big island photography

Hawaii’s Big Island Photography Guide

Big Island Photography : Earth Wind and Fire

The Goddess Pele plays a prominent role in Hawaiian mythology so it’s only fitting that I start off the Big Island Photography Guide with a primer on the Legend of Pele.

{Note: The Lava Flow is currently dormant. This guide will still provide great tips on how to get to some great locations on the Island}

There are many stories on how the goddess made her way to the Hawaiian Islands — the most compelling in my opinion is a version where Pele was sent away to the Islands from Tahiti because of her terrible temper. The ebb and flow of volcanos is explained by her many feuds and HEATED outbursts with lovers that continue on for time immortal.

There are different stories and I implore you to look them up — they are all fascinating. One thread is constant throughout all the legends though: DO NOT take volcanic rocks off the island… bad luck follows any who dare.

Goddess Pele

Illustration of Goddess Pele by Matt Foster from

Hawaiian Island Volcanism

The Hawaiian Islands in geological terms are comprised of some of the newest land formations on the Planet. The fiery outbursts that have been seen on the Big Island of Hawaii over the past century are a testament to the relatively young age of the Hawaiian Islands.

The presence of Lava Flows, Cinder Cones and new land formation while not unique to the Islands — are a major draw for people around the world. More recently the Kilauea eruption that lasted from April 2018 to August 2018 provided an amazing spectacle.

Hawaii Big Island

Google Maps Image: Hawaii Big Island Photography

The Big Three of the Big Island Photography Guide

There are countless things to do on the Big Island but I am only going to focus on three as they relate to landscape photography. I’ll provide some basic tips, points of interests and and most importantly preparedness Tips.

These three locations will cover the diverse landscape of the Big Island.

  1. Volcanoes National Park
  2. Mauna Kea Observatory
  3. Akaka Falls
  4. BONUS: Kona Sunset Photography Guide


Volcanoes National Park is the biggest draw for most visitors to the Big Island. Until Recently it hosted the only open lava pit in the United States (it’s currently sleeping) that was bubbling with oozing lava for decades.

The rocky landscape of the park is a testament to the tumultuous geological history of the Island.


  • Be aware that as of the writing of this article (Fall 2018) the lava flow has ebbed and is no longer active
  • Be mindful of jagged rocks and surfaces
  • DO NOT enter areas that are restricted
  • DO NOT take volcanic rocks home — bad luck will ensue

To witness the magmatic beauty of the park I highly suggest approaching the park from all angles: Land Sea & Air.  My trip focused on the Sea & Air because of the massive flows that were occurring during my visit.



Approaching the Lava by sea is, in my opinion, the biggest thrill when visiting Volcanoes National Park. There are a number of chartered boats that will take you right up to the action.

big island lava flow

Land formation from the epic lava flowing.

I took the Lava Ocean Tours boat from Hilo and had the best experience one could ask for. During the peak of the Lava flow our boat took the 2 hour journey from Hilo to the shores of the National Park and witnessed one of the greatest spectacles : new Land Formation.  We were also fortunate enough to see lava flows oozing into the ocean.


If you want a more expansive view of the park that (if you’re lucky) will give you a view of the fiery landscape chartering a helicopter is the way to go.

Paradise Helicopters provided the most reasonable rates and gave me and my buddies the best experience! We were fortunate enough to see the lava flowing in all of it’s glory.

lava flow from above

An aerial view of lava flowing from above the big island.


I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience the beauty of the park from ground level due to the massive lava flows — however, it’s on my list for my next visit. I am excited the many new lava tunnels that are likely to have formed.

Also of particular interest to me is how the Kialuea eruptive cone will look now that the flows have stopped.

Mauna Kea Observatory

As you likely know by now I am a huge astrophotography nerd. Photographing the Milky Way in all it’s glory is one of the main reasons I got into landscape photography.

With that being said one of THE BEST places on earth to photograph the Milky Way is from the Mauna Kea Observatory atop Mauna Kea (the largest mountain on earth from Sea floor to mountain top)

Keck Telescope

The Subaru and Keck Telescopes basking under the moonset Shot on 5D MK4 with a 24-70mm f 2.8 lens



Because Mauna Kea juts out over 13000 feet above sea level there are a number of things you need to be aware of before driving up the jagged road:

  1. Acclimation: because the observatory is situated so high in the sky it’s important to properly acclimate yourself before making the trek to the top. A great way to do this is to spend about an hour at the visitor center (situated at 9000 feet) to adjust your body to the elevation.
  2. The Road: a 4 wheel drive vehicle is necessary when traversing the steep and jagged road to the top. Don’t even think twice about this essential ingredient to your journey.
  3. Weather: Fortunately the Park service does a great job of restricting road access to the top when the weather creates havoc. Muddy and icy conditions are possible throughout the year so make sure you check the weather before making your trip
  4. Respect: Once you get to the top make sure you restrict cell phone usage. Phones and the use of electronics interfere with the observatories.

The Good Stuff

I  planned my trip out pretty meticulously which allowed me to capture a number of perspectives. I am a geek for Milky Way Time-lapses so I spent my time acclimating at the visitor center productively: I set up a time-lapse of the landscape as the moon was setting — which gave the scene an element of intrigue.

Once my time lapse was set up and running my buddy Curtis and I decided to make the journey to the summit in our rented 4 Wheel Drive Jeep Wrangler.  I am not the biggest fan of driving up jagged mountain roads so my fearless pal took the reigns of badass adventurer.

The road up, I must admit, was sketchy and terrifying at a number of junctions. Sheer cliff edges dropped thousands of feet at some points — but by minding the road and driving slowly we made it up without issue. JUST BE CAREFUL and watch for sharp volcanic rocks.

mauna kea observatory map

mauna kea observatory map Courtesy:

Once atop Mauna Kea the view was absolutely spectacular. We parked our car by my favorite telsecope: The Gemini Telescope. I’d seen it countless times on documentaries and on TV but I must admit nothing gives it justice aside from seeing it up close. It’s a powerful sight to behold under the darkest skies you can imagine:

Gemini Telescope

Photo of the Gemini Telescope. F2.8 ISO 5000 at 25 seconds on a Canon 5D mk4


Kilauea Milky Way

The Milky Way rising over Kilauea’s volcanic plume

Photographic Procedure

I wont go too in-depth here as I used some basic 500 rule calculations and considered the light from the moon when taking these astro photos. I basically took a number of shots and stacked where appropriate. If you have specific questions  stay tuned for my Milky Way Photography Tutorial or email me 🙂



I wont spend much time or go too in depth here. I’ll admit Akaka Falls is a giant tourist trap — but worth every moment. Google the location and you’ll find a giant parking lot and half mile trail to the Falls.

Akaka falls

A misty morning at Akaka Falls

If you go at peak time you may find it extremely hard to set up a long exposure composition that suits you.  Here’s what I did to PREPARE!

  1. I brought an umbrella. Theres always a chance of rain at one of the wettest places on earth. The region gets over 200 inches of rain a year
  2. Set up your tripod tall and high before getting on the trail. The tight squeeze makes it hard to really spread your legs — tripod legs that is 😉
  3. Keep Your gear dry! Bring a waterproof backpack for your camera gear — you may regret it if you don’t


You can’t write a Big Island Photography Guide without mentioning the amazing sunset photography on the island’s western coast. Kona is much dryer and warmer than it’s neighboring cities to the East. Which is probably why the sunsets are much more visible and epic

Hawaii Sunset Photography

A Hawaiian Sunset with a focus on the sun setting — Often times you can underexpose your shot to get more detail in the sun and bring out the colors of the foreground in post production

Honestly, find a perch on any beach and you’ll find the perfect sunset composition. If you find some volcanic rocks or black sandy beaches with jutting rock formations you’re sure to find amazing sunset compositions.

Fore more on how to photograph the sunset properly check out my guide here!

If you’re catching the sunset off the west coast of the Big Island take some time to swim with sea turtles you wont regret it!


Big Island Photography : VOLCONCLUSION

Big Island Photography is one of those activities I will likely partake in over and over. There’s so much to do on the island and so much to see. Honestly, I have a list of things I missed that I NEED to go back and see.

Here’s the most important tip when planning a trip to the Big Island: Go with good friends!

Below is a photo of me my best Friends Curtis, Neil and Michelle. We’re standing on the edge of Hiilawe Waterfall after an epic  Waipio ATV ride — We were drenched and muddy but the view was spectacular!

Hiilawe Waterfall Photography

The View from above Hiilawe Waterfall

If you’ve been to the Big Island and want to share some tips or spots I may have missed feel free to leave a comment below.

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