Or, A Sweaty, Romantic Marriage Proposal At Sunrise On Top Of A Mountain Peak

"Ok, whose brilliant idea was this?" I muttered to myself. Koko Crater Trail is a short but nasty beast of a hike at the best of times - ie; in the daytime - with over 1000 double height stair steps made from old, crumbling railroad ties. As I stood at the bottom of the steep WWII relic tramway at 4:15am, shrugging my camera backpack into position and looking up at the dark shadow of the peak looming overhead, I wondered yet again what the hell I was thinking when I agreed to hike up this in the dark to do a sunrise surprise proposal at the top. 

It was bad enough dragging myself out of bed at the gawd-awful hour of 3am (OMG, no Starbucks wake-me-up?!), but I was also limping with a swollen ankle caused from an infected scratch acquired two weeks before while shooting a beach wedding in Kauai. As I started up, however, I did notice one significant blessing... a nearly full moon hung in the western sky providing just enough illumination to see where to step.

Moon light over Hawaii Kai and the ocean, from Koko Crater Trail hike.

Moon light over Hawaii Kai and the ocean, from Koko Crater Trail hike.

A third of the way up, I stopped to take a breather and noticed a stunning view of the moon hanging over the ocean with the lights of the Hawaii Kai suburb below. My fingers twitched toward my camera until I remembered I hadn't brought a tripod - I was packing as little gear as possible for this shoot. But then with nothing better to do as I waited to catch my breath, I decided to try propping my camera on my backpack. I wasn't really expecting much, but one image (above) came out surprisingly well despite a shutter speed of 25 seconds and a light wind gusting around me. And no, it wasn't that bright to my eyes!

Phillip had called me several weeks before, looking for a photographer to capture his marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Sam. He already had a plan in mind, thinking about doing it on the beach at the Hawaiian Hilton Village. We ended having quite a long conversation about locations after I explained all the downsides to doing it at the Hilton (read, thousands of people around). At first he wasn't thrilled about some of the locations I'd suggested, simply because he once lived on the island and he associated those places with other people and times. So when I asked him what were some of his favorite places, he immediately lit up when he brought up the Koko Crater Stairmaster-From-Hell Trail hike. And that is how I came to be huffing and puffing up a straight-up-steep trail in the wee hours of oh dark hundred.

The full moon slowly setting over the ocean just past the lights of Waikiki

The full moon slowly setting over the ocean just past the lights of Waikiki

Suffice to say, I eventually made it to the top, faster then I expected and with no major slips or damages. Trouble was, I was a good 40 minutes early, with sunrise set to arrive at 5:50am. I scouted around a bit in the growing predawn light, planning my approach. I had told Phillip that I'd be standing where I wanted them to be and there was a perfect little spot with an unobstructed view of the imminent sunrise. On the exposed summit, the wind gusts were on the verge of being chilly as I stood around pretending to be yet another tourist with camera, taking photos of the sunrise. Two couples were already up there, and when they asked me if I'd take their photo with their cell phones, I snorted disdainfully (my usual response when asked to take someone's portrait with a cell phone!), broke out my flash and took their photos, promising to send it to them.

koko crater trail sunrise portrait
koko crater trail sunrise portrait moon setting over oahu

It wasn't hard to spot Phillip and Sam when they arrived at the top and walked past me. Phillip had told me he was black and 5'2 and Sam was white and 5'11. When Phillip figured out who I was, he wandered over with Sam as I moved off casually and they took a seat at the edge of the cliff to watch the sunrise. Phillip had told me he was bringing a tablet with a photo story to share with Sam before he proposed. When he reached for his backpack and took out the tablet, I knew it was game time.

Ha! I'm so well hidden, Phillip doesn't even know where I'm hiding!

Ha! I'm so well hidden, Phillip doesn't even know where I'm hiding!

marriage proposal at dawn
she cries when he proposes
secret surprise proposal oahu
mountainside surprise proposal hawaii

Within a minute, Sam clearly knew what was up as she immediately began crying as she watched whatever Phillip had put together. It was a perfect time for me to sneak up, as her attention was fully engaged. I slowly worked up closer, move around to get different angles as Phillip and Sam's sweet little moment unfolded. 

he proposes to his girlfriend
showing off her engagement ring

I'm always a little fascinated to see when in the course of the surprise proposal the woman notices there's a photographer. Sam later told me she heard the clicking of my shutter after I had moved in closer and that was one of the things that had made her cry even harder, as she suddenly realized how much effort Phillip had put into this. It's always a delight for me to finally step up and introduce myself, and say congratulations. Just like being invited to be someone's wedding photographer, you are being allowed to share in a very private, intimate and emotional moment in two people's lives and that is what makes getting up at 3am to hike up a mountain in the dark all worthwhile!

couples sunrise engagement proposal

As the sun finally peeked over the low clouds on the horizon, I broke out my flash and we took a few minutes to get some more dramatic images. The need for stealth and secrecy of the surprise proposal had meant I had to shoot it without flash in the predawn light - a real challenge with so little light. Being free to use flash now let me capture the real feel and look of the glowing sunrise.

romantic sunrise proposal portrait
sunrise couples engagement proposal on hawaii
couples sunrise silhouette
koko crater romantic surprise marriage proposal
romantic couple sharing the view top of koko crater oahu

Portraits done, and with more and more people coming up in the early morning light, we grabbed our gear and started the hike back down. Now, if you think hiking up there in the dark of the night was hairy, it was even more challenging hiking down, camera in hand, trying to watch my footing while simultaneously watching Phillip and Sam and snapping photos! Somehow, again, I managed to make it down with everything intact AND catch some great shots.

At the bottom of the hill, the start of the notorious Koko Crater Trail, we stopped to take a final portrait. With too little exercise in the previous months from being sick and then the swollen ankle, my legs were literally trembling from over exertion as I snapped this photo. 

couples portrait after proposal at start of koko crater

Finally done, we headed for our cars (and me for the nearest Starbucks,) while finalizing our plans to meet again that evening for their sunset engagement photo session. As Phillip & Sam walked hand in hand, I took the opportunity to snap one more image.

engaged couple walking hand in hand on hawaii road

Check out their behind-the-scenes video! (GoPro mounted to Bodhi’s camera)

Engagement Photo Session

That evening we met up again on the opposite side of Oahu, an hour and a half drive from Koko Crater Trail, for Phillip & Sam's sunset engagement portrait session. Our location was Secret Cove in Ko Olina. We met in the tiny public parking lot and before we even headed for the beach, I noticed a beautiful spot in the garden next to the parking lot to grab some romantic snapshots. 

proposal engagement couple oahu
getting engaged romantic proposal hawaii
she's engaged put a ring on it he proposed

Done with the garden shots, we headed for the beach. Phillip and Sam were so good, being patient with me as I kept stopping here and there, saying "Hey, this would make a great shot." As a photographer, I'm always on a lookout for interesting locations, little nooks, or great light. With a willing couple at hand, it can be hard to get anywhere fast. :-) 

four seasons resort ko olina oahu couples engagement

When we finally make it to our actual destination, Secret Cove, the sun is still just a bit too high and intense for soft portraits. A moment's thought and I realize we can use that intense sunlight for some fun silhouettes. When I ask Phillip and Sam to dance on the beach in front of me, they get into it quite enthusiastically. 

couples silhouette romantic dance beach ko olina
couples silhouette engagement dance secret beach ko olina
sunkissed couples silhouette romantic dance he proposed
couples engagemenet silhouette sun flare beach portrait oahu

As the evening progressed, Phillip and Sam were by now totally in the swing of it and we just kept playing around trying different things for the fun of it. 

Until finally, when the sun was slowly sinking into the ocean, we moved to the last and funnest part of Phillip & Sam's engagement session... getting wet! This is my favorite part of a sunset photo session on a Hawaii beach.

Congratulations to Phillip and Sam for a sweet romance, proposal and engagement! 

Brett Hutton 

Brett is an absolutely phenomenal photographer!! I highly recommend him to anyone looking for the best photographer in Hawaii! I called Brett to get his prices for a surprise proposal that I was planning. He was the 5th photographer that I talked to, and certainly the most professional and most willing to help make my proposal come to fruition. I instantly new this was the man for the job. He got up at 3am and made the climb up koko head crater and staged himself for the surprise proposal. The photos he captured were brilliant and amazing! His attention to detail and professionalism is second to none. We now have amazing photos to remember our blessed moment. Brett is simply the best! He is worth every penny! - Phillip