Hawaii is everyone’s favorite paradise. If you happen to be a photographer, there is an added bonus: Most of the Hawaiian Islands are free from light pollution and are ideal for Milky Way (Hoku-noho-aupuni) photography! In this blog I’ll share some of my learning from my visits.
Oahu is the exception
Oahu is the most visited island in the state.
Unfortunately, it is also your worst bet for Milky Way photography in Hawaii. Oahu is where most of the folks in the state live and it also has the nastiest light pollution of any of the islands. However, there are some pockets in the mountains and on the west coast around Kaena Point that are pretty good.
If you are ONLY visiting Oahu and none of the other islands, well the good news is that although Oahu might not be ideal, it still probably has less light pollution than you have at home, so get in the rental car, get a bit away from Honolulu give it a try!
- All of the other islands are great…heck, they are fantastic! There will be some light near the larger cities (Kona on the Big Island, Lahaina on Maui, etc) but a short twenty minute drive along the coast will usually get you clear of the light.
Higher is better!
There is a reason that observatories are built atop mountains…when you are at 10,000 feet above sea level, 95%+ of the earth’s atmosphere is BELOW you…which results in a better view of the stars. In Hawaii, there are three possibilities: Mt.Haleakalea (on Maui), Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (both on the Big Island).
Haleakala is your best best for high altitude Milky Way photography in Hawaii.
- You can easily drive right up to the summit on paved roads in a rental car.
- Haleakala National Park, is open 24/7 365 days/year, so you can photograph at night with no restrictions.
- Some hints and suggestions for photographing at Haleakala:
- It will be COLD. Seriously. It was 88 degrees when I left my hotel in Kaanapali and it was below freezing at the summit (I actually got ice on my camera). Gloves, hat, jacket and a thermos of hot chocolate are good ideas (it was kinda funny packing my parka and ski pants for a trip to tropical Hawaii!)
- The summit is occasionally surrounded by clouds. Be patient. On my last visit, the last mile to the summit was completely socked-in by fog/clouds…I could probably have walked faster than I drove. But it did clear up about 30 minutes after I got to the summit.
- I think the best spot to photograph the Milky Way here is from the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit (near the Summit Building on Red Hill). You can include the observatories in your shot from this location (the observatories themselves are not open to the public).
- Plan on a full night. It takes a while to get to the summit from most of the island’s hotels. Plus the road to the summit is full of switchbacks and it isn’t lighted. It took me over two hours each way…so you won’t be getting much sleep after you get back. You might want to drive up to the summit in the daylight, photograph the sunset (although the sunrise is a better shot) and read a book for a couple of hours while it gets good and dark.
- It is often be WINDY here. Try moving around to find a spot where the wind is blocked. You will need a sturdy, heavy duty tripod. If you only have a small travel-tripod with you, hang some serious weight on your tripod to avoid the ‘shakes.’
The Big Island
Mauna Kea is on the Big Island of Hawaii and this huge shield volcano is highest point in the state.
- Your best bet for photography on Mauna Kea is at the Onizuka Visitor Center which is on the Summit Access Road about 30 minutes from the top of the volcano area nearby.
- The road all the way to the Visitor’s Center is paved and your rental sedan will have no problems getting there.
- Get away from the main building and scout for a location that gives you a view of Mauna Loa and the Milky Way (both will be to your south)
- Why not photograph the Milky Way from the Summit?
- At 13,000′ with pristine air and 360° unobstructed views, this would be the ideal spot for Milky Way photography in Hawaii. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed on the summit at night. Rangers drive around and will ask you to leave 30 minutes after sunset (this ensures that tourists don’t inadvertantly shine flashlights at the multi-million dollar telescopes at the summit).
- Be aware that sections of the road between the Visitor’s Center and the summit is steep and most of it isn’t paved. 4WD and high clearance vehicles are recommended.
The other massive volcano on the Big Island is Mauna Loa. Unfortunately, you can’t drive to the 13,600′ summit because the road is blocked at the weather observation station (at 11,000′).
Since the road to the summit is on the northern flank of the mountain, it means that the Milky Way is largely hidden from your view by the bulk of the mountain. I haven’t found any good vantage points to shoot the Milky Way on this road.
- If you are in shape, adventurous, and have experience in cold weather camping, there is another option. There is a cabin near the summit (reservation required), but it is a tough six mile hike each way.
- FYI…if you plan to research a visit to Mauna Loa keep in mind that a lot of tourists (and photographers writing blogs) get Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea confused.
Kilauea Crater at Volcano National Park
How about a photo of the Milky Way and lava!
One of the most awe inspiring sights I’ve ever witnessed was the Big Island’s erupting Kilauea crater:
You can get this shot in Volcano’s national Park in the southern part of the island
- The park is open 24/7 365
- Two great locations are the Jagger Museum or the nearby (and less crowded) Kilauea Overlook
- The volcano has been active since 1983 but the lava isn’t always visible in the Kileaea crater. Don’t plan a trip just to get this shot without first going on-line to confirm that the lava is visible. Check this link to get the latest updates.
If you are lucky and there is an active lava flow during your visition, you might be able to hike out to the lava field during the day and photograph the Milky Way after sunset with hot, red lava as your foreground
- Unfortunately, often the lava flow isn’t visible…it runs in ‘lava tubes’ all the way to the ocean. Check this link to see if you will be able to see lava before hiking 4 miles out there.
Although photographing the Milky Way from 10,000 feet is technically ideal, don’t ignore potential shots from sea level too. Hey, you are in paradise…photograph the Milky Way rising from the surf with some palm trees swaying in the breeze…I mean, you can’t do this back home in Cleveland, so go for it!
All of the islands have beachfront parks loaded with coconut palms that are great night photo locations. Beaches on the southern side of the islands have a clear view of the Milky Way (which is located to the south) but even locations on the eastern, western or northern coasts can work IF they have a view to the south.
Kauai is my favorite island for Milky Way photography, but I’m biased because this is my favorite place on earth.
A lot of the beachfront hotels have lavishly landscaped grounds that are illuminated at night…and they also provide public access to the ocean. So even if you aren’t staying beachfront, you can photograph from these locations. Their night lighting will illuminate foreground subjects without the need for you to do so.
Scout around during the day for southern facing locations with interesting foregrounds.
If you would like to know the equipment you need and the techniques/software required to made good Milky Way photographs, check out my detailed blog by clicking here.
The islands of Hawaii have some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and there are untold numbers of potential locations for Milky Way photography waiting for you to discover!