Hawaiian Winter Winderland

Macro flora, inscredible sunsets, air time and majestic Humpback Whales make winter one of the great times to photograph Hawaii

It’s February, and winter is upon us. This year, it hasn’t been a task of merely layering up, nudging the thermostat up a bit and occasionally shoveling off the walkway. Let’s face it: a huge chunk of North America has been hammered by Mother Nature.

Hawaii has also seen its fair share of unusual winter weather, with thunderstorms, a bit of flooding in low-lying areas and an early dusting of snow at Mauna Kea. But unlike Big America, we’ve only broken out the long sleeve T-shirts – ahn still wear’n slippahs!

For a good number of people, Hawaii is a winter wonderland. It’s a reprieve from sub-zero temperatures, achy joints and lack of sunny weather. It’s a place to play in the same waters shared by the Pacific Humpbacks, take in vivid sunsets and chase rainbows. Maui, itself is so popular this time of the year that the population essentially doubles.

With an average daily winter visitor count of around 150,000, you’d think the Island would be packed to the gills. True, traffic is a bit more congested and the luau’s are packed to capacity, there are some simple tricks to beat the crowds, no matter what you want to take in.

Road to Hana: While the vast majority make the journey to Hana in the usual clockwise direction (starting in Paia), we usually drive it in the opposite direction, starting in Kula. So while hundreds of vehicles are plodding around the south-east side of the island, and vying for the limited parking places at the waterfalls, you’ll enjoy a relaxing drive in the opposite direction, checking out the south-west attractions, and getting lots of images with less people to deal with. You’ll also reach Hana before the throngs, and leave just as they’re arriving. By the time you reach Keanae, the road, bamboo forest and gardens will virtually be yours.

Whale Watching: While you can easily see the Pacific Humpbacks from the beach or your lanai (veranda), the best way to see them is from the water. There are numerous tour boats that will take you out into the Humpback’s playground, but I recommend getting out on one of the smaller boats, like the 30-foot, rigid-hull inflatables run by Ultimate Whale Watch out of Lahaina Harbor. Usually, there are only 16-18 people aboard, including a captain and naturalist, so it’s extremely easy to get great shots of the whales.

Aerial Photography: Winter is the best, and trickiest, time to shot aerials, but well worth the effort. Winter weather is always a factor to deal with (especially Hawaii’s rainy season), and timing is everything. Keep tabs with local weather sources, such as hawaiiweathertoday.com, as they’re far more reliable and accurate that larger sites (like weather.com). I also like to work with smaller helicopter companies that fly Hughes 500 rotorcraft, usually with the doors off, so I don’t have to worry about image distortion through the Plexiglas. Go early in the morning when you have good light, hopefully after a good night’s rain (which will have washed most of the Vog out of the air), so the waterfalls are full and vegetation is lush.

Sunrise/Sunsets: With winter weather comes denser cloud layers, and that presents some great opportunities to photographers. Darker clouds act like neutral density filters, enabling shooters to balance the light better in the camera. You’ll more easily capture shadow details in foreground lava or tree bark, plus, shooting the sun behind a cloud can result in light rays and reflected light on the underside of clouds, increasing drama in the scene. An added benefit with the lower light is a decrease in shutter speeds, which will enhance motion in the surf or waterfalls – just be sure to use a tripod!

Botanicals: One of the great things about wintertime in Hawaii is the multitude of botanicals in full bloom. Stop at any of the local gardens, and you’ll find gingers, heliconias, protea, plumeria, hibiscus and bird of paradise in a variety of size and color. You can beat the crowds and get fantastic shots on overcast days (using nature’s soft box to your advantage), without people bumping into your tripod. Speaking of which, a tripod is a must on overcast days, and don’t forget to bring rain gear for your camera (even a plastic garbage bag) – raindrops on flowers and leaves make for great macro shots.

Night Sky: If you want to capture the night sky with maximum brilliance and clarity, then a trek to the top of Haleakala on Maui or Mauna Kea on the Big Island is a must. At a bit over 10,000 and 13,000 feet, respectively, the night sky is nothing short of amazing to look at, but you have to come prepared: While the usual temperature at sea level is around 80-degrees, Haleakala and Mauna Kea regularly see nighttime temperatures in the low to mid 30s. Layering and winter gear (along with a thermos of hot coffee) will keep the chill at bay during long exposures. If spending hours out in the cold isn’t your thing, utilizing a remote trigger, such as a Cam Ranger or with one of the Bluetooth apps that are becoming increasingly available, you’ll be able to completely control the settings of your camera – and shoot – from the comfort and warmth of your vehicle.

So grab your camera gear and board shorts and beat the crowd to get great shots. The Hawaiian winter wonderland awaits!