Guided photo tour lets shutterbugs capture Hawaiian paradise one frame at a time

The best part of the best-ever family vacation was practically an afterthought.

Joseph Heher photographs rainbows at Shipwreck’s Beach

Joseph Heher photographs rainbows at Shipwreck’s Beach

POIPU, Hawaii — The best part of the best-ever family vacation was practically an afterthought.

With just days to go before my parents and I left for a week on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, an email from my father pinged in my inbox.

“What do you think?” he wrote, pasting in a link to Hawaiianphotos.net.

A photo tour?

I was sold.

My goals for the trip were simple: Spend as much time as possible in the ocean, drink anything that had rum in it, and take as many pictures of paradise as my camera’s memory card would hold.

I get my photo habit from my father, a dentist and globe-trotting amateur photographer who’s just as happy to spend time doing dental photography in his office as he is shooting landscapes.

My parents have been to Kauai before, but I was a Hawaii virgin. A photo tour, we reasoned, would be a way for my dad to explore new parts of the island while indulging both of our shutter-happy tendencies. (Mom, for the record, happily stayed back at the hotel with a book.)

My dad found Vincent K. Tylor’s photo tour by accident while he scoured the web for photography taken on the picturesque island, hoping to sight angles in advance and eventually recreate the shots he admired.

Tylor is a professional photographer who has called Kauai home since moving there in 1997 from suburban Washington, D.C.

He’d been taking friends and photographers to his favourite hidden spots — many of which he found while fishing, hiking or simply exploring with his camera — for years before formally setting up shop.

Prompted by the sluggish economy cutting into his fine art sales, he and his wife turned the recreational tours into a full-fledged business, taking out everyone from novice tourists with point-and-shoots to well-equipped professionals hauling thousands of dollars worth of gear. He started offering photo tours in February 2009.

Today, Kauai Photo Tours is one of two companies offering such excursions on the island. Tylor and his staff take about 1,500 people a year on tours of Kauai, considered by many to be the most visually stunning of Hawaii’s islands.

Tours last about five hours with a maximum of seven people in a group. They include up to 15 stops, some of which are so far off the beaten path that the hikes back to the car leave you winded enough to realize it’s been a few months since your last trip to the gym. (He wisely fills the back of his SUV with snacks, water, sun block and bug spray, and makes a lunch stop during the tour.)

Tour guides swaps out locations depending on the weather, time of day and year, and keeps adding new stops into his rotation as he discovers them.

Tylor’s goal is to show visitors awe-inspiring views they’ll remember once they’ve left the island.

“They can leave a real impression on you,” he said. “It’s exciting to see people’s faces light up when we take them out to photograph, or just see and enjoy, for themselves.”

Our schedule didn’t allow us to go on one of Tylor’s traditional tours ($119 plus tax), so we arranged for a private tour ($439 plus tax) that wound up taking about seven hours.

Tylor’s assistant picked us up at our hotel in Poipu on the island’s south side and we headed up along the east coast of the island to Kapaa and then wound our way north. Along the way, we stopped at waterfalls, walked into taro fields, waded in lagoons, climbed over lava rock, hiked down to one of the island’s most dangerous beaches, and ended in time to catch a dramatic sunset over Hanalei Bay on the island’s north side.

Through it all, I took about 700 pictures. And my father snapped just as many of his own.

The tour is about more than finding the Kauai that’s generally hidden to tourists. It’s also a chance for Tylor to give a few shooting tips, suggest a shot, or offer a pointer on the best way to line up an image. Thanks to him, I now have a love affair with my polarizing filter, which made the tropical hues appear that much more vibrant.

A few of his spots are already in tour books, like Kilauea Lighthouse — one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions. But most won’t be found in any travel guides. If the sky’s overcast or the shot doesn’t work, the company also offers directions so tourists can navigate back to the spot for a second run on their own.

I found my never-forget spots twice that day: one with a turquoise vista and the other with a tangerine sunset.

At Moloaa Beach, I climbed into thigh-high lagoon water to catch a shot of the teal-and-white surf framed by a pine tree. The second came when the sun slipped behind the horizon while a pier stood in silhouette and a lone swimmer waded chest-deep in the water.

My father’s favourite shots were time-lapses of the water he took while lying belly-to-sand under a concrete pier. (Tylor dug in along side him to offer pointers.)

Meanwhile, I learned enough under the watchful eye of a professional to make sure the rest of the roughly 1,000 pictures I took during the week had solid composition and used many of the tips and tricks Tylor taught.

It’s been nearly six months since we took the trip to Hawaii. I spent the rest of the week snorkeling, sailing on a catamaran that cruised along the Napali Coast, and wandering small towns that dot the island. For every adventure I kept my camera close, snapping away as I went.

And Tylor was right.

I can still close my eyes and imagine some of the scenes. Or I can just open my photo album, and page through some of the hundreds of pictures that show the landscape I know I’ll never forget.

If You Go…

• Guided Photo Tour of Kauai: Vincent Tylor’s photography tours of Kauai, $119 plus tax per person: http://www.hawaiianphotos.net. Private tours by arrangement.

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