As a photographer, I am always looking for new challenges and opportunities for photography. And my recent night expedition into Mt Cook certainly provided plenty of that.
Aoraki Mt Cook is located in the Mt Cook National Park, about a three-hour drive from Queenstown. It is a popular destination for hikers and nature enthusiasts during the day but at night, it is something else. A long way from light pollution, this location delivers a night sky that is truly awe-inspiring.
I scheduled a couple of nights for this particular photographic expedition. Even though the weather forecast looked good, weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. The usual location to shoot Mt Cook from the ground is Hooker Lake, a 3-hour return hike which is often busy with hikers during the day. As I would be shooting in the dark, hopefully it will be only me and my camera at this time of the day.
I would be walking along the Hooker Valley Track. This 10-kilometre trek starts at the White Horse Hill camping ground and takes around 1.5 hours to get to Hooker Lake, where you are rewarded with incredible views of Aoraki Mt Cook. Along the way, you also get views of Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake, and the Southern Alps. The trail is well-maintained and suitable for hikers of all fitness levels and takes you over three swing bridges and a boardwalk. I think it’s a must-do and a fantastic way to get up close to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak (3,724 meters (12,218 feet).
Second swing bridge on the way in.
To avoid the “traffic”, I started my walk around 4 pm, when most hikers were leaving the valley. At this time of the year, most of the hike is in the shadow of Mt Sefton. The landscape had a dark and wintry feel. But after 45 minutes, when you walk around the corner of Mt Wakefield, you will be rewarded with the sight of Mt Cook perfectly illuminated in the late afternoon sun.
There it is – Aoraki Mt Cook lit up in the afternoon sun.
Last light on Mt Cook.
Look a little closer and you can see some clouds starting to build around Mt Cook. Compare this to the previous shot, taken just 15 minutes earlier, and you can see how quickly things change in the mountains.
I made my way down towards Hooker Lake, famous for its glacial icebergs. It is a classic view of Aoraki Mt Cook, but I felt the picture was now feeling too cold.
Less light on the mountain and more clouds building.
I walked back towards the boardwalk, which took me through the spaniard grass. Often this lovely coloured grass will offset cold, snow-capped mountains with warmth and a contrast of colours. However, today it was not meant to be. The clouds had continued to build, and I wasn’t able to capture what I was looking for. Thankful to have another opportunity the next day I made my way back to Mt Cook village where I spent the night.
Disappearing Mt Cook
The next day the weather looked great, and I was sure this would be the opportunity to capture the Mt Cook shot I had in mind. I set off on the hike earlier than the previous day, and as it turned out, the extra time gave me the chance to get off the beaten track.
I have done this walk many times but I have never followed a little sign which takes you off the main track. Today, with plenty of time, I decided to follow the sign! I was glad I did. I ended up at a beautiful little mountain tarn which gave a perfect reflection of Mt Cook in the evening light.
The reflection of Mt Cook in last light.
Arriving at Hooker Lake, I found it was still quite busy with hikers, so I returned to my boardwalk location and waited for the sun and walkers to disappear.
Here is an interesting contrast between a phone camera and a proper camera. This ‘selfie’ was taken with my phone, and you can see here how an iPhone camera will always find light where there is hardly any. The second image is taken with my Phase One and shows the actual light situation—Mt Cook entirely lit by the moon. Everything else starts to get very dark.
To create this shot, it is necessary to shoot in several stages. First, as soon as the sun is gone I shot a backplate with a decent ISO (50 or 100) to avoid any noise. As it got darker and the stars started to pop, I had to increase the ISO. I usually try not to overstep ISO 1600 as it gets very noisy otherwise. The tricky part is that stars move! And they move fast – anything above a 15-second exposure would result in an unsharp image. The only chance to get enough light in your camera is a fast lens. f/2.0 or f/2.8 would be ideal. When you increase your ISO to ISO 3200 or higher you can reduce the noise with shooting several pictures after another and stack them together with a specific stacking program. I use Starry Landscape Stacker for Mac.
Showing an 8-minute exposure with lots of moving stars.
As the Milky Way was not right above Aoraki Mt Cook, I set up a second camera system with the PhaseOne IQ4 and 24mm super wide-angle lens. The results were amazing, although perhaps still a little early—as you can see in the bottom right corner of the photo.
By the time I finished it was 9 pm. Being so deep into the valley without any light pollution – and now not even the moon – it was pitch black. I was grateful for my good head-torch to guide me back. I began my hike back to The Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook Village, where I knew there would be a hot bath waiting for me. Heading back along the track at this time of night meant I met a few local possums along the way. They were not shy at all and we had a few funny chats, which kept me entertained while walking back.
Looks a bit like Blair Witch Project to me.
What a beautiful couple of days in Mt Cook National Park. And I could now tick off a night shoot under the stars at Aoraki Mt Cook.
Finally, after a couple of hours of work in the office, here is the final result.