Hawaii Big Island
Appreciating Hawaii’s Most Unappreciated Island
On my list of qualities that make a location great for photography, the Hawaiian Islands check the most important boxes: dramatic scenery, unique subjects, diverse terrain, and consistently great skies. Unfortunately, photographers and tourists aren’t a great mix, and the very qualities that make Hawaii great to photograph also make it great for vacations. Throw in year-round t-shirt and flip-flop weather, and you can see why most of Hawaii is teeming with people.
After extensive (and ongoing) research throughout Hawaii (it’s a tough job, but….), I’ve found that the very qualities that make the Hilo side of the Big Island especially photogenic, even by Hawaii standards, make it less appealing to tourists. The frequent rain (Hilo is the wettest city in the United States) that drives tourists back to their hotels also means especially lush forests and abundant waterfalls, while the area’s rugged volcanic coastline, quite poor for swimming and sunbathing, are simply made for photography.
Scenery abounds all across the Big Island, but I’ve found that the best combination of world-class scenery and relatively few tourists is near Hilo, along Highway 19 north to Laupahoehoe Point, the Puna District surrounding Highways 130, 132, and (especially) 137, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on Highway 11 west.
North of Hilo
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden: The HTBG is an immaculate botanical garden bisected by a network of paved trails that wind down to the rugged shore of Onomea Bay. Highlights include Onomea Fall, a pristine orchid garden, and lots of vivid tropical plants. (It’s also a tripod-friendly location, but please respect the other visitors.)
Akaka Falls State Park: A paved .4 mile loop trail winds through a lush rainforest that features towering bamboo, colorful blooms, and multiple waterfalls, big and small. The highlight here is Akaka Fall’s vertical plunge from the jungle to a pool 440 feet below. Morning visitors should look for rainbows at the base of the fall.
Laupahoehoe Point: Jutting into the Pacific on Hawaii’s northeast side, Laupahoehoe Point seems to take a direct hit from surf that has traveled across thousands of miles of open sea.
South of Hilo (Puna District)
Lava Tree State Park: This hidden gem on Highway 132 is accessed by a 2/3 mile paved trail that loops beneath a canopy of photogenic monkeypod trees. Aptly named for the numerous lava stumps that formed when saturated trees were overrun by lava, cooling and hardening in place. Check out the wild orchids that decorate the loop’s back side.
Puna Coast: The coastline south of Hilo is almost entirely the product of Hawaii’s newest volcanic eruptions. Here decades of recent lava flows have overrun foliage to create a stark, rugged landscape that hasn’t had time to recover. Rather than the fine white coral sand found farther north in the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island’s brand new “beaches” are largely comprised of rugged basalt rock, too new to have been smoothed by weather and surf.
Disturbed by an uneven but steep ocean floor just offshore, waves along the Puna Coast don’t gently roll and lap as they do through out much of Hawaii, they crash and explode. But the tourists’ loss is the photographers’ gain, with miles of violent surf, broken occasionally by reflective tide pools small pockets of black sand.
You can find nice photo opportunities at Alalanui Beach, Isaac Hale Park, and (my favorite) MacKenzie Park, but rather than target specific locations here, I often just drive Highway 137 (Kalapana-Kapoho Road) in search of photo opportunities.
West of Hilo
Thurston Lava Tube (Volcanoes National Park): Take the short, paved loop trail through a lush rainforest to walk through a tube that moved lava down the mountain just a few centuries ago.
Jaggar Museum (Volcanoes National Park): This is the best place to view and photograph Halemaumau Crater, the home of the current Kilauea eruption, nearly 34 years old and counting. Visit in daylight to view the constantly belching steam and gas plume rising from the crater a mile distant. As impressive as this plume is, the real show is at night, when the crater’s lava lake throbs orange, painting the clouds and caldera with its fiery glow.
A few tips
The locations cited here are the tip of the iceberg, to get you started. But whether you concentrate on my suggestions or venture out in search of your own favorite spots, there are few things you can do to maximize your results.
- Prepare to photograph in the rain. Though much of the Big Island’s rain falls overnight, you can encounter a downpour at any time. My umbrella is with me at all times, but since Hawaii is so warm, I usually just wear a swimsuit and tank-top and don’t even think about keeping myself dry. Because Hawaii’s frequent showers often don’t include wind, with an umbrella and my tripod, I can shoot and keep my camera dry with relative ease.
- Rainbows are frequent and can appear suddenly if you’re not paying attention. On each visit to Hawaii I make note of the “rainbow zone,” the time when the sun is low enough (42 degrees or less) to make a rainbow—depending on the time of year, that’s roughly from sunrise through mid-morning, and again from late afternoon through sunset. And upon arrival at every location I check the direction my shadow points (or would point if the sun were to come out)—that’s where a rainbow will be if sunlight finds the rain.
- Check with the folks at Volcanoes National Park to see if or where the lava is flowing.
- No photography trip to Hawaii is complete without photographing the caldera at night. It can be breezy there, so you’ll want to make sure your tripod can handle long exposures in a breeze. And on moonless nights from mid-spring through mid-autumn, it’s possible to photograph the Milky Way above the caldera. The timing and location varies with the date, so you’ll need to determine when Sagittarius rises and identify the vantage point that aligns the Milky Way and caldera on the days of your visit.
A Big Island Gallery
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