Top of the world

The calligraphic line of a snow-covered ridge is a finalist in the landscape category of the 2016 New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year contest.

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It might look like a scene from a polar expedition, but this image captures a spring morning on the rim of Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake, in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island.

Johan Lolos had just photographed the sunrise from the summit of the mountain, when his guide, Angelica, suggested they hike around the back of the crater lake. It was a strenuous couple of hours as they were carrying skis for their return trip down the mountain.

When the ridge came into view, it was around nine in the morning.

“All around the crater, some incredible ice formations were surrounding the lake,” says Lolos. “I asked my guide to model for me and go stand on the top of that iceberg-looking rock formation, to give a sense of scale to the photo. That’s her we can see in orange.”

Now that it was two hours after sunrise, weather conditions weren’t ideal, and Lolos initially struggled to capture the shot.

“The light was getting quite harsh already,” he says. “The sky wasn’t blue, nor completely grey and overcast, so I had to deal with a very poor natural contrast between the white foreground and the white sky—this is where my model plays a big role in the photo.”

After leaving Belgium in September 2013 with little more than a brand-new degree in public relations and a desire to see the world, Lolos travelled and worked much in the same fashion as other young backpackers.

Five months in, and he decided he ought to pay more attention to his Instagram account, @lebackpacker. He had about a thousand followers back then, and had been shooting, occasionally, on an entry-level Nikon DSLR. Now, he started photographing at every possible opportunity during a long road-trip across Australia, and uploading the best results to the social platform.

By the time Lolos crossed the Tasman to New Zealand, seven months later, he had 25,000 followers, and left standard-issue backpacker jobs behind for good.

Lake Wanaka Tourism invited him to the South Island town on a kind of photographic residency, where he lived for free in exchange for Instagramming the area and its attractions.

In total, Lolos spent a year in New Zealand, and he’s barely paid for travel since. He’s visited Iceland, Norway, Austria, Germany, Finland, Namibia and Canada this year alone, with airlines, tourism organisations and even automotive brands such as Toyota and Ford footing the bill.

The images he posts to Instagram encapsulate what’s popular on the social medium—lone figures in epic landscapes, mirror-smooth lakes, peaks appearing through cloud, the flare of sunlight at dusk.

He recently passed 350,000 followers—a city’s worth of online devotees. A move to Canada is on the horizon, but he has also started leading photo tours. For Lolos, there seems little chance of the pace slowing down.