Nearly 3,033 miles separate Whitefish, Montana from Oahu, Hawaii, but Justin Kauffman‘s photography alone transcends the difference.

Taking pictures has always been a way for Justin to connect with both places and people. During a high school soccer match, he injured his knee, tearing both his ACL and his meniscus. In the year of rehab that followed, he couldn’t do much physical activity, which made interacting with his friends — avid skiers and soccer players — difficult. So he bought a camera, hiking into the mountains and snapping photos of his friends skiing because he couldn’t ride the slopes with them.

He was hooked.

Since high school, Justin has traveled through Europe, explored the jungles of Bali, and hopped across the islands of Hawaii. Connecting with like-minded photographers has been a highlight of these adventures. He’s drawn to tropical places and the mountains that remind him of growing up in Montana.

Of everywhere in the world, though, he keeps returning to one place in particular … Hawaii.

Maui and Oahu are among his favorites. He scouts low-key, less-populated places rich in natural beauty that provide ample opportunity for outdoor adventures. While Maui is a playground for cliff-jumping, Oahu presents a unique challenge: hiking on the ambling “Stairway to Heaven” that precariously scales the side of a steep cliff.

He directs visitors with drones to Maui’s Road to Hana because the views are incomparable. For Justin, memories of this site are bittersweet — during a trip to the island last year, he’d flown his drone out over the ocean when he received a message that it was low on battery. He soon lost its signal and resigned himself to the loss. Months later, someone on the island reached out — they’d found his drone in a tidepool and were mailing it back to Montana.

Visiting Maui’s volcano (Haleakalā) during sunrise was another experience Justin will never forget. He’s grateful for the new visitor system that requires tourists to call a few days in advance to receive an access permit. The first time he visited a year and a half ago, he was overwhelmed by the crush of the crowds while photographing the sunrise.

He remembers the magic of Maui’s turquoise Honolua Bay and a jungle trail nearby that opens to a crystalline snorkel spot surrounded by lush foliage and thick vines that can support a cannonball launch. Justin says the misty jungle light by the Bay is incredible.

And while Maui offers an abundance of gorgeous locations, for Justin nothing could compare to the thrill of scaling Oahu’s Stairway to Heaven. The hike is so precarious that security guards at the base try to discourage hikers before they take the first of nearly 4,000 steps to the top.

This didn’t dissuade Justin. He and a bunch of friends embarked in the middle of the night to reach the peak by sunrise. As they started hiking in the dark, they didn’t see the dark storm clouds that gathered — and soon opened — over the group as they clung to the side of the railings that protect hikers from the 2,500 foot drop.
Justin’s effort was not in vain. At the top, the clouds broke and the sun rose, all of Oahu unfolding before him.