There is so much more to photographing Hawaii than just sunsets and tropical beaches. The lava-forged Hawaiian islands provide some of the most otherworldly colors and landscapes you will discover anywhere in the world.
Did you know Hawaii is home to a red sand beach, green sand beach, and numerous black sand beaches? Or that it is one of the few places you can see a rainbow eucalyptus?
In this guide, you will discover the best locations for Hawaii photography across each island. In addition, you will learn the tips and equipment professionals use for capturing those epic moments.
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Hawaii Photography Overview
There are 7 total inhabited Hawaiian islands, 4 of which are major tourist destinations: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. These are the four this guide will feature, as well as a few suggestions for Maui’s sister-island of Lanai.
Unfortunately, we were not able to get to Molokai, beautiful as it looks, and Niihau (the “Forbidden Island”) is available only to the Robinson family and certain government officials.
Below are the best locations for photographing Hawaii on each island. You will find in-depth information for each of these in their designated sections further into the guide:
Best Hawaii Photography Locations
Maui Photography Locations
- Red Sand Beach
- Road to Hana
- Secret Cove Beach
- Sacred Pools of ‘Ohe’o
See the full guide: Maui Photo Locations
Oahu Photography Locations
- Lanikai Beach
- Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens
- Koko Head / Lanai Lookout
- Laniakea Beach
- Ka’a’awa Beach
See the full guide: Oahu Photo Locations
Kauai Photography Locations
- Na Pali Coast
- Waimea Canyon
- Queen’s Bath
- Kalepa Ridge Trail
- Wailua Falls
See the full guide: Kauai Photo Locations
Big Island Photography Locations
- Mahaiula & Makalawena Beach
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
- Papakolea Green Sand Beach
- Waipi’o Valley
See the full guide: Big Island Photo Locations
Best Locations for Photographing Hawaii
Each island has magical landscapes and scenery to photograph. Here are the best locations for photographing each of the major Hawaiian islands.
Top 5 Maui Photography Locations
The island of Maui has a lot more to offer than just paradisiacal beaches and palm trees. In fact, this is probably the most diverse of the Hawaiian islands in terms of landscapes!
There are plenty more amazing places to see and photograph on Maui, but these are the ones you cannot afford to miss. If you are going to spend about a week on the island, our 5 to 7 Day Maui Itinerary includes all of these stops and more.
1. Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand Beach)
Red Sand Beach has become a highly-discouraged destination due to inherent dangers in the deteriorating and unmaintained trail, as well as the strong, often concealed currents that can occur within the cove.
While all beaches in Hawaii are public access, visitors of Red Sand Beach should practice extreme caution when hiking and swimming here. The trail should not be attempted by children or anyone with even minor mobility issues.
Kaihalulu Beach is one of the most incredible natural marvels you will see anywhere in the world and one of the best beaches in Hawaii. Tucked away into a small cove is a volcanic red sand beach with swaying palms and turquoise water.
Tropical beaches are a dime a dozen in Hawaii, but you will not find anything like Kaihalulu Beach anywhere else. Arrive early to find parking and get your photos before others arrive. Also, be aware that this is a “clothing optional” beach.
2. Road to Hana
The biggest tourist draw to Maui outside of its resorts is the famous “Road to Hana.” This scenic drive is filled with waterfalls, beaches, and interesting roadside attractions like the rainbow eucalyptus.
If you are comfortable driving narrow roads and tight corners, the Road to Hana can easily be done as a self-guided photography tour. However, this can be a bit hair-raising for some visitors and is recommended early in the morning to get the best light for photos and for avoiding heavy traffic.
For those not comfortable with driving here, you may wish to consider taking a Road to Hana day tour (4.9/5 ⭐).
3. Secret Cove Beach
The most beautiful beach on Maui doesn’t even have a sign! If you are wanting to capture iconic beach photos, whether that be portraits or landscapes, Secret Cove Beach is where you will want to go.
This is a particularly good spot for golden hour and sunset photography on Hawaii. The black lava rock contrasts beautifully with the green palms and golden sands.
You can find out more information on finding and photographing Secret Cove Beach in our Maui Photography Guide.
4. Haleakala National Park
Haleakala is the only national park on Maui and provides the highest elevation views on the island at over 10,000 feet.
It has become incredibly popular for sunrise photography. In fact, you cannot visit the park at sunrise anymore without first acquiring a reservation from the NPS. You will need to plan ahead if you want to include this on your Maui itinerary.
In order to procure a reservation and find out more, visit the official Haleakala NPS Website. You can also book a sunrise tour of Haleakala (4.7/5 ⭐) if you prefer to have the arrangements taken care of.
5. Sacred Pools of ‘Ohe’o
The last stop on the typical Road to Hana route is at the Seven Sacred Pools of ‘Ohe’o. Depending on the time of year and precipitation, this can be an amazing place to swim, hike, and photograph waterfalls, or a trail of dry cliffs.
When conditions are right, there are several spectacular waterfalls to photograph as well as the sacred pools themselves. There is also a bamboo forest that provides an interesting background for your portrait Hawaii photos.
Top 5 Oahu Photography Locations
Oahu is the most visited of the Hawaiian Islands and, as a result, is often mischaracterized as being nothing but resorts, tourists traps, and high-end shopping. While Waikiki Beach is certainly all of that, the rest of the island is far more diverse.
That said, Oahu does have the most postcard-perfect beaches. Some of them feel like walking into a painting, or someone’s daydream of paradise.
We have an entire guide to the best Oahu photography locations that you are encouraged to also explore, but these are the Top 5 unmissable destinations.
1. Lanikai Beach
Lanikai Beach is the best beach in Hawaii. In fact, it may be the best beach in the entire world!
Silky white sand meets the blue and turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean as healthy palms bend and sway in the trade winds. There is no beach more photogenic on the island of Oahu or anywhere else really for iconic Hawaii photos.
Whether you are photographing Hawaii with portraits, landscapes, or lifestyle in mind, this is the premier destination on Oahu.
2. Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens
While the road into the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens has become the most famous photo to get, the gardens themselves are also quite spectacular. It has all the feelings of being in Jurassic Park without the terror of dinosaurs on the loose. In fact, much of Jurassic Park was filmed on the island of Oahu at Kualoa Ranch nearby.
Know up front that if you want to capture the iconic photo featuring the entrance road to the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens, you need to arrive before opening. Due to the traffic issues photographers and Instagrammers have caused trying to get this shot, no stopping is allowed on the road and that rule is heavily enforced.
A telephoto lens is also necessary to create the “compression” effect you see in the photo above. If you are using a newer smartphone, you will want to use the 2.5x camera.
3. Koko Head / Lanai Lookout
While Diamond Head is the more famous mountain hike on the island of Oahu, Koko Head is a little off the beaten path and makes for a far more memorable Hawaii photo.
This large mountain looks like a dragon clawed at its sides. You can hike to the top and capture photos looking out from up high, or include it as a backdrop for your photos. Our preference is to photograph it from the bottom as Koko Head has so much character.
The best place to view and photograph it from is the Lanai Lookout. Here, you will find some interesting textures and colors in the rock with Koko Head looming majestically in the background.
This is also the best place on Oahu to see whales if you happen to be visiting in January or February when the humpbacks are migrating.
4. Laniakea Beach
On an island full of pristine beaches, Laniakea is perhaps the second prettiest of all. It is located on the North Shore of Oahu.
Much like the others, you can expect all the essential tropical elements such as soft white sand and beautiful palms, but it comes with the added benefits of frequent turtle visits.
Nearly every evening, the honu (Hawaiian word for turtle) crawl their way up to the shore to enjoy the sunshine the same way as we humans do. Fortunately, volunteers monitor the beach to ensure no eager Instagrammers or uninformed tourist tries to take a selfie with them.
5. Ka’a’awa Beach
If you are looking for some hidden gems in your Hawaii photography, this is as close as you’ll find on Oahu. Located roadside along a somewhat benign stretch of road on the east coast is the idyllic Ka’a’a’wa Beach.
What sets this beach apart from the others is the mountainous backdrop for your photos. While the others in this list all have the same aloha vibes, this is the only one that will include the Jurassic mountains in the frame.
Top 5 Kauai Photography Locations
The island of Kauai is often referred to as “The Garden Isle.” It is widely accepted as the most beautiful and photogenic of the Hawaiian Islands, though there is plenty of room for debate.
What makes Kauai special is the amount of precipitation it receives. This frequent rainfall has turned the island into a lush, jungle paradise that feels wilder than the others. It is also far less developed than Oahu or Maui.
Below are the Top 5 places for photographing Kauai. However, the Garden Isle has plenty more unforgettable views and vistas to capture! If you have a week to explore, we strongly recommend you review our Perfect Itinerary for 7 Days in Kauai. This includes everything you need to know, from where to stay, what to see, and how to get around, with a daily breakdown to ensure you see it all!
1. Na Pali Coast
Any list of the best photography locations in Hawaii that doesn’t include the Na Pali Coast is not worth reading. This incredible coastline is arguably the best place for photographing Hawaii on any island.
The good and bad news is that you cannot simply hike the Na Pali Coast. While there are some trails that allow partial land access, the sheer cliffs make trekking the region impossible. Instead, you will need to visit by sea or by air, and both are recommended! A tour of the Na Pali coast is one of the best things to do in Kauai, if not THE best.
This is one of the few destinations in this guide that we recommend arranging a proper photography tour to see. In fact, we would even recommend both helicopter tours and boat tours as each have unique advantages and provide completely unique experiences.
Most importantly, look for a tour with photographers in mind. Having a captain or pilot who understands the best times, angles, and locations for epic Hawaii photos ensures you come home with something memorable on that cherished memory card.
Considered the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is rated as one of the Top 10 Best Canyons in the US.
Hawaii is known as “the rainbow state” and this colorful expanse looks as if one melted into it! A vibrant array meets visitors with a stunning display of nature’s masterful art work. In the distance, you can easily see the beautiful Waipo’o Falls streaming down to add the cherry on top.
There are a variety of scenic viewpoints to stop and photograph from. Waimea Canyon is one of those places that demands a spot on every Kauai photography bucket list.
Queen’s Bath is perhaps the best place for photographing sunset on Kauai. While it can be a bit tricky to find, which is by design, the reward is absolutely worth it.
The scene you will discover presents a diverse mix of photography opportunities. During high tide, the wave action is incredible and creates an oceanic concert.
During low tide, people will often wade into the actual Queen’s Bath, which is one of many natural pools formed by the lava rock. While the photo can be beautiful, there is some very real danger in attempting this shot if you do not understand the tides and sneaker waves. Be extremely careful, especially of your camera and equipment which will be destroyed if soaked by saltwater.
4.Kalepa Ridge Trail
There are only two places you can go to enjoy the Na Pali Coast by land. The one that provides the best views and the easiest hike is the Kalepa Ridge Trail, just past Waimea Canyon in Koke’e State Park.
This 1.6 mile out and back trail is considered the best hike in Kauai, but it is also no longer “technically” open. Whether or not it is “legal” seems to be a grey area, but what is for sure is that the trail is no longer maintained.
If you hope to hike this beautiful trail, you need to do some research first. We have created the Ultimate Guide to the Kalepa Ridge Trail which describes how to find it, restrictions & legality, FAQs, and everything else you need to understand before attempting the walk.
Kauai is home to a myriad of beautiful waterfalls, but Wailua Falls is the most picturesque of them all.
You can see and photograph Wailua Falls from the top viewpoint located next to the parking area, or potentially by hiking to the bottom. The word “potentially” is important here as the trail to the bottom of the falls into another grey area in terms of restrictions. On our visit, there were at least 30 people (many locals) at the bottom and we were told the trail is closed so the state is not liable for any injuries sustained there but that it was still legal to hike down.
We are photographers, not lawyers, so you will need to decide for yourself what you are comfortable with. From the top or bottom, Wailua Falls is a top location for Hawaii photography!
Top 5 Big Island (Hawaii) Photography Locations
All of the Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanoes and of them, the Big Island is the newest. The remnants of this recent volcanic activity are prevalent throughout the island, especially on the west coast where lava rock surrounds nearly every golden sand beach.
In fact, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been extremely active in recent years with the most recent eruptions ending in 2018. For almost a year, photographers were coming from all over the world to capture stunning Hawaii photos with the incredible rivers of magma draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Below are just the Top 5 locations for photographing Hawaii. If you are planning a visit, however, we recommend loading our complete guide to Big Island photography in another browser before continuing.
1. Mahaiula & Makalawena Beach
Of the major Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island offers the fewest gold sand paradisiacal beaches. While the sand on other islands has had a few extra eons of time to erode, this island is still relatively new. Many of the beaches are primarily lava rock and the sand is often rough and coarse.
With that said, Mahaiula Beach and Makalawena Beach are the two best beaches in Kona. This is true whether a day of sunbathing or iconic Hawaii photography is your goal. The two beaches are connected via a short walk over jagged lava rock with healthy palms bursting out of the rich volcanic soil.
It is precisely this mix of lush vegetation and charred Earth that make Mahaiula and Makalawena Beaches some of the best places for photographing in Hawaii.
Another noteworthy reason to bring a camera is that you are likely to see one of the endangered monk seals sunbathing here!
2. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
There is a lot to photograph and more to love at the Big Island’s Black Sand Beach of Punalu’u. This is a prime spot to see sea turtles resting on the shore, soaking in some of that Hawaiian sunshine and aloha vibes.
In particular, it is a good place for some easy wildlife photography in Hawaii as the turtles are nearly always relaxing on the warm sand.
Unlike most of the Big Island beaches, the sand at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is much softer and more inviting. The lava-forged shoreline contrasts beautifully against the vibrant, tropical green color of the nearby palm trees and local vegetation, while turquoise water washes in and out to add a little something extra to an already stunning scene.
3. Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Papakolea is known as the “green sand beach” of Hawaii, though the color is really more of an olive. In fact, the strange color comes from olivine. It, like most things on the Big Island, is the result of volcanic activity.
The softest sand on all of the Big Island is at Papakolea, but getting there can be a journey. For those willing to make the effort, the reward is a beautiful little cove unlike any you will find anywhere else in the world.
4. Waipi’o Valley
The Waipi’o Valley is a lush region of deep green vegetation with vertical sea cliffs and an idyllic waterfall at its center. The beaches here are black sand, like so many others on Hawaii.
If you are looking for something that feels like a real-life Jurassic Park on the Big Island, look no further than the Waipi’o Valley. This was a favorite destination for photographers who find themselves becoming desensitized to typical beaches and palm trees.
However, access can be difficult. The road is very steep and four-wheel drive is required, and many rental companies do not permit taking their vehicles here. Alternatively, you can book a tour that includes Waipi’o Valley.
5. Hilo & Pe’epe’e Falls
Hilo is on the wet side of the island which sees a lot less tourism than Kona to the west. The precipitation may make some travelers leery, but it provides a unique opportunity for Hawaii photographers to capture the lush tones of a tropical rainforest.
Rainbow Falls garners the most attention, but the more photogenic destination are the Hilo Boiling Pots. The scenery here also includes a waterfall in Pe’epe’e Falls, but also features a frame with more character in its surroundings.
Top 3 Lanai Photography Locations
The small island of Lanai is located a short distance off the shores of Maui. In fact, many photos you see (and take) from Maui will include the island in the distance.
While Lanai is populated and even features two beautiful resorts, it is not particularly popular for tourists or photographers. There are some things to photograph there, but getting around is difficult and the flat terrain is less inspiring than the major islands.
Still, those who are interested in photographing Hawaii in its entirety should consider at least a day trip to Lanai from Maui. These are the best places to photograph in Lanai if you can get there.
1. Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods）
The Garden of the Gods is the reason most Hawaii photographers visit Lanai. This strange martian landscape features colorful hills painted in warm tones ranging from pink to red to orange to yellow.
Getting here takes a lot of effort, particularly if you are not already planning a visit to Lanai. You will have to ferry over for the day from Lahaina Harbor, rent a car with 4WD, and cruise down a very rough road.
2. Shipwreck Beach
This is one of the true hidden gems for anyone photographing Hawaii. Shipwreck Beach is an excellent snorkel destination teeming with tropical fish and turtles. As the name suggests, it also is home to a shipwreck which provides an interesting subject or background for your beach photos.
Much like Garden of the Gods, reaching Shipwreck Beach requires a long drive down a rough road. The good news is that this challenge means that you are likely to have whichever section of the beach you choose all to yourself!
3. Shark’s Bay
As you step off the boat or ferry from Maui, you will see the white sand beach of Shark’s Bay. This is the nicest beach on the island of Lanai and the reason most people visit. You will find smaller crowds here than on the beaches of Maui across the water.
Tips for Photographing Hawaii
The only difference between photographing Hawaii and anywhere else on the planet will be some of the opportunities and subjects you won’t commonly find. This could mean swimming with turtles and dolphins, or even capturing whales!
Even if you do not have such like or desire, you are certainly going to be shooting in a lot of sandy and salty places, and likely attempting to photograph sunset. This section focuses on the tips and tools you’ll need for filling your memory card with cherished memories.
Why NOT to Use a Smartphone When Photographing Hawaii
These days, it is possible to get incredible photos from a smartphone. They say the best camera is the one you have on you and the one you know how to use so this is the best option for many of you.
With that said, I worked in a camera store for many years and if there is one lesson I’ve seen too many people learn the hard way, it is to not trust waterproof cases or even waterproof phones. Just a hairline leak and the saltwater will destroy your phone and everything on it, including old photos.
While I encourage you to use your smartphone to your heart’s content for most photos throughout your vacation, be sure to set up some kind of cloud backup in case something happens on the beach or in the ocean, and bring a dedicated underwater camera if you plan on photographing your snorkel adventures!
When it comes to packing for Hawaii, you may want to consider a few accessories specifically for Hawaii photography. Our favorites are listed below!
Camera Gear For Hawaii
In addition to your usual camera and tripod, these are some of the accessories I recommend for photographing Hawaii.
For reference, we both shoot with the Sony a7riii and absolutely love it. We tend to pair this with the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS lens which provides the perfect range for everything from landscapes to portraits and even some wildlife, and is tack sharp corner to corner.
As for our tripod, we use and recommend the Artcise Carbon Fiber Tripod. It is very tall, which can be useful for crowded places, and extremely sturdy. When traveling or going on very long hikes, however, we often bring the Manfrotto Be Free instead. It is not as stable but is more lightweight and easier to carry.
I’ll be honest, I am not the biggest GoPro fan. However, the new GoPro Hero 9 blew my hair back with its buttery smooth stabilization, eliminating the need for a gimbal altogether while providing unreal underwater footage. There is also the GoPro Hero 10 but most seem to prefer the 9 and aren’t too impressed with the newer model.
If you plan on doing some snorkeling, you should definitely consider an underwater camera, and the video capability of the GoPro is tough to beat.
Polar Pro 50/50 Dome
You may be wondering how to achieve shots like the one above. 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 5-7 and comes at a very reasonable price tag! It also allows for some pretty creative photography! Just make sure you order one that fits your GoPro model.
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, it will enhance colors and, if shooting water, create transparency to allow you to see beneath the surface.
The best CPL filters we have found are the Quartzline from Polar Pro. However, if you are just learning and want something affordable, consider this starter bundle. Although, not the best quality, it will allow you to learn the ropes and work well enough.
While this isn’t exactly photography gear, it was key in capturing great underwater photos. Having our own snorkel set allowed us to jump in the water and capture shots whenever the opportunity presented itself! If you’re planning on doing a lot of snorkeling while in Hawaii, it may work out cheaper and easier to bring your own snorkel and mask and fins than renting them each day. You can also buy these items as a snorkel set which works out cheaper still.
Microfiber cleaning cloths
We always keep a stash of microfiber cloths in our bag to help clean the lens between shots. You will inevitably salt spray or dust or precipitation on your lens at some point when photographing Hawaii and these keep the glass from getting scratched!
Hawaiian Sunset Photography
Photographing Hawaii means capturing the breathtaking sunsets in paradise. Mother nature often does the hard work for us in putting on the nightly show, but there are some tricks to help you capture these magical moments.
Those of you using a smartphone will want to experiment with the HDR Mode. This stands for “high-dynamic range” and is useful in scenes where the foreground is in shadow while the sky is still filled with light. The two most common examples of this are sunrise and sunset.
If you have a tripod, it is a good idea to use it for sunset whenever possible. As the light gets lower, your “shutter speed” will also get slower. If you are shooting in an automatic mode or with a smartphone, the result will either be soft or noisy photos, depending on how it compensates. A tripod ensures sharp photos free of noise.
Of course, the best thing you can do is look for the places on the island with the best westerly views. Each of the photography guides in the next section provide the best locations for photographing sunset on each island.
Before we even begin this section, it is important you understand the first rule of underwater photography:
Never touch the animal or reef you are photographing for any reason!
While it may seem harmless or like an act of love, your love can actually harm or kill. Turtles, for example, have algae on their shells that help protect them from infection. Touching and petting them removes this protective layer.
For most of us, underwater photography is a rare and exciting opportunity that Hawaii provides. With nothing more than a snorkel, we are able to explore the tropical underworld of the Pacific Ocean and its many incredible coral reefs and wildlife.
If you have never photographed underwater, there are a few things worth knowing:
- Shoot in RAW: Color balancing is tricky with underwater photography and shooting in RAW means you can dial in the White Balance.
- Avoid Zooms: Water is obviously not as clear as air, and the quality-loss shows exponentially when trying to use any kind of zoom lenses having to pass through so much water. Instead, get as close as you can to the subject (without touching or harassing it!)
- Stabilization is key: Make sure whatever you are using underwater has built in stabilization as you are never able to be completely still and the swaying will affect the photos/videos.
Drone Photography in Hawaii
Hawaii is one of the best places for drone photography in the world. While you need to be cautious of your height with so much airline traffic (obey laws at all times!), there is plenty of coastline to fly over outside of any air traffic restrictions and no fly zones.
In addition to the stellar landscapes you can capture from the eyes of birds, drones have become a favorite tool for whale watchers. During migration and birthing season, you will often spot these gentle giants just off the shores. The drone allows you to fly above without disturbing them and capture some incredible footage and photos.
The best part about drone photography is that it is the most ethical way to observe aquatic animals as the sound does not permeate the water. Unlike boat engines which cause massive disturbance and oftentimes casualties for things that meet the propellor, the drone leaves no trace whatsoever.
Serious photographers should consider the brand new Mavic 3 with its upgraded 4/3 sensor and zoom ability, two massive upgrades for quality, but those of you just taking photos for fun will be better off with the Mavic Air 2 which is inexpensive and incredibly small for traveling with.
Other Hawaii Guides
If you have found the Hawaii photos in this guide inspirational and the information useful, you will also enjoy some of our other guides to the Hawaiian Islands. As our passion is for photography, you can expect plenty of emphasis on the nature and best places to photograph in all of them.
General Hawaii Guides
- Hawaii Packing List: Printable Checklist with Essential & Overlooked Items
- Best Beaches of Hawaii: RED, GREEN, & BLACK Sand Beaches!