Traveling to Hawaii is an exhilarating experience, the excitement and suspense building with every passing hour during the long flight over the Pacific Ocean. Unlike most other flights, everyone is seemingly in a great mood, chatting with each other about previous visits to the islands and what they plan to see on this visit. There is so much to do and see on each island, it can become overwhelming to maximize your limited time to see the best sites. For a photographer, your options are endless. Oahu is an island with so much history to take in, the busy city of Honolulu, the laid back North Shore, sun-drenched beaches, volcanic mountains, luaus, horseback riding, sea cliffs and sea life. I personally enjoy finding areas that are a little off the beaten path and that require a little extra effort to find and enjoy. This is my list of must see photo locations when visiting Oahu Hawaii. I hope you enjoy, and drop me a note in the comments!

1) USS Arizona Memorial Aerial View at Pearl Harbor

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii uss arizona memorial pearl harbor aerial photo

USS Arizona Memorial © John Wulfert

Seeing the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor from inside the actual memorial is a sobering experience.  You realize there is the actual ship right under the memorial but it’s impossible to get the full impact unless you are seeing it from the skies above.  Sometimes the $500 cost of renting a helicopter (with the doors off!) is more than worth the money.  Strap-in and get your camera ready because the experience will stay with you forever.  The USS Arizona sunken ship is the tomb for many sailors that lost their life that day in the attack on Pearl Harbor. A trip to Hawaii isn’t complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor, but be sure to read-up on the best times to plan your visit, so you don’t end up waiting the entire day in lines.

2) Honolulu Skyline Magic

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii long exposure sunset over honolulu hawaii

Honolulu Skyline Magic © John Wulfert

Sometimes going to the local parks can add a unique and magical touch to a Hawaiian vacation.  Ala Moana Beach Park will not only allow you to experience the area like the locals do, but you will get a view of Waikiki that most tourists never do. Using a long exposure ND 10-stop filter can produce dramatic cloud motion and smooth the waves in water. Diamond Head beckons in the background, begging tourists to make the trek to the top of the crater for even more impressive views.

3) Hike to the Makapu’u Lighthouse

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii makapuu lighthouse at sunrise over the pacific ocean

Makapu’u Lighthouse Sunrise © John Wulfert

Setting your alarm for 4:00 AM while on a Hawaiian vacation may seem like insanity to most people, but for landscape photographers it’s a must. Sitting on the furthest southeastern tip of Oahu is the Makapu’u Lighthouse. Built in 1909, the lighthouse is perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  A 2 mile hike from the trailhead parking lot, getting here is easy but for the best views you must come for sunrise.  No cell phones, no email, and no distractions.  A vacation in Hawaii is not complete until you have experienced this slice of paradise. Take your time and enjoy the hike in the dark pre-dawn hours with a headlamp or bright flashlight to make your trek easier. Be careful if you venture off the main paved trail, the ground can be unstable!

4) Makapu’u Beach in the Morning Light

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii makapuu beach in the morning light

Makapu’u Beach in the Morning Light © John Wulfert

When you are finished photographing the sunrise from the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail, make your way slightly north to Makapu’u Beach. As the tide comes in, you will have some time to photograph the water as it breaks over the dark lava rocks off to the side of the beach. It’s amazing to think you’re walking and hiking over hardened lava from a volcano. Keep an eye out for your camera and gear, because a rogue wave can come out of nowhere! I believe this location is best in the early morning light, and a side benefit of being here early is the crowds are very small.

5) Sea Turtles Basking in the Sun on the North Shore

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii

North Shore Sea Turtle © John Wulfert

Aside from giving you a tip that this photo was NOT taken at Turtle Bay, I’m not going to reveal the actual location of these adorable turtles. For an unforgettable experience photographing Hawaii, spending a day with Marie from Blue Hawaii Photo Tours is time very well spent. She knows all the secret locations, and will give you professional guidance on how to improve your shots. The stop to see the sea turtles was near the end of our day, so we could catch them basking in the sun on a north shore beach.  This is Sapphire, a 35 year old turtle that lives on this beach.

6) Hidden Cliffs of Oahu

must see photo locations when visiting oahu hawaii

Hidden Cliffs of Oahu © John Wulfert

This is one of my absolute favorite locations in Oahu, and many locals aren’t even aware of it. Not intended for the faint of heart, it requires a treacherous hike down the sides of a rock cliff, but so worth it when you get there (proceed at your own risk). Getting there, you drive into a very nice residential neighborhood, so please be respectful because the access trail runs right between private residences. Next time I visit, we’re bringing a picnic and some wine in the afternoon to sit and enjoy the view without tourists and children running all around us. In a future post I’ll reveal the actual GPS coordinates, so be on the lookout!

Secret Tip

When traveling to a once-in-a-lifetime location like Hawaii, many people want the best professional gear they can afford. One of my tricks is to rent this type of gear, so you can spend hundreds instead of thousands of dollars! You’ll get access to professional lenses and cameras, and even gear like tripods and ballheads. Doing this also lightens your travel load, since you won’t have to pack all of that bulky gear in your carry-on and checked baggage. For this particular trip, I had BorrowLenses send the gear shipment right to a FedEx Office location in Honolulu. When we landed and picked up the rental car, our first stop was the FedEx Office location near the hotel we stayed at. I unpacked the gear, and stored the shipping boxes in the closet. On the last day of vacation, I simply packed up the gear in the same boxes and used the shipping labels they provided for the return. Dropped off the boxes at the same FedEx Office location on the way to the airport. It really can’t get any easier than this.