Sunset to Sunrise in Banks Peninsula

Venturing a little further from home than usual, a recent photography expedition took Stephan to Banks Peninsula,

one of the South Island’s most picturesque locations. While you can always rely on the South Island to deliver breathtaking landscapes, you can’t always rely on perfect weather. Discover what a day out on location for a landscape photographer entails—from the perfect sunrise shot to gale-force winds and narrow windy roads.

The drive from Queenstown to Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch, is nearly seven hours. While it was a long drive north from my alpine hometown, I knew the stunning landscapes awaiting me would be worth the effort.

Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Banks Peninsula is a spectacular volcanic formation surrounded by sheltered bays, hidden coves, and stunning landscapes. The area is known for its unique geology, wildlife, and the quaint village of Akaroa. Banks Peninsula is just a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Christchurch, making it a popular tourist spot and local’s getaway. The area’s rolling hills and coastal terrain make it ideal for hikes and day walks.

I had my eye on one of these hilly locations for the first stop of my Banks Peninsula shoot. Even though it had been a big drive to get there, I headed straight to the hill behind Akaroa when I arrived. I was planning to capture the sunset over the other side of Akaroa Harbour. Calculating the best position for sunrise and sunset is much easier these days, thanks to the many apps and websites that provide this information. I have a few favourites, so once I had done my online research, I headed to my location to shoot the sunset over New Zealand’s east coast.

Sunrise (yellow) and sunset (red) directions.

I took the summit road just before Hilltop Lookout, which is an amazing scenic drive, and one I highly recommend—on a clear day! On this day, the weather had turned and the view when I reached the top of the lookout was mostly cloud and rain. According to the forecast, it would improve later in the day, so I decided to return when the views were better.

I checked into my apartment in Akaroa and carried out one of the photographer’s most important tasks – setting up the coffee machine in preparation for an early morning start. With everything set up, I headed up to the lookout again, where I was expecting some clearer skies for sunset.

It was now just over three hours later, and the weather had significantly improved. I battled gale-force winds along the ridgeline to get to the best position for photographing the entire bay. Looking around, I could see the area obviously experienced this level of high winds a lot, the telltale sign being the trees growing at an angle. The winds were intense, and I was grateful for my warm jacket, but the result was worth the effort.

A fresh perspective for a favourite location

The next morning I was up early to capture the stunning scenery at sunrise. The early start was certainly made easier by the two mugs of coffee alongside me in the car. I was heading to the other side of Akaroa Harbour, which doesn’t look far on the map but is actually a very slow and windy drive. I recommend leaving plenty of time if you ever take this road. It took me an hour to reach the end, after driving along what felt like 389 bends in the road. The further I got towards the end of the road, the narrower it became. Luckily, I had the road to myself at this early time of the day.

I have been to this location previously for a Porsche Boxster shoot. I located the exact bend in the road where we shot in 2004, and this time, I turned my camera to the right to capture the beautiful water views in the early light. 

Just before the sun popped up.

The result was spectacular. Even though the 17mm lens on a medium format camera is extremely wide, it was only possible to capture the whole 180-degree panorama by shooting it in four stages and stitching it together back in the office.

Banks Peninsula a it’s best.

Feeling satisfied with the morning’s work, I decided to drive the long way home via Arthurs Pass and the West Coast. Unfortunately, the weather turned again, and after a drizzly night in Fox Glacier, I was not expecting to do much photography the next day. I glimpsed 30 seconds of sunshine and some incredible cloud formations the next morning when I stopped at Ship Creek car park to stretch my legs. Never wanting to waste an opportunity, I captured the scene but decided to return another day.

I had been extremely lucky with the weather in Akaroa, and you can’t be lucky all the time.

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