I never really thought of Kaikoura as a big landscape photography location. Sure, it came up while we were preparing for the trip to New Zealand, but for entirely different reasons. At some point we even considered removing it from our itinerary completely and if we hadn’t decided to head north, that’s probably what we would’ve done. And really, that would have been a great shame. Kaikoura turned out to be so much more than I ever expected and an incredible place for landscape photography where I took probably one of the most memorably shots of our trip.
Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island that is mostly known among visitors for its abundant wildlife. It is considered as one of the best places in the world for whale watching activities due to its population of sperm whales that can be seen close to shore all year-round. That’s probably what most tourists come here for, but there is also a fur seal colony not far from city center. Neither were of particular interest to us, but as I really wanted to visit Wharariki beach all the way north, we needed a place to stop for a night and have some rest. Driving there directly from Christchurch after we landed would have taken 6-7 hours and doing it after a long and tiring flight sounded like pure madness even to me. Spending a night in Kaikoura was an easy choice.
Since we were going to Kaikoura anyway, I was not about to pass on an opportunity to do a bit of landscape photography and take some images. As we were only staying overnight, I only had one sunset and one sunrise to work with, so I had to be extra careful with picking the spots. I did a bit of research to see if I could find any promising landscape photography locations and, surprisingly, there’s actually not a whole lot of information on that topic online. In the end I largely had to rely on my own intuition combined with Google Maps and The Photographer’s Ephemeris website to try and figure out the place and time when the light would be best.
For sunset I decided to head to Kaikoura Lookout. It is a viewpoint located on the hill nearby offering commanding views of the surrounding area. The good thing about Kaikoura Lookout is that it is very easy to access (by just driving right up to it) and from the top one can see both sides of the peninsula. This means you can choose what to shoot depending on the weather and where the best action is. To the west, the sun will be setting behind the mountains and the rolling hills, while to the east the town down below and snowy peaks in the background will be beautifully highlighted by the golden sunset light. It is absolutely stunning no matter which direction you look and for our first taste of New Zealand goodness I doubt I could have found a better place.
One thing to keep in mind when photographing the town is that there is a very annoying lamp post on the hill slope that keeps getting into the frame. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t find a spot where it would not ruin the composition. In the end, you may either need to compromise on the view or simply photoshop it out later in post, as I did in the image below. It’s vexing and it’s cumbersome, but it’s totally doable.
After spending more than 22 hours on the planes getting to New Zealand from Germany, I wasn’t sure I will be able to get up for sunrise. However, after taking a peek at it at sunset, I was quite keen on seeing the coastline up close and if there’s one good thing about the jet lag, it’s that it makes the task of getting up early so much easier. And so it was barely past five when I was up and on my way to Point Keen Viewpoint.
Point Keen Viewpoint is home to Kaikoura’s fur seal colony and a start to Peninsula Walkway – a beautiful trail that follows the coast all the way to South Bay. If your itinerary permits it, I thoroughly recommend walking this entire trail as the landscape around is incredibly scenic . We were actually hoping it to do it ourselves before heading for sunset on the previous day, but unfortunately ran out of time. The trail takes about an hour to complete (one direction) and depending on the tide you can either walk it next to the water line or follow an alternative path on top of the cliffs.
Both options offer amazing yet very distinct opportunities for some landscape photography. Down below there are endless bays, crevices and interesting rock formations to experiment with while the upper walkway features incredible panoramic views of the entire scene. I’m pretty confident that any keen landscape photographer can easily get stuck on this trail for hours, so allow plenty of time if you plan to do it. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
For sunrise I had a very specific shot in mind. Looking at Google Maps while preparing for the trip I noticed that there are a few large crescent-shaped bays on the peninsula that face almost perfectly south-east where the sun is rising (by the way, I strongly suggest using The Photographer’s Ephemeris to check the exact sun location on any given date). The image I envisioned was therefore quite simple – a sunrise sky above the bay with both tips of the crescent serving as subtle leading lines and framing the composition. It was simply a matter of being up early enough and exploring a little. With the photo that I wanted clear in my mind, locating the composition didn’t take long – I was only about twenty minutes into the trail when I found exactly what I was looking for.
With the sunrise highlighting the sky in all tones of pink, orange and red, the whole scene was incredibly beautiful, serene and peaceful. It was easily worth all the effort of waking up early and hiking in the darkness. And that’s the lesson to remember – getting out of bed is always the difficult part, but afterwords you will never regret it. I’m still processing the images from New Zealand, but already I’m pretty confident that the panorama shot I took that morning will be one of those that I like and value the most.
I really wish I had enough time to finish the coastal walk. Sadly, we had a long drive ahead of us that day, so after the sunrise I had to head back to hotel and pack up. Truth be told, I would love to stay in Kaikoura for another day or two, explore the area a bit, witness another sunset and another sunrise. Kaikoura is absolutely gorgeous and has tons to offer when it comes to landscape photography. I never really expected this and was immensely impressed. With magnificent snow-covered mountains, dreamy hills, deep-blue ocean and every tide cycle changing the coast ever so slightly, this is as good as New Zealand gets and the possibilities for photography here truly are endless.
I have an entire YouTube video covering Kaikoura in even more details, so be sure to check it out, and as always, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts – have you been to Kaikoura yet? What was your favorite place? Let me know in the comments below, and let’s talk!