Milky Way Photography Tips with a Hawaiian Twist!
After a long night of photographing atop Haleakalā, I started the long drive back to my Lahaina hotel. Along the way, I stopped at this quant oceanside park and was struck by how the Traffic Light cast a wicked red Illumination on the wading pool. Needless to say, my camera and tripod came out of the car and I was another hour or so lated getting back to my room. The neighboring island of Lanai is at 11 o'clock and Molokai is in the distance straight ahead. The beach lies at mile marker 18 off Highway 30 south of Lahaina.

Milky Way Photography Tips with a Hawaiian Twist!

 

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).

Maui

Haleakala

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.
    “Valley of the Gods” From the summit of Halkalea, you can see the observatories to the left and the western part of Maui to the right.
  • 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.’
      ‘Highway to Heaven’   Another view from the top of Haleaka. 

The Big Island

Mauna Kea

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.  

Mauna Loa 

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:

 The full moon washed out the Milky Way but I had no complaints about this view of Kilauea.

 

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.

Beachside Parks

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!

After a long night of photographing atop Haleakalā on Maui, I started the long drive back to my Lahaina hotel. Along the way, I stopped at this quant oceanside park and was struck by how the Traffic Light cast a wicked red Illumination on the wading pool. Needless to say, my camera and tripod came out of the car and I was another hour or so lated getting back to my room. The neighboring island of Lanai is at 11 o’clock and Molokai is in the distance straight ahead. The beach lies at mile marker 18 off Highway 30 south of Lahaina.

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

Kauai is my favorite island for Milky Way photography, but I’m biased because this is my favorite place on earth.

 

Even though the famous Hanalei pier is on the northern coast of Kauai, you can get a Milky Way shot because the pier located in a deep bay that will allow you to walk along the water’s edge until you get this view to the south.
    •  
    The lack of light pollution makes Hawaii a paradise for night photographers…and surfers!

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!

Aloha,

Jeff

I’ve loved the old Wai’oli church on Kauai from the first moment I saw it years ago. Built back in 1912, it is quaint, cute and very, very green. It gets photographed by every single tourist that drives up to the north side of Kauai which makes it is hard to capture a shot that hasn’t already been done a million times. So I thought a night image with the Milky Way rising behind it might be a new twist on an old favorite.

Related Images:

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Hello I’m interested in photographing the Milky Way from Bellow beach. Is there a chart to figure out the best time. Aloha Anthony

    1. Hi Anthony,
      The next new moon will be May 4th. Between 1 am and sunrise, you will have a nice arc of the Milky way stretching from the NE to the SW with the core fully visible at Bellow Beach. I’d suggest you purchase the PhotoPills app for your smartphone, it will allow you to ‘see’ exactly how the milky way will look from any place in earth at any time in the future. It is pretty cool.
      Good luck!
      Jeff

  2. Jeff, I live on Oahu and managed to get my first Milky Way shot last month over Waikiki off of Magic Island. I have a condo booked on Molokai next month during New moon, 19-22 Aug on south shore. Any tips you have on finding and shooting from Molokai will be appreciated. mahalo

    1. Hi Dianne,
      Unfortunately, Molokai is the only ‘major’ island I haven’t yet visited…so I envy your upcoming trip. However, here are some suggestions:
      1) I just reviewed my PhotoPills App and it shows that by August you will have some great options for shooting the Milky Way. Specifically, you would be able to shoot from the southern part of the island early in the evening and photograph the Milky Way stretching over the southern sky. One thing that might be possible would be to photograph the entire arc of the Milky Way as it stretches over the island of Lanai to the south. According to my PhotoPills App, that would happen early in the evening…like about 8:30 or so. I’d suggest you take a scouting drive on 450 which hugs a large part of the southern coast to find a spot with nice foregrounds. The lights of Maui will be visible to the east (your left as you face the ocean)…which might add some color to your shot if the light isn’t overwhelming
      2) The Milky Way will shift as the night goes on and by 1 am it will actually arc over the northern sky…which means you could shoot from the northern coast. My understanding is that the northern coast has some beautiful cliffs that would really make great foregrounds. For example, Kalaupapa National Historical Park has a beautiful overlook at the end of Damien Road that would be an incredible spot for a Milky Way shot early in the morning 1-4am or so.

      Anyway, there are a couple suggestions. Feel free to let me know if you have any more questions!
      Jeff

  3. I’m leaving this a Friday and will arrive in Kona on Saturday afternoon. I’m bringing my D750, 24-70, 14-24 Tokina (DX) lens and monfrotto tripod!

    I checked the moon rise data and think next Tuesday or Wednesday will be good, as the moon does not rise until way after midnight! I’m also considering doing a 20 minute video exposure – have you done that?

    I hope the skies are clear!

    Thanks for the above tips!

    Ray

    1. Hi Ray,
      Make sure you plan to shoot the Milky Way over the Kilauea Crater at the Jagger Museum in Volcano National Park at LEAST one night. It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Kona, but it is one of the most dramatic Milky Way Shots you can get anywhere in the world!
      I’ve done a number of Time-Lapse videos, is that what you are referring to?
      Good luck with the weather!
      Jeff

  4. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your Milky Way Tips! I’m just starting to experiment with star photography. I mostly like time lapse since my background is TV/Video, but I am intrigued with single exposure Milky Way type shots as well as time exposure too.

    I am trying to remedy what I think is a focus problem with my shots. I’m on Maui, so I even wondered if I was getting slight trailing because of my location. I have a Canon 5D 3, sturdy Manfrotto tripod, Satechi intervalometer, no camera strap, and mirror lock up enabled, although I don’t see a difference yet when disabled. I tried auto focus on a star, then switch to manual, and also just manual with the zoom in feature with high ISO. I’m shooting JPEG’s for now. Anyway, it seems to me that I should be getting crisper star shots than I’m getting. I can get the stars crisper in Iphoto post so maybe that is all that is needed, shoot raw and use Adobe Lightroom ?
    Here are 3 of my shots from this morning if you care to look, thanks much! https://www.flickr.com/photos/18409781@N07/sets/72157659171786729

    1. Hi Bill,
      I have to admit that I’m also fascinated by the Milky Way. Unlike most other subjects, I never get tired of photographing it!
      I reviewed your three shots on Flickr. Overall the last two shots looked pretty sharp but I did notice a bit of star ‘streaking’ in the first shot…you can get that when the exposure is a bit too long (I think that one was at 25 seconds). I also noticed a bit of soft focus around the edges of the shots, but that is normal for most lenses which are sharpest in the center.
      I am not familiar with the lens you are using (I’m a Nikon guy), so I’m not able to tell you if you could get sharper images with a better lens. I can tell you that star photography demands very, very sharp lenses. I use the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 and it is wonderful for Milky Way shots.
      Definitely shoot in raw. You can gain some ‘sharpness’ with raw shots by using the clarity slider in post processing.
      The rest of your equipment and technique looks good. One last suggestion would be to set your focus before sunset by taking shots of something near the horizon. Zoom in on the resulting image and be sure you have perfect focus. Then switch the lens/camera to Manual Focus and put a piece of tape on your lens’ focus ring to prevent it from moving. Focusing after dark is much more challenging.
      Let me know if you have any more questions! I’m jealous that you are in Hawaii. Try shooting the Milky Way from the top of Haleakalea if you get a chance…it is an amazing view and the photography is wonderful because you are so high that you are above most of the atmosphere which can ‘muddy’ your shots!
      Jeff

      1. Hi Jeff,
        Thanks for looking at my shots. I am using a Canon 24mm prime lens, although not the best it should be decent glass but maybe not for stars. Maybe I am getting slight trailing, so I’ll try a few :15 and :20 exposures. Did you have trailing in your :25 shots? I shot a couple of raw shots this morning, and I think the :25 shot is better focus and/or less trailing. I uploaded those to Flickr, (converted to jpg for upload) and are untouched.
        I am in an area with short horizon distance and trees, but I will take my camera somewhere today to get that far focus set. Maybe I’ll just do it from Haleakala this evening before sunset and wait a bit for the stars to come out!
        PS I am considering getting the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Lens. It’s affordable and I’ve read that it does pretty good for star photography. It will also get me wider than my 24mm.

        1. Hi Bill,
          I just looked at your new Oct 9 shots on Flickr. The last one looks pretty sharp with maybe just a bit of trailing. Try backing down to 20 seconds and I think you will be fine. With your shutter at 20 seconds, shoot a series of Milky Way shots at different ISOs and determine how low of an ISO setting you can use and get good detail/exposure without too much noise.
          In addition to Haleakala, Try shooting from the seashore on the southern side of the island. If you are staying in Lahaiana, there are few parks on the Honoapiilani Hwy (Hwy 30) where you have great southern exposure and can get Milky Way shots.
          I don’t have the Rokinon, but have also heard very good things about it. I do have the Sigma 15mm f2.8 and it is pretty darn good.
          Have fun buddy…I wish I was there with you!
          Jeff

          1. Hey Jeff,
            Again, thanks for your help! I made it to the summit last night and man is it incredible! Wow! Colder than heck though, my fingers stopped working after a while. I want to go back! I think you are right with :20, I will experiment at different ISO’s.
            I will also get to the shore as well. My new lens is ordered today, and I also experimented with post processing on one pic from last night, link below. BTW, your work is absolutely beautiful! Take care and come on back to Maui when you can!
            https://www.flickr.com/photos/18409781@N07/22054640096/in/album-72157659171786729/

          2. Hi Bill,
            Glad the advice helped, Maui is an incredible location for Milky Way photography and you should have a ball. Do you live there? If so…WOW! My wife and I love Maui and hope to return in a year or two.
            Thanks for the positive feedback about my work and don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any other questions!
            Jeff

          3. Hi Jeff,

            I’m following up from our conversation from almost 2 years ago about shooting the Milky Way on Maui. I finally took your advice and shot from the shore as we moved closer to the beach from Upcountry which was closer to Haleakala. Anyway, I think the shot came out pretty cool and I’m looking forward to trying it again soon. Thanks!
            https://www.flickr.com/photos/18409781@N07/albums/72157686062525094

          4. Hi Bill,
            Just checked out your Flickr feed and, wow, your Milky Way shots are looking great! I particularly liked the one of you pointing the flashlight at the Milky Way. I envy that you like in such a wonderful place…enjoy it!
            Jeff

  5. Hi Jeff,
    You provided a lot of really great information–thank you. But, in talking about photographing the Milky Way in Maui, I didn’t see the most critical piece of information of all: the azimuth. Did I miss it somewhere? What is it?
    Thanks,
    Ken

    1. Hi Ken,
      The Milky Way is visible to the south and depending on the time of year it shifts east-west. There are some great smartphone apps that you can use to determine its exact position at a particular time on a particular date. Sky Safari is my current favorite tool for this. If you are traveling to Maui, you can use this app to plug in the date you are going to be there and it will tell you exactly when the Milky Way will ‘rise’, ‘set’ and exactly the azimuth it will appear. The app is $3 and you can’t go wrong!
      Let me know if you have any other questions!
      Jeff

  6. Hi,
    Congrats, your work is amazing. I am a time lapse photographer and I am planning my next trip to the Big Island. Before heading out to shoot the Milky Way, I have a quick question…Other than shooting on a new moon, is there an specific time of the year when its best to shoot the milky way? Is November a good time? Thanks.

    Regards
    Andy

    1. Hi Andy,
      You should have a great time taking time-lapses on the Big Island…I’m envious! The best time of the year for Milky Way photography is during the summer, when more of the ‘bulge’ is visible above the horizon. With that said, the shots I posted on my website from Hawaii were taken in September and the Milky Way still looked great even that late in the year. November might not be the best time of the year, but I’m sure you will still be able to get some wonderful images!
      Jeff

  7. Hiya,,

    I just have a quick question as to whether its possible to get these photographs from somewhere in high quality so that I could possibly print them in high resolution. They’re that amazing.

    Thank you
    Angela

    1. Hi Angela,
      I’m glad you like my work! I certainly can sell you prints of any of the photographs that caught your eye. Any shot in particular?
      Jeff

  8. Thanks for the helpful tips. While I don’t have all the gear you have, I attempted my first long exposures while vacationing in Kauai last week and was pleased for my first attempts. (No tripod, only a gorillapod, and no wide-angle on my Nikon D5100.) http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelfish/10303863166/ Hopefully by the time I go back, I’ll have more experience. Anyway, thanks for posting about this. Super useful!

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      I’m glad you found this article helpful. I checked out your shots on Flickr and you should be proud of your first attempts at night photography!
      Jeff

Leave a Reply

Close Menu
Close Panel