Lonely Sentinel, Wanaka, New Zealand

A brooding image of a lonely tree, on a winter's day, on Lake Wanaka in the town of Wanaka, New Zealand.

This mysterious scene was made well after sunset under a dark, brooding sky in the town of Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand.

Making a Compelling Image

One of the most important considerations in creating a compelling image is simplicity. Sometimes the best way to achieve that is to isolate the subject from its surroundings.

Space, depth of field and working with opposites (e.g. sharpness and blur, texture and smoothness, light and dark and contrasting colors) are some of the ways this can be achieved.

I was lucky that the focal point of this photo was a little ways off the shore line and, therefore, already separated from its surroundings.

The Story Within the Story

Now of course there's often a story within a story. My trip to New Zealand was a brief one, just 7 days, most of it spent in and around Queenstown. Nevertheless, despite a restrictive itinerary, I was determined to photograph two locations in particular: The Wanaka Tree and the majestic Milford Sound.

Now, are you ready for the rub? The tree depicted above is, in fact, not the tree for which I'd be searching. I'd heard and read about it through following my friend Trey Ratcliff on line.

The irony is that, after meeting up with Trey a few days later on location at Milford Sound, he'd be talking not about a single tree, but a small group of trees which, in retrospect, I'm not even sure if they're surrounded by water as is the case with the one above. In any case I prefer this tree. I think it's iconic.

The Emotive Power of Color

I love the cool, blue color of this image. It's the actual color of the skylight, echoing the coming of night, further cooled by an approaching storm front.

JPEG Shooters Beware

Having your camera set to Auto White Balance (AWB) would see the camera try to neutralize (i.e., white balance) the color of the light, stripping away much of the image's communicative power. And this is as true for sunrise and sunset as it is for the above photo.

Choosing the Right White Balance

Almost always I find the best white balance for photographing under natural lighting situations, whether indoors or outside, is achieved by setting my camera to Cloudy. I've found this to be true for the digital cameras I've owned (i.e., Nikon, Canon, Leica and Sony) as well as for all the cameras used by the thousands of students I've taught over the years. That means it will work for you to.

If the light indoors is predominantly artificial, such as indoors at night, then setting your camera to a Fluorescent or Tungsten/Incandescent white balance may be required. That is, if you're trying to neutralize the color of the light. 

However, rather than neutralizing color, there are times when I want to embrace the color that's actually there. For those times I set my camera to Daylight (also referred to as Direct Daylight or Sunny, or indicated as a Sun icon on some cameras) which allows me to record the color of the light that's actually there.

Likewise, if you want to accurately record the color of the artificial light, such as when undertaking night photography outdoors, then set your camera to the Daylight/Sunny white balance, at least as a starting point.

Reality and the Photograph

We all see color differently and how we remember what we saw is really quite an involved discussion. Needless to say our state of mind and level of comfort could have a definite impression on the way we experience let alone remember a particular moment, even one that only just happened.

When people comment on your photos by saying "is that really what it was like", you could answer as follows:

"How would I know? It's what I saw, how I felt about what I saw (which is affected by your expectations, mood, alertness and relative comfort) or what I've made from what I saw." In truth it's usually easier to say yes.   

How to Photograph the Wanaka Tree

I made the image up close with my Nikon 14-24mm lens on the fabulous Nikon D800e camera.

The tree itself is actually quite small and, depending upon the tide, might only be about 30 careful paces off the shoreline. I wore overboots over my hiking boots for that extra level of waterproofness. And they worked a treat, keeping my feet dry during the entire photography session.

A few hours earlier I visited a photography gallery in town. A very strong image of The Wanaka Tree, also made under similar lighting conditions, caught my eye. It was made from much further away than mine with a telephoto lens, which compressed the impression of distance between the tree and the background, in a way that really highlighted the relationship between the tree and a distant island (barely noticeable in my image).

I looked for an alternative approach. No better, but more my own and better suited to the lenses I had with me and the way I'd been working throughout the trip. I was extremely pleased with the result.

Location, Location, Location

Wanaka is a very picturesque 1 to 1 1/2 hour drive from Queenstown. As you arrive in Wanaka you'll come to a T-Intersection that faces the lake. Instead of turning right at the lake and heading up to the shops and cafe's, turn left and drive past a sports ground.

There are several driveways on your right leading to parking spots on the reserve that fronts the lake. Turn into one of the last two driveways prior to the road veering around to the right. Hop, on one foot, out of the car and face the lake. You'll find the tree in question a few minutes walk to your left.

New Zealand is an amazing country. With so much to do in Queenstown, and the surrounding area, I'd be more than happy to relocate there. Let's see what happens down the road aways.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru