Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Tasty Retreat

Millenium glass

I hear you say "So what is a PCO retreat?". A weekend of indulgence, that's what it is.

After helping Mrs C in her business as a Professional Conference Organiser in Hamilton last week, we spent the weekend as guests of Air New Zealand and the Millennium Hotel chain at a retreat in Queenstown - a weekend of fun and fine food. It's a thank you to PCO's for bringing business their way, as well as a way to showcase the accommodation, conferencing facilities, food, beverages and entertainment available in different regions.

Million Dollar views

Mrs C and I flew in later than the others, after a tiring week shepherding 240 delegates at the NZSSD conference, so were hoping the weekend's activities weren't going to be too strenuous. The last one we'd attended had been lavish but came with an "Amazing Race" theme that involved orienteering, fast cars, and Mrs C vowing never to do a bungy jump again. This year's theme was "Moments of Desire", so we were looking forward to something a little more sedate. Of course this is Queenstown, where sedate means being pushed off the bungy platform instead of having to jump.

Our late arrival meant we missed lunch and a round of golf at Jack's Point, but to be frank, neither of us was too worried. We took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep before meeting the other guests over dinner. Over pre-dinner nibbles, we were fitted with new Maui Jim sunglasses and told they would come in handy tomorrow. I was thinking either jet boat rides, paragliding, or maybe a spot of heli fishing might be on the cards. But speculation had to be put aside as we enjoyed a fabulous meal and plenty of Pinot Noir, followed of course by a nightcap in the bar. Thankfully I didn't over-indulge in my love of late-night single malts.

The next morning, we and our colleagues assembled in the hotel car park to see Thunderbirds One, Two and Three.

Thunderbirds Are Go

We were bound for Skippers Canyon. The road that my mum still has nightmares about. A road where insurers still won't cover rental cars and even mountain goats prefer to take the bus.

Skippers Road

I loved it. And as we embarked upon the jet boats at the end of the road, I knew I'd love that too.

Skippers Jet

Skippers Jet

Skippers Jet

I learned from my last jet boat ride to stick my ultra-wide angle lens on the camera, and bring plenty of wipes for the lens. You get lots of spray, even when the pilot isn't flinging you into 360-degree spins. But this was Queenstown, and he was.

PCO Retreat-2521


After the jet boat ride, we were driven up to the owner/operator Winky's house for some hospitality. The weather was less than optimal, but that's never an excuse for not trying to get some nice pictures. I was about two or three weeks late for the best of the autumn foliage, but there was still plenty of gold in them thar hills.

Winky's yard

Iron and Autumn II

After another welcome rest in our hotel room, it was time to join the gang again at the "Moments of Desire" dinner. Several small courses of heavenly cuisine with names I couldn't possibly pronounce, accompanied by a fine New Zealand I couldn't possibly decline. Semi-naked models adorned the room, and a large screen played classic movie "A Streetcar Named Desire". It was a night to remember, as long as you didn't indulge too much in all that wine.

Body Painting 1 Stella!

Rather than use my flash, I thought I'd capture the ambient lighting in the room, so put on my 50mm 1.8 and cranked the ISO on my Canon 7D up to 6400 ISO - way out of my normal comfort zone, but I was pleased with the relatively low noise level. I'm loving that camera.

The next morning we had a tour of some of the very nice refurbishments at the Kingsgate Hotel and took a boat ride on the lake before hopping in a rental and coming home, still tired but more than satisfied and of course, looking forward to the next adventure.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On The Run

Dawn fun run

Running and gunning. Literally, at the NZSSD Conference,Hamilton. Novo Nordisk fun run, 0630 hrs. Sunrise was so fleeting I just had one chance to get it with one of the runners in shot.

Now flying to Queenstown. PCO retreat. More later

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Asian

Heather Straka-2054

Yikes. Called into Dunedin Public Art Gallery yesterday to do some documentary shots of some exhibitions and it turned into an impromptu artist portrait session. Kind of blindsided me, but I got into it. This is artist Heather Straka and her exhibition "The Asian".

Heather Straka-2066

Not an easy part of the gallery to make pretty pictuers with. Not wides anyway. Ugly light sources in the ceiling. And Heather was of course, dressed all in black. Despite the lack of notice, I had an umbrella with me to light her from the right and put another flash camera left for fill. I'd have put it on-axis but wanted to avoid reflections on her glasses.

Heather Straka-2076

One of my last set-ups, I tried to get her China girl character peeking over her shoulder. Kind of like where that was going, but had so little time to do the kind of job I'd have liked to. Maybe next time. I'm really digging portratiture.

Heather Straka-2086

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Light Brigade

I recently posted my Light Brigade exhibition clip to Youtube. It's a compilation of some of my favourite shots, set to a tune by Professor Kliq. We screened it and others during the Short Films on a Tall Wall evening on the fringe of the Dunedin Fringe Fest. Best viewed in larger size over at Youtube, but here it is.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gone fishin'

Great Moss Swamp Harrier

I had planned to find a good position on the course for the Rally of Otago this weekend and work on my action shooting, but the forecast was so good, I decided to go fishing instead. The Great Moss Swamp on the Old Dunstan road is one of my favourite haunts. Of course I took my new 7D and did some shooting too.

To me, fishing and photography are similar on so many levels. You have to learn to see in a new way; You need patience and a plan; The best gear does not guarantee sucess, but can give you an edge and sometimes, you need to throw away the plan and just seize opportunities.

Bus Terminal

The location is a great one to force me out of my portrait-orientation habits. I'd spent the best of the light making a bit of a study of the old abandoned bus. Easy to make good pictures when the sky is blue.

Terminal Bus, Colour

Long Term Parking

Oops. How'd that portrait orientation sneak in there?

Out the bus window

Things change fast in the high country. The afternoon light was flat and the Norwest wind was howling, but I've learned to relish that. There's nothing like a little adversity to force you to expand your skills. I was trying to capture the subtle sky and cloud tones against the geometry of some power pylons when a marsh harrier came close enough for a shot. Normally I would have missed this fleeting opportunity, I was working at a low ISO for least noise with my shutter at about f/10 for sharpness and depth of field. Not the best for a fast moving bird.

Luckily I was able to whack the 7D into the wildife preset I'd configured - Shutter priority at 1/400th, auto ISO and high speed continuous shooting. Bingo, I got something just useable. Not easy with these wary predators, especially on a 70-200mm lens. Couldn't have done it without that preset function on the 7D.

Great Moss Swamp Harrier

I got a fish too. Not a bad day at all.

Friday, April 9, 2010

And now, just for fun...

I love telling stories and the big pho-tour was a goodie but just for fun, here's a shot I got on my 7D this week at the Circus with Miss C. No story necessary really. Apart from saying I love the 7D and the cheap little 50mm 1.8II I shot this with.


Pho-tour part six - Magic Milford Sound

Frankly, the weather had on this tour had been less than our expedition leader Heather was hoping for. We'd endured gale force winds, rain and cold from a couple of autumn storm fronts passing over the South Island. The sudden drop in temperature had even brought the year's first snow to the peaks. But you don't need great weather to make great pictures of a place. What you do need is a road to take you there.

Our plan for our last day had been to drive to Milford Sound with Ron of Trips and Tramps. For me, the ride to Milford is just as good as the sound itself, taking in beautiful lakes, mountain passes, valleys and the spectacular entrance to the Homer Tunnel. First Ron delivered the bad news: The Milford road was blocked by trees and slips and would not be cleared in time for us to drive there. The good news was that we were going by helicopter. The team reacted with predictable pause and sobriety.

Photourists, Milford

Heather takes off Jules in the Helo

That's Heather looking like a nervous possum, but she's actually thinking about how much Pinot Noir the budget can stand that night. Jules is an old hand at helo flying, and being a great photographer, wasted no time with his camera. Flying through steep, snow-sugared peaks in cloud and rain might look like a scary proposition, but not here. I don't lie when I say Fiordland chopper pilots are the best.

Helo Pilot Helo Pilot

These characters epitomise cool and calm. The older ones pioneered deer recovery operations in this steep mountain terrain back in the 60's and 70's. The younger ones provide rock steady shooting platforms for films like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or lift cargo on and off fishing boats in heaving seas. I feel safer in their hands than when I drive into town.


I've been to Milford on a number of occasions. I spent my early years in these parts, but have always meant to take a flight though the place. After having done so, I highly recommend it.

Flying into Milford

Once we touched down, the mission was to take a cruise out into the sound on board the Milford Mariner, one of several tourist boats that ply these deep, dark waters. If you plan to do so, think seriously about the overnight trip that takes you to the open sea. You'll see Fiordland crested penguins out there as well as fur seals and there's usually time for some kayaking too.

Jules on the boat Jules and the waterfall

Jules and the crew wasted no time shooting sequences and pieces to camera for the web broadcast episodes of our pho-tour while the rest of us started snapping away at the scenery and wildlife.

The Four Sisters

Dolphin Pod, Milford Sound

The light kept coming and going but the 'many moods of...' thing is so true here. When the sky is dark you have drama, when the sky is blue you have paradise.

Moody Milford

Mitre Peak

One good dividend of the wet weather is that it really pumps the sound's waterfalls, and when that's happening, the boat skippers nudge the bow up underneath to let you get a taste of the elements. Jules just couldn't resist and I don't blame him. The scenery is great to look at, but even better to be a part of. That's why I remind pho-tourists to put the camera down from time to time and have some fun in the moment.

Jules and the waterfall

The cruise over, it was soon time to climb into the choppers again and head back to Te Anau. By now the blue skies were breaking through and making for breathtaking flying.

Milford Airstrip

Milford Helicopter

On the road back, the mirror lakes were doing their thing, and we found a spot for Jules to do his final piece to camera for the trip. But it wasn't quite the end.

Mirror Lakes

Jules' Last PTC

One of the local pilots has seen so much of this beautiful landscape over the years, that he hired some of New Zealand's best film cameramen and flew them around this scenic wonderland. Then he put up a custom-built theatre to show the film in. The result is the 32 minute film Ata Whenua. If you do go to Te Anau, I suggest you take the trip to Milford, cruise lake Te Anau and tour the glow worm caves, and definitely buy a wine and settle in to watch Ata Whenua - Shadowland. It's the next best thing to taking a chopper flight over the area and will simply blow your mind.

And that's it folks. The great Southern Pho-tour all wrapped up. It was a privilege to be a part of, and to meet so many local tour operators as passionate as I am about our special part of the planet. We truly are blessed and like the others, I would be more than pleased to show you through it and stop to help you get the pictures of a lifetime.

My huge thanks to the team for being such great company: Anna, Grant, Michael, Craig, Heather, Neerav, Camilla and Jules and to Tourism Dunedin, Tourism New Zealand, Venture Southland and all the local operators that made such an amazing trip a reality.

Check in again soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Photour - Episode Five - Port Craig


From Okaka Lodge, it's a ten minute helo flight down to Port Craig Lodge on the Hump Ridge Track. Ten minutes of soaring and banking over magnificent rainforest ridges and coastline. Yahoo.

Camilla Loves Helos

Port Craig was the nerve centre of the forest logging business that operated here early last century. The remnants of ancient steam machinery can be found along the heritage trail that takes you from the lodge down to the beach.

Logging Industry remnant Logging industry remnant

Logging remnant

That night another fantastic meal was laid on for us, the Pinot Noir started to flow and we started catching up on each other's images, to the sound of collective ooh's and aah's. The meal? Fresh salmon, sprinkled with brown sugar and smoked with Manuka sawdust, exactly how I smoke the trout I catch. As I stepped out to enjoy the remnant of a Cuban cigar I'd been carrying, all I could think was "Oh yeah". In due course, we each retired to our rooms. I had drawn the short straw, if you can call it that: a warm, clean, cosy eight-person bunk room all to myself. Grant got the stateroom, and everyone else had something in between.

Perhaps it was something to do with the Pinot Noir, but Heather found herself up wandering the boardwalk late at night and wouldn't you know it, encountered more wildlife - this time an inquisitive deer. Apparently this happens to guests all the time. I'm going to start recommending people take cameras to the toilet from now on. The journey there is obviously where all the wildlife action happens.

Morning, and the kind of sunrise we'd been hoping to catch dawned at last. So Neerav and I did it to death.

Neerav shoots the sunrise

Port Craig Sunrise

Port Craig Sunrise

Port Craig Sunrise Port Craig Sunrise

After a fantastic breakfast porridge, everyone prepared to catch the next chopper out while I strolled down to the beach to catch the rest of the morning light. It's a beautiful spot and the rusting relics of the logging days just add to the special atmosphere. Most days you can see dolphins out in the bay. Too bad I only had 10 minutes before the chopper came, or I'd have tried to capture some with my camera.

Another Bleeding Port Craig Sunrise

Logging gear, Port Craig

Port Craig Sunrise

Boiler by the Jetty, Port Craig

Paua and Former Glory

After this all-too-brief visit, it was time to head up for the departure lounge and get the chopper on to our next destination. I've hung around a lot of departure lounges - Hanoi, Zurich, Anchorage and the likes, travelling for overseas shoots but this one takes the cake for character.

Baggafe Claim

Another day, another chopper ride. This time our destination was up the rugged coast to Waitutu Lodge. I actually saw a hind and fawn down on the beach, but by the time I came to my senses and pulled my camera up to my eye, we were long gone.

Flying to Waitutu

Before landing at the lodge, we stopped to visit one of the old logging viaducts that are part of the walk. That's Aussie hardwood, and it's lasted 90 years.

Port Craig Viaduct

While we were there, I thought I'd have another go at Camilla-style impressionism and do a little zoom-pull on some of the ferns below.

Crash Zoom Fern

Don't ask me where the time went, but we were met with a BBQ lunch and mulled wine. I was starting to think we were on a gastronomic tour instead of a photographic one.

Waitutu Lodge

Preparing to Leave Waitutu Lodge

Next we donned life jackets for the jet boat ride upriver. I think jet boats come in just after helicopters as my favourite means of transportation. Lodge host and boat pilot Johan was refreshingly casual about it all when we aksed if our gear was in for a soaking: "Nah. I'm not going to do 360 spins and get you all wet. This isn't Queenstown."

Heading upriver

As much as this story sounds like it's all fast rides and breathtaking views, what really got me about this experience was the people. No monolithic corporate tourist entities and take-your-dollar, working-my-way-through-varsity-vacation service staff down here. Everyone in these parts is an owner-operator, locals passionate about their part of the world, working hard to preserve it and grateful to share it with us. Cue violins. No. Cut violins, cue jet boat sound fx and some rock music as we zoom up the river.

Jules and the Predator

Okay, out of the boat, this is amazing. Johan pulls up by the riverbank and lets us all out to stand around in primeval rainforest. I was raised not far from here; bush like this was my childhood playground, so I'm soaking it all up, being five all over again, snapping pictures of the greenery. Green so rich it makes your eyes bleed. Meanwhile Johan is showing Jules one of his predator traps. Introduced rats and stoats are taking a toll on the native birds throughout the New Zealand bush, and people like Johan are waging war on them. This isn't greenwashing. This is your tourist dollar preserving nature.

The ride upriver to New Zealand's deepest lake Hauroko took about an hour. Even without the 360 degree spins, there had been a fair bit of water flying about, but I'm pleased to say the borrowed Canon 5DII and my 7D and the L-series lenses on them stood up to it nicely. Not that I'd want to give them a real splashing, but they handle a little spray enough to keep you working. The hard part is keeping the lens clear enough to get a useable shot.

Entering Lake Hauroko

At the lake, we were met by the team from Venture Southland with our vehicle. From there it was an hour's drive to Lake Te Anau and a chance to rest. Four days of intensive photography, filming and frenetic travel. We were all feeling like a damn good rest before the next mission. We checked into the Distinction Te Anau and before we could even get to our rooms, Grant and Craig had found themselves a dark corner and a professional quality massage. They'd earned it.

Massage Time

That night we ate at The Fat Duck. When I was a kid, there were two places to eat in Te Anau. One was the pub and the other was a dairy/burger joint we all called the Greasy Spoon. Things have changed. Now you can get top class food at several Te Anau restaurants, and The Fat Duck is one of the best. They also have Monteith's Beer and some great Pinot Noirs. They must have heard we were coming.

So okay, sunrise, historic machinery, chopper ride, rugged coastline, historic railway viaduct, barbecue lunch, jet boat ride up grade 3 rapids (did I mention the grade 3 part?), mountain lake, mountain lake, fine dining. Think that sounds like a good day? Check in again tomorrow. Heather was saving the best till last.