Photographer’s Guide to Bora Bora

“The buildings from up here look like they lean against one another for support like someone stole their crutches.”

Photo by Julius Silver

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Crystal clear waters and pristine beaches are the hallmarks of Bora Bora, a small South Pacific Island southwest of Tahiti. One of the most exotic places on earth, the island is part of the French Polynesian chain and well known for its white beaches, coral reefs, and turquoise lagoons. It is perhaps best known in photographic circles, however, for its overwater bungalows that are immensely photogenic.

Bora Bora Sunset Over the Water - Photo by Michelle Maria
Bora Bora Sunset Over the Water - Photo by Michelle Maria

About Bora Bora

Tourism, Bora Bora, is all about tourism. It’s a place for vacationers to get away from the mundane existence of drab city life, slap on a flowered shirt, and work on bright red skin transformation. And while this may turn off some of the folks seeking some adventure, the beauty and majesty of this island in the South Pacific cannot be denied. People come here to get away from it all and for a good reason. The French Polynesia can be found about halfway between California and New Zealand, roughly 4500km from each. Bora Bora itself is an additional 275 km from the largest island in the chain, Tahiti. This place is about as far from every other place you can get.

Bora Bora Mount Pahia - Photo by Dave Shaw
Bora Bora Mount Pahia - Photo by Dave Shaw

Because of this remote isolation, while there are a lot of tourists, there are not as many as you would find in other pacific paradises such as Hawaii. Partly because of the remoteness of the location and partly because of the prohibitive costs. Bora Bora is extremely expensive, where things range in price from expensive to ludicrously expensive. But the climate, white sand beaches, and beautiful marine life filled lagoons may make the costs worth it.

Lagoon with Stingrays in Bora Bora - Photo by Moon Ru
Lagoon with Stingrays in Bora Bora - Photo by Moon Ru`

Speaking of which, the very first thing you should plan to photograph are the coral reefs and marine life. Unlike Hawaii, ring reefs surround most of Bora Bora, which serves to dampen the crashing ocean waves. The result is a plethora of shallow crystal clear lagoons with every variety of aquatic life you can imagine in bright tropical colours. This place is perfect for underwater and half above/half below photography. So, in case it isn’t apparent, invest in and pack an underwater camera or housing for your equipment.

US World War II Abandoned Canon - Photo by LecomteB CC by-sa
US World War II Abandoned Canon - Photo by LecomteB CC by-sa

But photography is not only limited to the stunning views below the surface of the water. Bora Bora is also a now extinct volcano, with soaring dual peaks that make a perfect backdrop to almost any photo. Thre are many angles to capture its majesty in the distance as the sunsets over the calm ocean water. As well, there more than a few hiking trails or off-road tours that will take you to higher elevations where breathtaking views await. Also, it is up off the beaches you will find the long silent gun emplacements from WWII.

Mount Otemanu, Mount Pahia, and lesser-known Mount Ohue are the three prominent mountain peaks of Bora Bora. These peaks feature prominently in travel literature, and while they are spectacular from the beaches, hiking them is possible for the adventure-minded photographer. But, and this is a big but, they are dangerous. Hiking is not a popular activity in Bora Bora, and as a result, the trails are not well maintained, and the weather and terrain have claimed more than a few casualties over the years. Hiring a local guide is essential if you wish to hike to higher views.

Visiting the reefs that ring the island is an excellent idea to capture views of the island itself. So much so, we recommend that photographers book their stay not on the main island itself, but at one of the many resorts along the reefs that ring Bora Bora. These resorts are ideal for photographing sunsets with the island adding incredible foreground interest. The St. Regis or Four Seasons Resorts are probably best for this purpose as they are on the eastern side (with the sun setting westerly behind the island) with unobstructed views of the mountain peaks.

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Bora Bora Aerial View of Huts - Photo by Didierlefort CC by-sa
Bora Bora Aerial View of Huts - Photo by Didierlefort CC by-sa

Finally, there are the overwater bungalows themselves. These luxury accommodations with thatched palm frond roofs protrude on geometric stilts into the calm waters of the island’s lagoons. In addition to being the ideal way to stay in Bora Bora, they are incredibly photogenic in their own right.

Bora Bora Resort Huts at Sunset-Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE
Bora Bora Resort Huts at Sunset-Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE

Photographing Bora Bora

As we’ve already said, Bora Bora is a photographer’s paradise. But as with any photo destination this remote, it is essential to arrive with all the gear you need as there won’t be any pro camera shops when you get there. So in addition to your usual kit, here a few items that we think you absolutely must bring:

High-Resolution Camera – Having a high-resolution camera is ideal in a place like this. Having extra pixels allows you to crop in on shots that you may otherwise not be able to get tight enough on without long lenses. And the last thing you want to do is cart around a massively long lens while enjoying your vacation.

A Lightweight Mirrorless – Let’s face it, even people who travel to Bora Bora to specifically to shoot it will want to take a break. Having a solid lightweight mirrorless will make these more casual days in the sun much more enjoyable.

Selection of Lenses – You’ll need a wide-angle for landscapes and underwater, a small normal ranges zoom lens for just shooting around the villages and resorts, and a long lens to perfectly frame sunsets with the island compressed in the foreground…so….bring them all.

Tripod – I only mention this because Bora Bora is in the middle of nowhere. So light pollution is very low. If you have an interest or are an astrophotography enthusiast, you will love capturing the milky way. Look for its rise to the south starting in August to November.

Underwater Housing or Dome – This should be self-evident, but just in case you are on the fence about it, spend the money on a camera housing. The investment in a robust housing for your camera will be well worth the money you’ll have to spend. Besides, if you’re going to spend that much cash to get to Bora Bora, what’s an extra grand to protect your camera and get amazing shots?

Snorkelling in Bora Bora - Photo by Hervé
Snorkeling in Bora Bora - Photo by Hervé

Conclusion

Bora Bora is a paradise for tourists and photographers alike. Despite its small size, remoteness, and high costs, it is a dream photography destination. But it is also the most popular destination in French Polynesia. For the photographer that likes to capture less tourist infested spots, take a look at the islands of Rangiroa, Raiatea, and Moorea. These islands are cheaper, even harder to get to, and what they lack in creature comforts, they make up for in culture and adventure.

Sun Flare at Resort Huts in Bora Bora - Photo by Bob Bradley
Sun Flare at Resort Huts in Bora Bora - Photo by Bob Bradley

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