The Hawaiian Islands are like no other place in the world and they offer an endless variety of photographic opportunities. The landscape on every island can be dramatically different across the island chain. Many people across the world travel to Hawaii to experience its beauty, culture, and Aloha Spirit. From the seasoned photographer carrying a backpack full of camera gear and a tripod to the person documenting their trip using an iPhone, preparation is key to getting the most out of your limited time in Hawaii. Here are 10 valuable things to consider while planning your photographic journey in Hawaii.
PLAN YOUR SHOOTING LOCATION BUT ALSO HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
I have been photographing here on the Big Island for ten years, and to this day, I am never completely set on where I'm going to shoot. One reason for this is the constantly changing weather, which is very hard to predict. For example, suppose you plan to photograph Halemaʻumaʻu Crater in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park one night, and the weather report shows an 80 percent chance of rain. It's a gamble. You might get some great shots, or you might get rained out from there. At the same time, you could've been photographing a gorgeous sunset in Waikoloa or clear starry skies up at Mauna Kea. Maybe you've decided to spend the day on the island's east side only to find that it's raining there the entire day. It’s okay to make tentative plans to photograph at a specific location, but to get the most out of your trip, be prepared to drive an hour or two to another site where favorable weather awaits. Then try those other specific locations again another day.
Here are a few things to consider before starting your day.
- How much energy do you have?
You might have planned a strenuous hike to a more remote location of the island only to realize that your night of drinking colorful tropical drinks the night before has completely changed your level of motivation for the next day. This can happen to the best of us. You can drive across most of the Hawaiian islands in a relatively short time. Take the day to photograph places that are accessible by car, such as Rainbow Falls on the Big Island. Many state parks have accessible waterfalls that are a short walk to visit. Line up these locations for days you want to take it easy.
- Check the weather
Weather Apps can help you decide if you should chance going to a location or not. It isn’t easy to judge the weather, so I use The Weather Channel app to check on locations by the hour. I find its weather radar function to be a reliable source throughout the day. Storms move in and out throughout the day so try to plan accordingly.
- Map out all your destinations you are going to be around and prioritize what time you want to photograph them.
Before getting on that plane and flying thousands of miles to get to your dream photography destination in Hawaii, it is important to do your homework. There’s so much information online and on YouTube that you should have no problem finding places to see and photograph. Just try not to show up with no plan, expecting to wing it. You might miss out on some amazing photographic opportunities.
Photographing Lava on The Big Island of Hawaii
If you are planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, there is a good chance that seeing or photographing lava is most likely on the top of your list of things to do. You want to plan carefully and make sure that there is an active lava flow. You also want to make sure that if there is an active lava flow, it is accessible and safe to view. Another consideration is opportunities to view that lava can come and go and vary by the day. Pauses in eruptions can last days, weeks, months, or years. Some great resources for information regarding the lava are USGS, Hawaii Tracker, and the National Park Service. Another great way to view the lava is to take a specialized photography workshop or take a tour. A good company with a lot of experience is Epic Lava.
- Tips, considerations, and technical advice for photographing a shot like this.
1) Being aware and overcoming technical challenges
This photo had some challenges and required a ton of shots. The viewing area to see the lava at Volcanoes National Park is about half a mile away. Because of the distance, there are many obstacles to avoid while shooting that might not seem so apparent but are crucial to be aware of.
The first challenge is the heat coming from the lava. When you are photographing lava, the image often suffers from thermal distortion. The heatwaves can slightly or severely blur the picture. Manual focus is the best way to ensure you are getting sharp photos. Shooting bursts of photos also give you more opportunities to capture a sharp image.
The second challenge is the gusts of wind. Gusts of wind blow around clouds of dust, which is typical. Shooting in between the dust is another way to get a clearer photo. The gusts of wind also shake the camera around, making getting a sharp photo difficult. Shoot bursts of photos in between the wind gusts is a best practice. You can also shield your camera from the wind using an umbrella.
The third challenge was photographing through the smoke and emissions. There is a ton of haze in the caldera. Sometimes you can barely see, and then it clears up, and winds pick up. Rain and mist can also create an atmospheric haze that can obstruct your view. Because the conditions can worsen very quickly, try to photograph as much as possible. You never know when you might get rained out, or the haze will become too heavy to see the lava.
2) Choose your composition and your lens
I chose to shoot this photo at the longest focal length I could with my gear. I used a Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS along with a Sony 1.4x Teleconverter. This combination put my maximum focal length at 560mm. The camera I used was a Sony Alpha 7R IV. It is a 61-megapixel camera which gives me the ability to crop the image within the camera using the APS-C/Super 35 mode adding another 1.4x crop. Because of this, I now have nearly 800mm of focal length getting me very close to the cinder cone. I wanted to showcase the details of the cone and the lava coming out of it. There was also a pool of lava near the cone I could have photographed. It is essential to determine what composition you want to shoot before the good light happens.
3) Shoot in the good light.
As the sun goes down, the lava will glow and look much more appealing than during the day. Right after the sun goes down, there will be a short time where it is dark enough to photograph the glowing lava and capture the details of the dark landscape around it. This is my favorite time to shoot lava. Once it gets too dark, the lava becomes the only thing that is possible to expose. The lava becomes so bright that it forces you to underexpose to avoid the bright highlights from becoming overexposed. Once it is dark, capturing an even exposure between the bright lava and the dark surrounding landscape becomes nearly impossible. A full moon can help you get better shots, although shooting during the blue hour is still the best time to shoot.
4) Camera settings
Because I was shooting with a very long focal length, I had to shoot at the fastest shutter speed I could while trying to manage to keep my ISO down. The wind would often pick up, and I could see the lens shaking around. I shot this photo at a shutter speed of 1/400 second, F/8, ISO 320, at nearly 800mm. As I mentioned above, I achieved the longer focal length by using a 400mm lens and a 1.4x extender. I also put the camera in crop mode, adding another 1.4x crop. I was shooting using a tripod. I recommend doing whatever you can to shoot at the fastest shutter speed possible, even raising your ISO. View your images after you shoot and try to see if they are coming out sharp. It is better to increase your ISO and have a more grainy photo than to come home with blurry or soft images. You can get away with slower shutter speeds and lower ISO settings if the wind is not a factor. You will also want to use a 2-5 second timer or a wired or wireless shutter release.
5) Exposing for lava
It is tricky dealing with the bright lava as the light in the scene becomes darker. It's essential to take photos constantly as the light changes during sunrise or sunset. I keep an eye on the right side of my histogram to make sure that bright highlights are not being clipped. I would rather underexpose the scene rather than chance overexposing the lava. When lava becomes overexposed, the orange lava becomes yellow and harder to fix while editing your photo. You can also attempt to take multiple shots at different exposure values to blend in post-processing. Keep in mind that moving lava and exposure blending is complex, and I would not advise doing that as a 1st resort.
Photographing Seascape's in Hawaii
Photographing where the land meets the sea is my favorite type of photography and makes photographing Hawaii amazing. The ocean can evoke different emotions, which I try to capture in my photography. In the photograph above titled "Keaukaha", the sun was setting behind me on the east side of the Big Island. A storm moved quickly toward me. The light from the setting sun behind me casted a magnificent double rainbow, which soon disappeared as the rain came to shore. The water in front of me was calm as the waves broke far past the immediate shallow coastline. I quickly set up my composition and began shooting until the incoming storm made its way to shore and the rainbow disappeared.
- Tips, considerations and, technical advice for photographing a shot like this.
This photo was not difficult to shoot, but it took some quick thinking since rainbows often disappear or lose their intensity in an instant. For example, a rainbow usually disappears when the sun behind you gets obstructed by a cloud, or an incoming storm arrives on shore and showers you rain. It can all happen very fast.
1) Find a composition that you are happy with.
You won't have a lot of time, so get your tripod set up and get your shot composed.
2) Be mindful of your own shadow.
Because the sun is hitting you in the back, you might have your shadow and your camera and tripod’s shadow in the foreground of your shot. This is why I made my way to higher ground and found a spot where my shadow wasn't in the photo. You can remove shadows in photoshop, but it’s not often easy.
3) Have lens cloths available to wipe the front element of your lens.
While I was shooting this photo, I was already being hit with a light mist of rain. Seaspray can also cover your lens and create water spots that might ruin your image. I like to use Kim Tech Wipes to clean the front element of my lens because they soak up water well. I’ll take a few and wipe my lens frequently before shooting. I find that lens clothes tend to just smear the water around the lens instead of removing it.
4) Decide if you want to shoot with a filter.
In this image, I used a Breakthrough Photography Dark Circular Polarizer 3-Stop. This filter works as a neutral density filter, which helps reduce the amount of light coming in through your lens. This allows longer shutter speeds in bright conditions. Because it was very bright and I wanted to achieve an aperture of f/11, dropping 3-stops of light allowed me to slow my shutter down enough to smooth out the foreground water.
The filter also acts as a polarizer filter which helps to reduce the glare on top of the water. As you can see, the water is now see-through, and you can see the rocks at the bottom. Another thing that the polarizer filter does is intensify rainbows. You can bring out the appearance of the rainbow by turning the filter. However, if you continue turning it, the rainbow can disappear completely. So be careful and make sure you’re not eliminating parts of the rainbow as you keep turning the filter. You can also turn the polarizer in small increments, cutting off small sections of the rainbow but intensifying it in other parts. You can later blend the sections of the rainbow in photoshop. I did that in this image.
5) Choosing your exposure
When shooting with the sun to your back, getting correct and even exposure is far easier than shooting into the sun. You’ll have an easier time recording all the highlight and shadow information in one shot and won’t have to take multiple exposures to record all the data and then blend them in photoshop. My camera at the time was a Sony α7R III which has a good amount of dynamic range. Because of this, when I underexposed to protect the highlights from clipping, I could later bring up the shadows in post-processing without having much image degradation. So that's what I did. I slightly underexposed the image to protect the bright highlights in the rainbow from blowing out.
- Tips, considerations, and technical advice for photographing a shot like this.
In this photo, "Kona Drains", there were a few variables that made it a little more tricky to shoot. First, the incoming surge of water was always different, so I had to keep an eye on what the water was doing to keep myself from potentially getting soaked or knocked down. Second, I was also shooting directly into the sun, which made controlling the exposure more difficult. Finally, a photo such as this one exceeds the dynamic range of what most modern cameras can record (when writing this). This means that I wasn't able to capture all the highlight information and the shadow information in one shot. Because of this, I took multiple exposures to capture the complete dynamic range of the image. I will explain some of the things you might consider while photographing an image like this one where there are many variables.
1) Safety First
Safety should always be the number one consideration if you value your life and your camera equipment. This is a spot where you need to stop and think if it’s safe to photograph. I recommend taking some time to sit and watch what the ocean is doing for a good 15 or 20 minutes. Even if it looks safe, you still need to keep a constant eye out for sizable incoming rouge waves that can potentially knock you off your feet. Don’t get too locked in to what you’re shooting that you forget about where you are. They say never turn your back on the ocean. As a photographer, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in my camera, so I need to make sure that I don’t neglect to watch the ocean as well.
I also recommend wearing Tabis to protect your feet from getting cut up, stabbed by wana (sea urchins), or slipping. Wearing tabis also gives you a better ability to retreat in the case of a rogue wave.
2) Make sure your tripod is firmly grounded and stable.
You are going to want to find a spot on the ground that is stable. Take your time with this step. The rocks beneath you will be slippery and uneven. Sometimes finding a crack in the rocks to put the leg in can help give your tripod good support. Make sure that your tripod is level and it doesn't easily fall over. I usually put a little weight on it to make sure it is fairly grounded. This is very important because the incoming water can knock your camera over if it is not set up well. For the first couple waves, hold on to your tripod and see how staple it is. At no point in this process should you be messing around with getting stuff out of your camera bag. Have everything you need, such as lens wipes and filters, accessible in your pockets or strapped to your waist. The tripod that I like to use is a Really Right Stuff TVC-33 and Really Right Stuff BH-55 or BH-40 ball head. This is a very sturdy and durable tripod setup for all of my photography. Make sure your tripod is carbon fiber and rinse it off after your shoot thoroughly.
3) Filters I used
I personally like to use a Breakthrough Photography Dark Circular Polarizer. The polarizer removes the glare on the foreground water allowing the camera to capture the limu (seaweed). The 3-stop combined neutral density filter allows me to slow down my shutter speed and get a more prolonged exposure in bright scenes. I tend to take off the filter and switch between a regular polarizer if the light changes and the 3-stop becomes too dark for the scene.
4) Timing the waves to capture the right water movement.
The way it works in this particular spot is that the incoming water fills the lava tube with water and overflows around your feet. The next step is to start taking photos as the water is retreating into the ocean and draining into the lava tube. I have my camera set up to a wireless shutter release strapped to my wrist, so I don't drop it in the water. A wireless shutter release is better than a wired cable release, which must be plugged into your camera, leaving ports on the side to be exposed to the salt spray. If you don't have a wireless shutter release, I recommend using the 2-second timer mode on your camera. The problem with this is you have to wait 2 seconds before capturing a photo. You will want to be shooting one after another to capture the wave movement, so you have more opportunities to capture the perfect shot. I usually play around with shutter speeds in the neighborhood of 1/4th second to 1 second. This will give the water some sense of movement but will retain some of the texture. If your shutter is too long, you will lose the texture in the water, and it will appear almost as smoke. If your shutter is too short, the water will lose the sense of movement and will look unnatural, in my opinion. These are creative decisions and are subjective.
5) Advanced shooting methods for the best results.
In a photo such as this one, I switch focal points as I am shooting the scene. This is not completely necessary, although I believe it gives the best results. It is a more risky approach to shooting the scene, considering that you can miss opportunities if you are focused on the wrong area while the best waves are happening. If the steps below sound like they might exceed your current skillset, I suggest just focusing a third of the way into the scene using manual focus. Choose a shutter speed you are happy with and an exposure that best captures the highlights and the shadows. Usually, underexposing about a stop on your camera is a good choice. For the best results, you can follow the steps below.
There is limu (seaweed) in the immediate foreground in this photo, which I want perfectly in focus. If there was nothing but water in the foreground, I would have probably just focused on my secondary focal point, the closest rock in the middle of the scene. The way I focus is with manual focusing. First, I use the zoom magnifier on my camera to view the object I want to focus on. I then turn the focus ring on my lens until the object is tack sharp. Make sure your camera is set to manual focus; otherwise, when you half click your shutter, your autofocus will activate and ruin your shot. Autofocus is a bad choice for this scene because it doesn't focus well on moving water. I generally rely on manual focus for 99% of my landscape photography. As I continue to shoot the scene, I focus on the immediate foreground to capture the wave movement as the sets of waves come in. Once I feel I have some good shots, I refocus on the mid-ground of the scene to get sharp images of the scene's background. I also, at this point, shoot underexposed shots to capture the blown-out highlights of the sky near the sun so that I can exposure blend in post-processing. I repeat this entire process as the light changes or until the sun sets and I am done shooting.
Let's recap the process.
- Focus on the immediate foreground to capture the best water movement and details in foreground objects.
- Switch focus to the mid-ground and shoot images to capture good water movement and optimal sharpness.
- Don't forget to under-expose the scene to capture blown-out highlights in the sky. I generally underexpose one-stop per shot on my camera by adjusting to a faster shutter speed. I will usually expose around three stops in those one-stop increments, although I might even go five stops in the scene. It is better to come home with more images than you needed.
- Lastly, repeat this process over and over until the light in the scene becomes undesirable.
Photographing Waterfalls In Hawaii
Hawaii is a fantastic place to visit if you are a fan of waterfalls. There are countless amounts of them around the Hawaiian islands. Some are easily accessible and located in state parks, while others aren’t as easy to get to. The Big Island’s coastlines feature tall cliff-sides with tall waterfalls cascading off the sides of the cliffs into the ocean. Many of these can be seen by either boat or helicopter tours. Taking one of these tours will unlock possibilities to see and photograph waterfalls many have never seen before. No matter what island you are visiting, you will have no problem finding incredible waterfalls to photograph.
In the photo above, "Rainbow Falls," I captured this waterfall with its signature rainbow that people hope to see when they come and visit. It was a beautiful morning with blue skies and fluffy clouds. The sun was rising behind me, casting light at the waterfall, which is the key ingredient for a rainbow to appear. If you are looking to see the rainbow at Rainbow Falls, I would advise you to get there in the morning. Depending on the time of year, the sun will rise at various times. Generally, I show up an hour after sunrise with some coffee and wait for the sun to get high enough to start illuminating the falls. The light in the morning is also softer, which will make the green foliage more appealing to photograph. As the sun rises higher, you will notice that the vegetation, rocks, and the entire scene, in general, will become harsher with the direct sunlight. I usually stop shooting around that time.
Tips, considerations, and technical advice for photographing a shot like this:
1) Get there early to scout for a good composition.
Arriving at any photography destination early is always a good idea. Some locations require scouting even a day in advance if you plan on shooting in the early morning. For this location, I try to show up a little early to put my camera in different spots and take some test photos before the good light arrives. One reason I do this is that the vegetation constantly changes in this location. The growth of the plant life happens so rapidly that it requires maintenance by the County of Hawaiʻi. The worst luck you might have is showing up right after they cut back the foliage in the foreground. This makes for an unappealing image, and you will have to creatively compose your shot to avoid the damaged plants in the scene. However, they will grow back, and in a few weeks, it will look amazing again. So long story short, get there early.
2) Decide your lens
I used a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM along with a Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR Camera for this shot. For landscape, people are often grabbing their wide-angle lenses. I often find that my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM captures much more of the incredible landscape, although the subject, which is the waterfall, will appear much smaller and farther away. You also might be tempted to use the wide-angle lens and zoom in to that 24mm zoom range. I would advise against this if you have the option to use a prime lens in that focal length or the 24-70mm zoom lens at 24mm. Independent studies done by reputable lens reviewers such as Lensrentals.com often find that most zoom lenses are their sharpest at the shortest focal lengths of the lens. Image sharpness often falls off as you increase your focal length. So know your lens's best attributes and try to choose the best lens for the job.
3) Decide if you want to use a filter
In this image, I used a Breakthrough Photography 3-Stop Dark Circular Polarizer. I chose to use this filter so I could remove some of the glare from the foliage. Another benefit of using a polarizer is that you can strengthen the rainbow’s appearance, bringing out its vibrancy when the camera has challenges picking it up on its own. This particular filter also cuts back 3-stops of light, allowing me to have a longer shutter speed while shooting at my desired aperture of f/11.
4) Choose your focal point
After I have chosen my composition, I generally start considering if I’m able to capture optimal sharpness in one shot. It never hurts to take a few shots with a few different focal points. This is, of course, considering you know about performing focus stacking in post-processing. If not, then I would disregard this method for now. In this scene, I found that I was able to capture very good image sharpness in the entire scene with one shot. This is great because it's less work to process the image in post-processing.
5) Choose your shutter speed.
This decision often comes before deciding to use a neutral density filter. I generally set the aperture that I want to use, then rotate the shutter dial until I find the correct exposure. If I see that the aperture is set to f/11 and the exposure is correct, but my shutter speed is too fast, resulting in a shorter exposure time than I want, I will have to consider using a neutral density filter for my lens. This will create a darker exposure allowing me to use longer shutter speeds while maintaining correct exposure. In this photo, I was going for longer exposure of 2 seconds to smooth out the water. Because there was no wind blowing around the trees or foliage, I maintained sharpness in the scene with no image blur. If there were wind, the vegetation would have appeared blurry due to the long exposure not being fast enough to freeze the motion in the foliage. Because the light in the scene was fairly evenly lit, I captured the full dynamic range in one shot. This is usually possible when the sun is behind you or overhead. This is great because it's an easier shot to take and process.
Lets recap this process
- Get there early and find a good composition.
- Choose your shutter speed for good exposure and for creative purposes such as long exposures to smooth out the water.
- Decide if a filter is necessary to achieve your desired shutter speed or if you would like to use a polarizer.
- Decide where you are going to focus to achieve optimal sharpness in the entire image. Note: If you are unsure, then a good practice is to focus on an object a 3rd of the way into the scene.
- Take the shot and have fun! Shoot until the light gets too harsh. You will notice that nice soft light begins to be harsh and unpleasant as the sun gets higher in the sky.
Photographing The Night Sky In Hawaii
"Halema'uma'u Milky Way"
Depending on the area you are visiting in Hawaii, you will be presented with various incredible opportunities for night photography. Because I live on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, I am blessed with plenty of areas to shoot far away from the city lights. The closer you are to city lights, the more light pollution you are going to encounter. Light pollution makes it harder to photograph the stars because the city lights light up the sky drowning them out. If you are staying on the Island of Oahu around Honolulu, you will have a more challenging time escaping the city lights. You will also want to take note of the moon phases you will encounter while on your trip. The brighter the moon phase, the fewer stars you will photograph, but the landscape will be more illuminated. So if you are looking to photograph the Milky Way, you might want to plan your trip around the days of the month where the Moon is closer to a new moon. You will also want to make sure that the Milky Way is visible at that time of the year. A great app to download to assist you with this information is called PhotoPills. In short, PhotoPills is a photo planning app that I use all the time for planning my photoshoots.
- Tips, considerations, and technical advice for photographing a shot like this.
In this photo above, "Halema'uma'u Milky Way" I took a trip down to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island, to photograph the Milky Way. Luckily the weather was good with a clear sky and very little wind. Halema'uma'u Crater is the main vent on the summit of the Kilauea Volcano. The glow from the lava below lights up the caldera and makes for incredible photographic opportunities. As I write this, the glow is currently not visible as the eruption has slowed down near the crater's surface.
1) Pay attention to the moon phase.
This photo was shot just as the Moon was setting. It was a 44% waxing crescent moon that was setting at 11:59 PM. As you can see in the image, the landscape is well lit, with shadows cast from the moonlight. Although it is not nearly as visible as it would be if I were photographing a new moon, the Milky Way is still visible. I wanted to capture the well-lit landscape and the Milky Way, so I had planned for these conditions in advance. The nice thing is that I could have also waited until the moon was fully set to capture a completely different image. The landscape would be pitch black, but there would have been far more stars visible in the sky to photograph. If you seek a photo where the landscape is well lit, make sure you have some moonlight.
2) The glow from the caldera can be difficult to expose.
Because the landscape is very dark compared to the glow coming from the caldera of Halema'uma'u Crater, it makes exposing the shot tricky. You will need to expose your shot long enough to capture the foreground without completely overexposing the area around the crater. Having the moonlight available like I did this night made the scene a little more balanced and easy to expose. If I had less moonlight and wanted to get a good exposure of the land, I would have had to expose longer. What happens in an even longer exposure is that the bright highlights within the crater area will completely overexpose. The details in the crater wall will disappear, and you will not be able to recover them. You can try some exposure blending techniques if you feel like you have the ability. Just be mindful that you won’t be able to recover the highlights you overexpose. Take various exposure times so that when you get home, you have options to choose from.
3) Photographing the stars
Photographing stars can also be tricky. You want to choose an exposure time that will capture the stars but is not so long that you get star travel. The rotation of the earth causes star trails. The longer you expose your shot, the more chance you have that the stars in your image start to streak rather than be circular. There is a wide variety of variables such as focal length and lens flaws that can cause this. That would be far from the scope of this article, but there's plenty of information and courses available online to learn about it. I recommend first manually focusing on a distant star. Use a magnifying feature on your camera to zoom in to a distant star and rotate the focus ring back and forth until the star appears pin sharp. Once you have achieved that, take a test shot. I recommend starting at 13 seconds at around 1000 ISO. Evaluate if the stars look tack sharp. If they don't, you are either not focused correctly, or the exposure time is too long. If the exposure time is too long, then you might need to open up your aperture more and reduce your shutter speed a little. If your aperture is already wide open, your may need to raise your ISO a little and lower your shutter speed. It's a balancing act, and depending on the conditions, it will never be the same. The more you practice, the more improved you will get. So if you are not accustomed to shooting the night sky, you might want to practice at home before you arrive to the islands.
Staying Safe While Having Fun
It might not be the most exciting topic for some looking for photography advice, but please take a moment to read this! To put it bluntly, Hawaii is filled with hazards that can easily land you in the hospital or dead. I cannot emphasize this enough. So let's look at some ways to enjoy the islands safely so you can fulfill your entire trip and make it back home. This might sound dramatic, but I am serious. Many visitors have died or gotten injured in Hawaii from injuries suffered while doing common tourist activities like swimming, snorkeling, hiking, and going on scenic drives. Here are some of the things that you should know about staying safe.
- Obey all signs warning of potential dangers.
This is an easy one. If you see a sign telling you not to enter or how not to die, obey it. If a warning sign is posted in an area, then the area has a well-documented history of injuries and deaths. You might feel like you can beat the odds, but I can assure you that many of the people who died or got injured there felt the same way.
- Rivers and waterfalls can be major hazards.
I cannot stress enough how cautious you have to be while venturing into Hawaii rivers. I usually avoid walking in rivers unless I feel very confident in what the weather is doing and consider the season. I realize everyone loves waterfalls, and for many people, hiking up a stream to a waterfall is high on their to-do list. This is a tricky one for me to advise you on because many places in Hawaii are different and there might be a local waterfall that's perfectly safe to visit and stand under. Here on the Big Island, we get a lot of rain. One main cause of injuries and deaths in Hawaii rivers is flash floods. What looks like a beautiful sunny day downriver doesn't always tell the story of what's happening upriver. What happens way up above the river is that there could be torrential rainfall which can quickly lead to a flash flood. What seems like a safe, calm stream quickly turns into an unavoidable wall of water that can take you down the river, which could result in you never getting that photo on the bucket list and, even worse, never returning home to your loved ones. I'm not trying to put a damper on those bucket list photos, but I have enormous respect for the power of these rivers, and I want to pass this along to you.
- Wear the right footwear for the occasion.
These tips can save you from tripping and damaging your camera gear and breaking some bones. Coastlines can have some very slippery rocks that can result in all kinds of pain and damages to your gear. When walking along coastlines or around slippery river rock, I wear these shoes called Tabis. They have soles that resemble a dish sponge's rough side, which results in an amazing grip on wet slippery rocks. These things will save you so much grief and embarrassment. Make sure you hose them out with fresh water afterward and dry them outdoors. If you leave them in the car, they will smell like an old fish the next day. Here is a link to a local store in Hilo called S. Tokunaga Store that sells them. You can find them in other places online as well. Tabi Shoe
In the video above I am shooting on very slippy lava rock without too much worry since I have Tabi Shoes on.
Slippahs, otherwise known as flip-flops on the mainland, are great for walking around town, and they are easy to take off when getting to a sandy beach. However, walking along lava rock or lava fields in slippahs can result in some major cuts on your feet that can ruin your trip. Wear some good hiking shoes while on the lava fields and hiking trails.
- Ocean safety is crucial to know while photographing
It's all about shooting these sunrise and sunset shots near the shoreline while in Hawaii, but it's important to have a gauge of what the ocean is doing. The tricky part is that the ocean is always doing something different. You have different tides for certain times of the day. You can also have high surf warnings that can make a spot that is usually safe unsafe. You can download apps like The Weather Channel onto your phone, and it will give you alerts when there are high surf warnings or hurricane watches. I also use a tide app called Magicseaweed aka MSW Surf Forecast. Having these alerts and knowing what the ocean is doing can help you decide whether or not it's good to go near the ocean on certain days. Even areas marked safe to swim can have unusually high surf, making them unsafe for that day. Using your best judgment is sometimes key to staying safe. I often observe the ocean for a good 15 to 20 minutes to see how the waves crash along the shoreline. I also take note of the tide receding or rising. Be aware that the tide can rise rapidly, making spots that appear safe very dangerous very quickly.
*Note: If you have decided to photograph the shoreline where the waves are incoming towards you, make sure to have a quick exit plan in case of rogue waves. PAY ATTENTION TO THIS ONE. If you see the ocean water receding quickly and in a way that it hasn't since you have been watching the waves, then you need to grab your camera and retreat away from the water quickly. A rogue wave is a giant wave that comes without warning, much larger than the usual waves, and can knock you off your feet and drag you out to sea. At a minimum, it can ruin your camera gear and get you soaked. You don’t want to encounter the severity it can bring. In the video below, the visitors had a late start exiting the beach when they noticed the unusually large wave breaking. They also had to run across a bunch of rocks which slowed them down. This is how disasters happen. I recommend wearing your camera pack while shooting or having it higher up on the beach with someone watching it if possible. Wearing those Tabi Shoes I mentioned above will greatly speed up your exit than barefoot or wearing slippahs (flip-flops).
The video below taken by Jacqueline Yau and shared by KHON News shows the dangers of rogue waves at Hanakāpīʻai Beach on Kauai.
- Photographing near cliff edges can be extremely dangerous.
The Hawaiian islands have some of the most incredible hikes through high mountain ridges. Islands such as Kauai and Oahu have high mountainous ridges with endless photographic opportunities. A few hazards might not be so obvious. One thing to note is that the ground near the edge might not look it but can be very unstable and slippery. Many visitors and even locals slip and fall off cliff sides, leading to either serious injury, death, or being rescued by helicopter. High wind gusts can also unexpectedly push you or your camera gear right over the edge. The safest way to enjoy the view is not to go near the edge.
- Underwater Photography
Most of my underwater photography at this time is nothing very professional. I generally putter around underwater with a GoPro camera taking videos and snapping photos for fun. Hawaii has beautiful aqua blue water, tropical fish and marine life, and coral reefs. Although there might be miles of beach and coastline that looks inviting to swim in, you don't want to enter the water unless you are sure it’s safe. There are a few ways to find this out.
1) There are many books and sources online that will tell you about safe and visually good beaches for snorkeling and diving. You don't want to jump into the water at a random place where you’re not sure if it has a strong current. Even if you see locals swimming in areas that are not marked as safe to swim, you have to understand that they’ve been living here their entire lives and most likely know the ins and outs of the water there. Also, even locals die every year swimming in dangerous areas. So don't just jump in just because you see others doing it. Do your research on the area, then use your best judgment by watching the water current and waves. Remember to check those alerts to see if there are high surf warnings to assess better if you should get in or not.
Generally, the best snorkeling and diving is in areas where the water is very calm. The water will be much clearer, and you won't be getting pushed all over the place by waves and the current. The best thing you can do is research a local tour company that can take you to the best and safest places to snorkel or dive.
2) Avoid touching or getting too close to marine life. There have been times where I look to the left, and right next to me, there is a huge Honu (sea turtle) swimming next to me. They are what everyone wants to see and photograph when they come to Hawaii. Try to keep a little distance if you see them. They generally don't mind people, but sometimes people crowd them and get in their way. Often they are eating limu (seaweed) on the rocks floating around in the current. I have even seen them mistake the strap on a bathing suit for something to eat. They are gentle giants, but they can accidentally bite you if you stick things in front of their faces. Never feed them anything and never touch them. If one comes near you, just enjoy the experience and try to keep a little distance. These animals are protected, and it is illegal to touch them. Other fish in the water can hurt you if you touch them. There are Moray Eels that can bite you if they feel threatened. Some fish have spines that can cause great pain and infection. I have read that pufferfish have a strong enough bite to nip a finger off. For the safest experience photographing underwater, leave the marine life alone and keep a safe distance.
3) Dive in groups, especially when swimming far from shore. Diving or swimming with others allows you to watch each other's back while in the water. In the case of an emergency, you will have the support of your partners to help you get to safety and seek medical attention. If you are by yourself, you risk potentially drowning or disappearing with nobody knowing where you went missing. If you are by yourself, it wouldn't be a bad idea to link up with a group on tour or meet other people who are out swimming. That way, you can watch each other's back.
- Be prepared with all the supplies you might need
The Hawaiian Islands can be a harsh environment, and many people venture out without proper supplies. I will list things I often carry with me when I’m out doing photography, hiking, or swimming here on the Big Island.
1) Food and water- my camera bag has enough room for me to fit a small pack of food and even has a compartment for a water bladder for longer treks. However, every adventure is different, so it's important to do some research on the place and decide how much food and water you will need.
2) Warm/water-resistant clothing- Some people leave the house with only the intention of being out in the sun and going home after the sunsets. For me, as a photographer, this is not always the case. For example, I might set out to shoot sunset photos in Kona, which is on the opposite side of the island from where I live in Hilo. It is not uncommon for me to decide on the way home that I want to go shoot night photography up on Mauna Kea or Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. These places are very cold at night. If I were to show up in shorts, a t-shirt, and slippahs I would not last 20 mins. So have extra clothing available in the car for these reasons.
3) Emergency Supplies- Much of the things on this list are an overkill for most occasions. You have to assess what you will need for your outing. If you can handle the extra weight, it never hurts to be overly cautious.
- First Aid Kit
- A powerful flashlight
- Back up portable charger for cell phone and flashlights
- A whistle- Having a loud whistle can help you call out for help if you are lost.
- A knife or a multitool
- A compass and physical map of the area you are hiking
- GPS device
- Matches, waterproof tinder, lighter
- A lightweight shelter such as a tent to keep dry in case you become lost, stranded, or injured
- Sun Protection such as Hats, sunscreen ,or clothing to cover up your neck, arms ,and legs
- Insect repellent wipes
These are the precautions and things that I think about while I’m out shooting daily here on the Big Island. There are always going to be more precautions you can take. I believe that what I mentioned above is good basic knowledge to get you started. Research as much as you can on the place you are headed to and make sure you are taking the best safety measures. Taking tours is usually the best way to get the best advice and have the best experience!
Much Aloha to you and your family while visiting the Hawaiian Islands. Always remember when visiting an area to pick up your opala (trash) and leave the place you are visiting better than you found it.
About the author: Wade Morales is a landscape photographer located on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. He specializes in creating fine art landscape photography prints for collectors around the world. To view his full collection of Hawaii Photography, please visit his online galleries.