Savage lava flows, tropical palm trees, and sandy beaches of every color, the Big Island is a photographers paradise with opportunities for photo ops that are as plentiful as its thriving sea life.
We spent the first two weeks of 2019 exploring and uncovering the best Big Island photography locations we could find, which occasionally even required a snorkel! We loved escaping the cold and spending a bit of winter in Hawaii!
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Pro Tip: the camera started firing before the plane even landed, so make sure you get a window seat.
Wet Side (windward) vs Dry Side (leeward)
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. If you are more interested in waterfalls and rainforests, you may prefer to make Hilo home base and spend more time exploring that region. 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!
*Just a quick note for the lava chasers, as of our visit in January 2019, the lava flows have ceased.
Best Big Island Photography Locations
In no particular order, here is a collection of our favorite places and recommendations for the aspiring Big Island photographers.
Mahaiula & Makalawena Beach
This is hands-down the best beach on the Big Island and 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.
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.
Lone Palm Beach
If you look for Lone Palm Beach on Google, it will tell you you’ve arrived at 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, its the lonely, isolated palm tree on the far end of the beach that provides the best composition for one of those Instagram perfect photos!
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, but 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. 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!
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Unlike the rocky shoreline of the Lone Palm Beach I mentioned previously, 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.
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.
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 and requires either a hot, 2.5 mile hike in, a crazy drive that needing an incredibly high clearance vehicle, or a $10 per person fee for a lift 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.
Waipiʻo Valley & 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 was one of my favorite Big Island photography locations.
Getting down to the beach requires a somewhat dangerous drive with a 4WD vehicle, or a long hike down. However, there is a lookout at the top that provides a stunning view of the valley below for those who wish to photograph sunrise or sunset and don’t have the means or desire to access the shore.
There are also hikes of various lengths through the valley for those who really want to get off the beaten track. If you’re anything like me though, you’ll find yourself too seduced by the chilled-out aloha vibes to even think about lacing up your hiking shoes and venturing too far from the beach!
Unless you have access to a 4WD, I’d recommend considering a tour to Waipio Valley. As previously mentioned, it is a difficult drive to get down to the beach and it’s not uncommon for tourists to get themselves stuck there!
Sheraton 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 the Sheraton 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 my recommendation for venues.
Pe’epe’e Falls – Hilo Boiling Pots
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, but I would recommend bringing a drone if you have access to one. If not, it is possible to hike in for a closer, less obstructed view of the waterfall, but access is limited.
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, but 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.
Kohanaiki Beach Park
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 its worth having on your map.
Surfers at Sunset
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, which means you will almost always have at least a few surfers riding the waves to add a subject to include in 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
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. And 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 cameras and GoPros ready!
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 Sheraton Kona 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 actually went on this trip twice because we loved it so much!
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”).
Booking your manta ray experience
We went on our manta ray night snorkel with Sea Paradise (twice!), as well as on their morning 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 and all the crew feel like part of the family. Check the Sea Paradise website now for availability… I promise you won’t regret it.
Adam and I on our manta snorkel with Sea Paradise
If you’re looking to do the night dive with mantas (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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
The Hawaiian Islands are the only habitats available to the endangered monk seal, meaning 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.
If whales are on your Big Island photography bucket list, then it’s worth planning a visit during 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, so keep your eyes to the horizons throughout your time traveling the west coast. And, of course, keep a telephoto lens on you if possible.
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!
Camera Gear for Big Island photography
I’ve shared all my favorite Big Island photography places, so now it’s time to share the gear I’ve used to capture these images! It is entirely possible to get some nice shots using just your phone camera, particularly if you’re going to just be photographing beaches during the day. However, there are some scenes where you may find your phone camera falling short, such as underwater, over/underwater photos, etc.
If you would like to know specifically what equipment was used during our trip to the Big Island, you can find a complete list of all of my camera equipment here.
The list below shows a few useful toys and tools that I purchased specifically for my Hawaiian adventure
GoPro Hero 7 Black: While I am not the biggest GoPro fan, the new Hero 7 blew my hair back with its buttery smooth stabilization, eliminating the need for a gimbal and providing unreal underwater footage. If you plan on doing some snorkeling, you should definitely consider an underwater camera, and the video capability of this newest GoPro is tough to beat.
Polar Pro 50/50 Dome: You may be wondering how to achieve shots like the one below. The answer is a 50/50 dome that allows you to shoot over and underwater at the same time. This one from PolarPro works with GoPros and comes to a very reasonable price tag! It also allows for some pretty creative photography!
Polar Pro Circular Polarizer Filter: A circular polarizer filter (CPL) is an absolute game changer! It’ll help cut the glare on reflective surfaces, which makes a huge difference with ocean scenery. By removing excess light, this will enhance colors and, if shooting water, create transparency to allow you to see beneath the surface.
READ MORE: Discover EVERYTHING that’s in my camera bag
Thank you for reading my guide to the best Big Island photography locations!
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!