X Marks the Spot

lake-matheson-fox-glacier

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Lake Matheson in the Fox Glacier township on the South Island of New Zealand on March 24th, 2015

Lake Matheson is an iconic New Zealand photo location, and from the main view point on Reflection Island surely millions of beautiful photos have been created. When I find myself in a situation like that I often approach things from out of left field by thinking “what would Josh NOT do here?” If I’d normally grab my wide angle lens, instead I’ll reach for a telephoto. If I’d normally include the sky I’ll try keeping it out. With this approach I find my mind starts working in unexpected ways and seeing unexpected things. And before I know it I’m beginning to craft I photo I otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

This was the exact case this particular morning at Lake Matheson: there were beautiful clouds, the gargantuan, snow-covered forms of Mounts Tasman and Cook were clearly visible, and the lake itself was as still as pooled silver. My instincts were screaming to grab the wide angle classic shot, and of course I did. But then I started thinking about what other smaller scenes could create powerful photos. The symmetric lines of the Fox Glacier canyon had been catching my eye all morning, and as the sun cleared the mountains to the east it lit up one of the canyon’s richly forested walls. The spot-lighting created a vivid contrast against the darkness of the opposing wall and lent the scene a simple, graphical quality. With the two slanting canyon walls reflected in Matheson’s surface my eyes were drawn to the X they created and I knew I had found my “Left Field” shot.

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A Stately Procession

Tasman Lake, New Zealand, March 27th, 2015

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Tasman Lake in Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand, on March 28th, 2015

A big part of being a nature photographer is no, not waiting, but watching. In fact, I might argue that that’s the best part of being a nature photographer: watching the beauty and wonder of the natural world unfold around you. And not just watching, but also experiencing. Hearing the sound of the wind as it rushes down a mountainside, feeling the raindrops as they splash your face, and smelling the petrichor of freshly wet soil. It’s in these moments you feel connected to the place you’re in, and the barrier between yourself and the “outside world” becomes less distinct.

While photographing icebergs at Tasman Lake I was fortunate to feel such a moment of deep connection and presence. The day was thick with thunderstorms and I was intent on capturing their drama. With a light patter of raindrops falling on my head I made the short walk to the Tasman River outlet, as this is where most of the icebergs in the lake end up. Seeing a few crepuscular rays breaking through the clouds at the head of the lake I quickly set up my camera, thinking they might disappear.

But rather than disappear the rays only grew stronger as they swept down the Tasman Glacier valley and out across the lake. And as those beams passed overhead and vanished behind me, more took their place at the top of the lake. This happened over and over, and for a full two hours I watched, heard, felt, and photographed this stately procession of light and shadow as it marched across Tasman Lake.

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Yelling at Birds

wanaka-tree-sunset-long-exposure

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand on March 21st, 2015

I like birds. I really do. I could watch a New Zealand fantail play all day. And some of them, like the cheeky Kea, are great fun to interact with. And others, like the albatross, soar with the most graceful movements I’ve ever seen in the animal kingdom. But the birds that hang out in Wanaka’s famous willow tree are just straight up jerks.

They are the teenage punks of the bird world: causing a ruckus just to cause a ruckus. I’m positive they’ve figured out what cameras and tripods are (after all, there are enough of them hanging around that tree) and discovered they can elicit squawks (sometimes of joy; in my case dismay) from us weird humans by mucking about in the tree while we’re trying to shoot pictures. When you want the birds around, say to add a little extra interest to your shot, they’re nowhere to be found. But when you’ve just pressed the shutter button to kick off a four-minute shot on a perfectly still evening, well then they decide to have a little fun.

Conditions were perfect for shooting a long exposure of the Wanaka tree: the evening was dead calm, the lenticular clouds above were drifting lazily over the mountains, and there was just a kiss of rosy color in the post-sunset sky. The dim blue hour light meant I could shoot for a full four minutes without overexposing the image, and thanks to the tranquility of the evening I knew that even the small leaves of the tree would remain motionless and sharp in the final image.

But then, about 1-minute into the exposure I heard a dreaded sound: the whish-whish-whish of wing flaps. Headed right for the tree. “Oh no!” I exclaimed, “my shot!” The bird didn’t land, but instead circled a bit overhead. Relieved at the non-disruption of the serenity of the tree, I thought I had dodged a bullet. But now I realize that bird was just the advance scout: the low kid on the totem pole egged on by his bird friends: “Psst, hey, go see what that guy is doing by the tree. Oh, he’s taking pictures? Let’s go mess with him.”

At which point a small army of the punk birds descended upon the tree like a mischievous tornado: squawking, jumping from branch to branch, and flapping their wings at every leaf they could find. I tried to ignore them at first, tried to be the bigger two-legged creature. But their antics grew to such a tremendous cacophony that I don’t think the Dalai Lama would’ve been unfazed. “Bird jerks!” I yelled. “Your mothers were robins, and your fathers swamp hens! Make like a tern and migrate! Make like a chicken and cluck off!” Of course my shouting was to no avail, as the birds continued to frolic right up until the very end of my four-minute exposure, at which point they heard the shutter close and they immediately flew away, leaving me and the tree in utter silence to count away four minutes of noise reduction and watch in bemusement as all the color evaporated from the sky.

But maybe in the end I got the last laugh, as I loved the photo that resulted. In many places the details of the tree are sharp. And in many others they’re soft and fuzzy, a photographic tip of the hat to those mischievous birds.

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The Benefits of Hydration

lake-matheson-sunrise-new-zealand

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Lake Matheson on the South Island of New Zealand on March 24th, 2015

Normally I’m not one for hot beverages. Sure, I love a good cup of hot cocoa while camping but as a general rule hot drinks just don’t do it for me. I straight up don’t like coffee, and tea, well, it’s never quite been my cup of tea. Except, oddly, for when I’m in New Zealand. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m usually in New Zealand when it’s cold, whether it’s some subconscious nostalgic thing, or whether the tea is just plain better there. But for whatever reason, when I’m New Zealand I drink tea like an addict. Wake up? Make a cup of tea. Go for a hike in the rain? Come back in and warm up with a cup of tea. Have a cup of really good tea? Well heck let’s celebrate that cup of tea with a nice cup of tea!

The other thing I like about tea is that it helps me relax. I find it a pleasant way to wind down the day, and downshift my brain from active mode to sleepy mode. And if you are anything like me, a person whose brain never shuts up for a single second, having that help in falling asleep can be a lifesaver. So I’ll drink a cup of tea to start the process, and another 43 cups after that just to make sure. I mean, I’ll take all the help I can get, otherwise I know I’ll just lay in bed for hours with my mind blazing away with to-do lists, ideas for new projects, and images of dancing cats.

And as much as I enjoy dancing cats I often curse my overactive brain because I really like to sleep. Like, a lot. And here’s the thing: I’m not at my best when I’m tired. Far from it, in fact. When my energy levels are low I get cranky, stubborn, and downright curmudgeonly. “Photography?!” I’ll say, “Bah! Give me a warm blanket and a soft mattress instead.” And it was with this mindset that I consumed my 25 gallons of tea and then headed for bed in the small township of Fox Glacier on the night of March 23rd, 2015. You see: I was beat, exhausted from jet leg, car lag, and leg lag. I needed rest, otherwise I knew I’d start saying and doing things I’d regret later, like feeding keas and yelling at German backpackers. So when I closed my eyes for the night I had already decided to sleep in in the morning.

But as midnight came and went and the wee hours of day crept closer I felt an unmistakable tickle down in my guts. I tried to ignore it, tried to fool myself into thinking I could go back to sleep. But as I lay in bed, fruitlessly shifting position and willing myself to drift back off to dreamland, the tickle grew into an undeniable physical presence. Self-inflicted physiological Chinese water torture. All that tea had come back to bite me in the ever-expanding outward swell of my bladder. Grrrrr, I had to pee.

Stumbling out of bed and into the bathroom I checked my watch and saw that it was 7:00am, just about 45 minutes before sunrise. “Ah, what the heck,” I concluded, “I’m already awake now, might’s’well see what the conditions are looking like outside.” So having satisfied nature’s call I grabbed my jacket and camera and stepped out into the pre-dawn glow, looking up to see a sky full of patchy cloud and rich with possibility.

At that moment all the clinging vestiges of sleep were wrung from my body like a wet rag, and I found myself in the car flying out of town, and a few minutes later skidding to a stop in the Lake Matheson parking lot. With sunrise ticking toward me like a luminous bomb I half power-walked, half jogged (at least, as well as I could jog with 20 pounds of camera equipment bouncing on my back like some personal version of the Beverly Hillbillies’ truck) the mile and a half to Reflection Island, Matheson’s most famous viewpoint.

I had just enough time to slap my camera on my tripod before the sun broke free of some entangling clouds to the east and cast its early morning light on the iconic scene in front of me. Lake Matheson was as calm as liquid glass, and Mt Cook and Mt Tasman played peekaboo through the clouds. As the sun rose higher in the sky its rays shone through the Fox Glacier canyon and I snapped four vertical photos to combine into this high-res panorama of the moment, all the while thanking my bladder and its timely wake up call.

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A Ship in the Night

Mitre Peak, New Zealand, May 13th, 2015

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand on May 13th, 2015

It’s always fun to grow and change as an artist. Novelty brings excitement, and that excitement helps keep the passion for art burning bright. The longer I do photography the more relaxed, open, and accepting of a scene I’ve become. Instead of trying to shoehorn a place into my preexisting mold and expectations of what I want to photograph -and consequently being disappointed when the scene didn’t fit the mold- I’ve recently become more and more able to simply hear what any place has to say to me. And that change of mindset has allowed me to see more beauty than I have before, and create photographs I never would have before.

Case in point on my recent trip to New Zealand. When I’m on a photo trip, even a long two-month one like this was, I rarely have the luxury of time. My schedule is often driven by responsibilities, scouting, tour guiding, and meeting up with friends. So even though I’d like to, I often simply can’t wait in one spot until the conditions align with my vision of what I want them to be. Which meant that I simply had to tease out the photographic opportunities from whatever Mother Nature gave me. Thus I often found myself out in the rain and the wind photographing things I normally wouldn’t, like intimate forest abstracts and monochrome, telephoto mountain portraits.

One such opportunity came about on the tail end of a New Zealand photography workshop I was leading with my friend, Jim Patterson. We arrived at the finale location of the workshop, Fiordland National Park, and drove to Milford Sound, arriving around lunch in order to have a peek at the current conditions. Somewhat unsurprisingly, conditions were wet. Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on the planet so a little wet weather is nothing unusual. But this was a torrent of drenching rain. Visibility was less than a mile, and barely anything could be heard over the thunderous downpour.

We took a leisurely break at our hotel and returned to the Sound in mid afternoon once the rain had eased up. With some slight sprinkles still showering us here and there our group walked out to the edge of the Sound to see what we could find. Although the clouds were still thick and heavy, they had lifted a bit to reveal Mitre Peak, the Lion, the Elephant, and the lower slopes of Mt. Pembroke, all dusted with a fresh coat of snow. Unfortunately the light was quite flat.

However, just before sunset a small pocket of cloud shifted, letting in a hint of light around the top of Mitre Peak. Other clouds began swirling around the mountain’s flanks, playing a beautiful game of hide and seek with the peak.  The constant motion of the clouds around Mitre Peak made me think of nothing so much as a massive ship plowing its way through the mist. And in that moment the larger scene didn’t exist for me any more; all I could see was Mitre Peak and its clouds.

I quickly put on my telephoto lens and filled my frame with the beautiful mountain. I used a 32-second shutter speed to emphasize the movement of the clouds, and since there was virtually no color in the scene I processed the final image in deep blue monochrome. Very different from my typical photo but surely this is one of my favorite images from the trip.

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Ocean’s Breath

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, Putai Blowhole, New Zealand

Taken at the Putai Blowhole, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, New Zealand on April 18th, 2012

I really like pancakes. I also really like rocks. So when I found out there’s a natural phenomenon on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island called The Pancake Rocks, I knew I was going to have to pay a visit. The pancake rocks are perched on a tiny coastal outcropping near the town of Punakaiki and do a lot to live up to their name. The rocks are made of a series of limestone “pancakes” that were originally laid down in a process called stylobedding, which is scientist speak for “we have no idea how this happened.” Over time the layers have been eroded away to form a rock garden of fantastically sculpted shapes. In some places the rocks have been eroded all the way down to sea level. So when the big swells at high tide come booming in, the water shoots out through the pancake rocks in a series of blowholes, the most spectacular of which is the Putai Blowhole. You have to be a bit careful while shooting the blowholes though, because as I learned, the wind and the fallout from these big blasts can fairly cover you and your gear with Ocean’s Breath.

McLean Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

McLean Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

 
Taken at McLean Falls in the Catlins, South Island, New Zealand on April 28th, 2012

The Catlins in New Zealand are famous for three things: wildlife, a storm-dashed coast, and waterfalls. And if you explore the area around the tiny hamlet of Curio Bay, you’re bound to see all three. At the very end of a photo trip to New Zealand, I hit the Catlins for a bit of R&R -after all, I had just spent the previous three weeks driving like a maniac all over the South Island, shooting, hiking, and exploring. Now it was time to relax before heading back to the States. Or so I thought. The lure of seeing a beautiful waterfall was too great a temptation for me so on the afternoon before I flew home, I hiked out to McLean Falls to snap this shot.

McLean Falls, New Zealand

McLean Falls, The Catlins, New Zealand

Taken at McLean Falls in the Catlins, South Island, New Zealand on April 28th, 2012

The Catlins in New Zealand are famous for three things: wildlife, a storm-dashed coast, and waterfalls. And if you explore the area around the tiny hamlet of Curio Bay, you’re bound to see all three. At the very end of a photo trip to New Zealand, I hit the Catlins for a bit of R&R -after all, I had just spent the previous three weeks driving like a maniac all over the South Island, shooting, hiking, and exploring. Now it was time to relax before heading back to the States. Or so I thought. The lure of seeing a beautiful waterfall was too great a temptation for me so on the afternoon before I flew home, I hiked out to McLean Falls to snap this shot.

Southern Splendor

Sealy Tarns, Mt. Sefton, and Mt. Cook, Aoraki National Park, South Island, New Zealand

Taken from the Sealy Tarns in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand on April 26th, 2012

The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But I learned my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep. In truth it was a staircase from hell. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I tried to count the number of individual stairs in the climb but I lost track somewhere in the two thousands. When I finally reached the top and saw this magnificent view at sunset, that endless trudge seemed like a small price to pay to witness the splendor of the Southern Alps.

After Hours

Hooker Lake, Mt. Cook National Park

Taken in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park on April 25th, 2012

Even though my legs were as stiff as iron from standing in this glacial lake for the previous 40 minutes and I needed to warm up, I couldn’t resist this amazing view. As dusk grew deeper the pinkish tones of sunset faded to shades of blue and the lake calmed to provide wondrous reflections. This was my parting shot before I began the 3-mile hike back to my car.

Mountain Light

Mountain Light

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken at Hooker Lake in Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand on April 25th, 2012

It turns out that glacial lakes are cold, really cold. Not that I noticed right away. I was wearing hip waders so I could stand thigh-deep in the just-above-freezing Hooker Lake while shooting icebergs and Mt. Cook at sunset. Because I wasn’t wet, I didn’t feel the cold right away. No, it was only after I’d been standing in the water for 40 minutes then tried to move that I felt it. My legs had turned to cold iron, and I could practically hear the creaks as I willed them to move back up to dry land. All in a day’s work, and well worth it for a sight like this one.

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A Godley View

Aerial photo of the Godley River and Lake Tekapo, South Island New Zealand

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken 6,000 feet above the Godley River delta at Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand on April 24th, 2012

This photo was taken during a scenic flight around Mt. Cook and the surrounding mountains. I was sitting up in the very front of the plane and as the pilot performed a steep banked turn over the head of Lake Tekapo I had an awesome view straight down onto the Godley River delta. Even though the flight led to many breathtaking views of the majestic Southern Alps, this intimate view of the river and the lake turned out to be my best shot from the flight.

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