My family and I have known Neil since he first moved into Kaikoura. Neil has been incredibly generous to Kaikoura NZ Tourism and NZ Travel Magazne with his Photographs and has an amazing body of work he has taken from around the world. Recently he has undertaken some joint venture photography tours with an American company which has expanded his photography reach substantially, and he continues to undertake more of these this year in the South Island.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born and raised in Wales, and came to live in New Zealand a little over five years ago, with my wife Eileen and Lauren, the younger of my daughters. My eldest, Carys, stayed in the UK to complete her studies. Until we decided to move here I’d had little exposure to or knowledge of what lay in store. I have childhood recollections of grainy black and white TV footage of rain-soaked rugby matches, vivid memories of a Wales-dominated Lions team beating the All Blacks on the tour of 1971, but apart from that and a few clips from Lord of the Rings, not much!
When did you come to New Zealand and what brought you here?
I suppose it’s fair to say we left the UK because we were fed up with it. No one thing in particular, but a general disillusionment with the politics, the economy, social issues, and so on. The financial crash of 2008 affected us quite badly and just brought it all to a head. So we decided to leave, and here we are.
Tell us a little bit about your businesses, where and what made you settle in Kaikoura?
My background is in the leisure and hospitality industry and after a relatively short employed career, for the last 25 years I’ve been running my own businesses. I started out in the fast food industry, developing franchise models and selling food service equipment. Then by chance I met a guy in America who was a manufacturer of 1950s style American Diners – those stainless steel buildings with neon lights, jukeboxes and long counters facing the kitchen. I was immediately captivated by this idea of this concept and eventually agreed a deal with him to become his agent in Europe. I bought a Diner myself and opened it as my first restaurant in 1993. It was called Starvin’ Marvin’s, and proved very successful. Probably ahead of its time, in a way (how can something from the 1950s be ahead of its time in 1993??) I sold the whole business to a public company and moved on to a couple of other projects before deciding to seek out a new life in New Zealand. One of those was selling bottles of cognac online. I was selling stuff on the internet before Amazon was selling anything!
The plan here was to combine my extensive experience in hospitality with everything we had learned from travelling around much of the world, into a small upscale bed and breakfast lodge. We chose to do this in Kaikoura, for several reasons. First and foremost it looked like a great place to live. Second, there appeared to be gap in the market for something like the idea we had in mind. And third, it seemed to be place with a great deal of unexploited tourism potential, and with that, a promising future. It all came to fruition with the opening of Manakau Lodge just before Christmas in 2012, and I’m really pleased to say now that all of those things we had hoped for have come true. Kaikoura is a great place to live, our business has become very successful, and the future is very exciting, probably even more so now, after the recent (and devastating) setback of the earthquake.
On Images Abound Photography
I’ve been taking pictures off and on, for most of my life. Having learned from an early age, using film cameras of course, I started to rediscover the joys of photography when digital cameras really took off about 10 years ago. What is really amazing about it is the ability we now have to publish our photographs, to share them with people who are interested in seeing them wherever they may be, to learn from other people’s work, and to do it all ourselves, from home. None of this was practical or even possible with film in the way that it is now. It’s fascinating, and an exciting hobby or skill to have.
I adapted to the new medium fairly quickly and I soon found myself wanting to take my photography more seriously. To cut a long story short, I was offered the opportunity to work with someone who was setting up tuition workshops for the first time. There is no doubt that running a workshop successfully is as much about hospitality and looking after people as it is about the photography itself, and so my professional skills were a good match to the job role.
This formula was to prove reasonably successful and certainly paid dividends later on, when I started to set myself up on a semi-professional basis as “Images Abound”. My aim was to make a few sales of my prints, both online and locally, to run my own workshops for individuals and very small groups, and to use my guest lodge business in New Zealand as the springboard for that, particularly during the off-season months when Kaikoura is traditionally very quiet.
In 2015 I had a bit of a lucky break following a casual conversation with some of my Lodge guests at breakfast, the upshot of which was a totally unexpected and unimagined opportunity to work with world-renowned landscape photographer Marc Muench, in the USA. Marc and his business partner Andy Williams (also a top-rated photographer) run photo workshops around the world, but they’d never been to New Zealand and a number of their clients had been enquiring about the possibility of organising a trip here. So I got in touch with them and offered my assistance in putting a workshop package together and a year or so later, we ran two back-to-back workshops on the South Island, with a cross-over here in Kaikoura. I’m now the professional guide for Muench Workshops (www.muenchworkshops.com), and we are running another sold-out trip here in April this year, with another planned for 2018. Not only are Marc and Andy great guys to work with, the immersion in their world of photography is so rewarding. It’s something I really love doing, and the chance to host these visitors, showing them some of the scenic highlights of our country, is an awesome thing to be able to do. Marc’s father is David Muench, who was also one of America’s leading photographers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and one of the most influential landscape photographers of the twentieth century. My own father was a devotee of his work and had a number of David Muench’s books. He would have been thrilled to know that I was now working with Marc, who has certainly followed in his father’s footsteps.
What Photography Gear do you use?
I’ve had loads of cameras over the years. In the film days I used Minolta SLRs but I now use Nikon equipment. The Nikon D810 is a fantastic camera, probably the best in its class. I have a bag full of top quality lenses which cover everything I need. It’s a substantial investment but my photography is self-financing these days and I don’t need my wife’s permission to buy it any more (though I hope, when I die, she doesn’t sell my stuff for what I told her I paid for it…..)
I’ve also bought into a mirrorless camera system recently. Fujifilm. I absolutely love this gear. Proper metal dials, proper aperture rings on the lenses, just like the old film cameras but with the very latest digital technology built in. My X-T2 is a joy to use and so small and light it’s perfect for travelling, which is primarily why I got into it. The image quality is superb. It’s not going to replace my Nikon just yet, but it’s great have it as a complementary system.
I am often asked “which camera should I buy” by people moving into the world of digital SLR photography. I always answer the same way. Buy the camera which feel most comfortable in your hands. It’s really important. Some of the Fuji cameras I looked at were just too small and compact for my big hands and I would have struggled to use them in the field. The lens weight ratio is also really important. Some of Fuji’s lenses are quite big and heavy, and though they are very, very good, they don’t feel balanced in my hand on the smaller camera body, and so they are not right for me. For someone with smaller hands it may be different. My advice is always to try out a couple of options in a good camera store before making your choice, and seek the advice of someone like the dealer who can point out the pros and cons of each model. There is no discernible difference between the major competing brands, certainly not in the consumer market. Try them out in a store, and also buy in a store. If we buy everything online or from overseas, these camera shops will end up going out of business, and we don’t want that.
With the recent challenges of the earthquake in Kaikoura how are you guys doing there?
We’re doing OK here, life is getting back to as near-normal as possible. The road closure north of Kaikoura is obviously a big headache and it’s been a devastating blow for tourism in the town. Despite all the cancellations that we and other tourism operators have suffered, February and March have held up reasonably well and we’re hopeful that we can salvage something from the summer. But it won’t be enough, and there is a fear that some of our local businesses won’t make it through. Three winters in a row, which is effectively what it will mean, is going to be very tough. There are encouraging signs for next year though. We could back bounce very quickly if we can get the support we need between now and this time next year.
How can people help Kaikoura?
Easy! Just come and visit! Spend a little money in our hotels, shops and restaurants! It will go a long way to restoring confidence in the wider world and will directly help local businesses during a very difficult time. Every dollar counts. We are over the trauma of the earthquake, we’ve made tremendous progress with the response to it (with a lot of very welcome and appreciated help from around the country) and now the need is to sustain our recovery. Economic activity will be more beneficial than charitable giving from this point onwards.
What were the unexpected things you found about traveling in NZ?
I love travelling around this country. The roads are so free of traffic that it’s a joy (maybe less so in Auckland but I avoid all cities as much as possible). I do find it frustrating that so few places seem to offer a simple pub-style meal for lunch, even something like a BLT. Coming from England, I am used to having quite a wide variety of light, small-portion things on a lunchtime menu in a pub, but here it’s very hard to find anywhere where the meals served are not huge. I’m also amazed at how large some hotel rooms are, and how they all seem to have kitchens in them, even washing machines.
What were your favorite spots to take photos, if you could pick your top 5?
I have always found myself fascinated by mountains and mountain scenery and I spend hours looking at maps and studying the landscape on Google Earth. It is always interesting to see how the shape of a mountain changes when you see it from different angles. Some are instantly recognisable, others not. So my top place is undoubtedly Mackenzie Country, or anywhere which gives me a view of the alps.
I’m also a big fan of lakes and having recently spent some photo time on the West Coast, I’d have to rank those lakes up there with the best. From Lake Mahinapua near Hokitika all the way down to Lake Paringa, the scenes are beautiful, completely unspoiled. And easy to get to.
Kaikoura has a lot to offer of course, and amazing diversity. I live in the foothills of the mountains and they take on a different character every day. I’ve seen fabulous sunset skies, beautiful alpenglow, pink morning light on the winter snow, massive rock avalanches, ferocious rain storms, rainbows and sunbeams pouring through the clouds. All in one day….! OK I exaggerate – all in one week.
Another favourite spot is the area around Arthur’s Pass but I wish they’d put many more pull-outs and develop some viewpoints around the Waimak river valley and on the other side of the Divide. The views are fantastic but invariably spoiled by overgrown bushes and power lines in the way. I think we need more viewing decks, boardwalks and such like in New Zealand. There is a place near Kaikoura called the cathedral Rocks which is so overgrown the photo opportunity there is almost lost.
Out of the activities you experienced which did you love the most?
Flying around Mount Cook in a helicopter with the doors off and my camera on.
What is your quote or mantra do you live by?
Never compromise your reputation or your integrity.
Having run my own companies for so long now, I also swear by something which my old friend David Bernstein used to say – David was the Diner man in the US, and sadly passed away a few years ago – “there are two kinds of people in business – prospects, and suspects”.