Big Island, as it’s name suggests, is BIG. It is also an amazing place to vacation, chill out and yes, to photograph. I have been to all the 4 major islands of Hawaii and it’s really difficult to pick a single island as favorite. Each has its own character and flavor – but somehow Big Island feels the most dramatic, wild and laid back island of all.
The island is not easy to explore within a short time because of its size. I recommend at least a week, if not more, to truly enjoy this place. There are so much to see, so much to do and after all, you are also here to slow down and forget it all. If you want to make some memorable and unique images, there are plenty of stunning landscapes at every corner but keep in mind that it’s also a very challenging place to photograph. The weather can be harsh – sunny and very hot to biting cold and raining with thunder – all within a single day, all within a few hours of driving around.
Here are my top places to photograph in the island
1. Volcanic lava beaches near Kona
Kona area is one of the most popular area to stay in the island. Kona downtown is fun – full of great restaurants and shops. There are also a lot of condos (other than many hotels) to choose from. It feels very local (compared to Kohala resorts) despite that there will be a lot of tourists always hanging out here. There are no huge resorts – you can mingle with locals and enjoy many sights and activities in the area.
There are also a bunch of terrific lava beaches to photograph here. Pretty much any rocky beaches will do – you can drive south from Kona town along Ali Drive and find spots where you can park and walk onto the beaches. If you keep driving further south, you will reach a point called, End of the world. There are a lot of history about this place, but it’s also an amazing place to photograph the surf. There are a number of awesome beaches towards the north from Kona as well, some of my favorites are – Wawaloli beach (near aiport) and Kua Bay. Towards the south, Kahaluu beach (awesome snorkelling) can be also terrific with high surf in the morning and great for sunsets.
2. Volcanoes National Park
No visit to Big Island is complete without a visit to this huge park – and volcanoes are the main attention here. Kilauea crater near the visitor center is truly amazing – it may not look that amazing if you are there during the day. You may just see some smoke coming out with a strong smell of sulfur from the crater about a mile away; but as the night descends, the fumes start to glow by the fire in the underbelly of the volcano and it’s a truly amazing sight. You may have to share this view with many cellphone-selfie lover tourists here (as you can’t really venture out in the wild here – only follow the marked trails, but the view is best from the visitor center). I have seen many excellent nighttime shots from here as well and it’s pretty if you hang out here late in the night.
3. Mauna Kea
The road to Mauna Kea (13,796 feet high) via Saddle road is pretty amazing and great place to photograph. As you drive up, the landscape quickly changes to a barren, desert like zone – more like something straight out of moon or mars. If you have a 4WD car, you can go all the way to the top and capture the observatories, but be mindful of the weather and rough nature of the road for the last few miles.
4. Rainbow falls
Rainbow falls is a great looking waterfall – very close to Hilo. Surrounded by thick tropical forest, this place offers many viewpoints to photograph the waterfall and the water streams from a variety of vantage points. The lush green foliage plays nicely with the water flows and rugged rocky walls.
But it’s not just to waterfall, there are some other cool things to photograph here. As you explore the area, you will come to this part of the forest filled with ancient banyan trees to the left of the waterfall. The trees here are truly breathtaking – take your time to find a composition that works, and yes, you will struggle to tame the exposure here – it is full of very dark shadows with very bright areas of sunshine, but that’s what makes for some very nice contrast.
5. Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic park
Another gem of a place to photograph. Not only there are a lot of histories here, but also it’s a great place to spend a evening. There are fish ponds, stately coconut trees, a nice lava beach and historic structures. Sunsets from here is really nice – you can frame the setting sun with the huge wooden figures on the beach.
6. South Point and Black Sand beach
South of the island has some excellent spots to visit and photograph. One of the most accessible black sand beach is here – called Punaluu beach. Not only the sands are dark black, but there is a huge number to turtles always hanging out here. This beach can get pretty busy (as all other black sands beach are not easy to access), but if you come here early morning or late evening, it’s not too bad and you will be able to capture some unique shots for sure.
At the far south of the island, a road travels to a point called South point. This is southernmost point of the island and of all of USA. It’s a truly amazing spot – brave people jump out from the cliff/platform here to meet the ocean and swim. There are also fishermen having a good time here with their interesting rigs. There is plenty for photographers too – the colors of the ocean and the feeling of nothingness as you look down south will take your breath away.
7. North of island and Pololu beach Lookout
North of the island is totally different from the south. I really like the ranches and small towns here. Very hilly and mountainous – a pleasure to drive around and explore. The gem lies at the end of the road – called Pololu beach. From the parking/viewpoint, it’s a 1.5 miles walk down to the actual beach, but the views from here is pretty amazing. For even better view, walk down 10 minutes and you can get even better unobstructed view. If you have time (and stamina), it’s worth going all the way down to the beach
Hilo is often overlooked – seen just as a spot to stay for the night and explore Volcanoes NP and other sights on this side of the island. But the town is pretty – the parks near the waterfront with Japanese garden inspired landscape is amazing. And you can get some stunning sunsets on this side of the island as well.
9. Sandy beaches near Kohala
There are some jaw dropping sandy beaches in Kohala (the mega resort area). My favorites are Hapuna, Spencer beach park and Anaehoomalu beach. Some the beaches are excellent for surfing and boogieboarding.
10. Lava tours – by boat and by hike/bike
I did not have time to do these – but definitely will do in my next visits. Going to close to where lava meets the ocean via a boat sounds simple irresistible. Also there are guided hiking tours, where you can walk straight next to lava flows and wonder at the creative forces of this volcanic world. You will need plenty of time to do these – so allow yourself at least 2-3 nights in Hilo if you want to do these two trips and some more hiking in this eastern side of the island.
Hope these tips were helpful. I found Big Island to be an amazingly diverse and beautiful place for nature photography. The color of sunset, azure-ness of ocean, rugged-ness of lava, the glow of volcanoes, diverse color of sands (yes..there is also a green sand beach), tropical forests and coffee plantations, small towns and fishing villages, ranches, waterfalls, high mountainous landscapes – what not to love about this island. I will be going back and back for many more times for sure.