Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is one of New Zealand’s most iconic landmarks, its image is splashed across postcards and billboards, often bathed in bright blue skies and sunlight. Yet what draws me to Milford Sound is its darker, moodier side—not the sunny skies the tourists love. Misty, mysterious, and brooding days at Milford Sound speak to me. I’ve captured many images of Milford Sound over the years but none made it to the collection so far. But that was about to change.
After many years and probably 30 or more trips to Milford Sound, I find myself still looking for that perfect image. One that captures what I see when I look out across the fiord and what I love about this place. However, those misty, dark days often come with wild and unpredictable weather, which always challenges my plans for photography. This time, however, it would be different.
The magic of Milford Sound
Milford Sound lies within Fiordland National Park, a stunning 1.2 million-hectare World Heritage area in the southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. Carved out long ago by ancient glaciers, its deep waters are home to dolphins, seals, and penguins. Its sheer cliffs create breathtaking waterfalls that come to life on rainy days. It is a location that entices thousands of visitors each year.
I was planning to visit Milford Sound for a few days at the end of winter. As usual, my planning began with checking the weather forecast. I could see a big storm on the way, which often makes for captivating scenery if you time it right. I thought that if I could get to Milford Sound during the storm, then I would be able to get out the morning after—this is often the best time to capture the mist and clouds over the mountains in the morning light.
But as it turned out, things did not go as I had planned. There was no misty morning the day after the storm. There was, however, something much better.
The morning after the storm—as blue as it gets.
Timing is everything for landscape photography
When shooting at Milford Sound, I always stay at Milford Sound Lodge. I was still in the Queenstown studio planning my trip when Milford Sound Lodge contacted me to say they were expecting the road into Milford Sound to close due to the incoming storm—there was a high risk of avalanche. I had a choice – cancel my booking or arrive a day early and get stranded in Milford Sound for two days.
I decided to go.
The four-hour drive from Queenstown got me there in the late afternoon. I went straight to the water to survey the situation at Milford Sound.
The storm was rolling in, and dark clouds were gathering over the fiord. This could be the scenario I’d long waited for. I raced to my favourite vantage point, without time to change into my hiking boots or grab my umbrella.
It was slippery down on the rocks at low tide, but it was the perfect vantage point.
As the rain and mist began to build, the light changed above Mitre Peak, highlighting the layers of mountains behind it. The clouds came rolling in, rays of sunlight tried to crack through. I set up my camera for a five-minute exposure, savouring the scene. The result was beautiful.
A few minutes later, the sun had disappeared entirely, and the rain was coming down in sheets, but I finally had my shot. It was a moment I had waited a decade for.
A 5-minute exposure of Milford Sound – look at the speed of the clouds.
Fiordland delivers the drama
With the road into Milford Sound closed, the normally buzzing village and harbour area was empty. It is a rare sight to see the car park at Milford Sound empty. I had to take a photo as proof!
Nearly everybody has left the valley
I returned to my room to wait out the storm. And it was quite a storm, I have to say.
My hotel chalet was rocking as strong wind gusts came through, and the horizontal rain was so heavy I could hardly see the scenery out of the window. After a very noisy night and a long day without leaving my room, the rain began to ease in the afternoon.
I decided to venture out and see what the rivers looked like. I expected they would be raging, fuelled by the many waterfalls.
I went to Donne River and Gulliver River, two locations I have shot before.
Making the most of the road closure, I set up my camera in the middle of the bridge. This is certainly not something you would be able to do at other times, the traffic into Milford Sound is constant just about all year round. I knew I wouldn’t get many opportunities like this, and I didn’t want to miss it.
Sheltering under the umbrella, I set up my camera system and using a very long exposure, I captured the raging Gulliver River.
This was a trip to Milford Sound I will remember for a long time. It takes planning, persistence, and a bit of luck to beautifully capture a landscape as magnificent and temperamental as this. But it is worth it.