🏝 All the Best Big Island Photography Locations (2024)

Blog cover for the best Big Island photography locations.  Text overlaying an image of a monk seal on a white sand beach next to the blue ocean with palm trees in the background

Savage lava flows, tropical palm trees, and sandy beaches of every color… The Big Island is a photographer’s paradise with opportunities for photos that are as plentiful as its thriving sea life.

I have been to all of the Hawaiian several times and the Big Island is my favorite to photograph. There is a raw beauty here unlike any other place.

Whether you’re a professional photographer like myself looking for some inspiration, a vacationer looking for the best Instagrammable spots, or just seeking some beautiful backdrops to add to the family photo album, you will find the best Big Island photography locations in this complete guide.

Now get your map and pins and begin daydreaming about all the moments you’ll capture on your upcoming vacation!

⭐️ Pro Tip: The camera started firing before the plane even landed, so make sure you get a window seat.

πŸ“Έ Best Big Island Photography Locations

A photo from our airplane window looking out over a beach on Kona during our flight into the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Big Island adventure begins before you even land!

Visiting Hawaii should be on everyone’s US bucket list. There’s so much to see and photograph in Hawaii.

From pristine white sand beaches with swaying palms to savage lava rock coastline, lush waterfalls and an abundance of marine life – Hawaii seems to have it all!

So to help you figure out where to go shoot… Here is a collection of our favorite places and recommendations (in no particular order) for aspiring Big Island photographers.


1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Night photography of magma bubbling up from the Lava Lake in Hawaii Volcanoes NP.
Magma bubbling up from the Lava Lake in Hawaii Volcanoes NP.

Few experiences will ever compare with a night visit to Volcanoes National Park.

This highly-active volcanic site provides incredible views of lava lakes and glowing calderas.

Be sure to bring a tripod for your night photos as well as layers as it can get quite cold at elevation.

Milky Way photography from the Kilauea Caldera in Volcanoes NP on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Milky Way rising over the Kilauea Caldera.

During the summer, the Milky Way can also be photographed over the large Kilauea caldera from the Kilauea Visitor Center.

Volcanoes National Park is hands down one of the best things to do in Hawaii, and a little extra special for landscape and night photographers like ourselves.


2. Mahaiula & Makalawena Beach

Sophie swings from a hammock in the postcard-perfect scene at Mahaiula Beach.

This is one of the best beaches in Hawaii and hands-down the best beach on the Big Island! It is an ideal place for that postcard-perfect Hawaii photo.

If you’re looking to get yourself settled in and experiencing the aloha vibes, Mahaiula and Makalawena beaches are for you. These are the best beaches on the big island for a relaxing day in the sand.

A brilliant sunset lights the lava rock scene and palm tree oasis at Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island.

As a photographer, what appealed to me about this beach, in particular, was the way the volcanic rock carpet transformed an otherwise-typical tropical beach into something distinctly Kona.

This is an absolute must-see to add to your list of Big Island photography locations.


3. Kukio Beach

This is hands down one of the best places for photographing sunset in Hawaii.

When you close your eyes and imagine a brochure cover, you might well be thinking of the scene that awaits you at Kukio Beach.

Attached to the south end of Kukio Beach is a spectacular palm tree grove in the area known as Kikaua Point Park. Do yourself a favor and plan to spend at least one night at this magical beach.


4. Lone Palm Beach

If you look for Lone Palm Beach on Google, it will take you to a parking lot that looks a bit out of place.

From there, you’ll have a totally exposed, lengthy walk across scorching hot lava rock… But the reward is so worth it!

At the end of the journey awaits this black-sand oasis. From a photography perspective, it’s the lonely, isolated palm tree on the far end of the beach that provides the best composition for one of those Instagram-perfect photos!


5. Anaeho’omalu Beach at Hilton Waikoloa

During our time in Kona, sunset photography was our primary focus. If you’re a photographer visiting the Big Island, you will want to make sure you are somewhere with a view of golden hour and sunset every night!

Obviously, sunset is always a magical time. However, there is something extra special about the nightly shows on the west coast of the Hawaiian islands.

We tried to photograph sunset every night, and Anaeho’omalu Beach (known as “A-Beach” to the locals) was our favorite place to shoot it!

Anaeho’omalu Beach itself is accessed via the Hilton Waikoloa. This is absolutely one of the best places to stay on the Big Island and provides nightly sunset views.

However, the two sunset photos above were taken in random spots that we found photogenic along the path.

You do not have to be a guest to explore the facility, just make sure to get there early and wander around a bit to find the composition that appeals to you most!


6. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Unlike the rocky shoreline of Lone Palm Beach, the sand at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is much softer and more inviting.

The lava-forged sands contrast brilliantly against the vibrant, tropical greens of the palm trees and local vegetation, while aqua waters wash in and out to add the final touch to an already stunning scene.

And if all that wasn’t enough, you are almost sure to see one of the adorable resident green sea turtles (or “honu” in Hawaiian) relaxing peacefully on the shore.

A turtle rests on the shore of one of the best beaches on Big Island at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach during a magical sunset.
A local green turtle resting on the beach.
Please be respectful of these beautiful creatures and give them plenty of space.

As a warning, this place can get very, very busy! If your visit is one with photography in mind, sunset and sunrise both add gorgeous light and come with the bonus feature of smaller crowds. However, no matter when you visit, it’s definitely one of the best things to do on the Big Island.


7. Papakolea Green Sand Beach

If you were impressed by the black sand beach of Punalu’u, you may be even more eager to explore the GREEN sand beach of Papakolea.

However, these beautiful, one-of-a-kind olive sands must be earned! Access to this remote beach is extremely limited.

Sophie Clapton strolls the green sand beach of Big Island, Hawaii.

It requires either a hot, 2.5 mile hike in, a crazy drive that needs an incredibly high clearance vehicle, or a $10 per person fee for a ride in.

Although the green tint of the sand isn’t easily captured on camera, this unique natural phenomenon is a must-see for any photographer visiting the Big Island.


8. WaipiΚ»o Valley & Waipi’o Black Sand Beach

If you find yourself becoming desensitized photographically to beaches and palm trees, you’ll love the sea cliffs and waterfalls of the Waipio Valley.

This is one of my favorite Big Island photography locations as it is very different from the rest of the island.


9. Puako Bay Beach

Puako Bay Beach is not exactly one of the best Kona beaches for sunbathing; the “sand” is actually just sharp coral fragments and the “beach” is nothing but a lava rock shelf.

That said, somehow these elements combine for an unbelievable photo!

Puako Beach is one of those places that is better through the camera than through the eyes.


10. The Outrigger Kona at Keauhou Bay

Admittedly, we stumbled by complete accident upon what ended up being one of our favorite sunset destinations.

While awaiting the nightly manta ray encounter, which will be covered later, we found ourselves exploring the cliffside vistas and immaculate grounds of what was the Sheraton Kona, and is now The Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa.

Big island photography: Enjoying a brilliant sunset from the Sheraton Kona.
Enjoying a brilliant sunset from The Outrigger Kona.

The grounds of this property were stunning, adorned by tropical wildflowers, and immaculately kept.

If you are reading this Big Island photography guide looking for inspiration on destination wedding photography or Instagrammable accommodation options, this would probably be a great venue option!


11. Pe’epe’e Falls – Hilo Boiling Pots

The beautiful Peepee Falls spills into the Hilo Boiling Pot on Big Island Hawaii, one of the best locations for Big Island photography

If you’re browsing Big Island photography guides, you’ll likely come across the popular Rainbow Falls of Hilo.

While Rainbow Falls may get most of the write-ups, we never even found ourselves pulling our cameras out for that one. What we loved, however, were the boiling pots of Hilo; specifically, the majestic Peepee Falls.

You’ll be able to see the falls without any hiking necessary. However, the best photos require a bit of walking and scrambling to get unobstructed views.

The photo above was taken in 2018 with a drone, which unfortunately are no longer permitted.


12. Fairmont Hotel

Sophie soaks in some sun at the Fairmont Hotel beach on Big Island.

You’ve probably noticed that a number of hotels have made it on this blog. That is because the volcanic nature of most of the Big Island means the beaches tend to be a bit rugged.

However, the hotels have either imported sand or taken over the prime real estate, for better and worse.

The good news is that Hawaii state law dictates that no beaches can be made private. This means these idyllic stretches of white sand are kept in peak condition and always accessible!

Hawaii landscape photographers may be a bit underwhelmed by them. However, the majority of us who aren’t lucky enough to call this place home will likely rejoice in some of these Instagram-worthy moments of relaxation.

The beach at The Fairmont Hotel is one of those picture-perfect locations.


13. Kohanaiki Beach Park

Sophie is seen relaxing at a small pool at Kohanaiki Beach.

An honorable mention goes to Kohanaiki Beach Park, which I found of some photographic interest due to the black lava stone that adorns the sandy beach and sunset views.

When it comes to Kona sunset photography, Kohanaiki takes perhaps the bronze medal, but it’s worth having on your map.


14. Surfers at Sunset

Big Island photography Hawaiian surfers catching one last wave as the sky explodes with color

There will be times when you’ve been unable to find a composition for your photoshoot as sunset sneaks up on you.

The good news is that you are in Hawaii! This means you will almost always have at least a few surfers riding the waves to add a subject to your photographs.

My personal goal is always to capture the feeling of a place I am visiting in a frame.

While I never went out with this intention, some of the most beautiful pictures of Hawaii in my collection come from golden sky evenings with a drink in one hand and a camera in the other as I watched the surfers scramble for every last wave.

🐠 Best Big Island Photography: Sea Life

A majestic manta ray swims by in an underwater night photo of the Big Island manta ray snorkel.

While I found the landscapes of the Big Island of Hawaii to be fascinating, I was even more excited at the amount of wildlife there was to capture.

No Big Island photography guide would be complete without including marine life! Anytime you are on or near the water, which should be often, be sure to keep your underwater camera ready!

With all the wildlife on the Big Island, please be respectful, help protect them and keep them wild. Do not approach, touch or feed wildlife and allow them plenty of space. These wildlife experiences are all truly magical, but should never compromise the welfare of the animals.

Manta Rays

A giant manta ray stomachs up to the boat on a Big Island night snorkel.

The manta rays feeding at night was the most amazing thing we experienced and photographed.

There are two options to experience this; the family and kid-friendly snorkeling option which begins from The Outrigger Kona (previously the Sheraton) each night, or you can do a night dive.

Personally, I prefer the diving option because I just LOVE being underwater. There’s something magical about being entirely immersed in the mantas environment, watching them dance around you. However, this is only an option for certified divers.

With that said, snorkeling with manta rays is still an incredible experience. I actually saw more Mantas snorkeling than I did diving. It is also a cheaper option and we went on this trip twice because we loved it so much!

Underwater photo of manta ray night snorkel dive on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The great thing about this wildlife encounter is that it is about as ethical as a wildlife encounter gets! No unnatural food sources are being provided and the animals are never touched or endangered in any way.

Furthermore, the tourism industry has actually helped protect these amazing marine animals from a fishing trade that was wiping them out (selling them in the exotic meat market as “shark”).

Our Recommendation for a Manta Ray Adventure

Underwater photo of a manta ray coming up for food on a night snorkel in Kona.

At no cost to you, we receive a small amount for any bookings made using the links below.

We went on our manta ray night snorkel with Sea Paradise (twice!), as well as on their morning snorkel and afternoon snorkel trips, and I truly couldn’t recommend them enough.

Sea Paradise is a small family-run business, owned by my good friend Holly and her husband Richard.

I love that they have such a strong focus on sustainability. Additionally, all the crew feel like part of the family.

They also have 5/5 ⭐ across all major review sites, so you don’t have to take my word for it!

If you’re looking to do the night dive instead (or any other dives for that matter), then I highly recommend Kona Honu Divers.

I did both a two-tank morning dive, as well as the manta night dive. Kona Honu Divers is also managed by a close friend of mine, Virginia. Yes, I’m very lucky to have some awesome friends in Kona… Be sure to say hi to them from me when you visit πŸ™‚

Dolphins

During my two weeks of exploring, we strapped on the snorkels at least once on most days. In that time, we heard dolphins nearly half the time, saw them half of that, and swam with them once as a passing tour boat chased them directly into us.

Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to swim within 50 meters of spinner dolphins in Hawaii, but you may still be lucky enough to have them encounter YOU!

As you can see in the photo above, the dolphins will swim right up to your boat and can be seen, and photographed, without even needing a telephoto lens.

Turtles

No matter how many times I see them, I always get excited to see sea turtles, or “honu” as they are known on the Hawaiian Islands!

Whether they are relaxing onshore or swimming alongside, there is something so exciting and calming all at once about being in their chill, aloha presence.

FIND MORE INSPIRATION: 101+ Dream Destinations for your Travel Bucket List

Monk Seals

A Hawaiian Monk Seal rests on the shore of Makalawena Beach.

The Hawaiian Islands are the only habitats available to the endangered monk seal. Due to this, they are a treasured and heavily protected species.

We hoped to encounter them on one of our many snorkel adventures to no avail. However, we did end up seeing them on our final night in Kona when we returned to our favorite beaches, Mahaiula and Makalawena, for one final sunset.

Imagine our surprise when, on the walk to our sunset session, we stumbled upon this happy girl taking in every last warming ray the sun had to offer!

If you are lucky enough to see one, just be mindful not to get too close. Monk seals can be aggressive and should be appreciated from a respectful distance.

The endangered Hawaiian monk seal is photographed on a golden sand beach in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Whales

If whales are on your Big Island photography bucket list, then it’s worth planning a visit during the winter months. In the right season, you may just get lucky enough to capture migrating whales!

There isn’t exactly a specific spot to go for this. Therefore, you’ll want to keep your eyes to the horizons throughout your time traveling the west coast.

And, of course, keep a telephoto lens on you if possible.

A humpback whale breaches the water on the Big Island.

You may notice a drone in the photo above; this was being operated by a local Kona photographer. He was flying in plain sight of a police officer, so it would seem that Hawaii is one of the few places where you can still operate drones for whale watching without getting into trouble.

Personally, I would much rather see this than large tourist boats with massive engines rumbling around chasing the poor animals!

🌀 Photographing the Big Island: Wet Side (windward) vs Dry Side (leeward)

Photographing Peepee Falls on the wet side of the Big Island in Hilo.
A view of Peepee Falls in Hilo on the wet side of the Big Island.

While traveling or researching the Big Island, you will hear the island described geographically as the “wet side” and the “dry side”. This dramatic climate variance is caused by Mauna Kea mountain and the surrounding hills.

These create a barrier for the tradewinds that blow through the Hawaiian Islands. The result is a tropical rainforest that occupies Hilo and much of the east coast. Kona and the west coast, meanwhile, enjoy a warm and dry climate with pleasant temperatures year-round.

If you are interested in photographing beautiful beaches, amazing coral reefs, and jaw-dropping sunsets, I highly recommend focusing your time on the west coast.

A stunning sunset photograph from Kua Bay in Kona on the dry side of the Big Island.
The West Coast (Kona side) is home to the most savage and beautiful beach scenes.

If you are more interested in waterfalls and rainforests, you may prefer to make Hilo home base and spend more time exploring that region. And if you’re still undecided, then check out this guide on where to stay on the Big Island to help you choose!

Of course, even the “Big Island” of Hawaii is fairly small, with the drive from Kona to Hilo a mere 1.5-hour journey. With a bit of planning, you should have no trouble seeing it all… If you can pry yourself away from your sun chair, that is!

Steam drifts above a lava lake in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Big Island is also home to four of Hawaii’s National Parks, including Volcanoes National Park. When the volcano is actively erupting you’ll have a good chance of seeing glowing lava here, especially at night!

πŸ“– More Big Island Travel Guides

Photographing a stunning sunset from Kukio Beach on the Big Island.

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below πŸ™‚

If you found this guide useful and want more help planning the rest of your visit to the Big Island, browse the titles below for more guidance and inspiration:

πŸ€” best Big Island photography locations Final Thoughts

A girl naps in a hammock under two tropical palm trees at Puako Bay secret beach on Big Island.

I hope you’ve found this guide to the best Big Island photography locations useful. The Big Island is a truly beautiful and diverse place. It is home to 8 of the 13 different climate zones in the world, making it incredibly unique.

You can spend the morning watching the sunrise at the peak of a snow-dusted mountain. Then spend the afternoon soaking in the sun on an idyllic white-sand beach.

The photography opportunities are equally endless. Whatever kind of photographer you are, I’m confident that you’ll find something to shoot on the Big Island. Just make sure to bring plenty of memory cards and fully charged batteries!

The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below πŸ™‚

πŸ“ Enjoyed reading our Big Island photography locations guide? PIN IT!

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Written by
Adam Marland is a professional travel blogger and landscape photographer from Oregon. After over a decade of experience as a freelance travel photographer, Adam found national acclaim when he became the National Park Foundation's β€œChief Exploration Officer” in 2021.

27 thoughts on “🏝 All the Best Big Island Photography Locations (2024)”

  1. Wow! This looks like paradise on earth! Exactly the kinda place I want to visit now the weather is getting colder in the UK! Thanks for the great tips Sophie, I have pinned for a later date! πŸ™‚

    Reply
  2. Wow, Big Island looks incredible. I had actually never heard of this Island before reading your post so thank you for introducing me. It’s now gone onto the never-ending list of places I want to visit! I was stunned at your photographs – so beautiful! Thank you for sharing, the beaches look incredible and what amazing marine life. I also can’t get over the landscape on this island – aqua water on one side of the beach and dark on the other! Loved it, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. As a photographer too, I absolutely loooove reading these kind of posts! Hawaii is just Dreamland for photographers.. I really need to make my way there one day! How long did you stay on the island for? Thanks for this amazing post!

    Reply
  4. Just a note, there’s a “No drones” sign at Pe’epe’e Falls (and Rainbow Falls for that matter). Plenty of other amazing places to take one, though!
    -A local neophyte drone photographer

    Reply

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