The making of Moeraki

Two unique geological formations are the focus of Stephan’s camera lens this month. Through the Maerewhenua Valley and the wild and windswept coastline of North Otago, Stephan finds himself at two of the region’s most famous landmarks—without another photographer in sight.


For this expedition,

I am travelling through the Waitaki Valley, an area renowned for Victorian architecture, award-winning restaurants and pubs, and New Zealand’s steampunk town of Oamaru. However, most notably, the region is known for its curious geological formations and old Māori rock art. The whole district has plenty to offer visitors, particularly those with an interest in the past especially when it comes to the ancient past and fossils! You can learn more about this at Vanished World Trail.

The first destination is the curious Elephant Rocks. Located five minutes out of the small township of Duntroon, Elephant Rocks is a collection of large and unusually shaped limestone boulders. Estimated to be around 20 million years old, it’s no surprise Elephant Rocks features on the Vanished World Trail.

Elephant Rocks

Elephant Rocks in the Maerewhenua Valley is a strange landscape of enormous limestone outcroppings. These geological oddities, weathered over the millennia, look a lot like elephants lying in the grass if observed from the right angle. Some say there are also other shapes like a dog and an eagle. But for most, these large, grey, misshapen lumps look very much like elephants.

And here they are, in the middle of a farmer’s paddock. Luckily, the farmer is happy to have visitors onto the property to explore the rocks. If the landscape looks familiar, you may recognise it from the 2005 Chronicles of Narnia movie, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where the location featured as Aslan’s Camp.

Setting up amongst the rocks

My morning weather check revealed heavy showers on the way later in the afternoon. This sounded good to me, as I knew approaching clouds and grey skies would provide an ideal backdrop to shoot the rocks.

I arrived around 3pm and began to set up. I was lucky to have this special place to myself. Perhaps it was the expected afternoon rain that had put explorers off for today.

I could see grey skies starting to roll over, so it was a quick setup to get a shot of the landscape with a bit of blue sky. Here, you can see the grey sky encroaching on the sunny afternoon.

Patience is part of the process

I got a few good shots, but the real magic happened once the blue disappeared and the rain clouds began to build. Although, not before I exercised some patience (something a landscape photographer gets very good at). It was nearly four hours before the light was right, and the gathering grey sky provided the perfect contrast to the incredible display that is Elephant Rocks.

Here is the final result

The final Elephant Rocks piece. A good four hours later.

As the light began to fade completely, I headed to my accommodation for the evening. It was going to be an early start in the morning as I was heading to one of New Zealand’s most popular locations for landscape photography. I didn’t want to miss out on a good position.

Moeraki Boulders

The drive from my accommodation to Koekohe Beach near Moeraki on New Zealand’s eastern Otago coast took around one hour. My destination was the Moeraki Boulders.

Not surprisingly, these perfectly shaped spherical stones deposited on the beach are a popular spot for visitors and photographers. My goal was to capture the sunrise at Moeraki, and so, expecting some competition, I arrived well before dawn.

With everything set up all I had to do was wait. I poured a coffee and took in the view. Looking around, I realised it was just me on the beach. No sightseers, no photographers, not even a seal or penguin. It must have been my lucky day. The perfect sunrise was about to begin, and I had the beach all to myself.

This is the first setup for the Moeraki Boulders image. The final image was a lower shot where I was positioned closer to the boulders. But this image provides a great silhouette of the boulders lying mysteriously in the sand.

As the day began to break, I took more shots and enjoyed an incredibly beautiful morning. The morning sky glowed for a while as a bank of clouds on the horizon meant the full sun didn’t appear until 15 minutes later.

Just as the light became perfect, the sea was becoming rough. I decided to soften the ocean behind the rocks with a very long shutter speed, around two minutes. You can see the difference this makes to the final image.

Here, you can see the image with a short shutter speed

And here with a long shutter speed

A word about exposure

There are two different ways to get to such a long exposure time. The most common way to achieve this is to put a very dark neutral density filter (10 f-stops) in front of your lens. I use a PhaseOne system, which allows me to use the second option, Automated Frame Averaging.

With frame averaging, the camera is programmed to take pictures in the correct exposure for a chosen period of time. In this case, it was 1/30th of a second for two minutes. The final result is one image combining all the information captured during this process.

It is a very clever way to come to a similar result without the use of filters.

The final image, Moeraki Boulders, shows how well the PhaseOne system can produce a stunning long exposure. But then, the scenery is also pretty good.

One last image after sunrise showing one of the boulders that looks like it has been cracked open.

About the Moeraki Boulders

The Moeraki Boulders are around 50 – 60 million years old. You’ll find them halfway between Oamaru and Palmerston. There are approximately fifty boulders along the beach, and despite looking like they fell from the sky, they have actually formed through a process known as concretion. Here layers of mud, silt and calcite build upon each other, in much the same way a pearl is formed layer by layer over a grain of sand.

The boulders are intriguing to visitors as most are almost perfectly spherical. They look like giant stone beach balls. Although there is absolutely no way you’ll be rolling one of these along the sand, some are as large as two metres in diameter.

Overall, it was a successful expedition through North Otago. Not only did I capture some new pieces, but I was lucky enough to have both of these special locations to myself.

Keep up to date

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