Above the clouds

A winter expedition into New Zealand’s most dramatic southern alpine region.

While most of us love nothing more than cosying up by the fire and staying warm on a chilly winter’s day, Stephan prefers to grab his camera gear and head for the hills. A few winters back, Stephan ventured into Mt Aspiring National Park by helicopter to capture the park’s impressive peaks at their snow-covered best. Here, he shares the incredible images from this expedition and a few technical tips on shooting mountains from a helicopter during winter.

In the southern hemisphere, winter falls in the middle of the year and brings with it short but stunning days. The weather is often clear and the sunsets are spectacular, so I love to get out to shoot the mountains, glaciers, and ranges located not far from my home in Queenstown. In this expedition, I headed into Mt Aspiring National Park to capture some of the superstars of the park, like Mt Aspiring/Tititea.

And when it comes to shooting snow-covered mountains in the middle of winter, a helicopter is the only way to go.


With a little help from a few good friends

Piloting our expedition was the legendary Alfie Speight from Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters. Also joining me on the flight was Phil Turner, a good friend and long-time location scout who has worked on many commercial and film projects around New Zealand. I couldn’t ask for a better team, and I felt confident we would get some good shots on this day.

Alfie Speight on the right, Phil Turner on the left.

The goal for this expedition was a sunset shot over Mt Aspiring/Tititea (3,033 metres/9,951 ft). For me, Mt Aspiring is a majestic and powerful place, and its distinct glaciated horn makes it stand out from other peaks. Looking at Mt Aspiring’s sharp pyramid shape, you can see why it is often called the Matterhorn of the South.

The weather forecast looked perfect – calm, clear weather with no high cloud but a small amount of low cloud hanging around the valleys. For me, these are great conditions for mountain photography.

The flight time from Queenstown Airport to Mt Aspiring is around 20 minutes. We lifted off just after 3:30pm, which gave us plenty of time to scout the area before sunset at 5:24pm. The extra time allowed us to take a few circles over the area to get an idea of what to expect before the sun began to drop.

Approaching Mt Aspiring from the south with Bonar Glacier to the left.

Similar angle towards Mt Aspiring but shot from further away with a longer lens. Mt Avalanche is in the foreground.

Above Mt Aspiring with a 110mm lens on the medium format.

The mighty Mt Aspiring

Mt Aspiring National Park is an area shaped by the immense power of glaciers. More than 12,000 years ago, huge glaciers covered the landscape. These titanic glaciers have now gone leaving behind valleys and lakes in their path. However, there are still many, many glaciers to be found high in the high alpine peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park. With time on our hands and the skill of Alfie in the cockpit, we had a special opportunity to make a glacier landing. Alfie located an excellent landing site on the ridge line above the Jura Glacier in the Forbes Mountains. As we arrived, we saw another helicopter leaving the area. This is not a sight I get to see very often, and I took the opportunity to capture some “traffic” in the mountains!

Jura Glacier in the Forbes Mountains.

The three of us waiting for the shadows to get even longer. Mt Head in the background.

After 30 minutes of enjoying this truly remarkable location, it was time to return to Mt Aspiring in time for sunset. The helicopter flew north over the Dart Valley and Mt Ian. I took the opportunity to capture the scene; this shot shows the ridgeline where we had just landed (white flat area left to the valley) and Mt Earnslaw to the far left.

Mt Ian looking back towards the Forbes Mountains.

The Southern Alps at its best

Turning to the northeast, we flew over the Snowdrift Range and Snow White Glacier. I like this aspect as it captures the lineup of mountain tops – here you can see Pivot Peak closest to the camera, then Mt Maruiwi, Mt Maori and Mt Aspiring to the left. In front of and below Mt Aspiring is Mt Barff. With the sun setting, we get the wonderful effect of the west-facing flanks in full sunlight and the valleys growing darker.

Gold medal at the New York Photography Awards – The Pivot Ridge.

This shot was taken with the 55mm lens with the PhaseOne medium format camera. Happy with the shots so far, I swapped to my favourite 24mm lens for Mt Aspiring. This lens allows me to get closer to the mountain and still capture the backdrop to tell the whole story.

As you can see from the next image, Mt Aspiring can look very different depending on your position. This image is taken from the west, and you could be mistaken for thinking I was in Switzerland looking at the famous Matterhorn.

The New Zealand Matterhorn

From the north, the mountain looks completely different, with the bonus of seeing the shadow of Mt Aspiring off to the far left.


Using the super-wide angle lens

In this picture, you see the effect of the uncorrected 24mm lens. As soon as you point the camera down using this lens, the horizon appears curved. It is quite a bit of work in post-production to get the horizon line straight again.

On the other hand, this is one of the sharpest super-wide angle lenses I have ever worked with. It is very important with low light as you shoot with an open f-stop like 5.6 or similar. Most lenses—even those that are less wide—will get very blurry in the corners. Not this one.

Last view towards the disappearing sun.

As the sun began to drop away, I was happy I had got what I was after ‑ the mighty Mt Aspiring in the evening winter light. And I was able to do it with the help of two great friends in an area I love. What a treat.

Keep up to date

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.