ke'e beach

Top Photo Spots: Kauai

Top Photo Spots: Kauai

It took way too long for my to visit Kauai. After 3 trips to the Big Island, I finally spent 5 days on Kauai and was absolutely blown away by its beauty and charm. It should go without saying that there are plenty of incredible locations that you won’t find on this list. I was only there for a short time and there were many spots I either didn’t have time to see or didn’t get great shots of because of bad light or time constraints. Still, I gave the entire island a run for its money during my short stay and still felt confident I could produce a great list of spots to hit up.

Kauai is known as the “Garden Isle” and has an area of 562 square miles (the 4th smallest Hawaiian island). Kauai can best be described as “concentrated beauty,” because it’s difficult to go anywhere on the island without being awestruck by what you’re seeing.

The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain is covered in lush green valleys, insane mountain formations, aged by time and the elements that have formed tropical rainforests, winding rivers and countless waterfalls. Many of the islands most beautiful locations aren’t accessible to the public and must be reached via helicopter or private tours. That aside, there are more than enough places to see during your visit that will leave you speechless and ready to plan your return visit.

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    Closest Airport

    Lihue Airport (KLIH)

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    Where to Stay

    For landscape photographers, I recommend Princeville. This will put you within 30 minutes of many of the most dramatic locations the island has to offer. You’ll also be right next to Hanalei which is a great place to eat, shop and relax on arguably the most beautiful beach in the world.

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Ke’e Beach

If you want to see the power of the ocean on full display, the north side of Kauai is a great place to do so. Ke’e Beach is the end of the line on the north side, literally. After Princeville, Highway 56 turns into 560 and if you just keep driving you’ll eventually hit the parking lot for Ke’e Beach.

During the day, finding a parking spot is nearly impossible but towards sunset the spots start opening up plenty. The big draw at Ke’e Beach (besides the view of the Na Pali Coast) is the enormous waves that explode out of the ocean. To view either (or both) of these amazing sights, you can either walk down the beach to the right about a 1/4 mile or take a little path out on the rocks to the left. Going left is easier said than done though, as the path requires boulder hopping and climbing over fallen trees. The beach is also pure boulders so if getting around is difficult for you, you might want to opt for the easy stroll down the beach.

Either way, be sure to take a good telephoto lens with you so you can zoom in and get tight shots of the waves as they burst out of the water. Play around with different shutter speeds but the faster the better if you’re looking to freeze the action in place. 1/500th of a second is a great starting point.

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Doors-Off with Jack Harter Helicopters

There’s no better way to see the majesty of Kauai than from the air. There are several options for helicopter tours on Kauai but if you want to do doors-off with unobstructed views and no window glare, Jack Harter Helicopters is the way to go! These 60-65 minute tours are incredible and you’ll see virtually the entire island, but the best parts are the waterfalls and Na Pali coast.

My suggestion is to go as early as possible in the morning or as late as possible in the afternoon to get the best light. I was by myself on the tour I did so I just had to take whatever open seats they had, which meant my tour was around 11am. It was still a blast but I definitely wish I could have been squeezed onto an earlier flight when the sun was lower and not as harsh.

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Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon is considered “Hawaii’s Grand Canyon,” and what’s really crazy is that it is just a 45 minute drive from the beach on Kauai’s south side. If you are staying in Waimea, getting here at sunrise will be pretty easy and that’s definitely the best time to go. The main lookout is great but there are also a few more just up the road from the lookout (just park at the pull-offs).

Keep in mind that during the drive from the beach to Waimea Canyon you will gain over 3,000 feet in elevation. This means that at sunrise it is likely to be quite cold (and windy) up there! I learned this the hard way…

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Queen’s Bath | Princeville

I’m a little hesitant to include this location on the list but just know that this spot has claimed 29 lives and the only reason I went there was because I had a local photographer with me. Also, going during the summer is MUCH safer than in the winter when the waves are way more treacherous.

That said, Queen’s Bath is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever photographed and/or witnessed. The waves that rise out on the ocean before exploding on the rocks are both mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. Most of the time you feel safe enough, but every 15-20 minutes or so a new swell of big waves come in and each one is bigger than the one before it.

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Poipu Beach

While researching spots to visit during my first trip to Kauai, I kept reading that Poipu Beach was one of the more touristy beaches on the island. When I got there to scout locations one afternoon, I saw what I expected to see: A beautiful, pristine beach full of tourists laying out and playing in the water. That said, the beauty of the beach was incredible and I just knew I’d have to come back for sunset. Yes, there are tons of people at Poipu at any given time but, as you can see from the image above, you can easily get shots without tons of people in them if you’re patient and know where to look. When I took this shot, there were tons of people right behind me, lining the upper part of the sand. I simply walked to the front of all the people, got down low so I wasn’t blocking anyones view of the sunset, and shot away to my hearts content.

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    Great Food Tip

    The obvious choice in Poipu is the world famous Puka Dog. I had it for lunch one day and it was delicious! However, the best food I had on the entire island was at Da Crack, a literal hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint that you will drive right by if you’re not careful. One small window to order from and that’s it. Little to no outdoor seating either so I just ate my burrito in the car. Not very Hawaiian, but it was so good!

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Waimea Pier

While Hanalei Bay’s pier gets all the attention, Waimea Pier (which looks very similar) sits quietly on the less crowded south side of the island. This was the first place I photographed on my trip to Kauai after driving straight there from the airport. While Hanalei certainly has more beautiful surroundings, Waimea is still a beautiful beach worthy of photographing.

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Wailua Falls

I had the entire place to myself during my visit to Wailua Falls at sunrise. Like several other places on the island, the parking lot for the overlook of the falls is at the very end of the road, so you can’t miss it. While it’s a bit unfortunate that you can’t see the base of the closest fall because of the foliage in the foreground, it’s still an incredible waterfall. It’s very similar to Rainbow Falls on the Big Island, in fact.

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Kilauea Lighthouse

I would have loved to have visited this location at sunrise or sunset, but I just couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule. That said, it was still an incredible place to see in person. The Kilauea Light sits on a lava rock peninsula protruding from the shore and was actually closed during my visit because the path to the light was in danger of collapsing into the sea.

The light was built in 1913 and stands about 55 feet tall.

Conclusion

Kauai is ridiculously beautiful and now that you’ve seen just a taste of what is has to offer, it’s time to create your own adventure to the Garden Isle. If you go or have been before, I want to hear about it, so leave a comment below!

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  • Mario Eichling

    great post! can’t wait for our Kauai visit next month.

  • Tom Rogers

    Recommend hiking the Kalalua trail from the end of the road at Ke’e beach even if it is just a 1/4 mile. Beach is a 2 mile hike and then a waterfall is another 2 miles if you can take the time. Awesome! Plan on a full day. Many other hikes rated from easy to difficult close. Sunset at Hanalei Bay and Pier is also awesome.

    • Really wanted to do that hike but just didn’t have the time. Next time though for sure!

  • Jim

    I have been to Kauai twice, the last time was in 2014. I thought I would share a photo I took at Poipu Beach. This surfer was coming out of the water and I asked him if he would stop and let me take a photo. Kauai is a fascinating place. I prefer the south part of the island since it is more sunny than the north. Waimea canyon is something to savoir. I can sit there for hours and watch the light and cloud changes. We did that trail from the north end of the island. Two miles in and two miles out. Just be prepared since it is not that easy with some rocky trails. Great vistas along the way.

    • That shot at Poipu is great! Love the surfer!

      • Jim

        Thank you. Kauai is such a beautiful place. Even if you had 2 weeks it would not be enough. Keep up the great work.

  • Mohamed Salah Selim

    Really impressive work indeed! I am wondering what filters do you use for the long exposure shot.

    • No filters on any of these, just processed in Lightroom and Photoshop with adjustments. Thanks Mohamed!

      • Mohamed Salah Selim

        Wonderful! Specially the Wailua Falls. You nailed it with out a filter. Must be a very low ISO and a f/22 sort of thing 😀

        • Correction: The Kilauea Lighthouse shot was a long exposure (20 seconds) and I used a 10-stop ND filter for that since it was broad daylight. The Wailua Falls was a single exposure, but I created a duplicate in LR so I had one exposure to concentrate on the foreground and one to focus on the sky (although both were from the same file in this case). Then blended those together in Photoshop. ISO 64, f/13, 1 second

          • Mohamed Salah Selim

            That’s great! Thanks a lot for all the detailed explanation

  • Jon Canfield

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fedf3d2719dd6d163592a94c7e2955a6ff85b13b1cf96ced3beb02d90368de97.jpg Very nice post James. Wish I had seen this before our trip in May, but I’ll refer back before the next trip.
    One stop I liked was the sugar mill in Koloa, photo attached

  • Great images and site, James! We’ve been to Kauai before! It’s truly amazing!