Sunsets in Maui are consistently spectacular because of the unobstructed ocean views to the west. The sunlight always has a way of sneaking up under the clouds to splash bright crimson and gold colors across the sky.
What most don’t realize about Maui sunsets is that they can be just as stunningly beautiful from above the clouds as they are at sea level! At the top of Haleakala the clouds build below the summit throughout the evenings as the moisture laden ocean breezes and trade winds condense into clouds along the slopes of this 10,024 ft volcano. The tops of these clouds resemble mountain ranges themselves and the sunset colors burst through from below. If you miss the 3am drive to the summit for sunrise the next best thing is sunset from the top of this moon-like summit!
The sunset at Haleakala Crater can be as spectacular as the sunrise! The inside of the crater is also beautiful but can produce some harsh shadows. You may want to bracket some exposures that can be combined later. A tripod is recommended but railings and a steady hand can often do the trick.
The most dramatic images will be found at the observatory building which is at the second parking area on the summit. Facing west towards the setting sun from here the whole of Maui stretches out down below you on a clear day. On cloudy days you will often be above the clouds as the sunset colors burst out across miles of expansive cloud formations. It’s hard to go wrong coming up the mountain for sunset !
Watching A Haleakala Sunset
Sunsets in Maui are some of the world’s most colorful due to the year around exceptional weather conditions and the building of clouds throughout the day. The mountains create their own clouds from the moist winds coming off the ocean which condense at higher elevations. Couple this with the unobstructed light streaming across thousands of miles of open ocean to the west and you can see why our sunsets are almost always (well over 90% of the time) jaw-droppingly spectacular!
From Haleakala’s summit 4 islands can be seen (depending on weather): the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island to the southeast, the islands of Lana’i, Kahoolawe and Molokai to the west and on a clear day O’ahu far out to sea. Central Maui and the West Maui Mountains are also stretched out before you in what is one of the most stunning views of Maui that you may ever see!
Other Areas To Watch A Maui Sunset
Farther north (towards Kahului and the airport) you go the more the West Maui Mountains become the dominant subject during sunset. There is really no bad place to view the sunset along this coast because the variety is interesting and the colors are stunning no matter the weather. Even a hazy day can make for what you might call a “nuclear sunset” with the sun being a deep red ball setting on the ocean!
Anywhere along Kihei and Wailea’s picturesque beaches and oceanside restaurants and resorts you will have wonderful views of the sunset. The farther south (Wailea and Makena areas) you go along this coastline the more the islands of Kahoolawe and Molokini will show prominently in the foreground.
The town of Lahaina along with the resort areas of Kaanapali and Kapalua on Maui’s western coast are world renown for the beauty of their sunsets. The islands of Lana’i and Molokai are in view here and they add to the contrast of the expansive sunsets seen from this side of the island. It’s no wonder that some of the world’s best oceanside dining and resorts are located here.
The island of Lana’i features most prominently in the foreground for sunset in the Lahaina and Kaanapali areas which adds an appealing silhouette to the lavish sunset colors.
Maui Sunset Times Throughout The Year
It is recommended that you arrive about 30 minutes prior to sunset as this event from the top of Haleakala is getting busier.
How to photograph sunsets in Maui
When photographing sunsets there are a few challenges and we’re happy to share a some tips and tricks to get the best possible images while on vacation. Traveling to Hawaii takes a lot of time and expense so there is no reason to come home with sub par photos after having traveled all this way. Our professional photographer has been working with us for over 16 years photographing our tour and the sights along the road to Hana as well as teaching photography on the island for the last 13 years. With 30+ years in the profession he/Douglas Bowser has some ideas about how to get the most from your vacation photos.
Quick tips for photographing Maui sunsets
Polarizing filters add an extra punch to daytime photos but have little effect on sunsets. A much more useful tool is a graduated neutral density filter. This filter looks like it’s been split down the middle with one half dark (like sunglasses) fading to clear glass on the other half. This brings the exposure of the sky, in this case where all the color is, closer to the ground exposure thus blending the two together better. This is especially useful for sunsets at the beach (well defined horizon) or sunrise at Haleakala where the dark lava makes it tough to show foreground detail while being backlit by the rising sun. The more open the aperture (f3.5 to f5.6) the more dramatic the effect.
Another challenge is shooting directly into the sun. Most cameras will underexpose the scene (dark looking with a pinpoint of light from the sun). For the proper exposure frame the image to either side of the sun with its glowing orb just out of frame. Depress the shutter halfway (this locks the focus and exposure) and without lifting your finger pressure off the shutter re-frame with the sun in your shot and depress the shutter button the rest of the way. Another technique for proper exposure is to use the exposure compensation which is a button or dial that looks like this – [+/-]. Open up (+) to lighten the image or close down (-) to darken. Usually a full stop (+1 or -1) or more is needed to see a difference.
Often landscapes are photographed with a wide angle lens but these lenses can also flare causing ghostly circles all over your image when shooting directly into the sun. Try using a zoom lens (this narrows the field of view and reduces flare) to fill the frame with the sun or use an object to block the sun and it’s flaring effect (trees work well). These techniques can give dramatic feel to your images and give your sunsets some extra silhouetted dynamics.
Lastly consider adding people to your sunset photos. A couple holding hands silhouetted against a sunset is an example of a powerful and romantic image. If you wish to actually see faces while keeping the sunset colors vibrant you’ll need to add light to your subjects with a flash. Many of today’s cameras have pop up flashes but they are not very powerful and you’ll need a lot of flash power to get a balance with the brightness of a sunset. Most pop ups do have some control though. Check the menu for “flash control” settings which usually have an exposure compensation scale. Add +1 stop of flash as a test but keep in mind you may need +2 stops of flash exposure compensation or more to hold sunset detail color while flashing enough light on your subjects to get a good balance.
With a phone you’re pretty much stuck with whatever power the “flash on” button will give you for your sunset people but the closer you get to your subjects the more flash power that will reach them. Stay wide and get as close as you can to your subjects without cropping out the background to much.
I hope these tips help you to get the best out of your vacation sunset photos!
Photo gear and video
Digital cameras and phones have come a long way in recent years. If you’re headed to Maui for vacation it may be the perfect time to upgrade your camera and/or phone. There are some wonderful accessories and add ons available nowadays and you don’t need to spend a fortune to get memorable photos while visiting Maui.
There are some great phone apps that work well and can add a special pop to vacation images of Maui. I use Pro HDR and have gotten some great results. The app takes two shots and combines them for a high dynamic range image. Just be sure you’re holding the phone steady while multiple exposure are being made.
If you have a digital SLR to use you’ll have a chance to try some fun image making of Maui. A tripod is helpful for longer exposures including night landscapes. The stars are bright and clear in Maui most of the time. Haleakala is a world class spot for night photographers but most anywhere is good as long as you’re far enough away from towns. The lights of civilization can put a hazy hot spot in long night exposures.
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