannot fly (it has only very small wings), it has no tail feathers (though it does have whiskers like a cat), its feathers are more like soft fur, it has nostrils at the end of its beak (the only bird in the world to do so), it has two ovaries (most birds have one) and it has marrow in its bones just like a human!


Not far from Rotorua lies Te Urewera National Park, one of New Zealand’s 14 national parks and boasting the largest remaining stand of native forest in the North Island.  The jewel of Te Urewera is the stunning Lake Waikaremoana, named by the Maori to mean “sea of rippling waters”.

A good way to experience the park is to hike the Lake Waikaremoana Track.  With huts scattered along 46kms of trail winding around the scenic shoreline, a guided option provided by Walking Legends means you don’t have to carry an overnight pack, leaving your daypack free for camera gear.

Surrounded by more than 650 species of native plants and trees, look out for native birds including New Zealand’s largest population of Kokako (native Wattlebird) which lives in the park.


Another bird watching treat is Cape Kidnappers east of Te Urewera in the Hawkes Bay region.  The Cape is home to the world’s largest - and most accessible - Gannet colony with around 20,000 birds making their nests here.  December and January are the best months to visit when the birds are raising their chicks, whereas come late April / early May the birds have departed on their migratory journey of around 1,700 miles across the Tasman Sea to Australia.  Juvenile birds make this remarkable journey in their first year without any previous flight experience, simply taking off for the first time and allowing instinct to guide them!


However one of the best spots in the North Island to view New Zealand’s native birdlife is the Nature Coast north west of the country’s capital, Wellington city.  Here you can see a range of native birds including the Takahe, Weka, Tui, Kaka, Kereru, Royal Spoonbill, Morepork and more.  You can explore the coast on your own or contact Kapiti Island Nature Tours who host day and overnight bird watching and nature tours to Kapiti Island, one hour north of Wellington.  The island is a conservation reserve with a profusion and diversity of birdlife giving testimony to nature’s wealth and abundance once human interference has been removed or limited.


The larger of New Zealand’s two main islands, the South Island, is also the less densely populated - meaning a lot of the landscape is untracked and very remote.  From Kahurangi National Park in the north through to Fiordland in the South, much of the South Island is made up of National Park areas including the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site on the West Coast.

Here you will find arguably New Zealand’s most breathtaking scenery - dominated by the snow-capped Southern Alps and trumped by Milford Sound - described by Rudyard Kipling as the “eighth wonder of the world”.

If you explore the largely untouched ranges of these National Parks you can uncover a variety of unique and distinctive native life, from alpine herbfields through to podocarp forests, large cave spiders, giant weta (a flightless insect similar to a grasshopper), ancient Tuatara lizards (with a lineage over 200 million years old), flightless birds and native worms that can grow up to three feet long!


One of New Zealand’s more colourful native birds - in character if not plumage - is the cheeky Kea.  Found only in the South island of New Zealand predominantly in the coastal forests of the West Coast and most alpine regions, these mischievous mountain parrots have developed a strange fondness for the rubber trim found on cars!  Many travelers have returned to their vehicle to find the windscreen wipers, door trim, mirror surrounds and much more completely torn apart by their strong, curved beaks.  Though it does make them an easy photography subject.  Kea’s don’t seem to be particularly wary of humans and you can get quite close to them in the wild.  Just watch they don’t take a liking to your camera gear!


Not far from Christchurch on the East Coast lies the small town of Kaikoura, nestled between the mountains and the sea.  With 84 different breeds of seabird found in New Zealand (of which around half breed nowhere else in the world), Kaikoura - reputedly the pelagic bird capital of the country - is the best spot from which to view the majority of these species.  Different varieties of albatross, petrels, shearwaters, prions, shags and more can be seen within a small area around the Kaikoura coastline.

Originally a whaling port Kaikoura is now a popular tourist destination due to the whale and dolphin watching excursions that operate from here.  Though if you’d rather stay on land, a fun and easy option is to visit the Southern Fur Seal colony at the eastern edge of the town.  The best time to go is low tide when there is easy access across the rocky shoreline, where you will find the seals basking on the rocks and posing for a ready portrait.


Near the bottom of New Zealand you will find the city of Dunedin and the amazing Royal Albatross, the world’s largest marine bird with a wing span of 10 feet!  Located at Taiaroa Head 45 minutes from Dunedin this is the world’s only mainland breeding ground, allowing fantastic photographic opportunities of this remarkable species.

Also on the Otago peninsula you can find New Zealand Fur Seals, Sea Lions and Yellow Eyed Penguins, as well as Hector’s and Bottlenose dolphins offshore.


Although the opportunities for photography in New Zealand are abundant, it helps to do your research and planning before you visit.  If there is a particular species you wish to photograph, find out its migratory or seasonal habits, where they are most numerous, and the best time of day during which to see them.  If you hope to take home some amazing landscapes, spend some time investigating the best seasons to visit the different regions. 

For example Central Otago in the fall will provide you with stunning autumn colors as the trees turn in the month of April.  Milford Sound in winter is spectacular with snow capped mountains and glaciers alongside the numerous waterfalls cascading down the sheer walls of the fiord.  A summer visit would benefit a trip to the Marlborough Sounds or Abel Tasman regions, where you can explore the coastline by kayak or enjoy the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk.  Spring would be a good time to travel the North Island as it is outside the busier summer months yet still warm enough to make outdoor adventure and exploration enjoyable.  And with all those bouncy baby lambs frolicking everywhere, what more could you ask for! 

Just remember that New Zealand’s seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere, so plan your visit accordingly.


New Zealand has seven international airports but the two largest are Auckland in the North Island and Christchurch in the South.  Both have international flight connections with most of the main travel centers around the world. 

On arriving into New Zealand by far the easiest way to get around is to hire a vehicle.  Public transport isn’t prolific though there are some great scenic train journeys on offer, the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth is stunning, as is the Coastal Pacific between Christchurch and Picton.  The Cook Straight Interislander is a passenger and vehicle ferry between the North and South islands, or you can choose from a range of cheap domestic flights between any of the country’s main cities.

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