Shooting Stars over Tahoe
Professional photographer Grant Kaye shares tips for capturing Tahoe's night sky
Written and Photographed by Grant Kaye
Ask Lake Tahoe locals about the wondrous summer night sky and they will almost certainly tell you the stars shine brighter in Tahoe. Locals are onto something—the glittering splendor of the night sky here is a majestic sight indeed, and the Tahoe region provides visitors and locals alike with a world-class destination for night photography. Photographers and stargazers delight in Tahoe’s clear summer nights, dark light-pollution-free skies, and ease of access to areas with excellent scenery—even at night.
Summertime is the ideal season for night photography in Lake Tahoe. The colorful center of our Milky Way galaxy is clearly visible above the horizon soon after twilight in June, July and August, affording photographers the chance to go out into our warm, clear, dark nights and create images showcasing Tahoe’s beauty juxtaposed against the background of the galaxy. Tahoe’s miles of expansive roads and hiking trails make it easy to journey to just about anywhere around The Lake or Truckee where you can stargaze and make night photographs.
Setting Your Camera
The sky above Nevada's Lake Tahoe State Park near Cave Rock, photo by Grant Kaye
With the advent of modern digital cameras, anyone willing to experiment and invest in the right gear can photograph the night skies and create beautiful images to remember a Tahoe visit. The key to successful night photography is using a detachable lens (SLR) camera with manual exposure settings paired with a fast (wide aperture) lens installed upon a sturdy tripod. Experimenting with settings such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed will lead you to quickly grasp how to capture the night sky. Start at ISO 1600, f/4 or wider, and 20 seconds. Set your focus to manual, and focus on a far-off house light or star in the distance using your camera’s live view if you have it. Take some photos and review them to see whether you need to adjust your settings or focus. Longer photos and wider apertures will result in brighter images, and so will higher ISOs—but at the expense of an unpleasant grainy look known as “noise.”
Planning and Pre-visualization
Once you understand your camera gear and have a solid technical foundation, you can step up to the next level—making high-quality night photos. Creating compelling night images starts with using your imagination to pre-visualize your photo. Close your eyes, and think of Sand Harbor in Nevada’s Lake Tahoe State Park. Imagine the light-colored granite rocks and clear water shimmering with moonlight and the vastness of the Milky Way stretching across the sky above Mt. Tallac and the far horizon. Keep the image in your mind’s eye, and then start planning how to get all of those elements in place within your photo.
High-quality night photos begin with solid planning and pre-visualization. Apps on your smartphone or computer can predict what the sky will look like from specified locations at specific times of year. Because the earth, moon and sun move on their own paths around each other throughout the year, each affects how the sky will look on different dates. For example, when the moon is full, the Milky Way is washed out and the sky will appear blue in night photos. When the moon is new, the stars and galaxy are brightest against an inky-black sky. Each month in the summer, there is a “sweet spot” for Milky Way photos when the moon is dim and in the opposite part of the sky as the Milky Way. Planning to shoot during this period will allow for some light on the landscape to show the beauty of Lake Tahoe, but not too much to wash out the stars. Try the apps “Photographer’s Ephemeris” and “Sky Safari” to help understand how bright the moon will be, and what the sky will look like at different locations around The Lake through the summer. Apps such as these will help you match what you see in your imagination with what you can see—and photograph—in reality.
Making photographs in the dark can be an intimidating process, but it’s not nearly as hard as people may think. Experimentation is the key—don’t fear trying different settings to see what you can come up with, and keep going with trial and error. Tahoe’s night skies provide one of the best spots in the world to jump into night photography.
Truckee-based photographer Grant Kaye specializes in landscape and night sky photography, motion-controlled timelapse and creative dSLR filmmaking. Learn more here.
Published: July 6, 2015