Photographing Kauai

July 13, 2019  •  1 Comment

I've just come back from a trip to Kauai.  As a destination for photography, it was pretty magical, and I made some pictures that I'm very happy with.  As is mostly the case when I'm traveling, its either for work or with my family, and photography comes secondary to both of those. Opportunities are going to be limited, so I need to have an idea of what I want to capture in advance and have a rough plan on how to make shots.  I also need to say flexible because I tend to not have a lot of time.

Before going to Kauai, I had a vague idea that I wanted to capture Waimea Canyon, the Napali Coast, Hanalei Bay, maybe some coastal landscapes.  I also knew that there would be no moon, and was excited to capture some Milky Way shots. 



We stayed in Poipu, which is one of the two main tourist areas on the island.  It's in the south, which tends to be drier and more reliably sunny than the north, but also consequently less lush. The location was convenient for Waimea Canyon and for boat tours of Napali coast.  There's also plenty of tourist amenities but it does not feel in any way busy. The beaches are beautiful, but relatively few.  In hindsight, if I were to travel to Kauai in summer again, I would stay in Princeville, the other major tourist area on the north side of the island.  Why?  The beaches up north are more beautiful and more suitable for swimming during the summer months.  The landscape is much more dramatic and you get sunsets, which are non-existent on the south shore during summer.  Finally, Hanalei bay is just one of the most beautiful locations I've ever been to.  I could hang out there for months.


Waimea Canyon

This is billed as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."  The drive to the various viewing points is easy.  I followed some advice to go early in the morning, but wasn't too impressed with the photos I made.  They were all taken before about 10am, which in retrospect, may have already been too late.  A local later advised me to do it in the afternoon, as the evening light shines from behind the lookouts and creates some beautiful shadows.  That said, the canyon is impressive enough, but I don't know that it's really as grand as described and I don't know that it's really that great of a photo spot (Google some images and decide for yourself).  The photo I was most happy with was this one, taken from the final look-out, which shows the canyon floor descending towards the town of Waimea.

Pu’u O Kila Lookout

Much more impressive (for my money) is the Pu'u O Kila Lookout, which is at the end of the Waimea Canyon road, and the furthest point you can drive to on the west side of Kauai.  From a height of 4000 feet, you can see the landscape fall off towards the bluest sea below.  I was excited to make some pictures here - so imagine my disappointment when the view was completely obscured by clouds.  I'd heard that things can change quickly, so to pass the time, I photographed the lush jungle through gaps in the clouds.  After an hour or so, for the briefest of moments (perhaps only one minute) the clouds parted, and we got the view I'd been waiting for.  I like the extra depth that the clouds add to the shot, but I find the overall saturation of the images I made to be quite unrealistic, even though they're a pretty faithful depiction of the scene.  It really is that remarkable.


I knew that for the first few days of my trip, the Milky Way should be visible to the south of where I was staying (i.e. over the ocean) as there would be no moon.  I went out to make some night sky shots on three out of my first four evenings there.  I had a combination of lenses - a Sigma Art 35 1.4, which is super fast, but doesn't have a particularly wide field of view to capture the Milky Way; a Rokinon 12mm, which is SUPER wide, but has quite a bit of fish-eye distortion and only opens to f2.8 and finally my Canon 24-70 which is also only f2.8 but just an amazing all round lens.  I ended up using all three.

The biggest problem was clouds.  There are LOTS of clouds on Kauai.  My routine pretty much consisted of setting up and waiting (sometimes for an hour or longer) for just the right break in the clouds.  I found a lot of good compositions along the coast and was able to use nearby light sources to illuminate foreground objects such as lifeguard stations and palm trees to add interest to the images.

Kauai, 2019Kauai, 2019

Hanalei Bay

My favourite location, by far, in all of Hawaii.  This incredible bay stretches for miles, and when we were there the waters were calm and inviting and the beach was almost empty.  The jungle covered cliffs rise to incredible heights all around, making this place feel like something from a movie (which of course it has been).  I knew that I wanted to get at least one sunset shot from Kauai, and was able to time our visit to Hanalei to coincide with sunset.  It did not disappoint.  I stood to the right of the famous pier, because I wanted that illuminated by the setting sun, as opposed to silhouetted by it, though either composition would work.  If I had stayed on the north of the island, I expect I would have returned here many times.  It is a photographers dream.`

Hanalei Bay, Kauai, HIHanalei Bay, Kauai, HI


Napali Coast

Top of my list to see in Kauai was the Napali coast.  I've seen many spectacular photos of this incredible landscape and couldn't wait to experience it for myself.  I had considered doing a helicopter tour but decided not to.  The best option for photographers is a "doors off" tour with Jack Harter helicopters but there's a chance you'd get stuck in the front middle seat, which would be useless.  The only way to guarantee a window seat is to book a chopper all to yourself and to be honest I just wasn't feeling that spendy. Instead, we took a sunset cruise out of Port Allen, which proved a great decision. The views of the cliffs from the ocean are incredible and the evening light created some beautifully dramatic compositions.  We were on the boat for 5 hours and even the non-photographers really enjoyed it.  I used a combination of my 16-35 and 24-70 lenses here.  The biggest challenge was keeping them dry from sea spray and controlling highlights in the clouds.  I also used a CPL to bring out color in the cliffs and the blues in the water.

Napali Coast, Kauai, HINapali Coast, Kauai, HI



Douglas D Ross(non-registered)
A private tour guide would have been a big help to you. There are many places that offer jaw dropping photo opps
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