Photographing the mystical island of Kauai

October 24, 2012  •  8 Comments

A trip to Kauai is a photographer's dream come true. Photographing Kauai has been on my bucket list for quite some time. Coming from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to capture as many photos as possible of sunrises and sunsets from the beach as well as jungles, waterfalls and huge crashing waves. Equipped with the excellent "Blue Book" for Kauai and the accompanying iPad app, we were ready to rock and roll. This book and app are outstanding resources, and should be on your short list of guidebooks for Kauai. Our flights from Denver to LA and then to Kauai made for a very long day of travel that was capped off by a fantastic night of sleep in our plush condo at the Outrigger Waipouli Beach Resort near the bustling tourist town of Kapa'a. Before sunrise on our first full day in Kauai, my wife Angela and I got out of bed and hurried down to the beach to witness one of the best sunrises I've ever seen. This was surely going to be a fantastic trip if every day started out this way! 

I was very eager to try out my brand new filters I had purchased from Ebay. I had done lots of research and finally settled on the Lee filter system, including the Lee Foundation Kit, three graduated neutral density (Grad ND) filters (.6, .75 and .9) as well as the Lee Big Stopper, a 9-stop neutral density filter. Using Grad ND filters, a photographer is able to properly expose the entire scene when the foreground is dark but the sky is bright (such as sunrises and sunsets). I opted to purchase soft graduated filters as opposed to hard. Soft graduated filters are a true graduation from dark to light as opposed to hard graduated filters which go from dark to light with a definitive line from the dark to the light. Typically, hard graduated ND filters are best for oceanscapes because you can place the hard line right on the horizon, but I wanted the versatility of the soft graduation, so I ultimately went that direction.  

Sunrise at Waipouli Beach

In addition to playing with different filters, I played with different varying levels of white balance, which ultimately controls the color hues in the photo. This is where a photographer's creative license comes into play, during the post-processing of an image. Detractors may say that it makes a photo look unrealistic, while I say it shows that I have a creative vision for my artwork. Developing a vision for my photographs is something that has evolved over the past few years, starting with my read of David duChemin's book "Vision and Voice." I feel that each year that my vision becomes more and more refined. Most importantly, I have been seeking out "intentional" photos, where I know exactly what light, scene and composition I want before I arrive at the scene. This has been challenging, especially while traveling with non-photographers, because I often find myself begging people to give me more time to get the right photo. Because of that, I am quite appreciative of my travel companions on my trip to Kauai, my wife Angela, her best friend Linda Shaver and her husband, Arron Shaver. They were patient with my obsessive photography needs. 

Kauai sunriseSunrise at Waipouli Beach Resort

Playing with the Lee Big Stopper was fun from day one; however, I found myself gravitating back to the use of my Hoya 10-stop ND filter due to some vignetting I was experiencing from the Lee Big Stopper on my Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 lens around the 11-12mm range. Regardless, the Lee performed nicely.

Kauai Sunrise with the Lee Big StopperStreaks at sunrise

The first day's sunrise provided ample opportunity to get fully into a photographer's mind-set for the trip. It also provided some interesting features right from the beach of the Waipouli Beach Resort's shores. The rocky pier extending out into the ocean made for a great location and foreground. 

Kauai Sunrise and pierOrange and blue

Knowing I would be going to places all over the island, I wanted to get some versatility into my shots, so I was very excited when a local photographer allowed me to borrow her Nikkor 80-400mm lens, which would extend the focal length of my shots considerably. I decided to get a feel for it by shooting some photos of the sun from the beach. The lens did not disappoint at all. 

Sunrise in KauaiRising Sun

After witnessing an awesome sunrise and eating what I would call an "above average" traditional breakfast at a local restaurant called Kountry Kitchen, we all decided to take a trip up to the north beaches near Hanalei. Hanalei is a touristy destination with lots of great beaches and shops. I was not super keen on getting into the ocean myself, but I knew that spending time on the beach would provide some fun opportunities for some spontaneous photography. Indeed, some of the better shots from the trip were from the Hanalei beach near the Hanalei Pier

Long Exposure at Hanalei PierRelaxation at Hanalei Pier

The Hanalei Pier was particularly interesting, with people jumping from it constantly. 

Jumping from Hanalei PierFun at the pier

Using the huge focal length of the borrowed 80-400 mm lens, I was able to get some fun candid shots of people on the beach, including this one of this young woman appreciating the physique of a surfer. 

Flirtation in KauaiFlirtation

Additionally, I was able to get some nice shots of surfers way out in the ocean, probably a good 400 yards off-shore.

Surfing in KauaiThe Surfer

The main shot that I wanted to get while at the beach in Hanalei was an artistic rendition from underneath the Hanalei Pier. Using an ND filter and HDR post-processing, I was able to get a very unique shot from underneath the pier. 

Hanalei Pier in KauaiMystical Pier

After spending a couple of hours on the beach, I was able to convince everyone to go look for an area on the beach called Queen's Bath. There was an iconic photograph from this area that I wanted to try to match and find the location of, so we set off an a fun adventure along the beach. We first found the famous Queen's Bath and I spent some time there taking shots of the waves crashing into the rocks. 

QueenSoothing pool

QueenQueen's Bath

I was then able to find the "top secret" spot from where the photo I had seen was taken. The area was at the conclusion of a deep inlet from the ocean which ended in a deep and rocky area with huge rocks and a waterfall coming down into the ocean from above. It was a truly magical spot. I spent about 45 minutes down there trying to get the perfect photos near sunset. My goal was to capture the light coming into the inlet from the sunset. Ideally, the light would come through the waterfall, changing the tint of the water. 

I took several photos from that spot while waves were crashing into us, and was able to get some great ones.

QueenInlet of dreams

QueenCrashing the party

Crashing waves on rocks near QueenSpray

Day two was one that I had highly anticipated when we had first planned our trip. This day was reserved for an epic hike along the Na'Pali coast along the famous Kalalau Trail at the northern end of the main highway on the island. The plan was to start early and hike the Kalalau Trail to the Hanakapi`ai coast and then inland to the Hanakapi`ai Waterfall. I am happy to report that this hike was probably my favorite part of the whole trip. The scenery and jungle-like feel of the hike were something I could never replicate back in Colorado. 

Hiking the Kalalau Trail

The hike weaves up and down the steep cliffs of the Na'Pali coast and offers fantastic views of the coast, ocean and other jungle features. One of the other great things was all of the fallen fruit that was strewn about the trail and hike. The air always smelled of sweet fruit and ocean-breeze. 

Na Pali Coast from the Malalau TrailOcean and jungle

We found a really awesome small waterfall too along the trail that I stopped to photograph with my tripod. 

Waterfalls along the Kalalau TrailOcean-bound

As we approached the Hanakapi`ai beach, the sound of crashing waves got louder and louder, which was a truly awesome experience for someone that had previously only seen the ocean a handful of times beforehand.

Na Pali CoastEarly morning ocean breeze

Once we reached the Hanakapi`ai beach, I found it to be a wonderful location. The waves were huge and the opportunities for photography were endless. At first, I had a great time experimenting with long exposures using my new filters and my wide angle lens.

HanakapiCalming sea

HanakapiWave effect

I was quickly drawn to the powerful waves on the rocks and opted to play quite a bit with the borrowed 80-400 lens. I also took some artistic liberties in editing these photos to give them a feeling I was looking for.

Crashing waves on HanakapiThe wave and the rock

Waves slam into rocks on the HanakapiIncoming barrage

Waves crashing into rocks on the HanakapiContrasted

Huge wave crashes into the rocks at HanakapiBOOM!

I even had a local bird come into my scene which added a bit of fun to my shots.

bird on beach crashing wavesEnter stage right

The beach was a big one, with very beautiful sand. After a long shooting session, which my companions were gracious enough to be wait for me to complete, I found my feet deeply sunk into the sand. Of course, I did not mind one bit.

HanakapiBeach of glory

We continued at this point inland on the Hanakapi`ai Falls Trail, which weaved through deep jungle, including a few large bamboo forests.

Bamboo Beast

One of the fun parts of the hike were the frequent stream crossings, which certainly added to the sense of adventure.

River crossing in KauaiThe crossing

After a couple of miles of hiking in the deep jungle, we finally reached the base of the Hanakapi`ai Falls. The falls were just as amazing as I had imagined them to be.

HanakapiHanakapi'ai Falls

We went to the end of the trail which leads right to a large pool of cold water with joyful hikers taking swims into the pool. I was firstly most interested in getting some photos of the waterfall, so I found a nice perch high above the falls that had a great vantage point looking down on the pool with a view of the entirety of the falls.

HanakapiHanakapi'ai Falls

Additionally, I wanted to get a great panorama of the whole area.

HanakapiHanakapi'ai Falls Panoramic

I took a dip in the pool, which was indeed quite cold. Since I'm not a world-class swimmer, I decided to just get deep enough to where I could still keep my head above water. After about ten minutes, I decided that I had my fill of cold for the day and got out to get a group shot of our group. Pictured at center is me and my wife Angela with her best friend Linda and her Husband Arron to her left.

Group photo at HanakapiGroup photo

After eating a quick lunch at the Falls, we decided to hike out. I knew I wanted to get a few shots of the Bamboo area, so I raced ahead and was able to capture some interesting shots of that area. I was not happy to find the Bamboo was carved on, much like the Aspen trees of Colorado. 

Bamboo forest in KauaiBamboozled

Bamboo and the beam Bamboo Forest in KauaiTaking green steps

We reached the Hanakapi`ai Beach once again and found several stray cats hanging out on the beach. This was pretty odd to me. There was also a lot more people there, taking refuge from the rain under the ample trees along the beach.

Taking cover in the jungle

The hike out was quite strenuous, but wonderfully beautiful. 

Kalalau Trail and the Na Pali CoastHanakapi'ai Beach

I was just in constant awe of the flora of this amazing island. We later learned our Helicopter tour that a large percentage of the plants on Kauai are not native, rather, they were brought here by various explorers and people moving to the island.

Kauai floraImported greenery

The volcanic rock on the island gave all of the mountainous terrain a quite a remote feel to it, making you feel like you were on the set of some amazing jungle movie.

Volcanic mountain and jungle features of KauaiVolcanic Jungle

After some swimming on Ke'e Beach near the start of the Kalalau Trail, we got some food at a local burrito place in Hanalei and then headed back to our condo at Waipouli Resorts. Later that night, Arron and I went to the beach to play around with some long exposure photography and light painting. Arron is not a regular to photography, so it was fun showing him some techniques on the beach. I had Arron write with my headlamp. 

Light painting on the beach of KauaiLove Kauai

I also did a little light painting with my headlamp, making orbs on the beach.

Light painting orbs on the beachBeach Orbs

Lastly, Arron went to the very end of the rocky pier in the dark and made his own orb.

Light painting an orb on the beachPoint of focus

I also set-up for some star trails work; however, it started to rain, so I was left with just one shot from the sequence.

Stars over a calm oceanPurple breeze

The next day was a lazy day, so I went down to the beach to shoot some photos. I had fun playing with shutter speed and filters to get different effects from the water.

Crashing waves on the beach of KauaiCascade

The ND filter proved to be quite fun to create some surreal scenes there on the beach.

ND Filter on the beachExtension

Driftwood on the beach of KauaiDrifting

Later on in the day, we headed to the southwest part of Kauai to drive up Waimea Canyon to hopefully finish up there at sunset. Waimea Canyon was really quite amazing; however, our light was not superb there. It was cloudy and overcast, so I had to make due with what I could.

Waimea CanyonWaimea Canyon Blues

My final objective for the day was another scene I had seen in a magazine. It was an iconic panoramic photo of the Kalalau Valley, views of which are available at the very end of the Waimea Canyon road. We got to that parking lot and found the whole area socked in with fog. I was determined though, and knew I had about an hour or so before sunset, so I hiked down the trail a mile to find myself at a lookout which felt very similar to the scene I was trying to get. The views of the Kalalau Valley were absolutely wonderful from there. The fog had lifted somewhat, and actually added to my photograph. I spent quite a deal of time here getting my settings calibrated and my composition set-up. The final result is a photo I am very proud of.

Kalalau Valley PanoramicKalalau Valley Panoramic

As the sun set, the fog returned, adding an eerie feel to the whole area. Nothing like feeling like you are shooting a scene of Gorillias in the Mist!

Fog on KauaiThe fog

We returned back to our condo after a long winding drive in the fog which was quite surreal. 

Day four was set to be our day to take a helicopter tour. We opted early on before our trip to book this flight with Jack Harter Helicopters. As far as I know, this is the only helicopter service that offers flights without doors. Having the doors off would offer me the greatest luck with shooting photos on the tour. 

The day began with a stroll down to the beach to capture what I felt was the best sunrise of the whole trip. The clouds, light, sun, water and feel of the morning were just perfect. As I was shooting, a woman came onto the pier near me. At first, I was somewhat upset, but I felt like having a person in the shot added a great deal. This was particularly ironic to me since I had literally just listened to a podcast by The Candid Frame featuring David duChemin where he discusses how much people add to photos and that he actually seeks out people in his shots now. I am thinking I may do the same.

Sunrise at Waipouli Beach ResportTranquility at sunrise

Sunrise on KauaiDreamscape

Next up was our helicopter tour with Jack Harter Helicopters. They had been super accommodating with us after having to cancel our trip earlier in the week due to weather. We were all very eager to get on this flight and I must say, it was probably the second coolest part of the trip (only because I love to hike). I will also say, I have a new-found respect for aerial photographers. I probably did not choose the right lens for this flight, opting for a versatile but slower lens (the Nikkor 18-105 f 3.5-5.6), so that impacted my shots a bit. Taking photos from an aircraft that is moving upwards of 100 miles-per-hour was quite challenging. I had to boost my ISO quite a bit to compensate for the need for a fast shutter speed, and to top things off, the day was very cloudy, so light conditions were less than ideal. Nonetheless, I was able to get quite a bit of video and a few good photos to show the scale of the adventure.

Kauai Helicopter viewThe hole

The best parts of the flight were all of the insane waterfalls you get to see and the Na Pali Coast. 

Na Pali Coast from the helicopterFoggy Na Pali Coast

It was fantastic to see the Kalalau Trail from above!

Kalalau Trail from aboveTrail from above

And of course, the weather, waves, and Na Pali Coastline made for quite an epic looking scene.

Na Pali Coast from helicopterA cloudy view from above

Despite the poor light and weather, the clouds opened up a few times to allow for some nice photos of the green hillsides of the amazing island of Kauai.

 Jungle hillside in KauaiIlluminated jungle

Our adventure concluded after just an hour of flight, which was easily one of the most memorable hours in recent memory (possibly only topped by the the hour I spent on the summit of my final 14,000 ft. mountain in Colorado). We got a photo of my wife and I in front of the helicopter with our pilot Chris Christensen. 

Happy customers

After our flight, we decided to do some shopping in Kapa'a.

Shopping in KapaShopping queens

While the women shopped, Arron and I decided to drop in to a bar and catch part of the Sunday Night Football game, which was super surreal considering it was only like 3 in the afternoon in Kauai. The highlight of that trip to the bar was a local guy and his dog, who sat right at the bar.

Dog in bar in KauaiBar dog

Next up in our adventure was a dinner where Linda and Arron got married in Poipu. This restaurant is called The Beach House. The food there was quite good, as was the sunset. The Beach House is pretty famous for its sunsets and the day we were there was no exception. The only bummer was that a group of clouds in the far distance blocked the sun at the last minute, which made a potentially wonderful photograph only "OK."

Coconut tree on beach in KauaiWhere's my drink

After ordering our food, I took my camera down to the beach really quickly to get some shots using my new Lee filters. 

Sunset in Poipu KauaiStill evening in Poipu

Sunset in Poipu KauaiDreaming of tomorrow

After dinner, I set-up my tripod and we got some photos after the sun went down. I was able to get a nice shot of Linda and Arron.

Portrait on the beach at sunsetThe happy couple

The layers of color in the sky and water were of particular interest to me.

Layers of color at sunset on the oceanLayers

And of course, I was able to get an iconic photo of the Milky Way over the ocean, which was on my "photo shoot list" of shots to get on this trip.

Milky Way over the oceanMilky Way Over Kauai

Our final day in Kauai was fairly uneventful. We took a trip to the Spouting Horn, which was pretty cool, but nothing too great to photograph legally. The trail down to the horn is closed, so you have to take shots from a look-out above, which did not offer a great opportunity for photography, but seeing the Spouting Horn was very cool. A trip to Kauai is not complete without a photo of a Rooster, which are literally everywhere on the island. Apparently the island used to do a lot of chicken fighting before a hurricane broke all the chicken cages. It was decided to let the chickens roam free, and so they do. They are all over the place and add a feeling of novelty.

Rooster on KauaiRooster Island

We took a trip over to Hanapepe, which is the art hub of Kauai. We perused a few galleries there and I did find an artist I enjoyed quite a bit. As we walked about, I realized I had neglected to take a single photo of the various flowers that are all over the island, so I got a nice one with my 85mm f1.4 lens while shopping for coffee.

flowers on kauaiFlowering in Kauai

As the day went on, we were literally homeless, so we ended up hitting the beach one last time before having to go to the airport for our flight to LA.

Angela was very sad to leave Kauai.

Sad to leave KauaiA sad wife

My parting shot of the island was a shot at sunset of coconut trees blowing in the wind…

Sunset with coconut trees in KauaiFiresky

I hope readers enjoyed seeing my photos of the great island of Kauai. Kauai in a magical place and a great place to explore with a camera. With patience, great photos can be obtained there, especially if you research a bit beforehand on different locations and lighting conditions. If you have any interest in purchasing any of the photos, please do click on the photo, which will take you to a that photo's page in my gallery, where prints can be purchased. Limited edition and signed prints are also available by contacting me by email or telephone. Additionally, if you want a custom sized photo please do contact me. Please see my contact page for more information. 


Very fine photograph skills! Love your article as well. Thank you for the sharing!
Matt Payne Photography
Hi Pam,

I'd go with the 18-300 for sure.
I am in Kauai and so glad I found this account of your trip. I brought a lot of filters and hope to get some amazing shots like yours. If not, I'll just buy one of yours. Anyways, we booked a helicopter flight through the same company and I'm pretty sure we will have the same conditions as you did. Do you recommend Having the Tokina 11-16 mm lensre ori have an 18-300 mm lens? Did you have a polarizer on? Also, what did you end up using for your ISO in these conditions? Thanks.
Matt Payne Photography
Hi Christina and thanks! Yes, not a ton of wildlife as far as I know... there are lots of chickens though!

As far as filters go, they are a great investment. Funny story - I sold my filter kit after this trip, which was really dumb because now I want them again. Also, wow, looking back at these photos - my skills have shifted quite a lot since then. Best of luck in Kauai!
Amazing Shots!
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