Shooting theStars at Gaylor Lake

When conditions are perfect, the Gaylor Lakes area of Yosemite National Park can be a wonderful location for photographing star trails and the Milky Way. There are some drawbacks, however, not the least of which is a hike of about one mile starting at about 10,000 feet and going up about 600 feet before descending 250 feet to the shore of Middle Gaylor Lake.   The second aspect that might give one pause is that the hike back is in near-total darkness.

Undeterred, our group started out about two hours before sunset and before long we reached a saddle ridge overlooking Middle Gaylor Lake—a classic alpine lake nestled in a broad basin—a sparkling blue oval below us. The scenery in all directions was spectacular, a sufficient reward by itself for the effort we had expended.

But we were here for the stars that would appear in a few hours and so we started scouting possible locations. As we did so, two hawks circled overhead and an occasional marmot gave us disapproving stares. But no other human was here, another payoff for the hike we had just completed.

My goal was to make a second attempt for the so-called ecliptic, the location in the sky where the field of stars appearing to rotate counter-clockwise around the north star borders the stars appearing to rotate clockwise around the southern hemisphere. I had come close at Mono Lake, but tonight I hoped for a more obvious display of the divergent lines.

If there had been no wind, the lake would have served as a mirror for the scene in the sky, but this was not in the cards for last night. But complaints were muted because near-perfection is not a bad deal when you think about it.

Thanks to Michael, our workshop leader, I was lined up nicely as the image below demonstrates. This image is in fact a composite of 20 exposures, each 4 minutes long taken in quick succession.

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Star Trails over Gaylor Lake

(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on a tripod with 14-24 mm lens extended to 14mm; Exposure: 20 exposures at 4 minutes each, separated by 1.0 sec; Aperture set @ f/5.6 with ISO at 400)

After about two hours of photographing star trails, the group gathered at the northern end of the lake to take advantage of the Milky Way’s location, hovering over the “infinity pool” edge of the shoreline.   Our hopes for an end to the windy conditions continued to be disappointed, so there would be no mirror effects tonight. The image below is one of several taken, with the golden light of Fresno outlining the horizon to the south.

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Milky Way over Gaylor Lake

(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 14-24 mm lens extended to 14mm; Exposure: 20 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 4000, Time of day: 12:15 AM)

19 thoughts on “Shooting theStars at Gaylor Lake

  1. Cool shots, I really want to do more star trails, well I have only done one so far and it didn’t work, 😦 but I am hopeful, I know what went wrong, so hopefully I will have better luck next time. Going away at the end of the week to do and do some star shots, I’m looking forward to it.


    • Thanks, Leanne. It’s good to hear from you. It was a great help for us to have Michael Frye at our side; he has considerable experience on the subject. A good resource is Jennifer Wu’s book on Night Photography if you don’t already have a copy. I’m in transit heading back home, but I hope to do a post or two with some details on the techniques he shared with us. In the meantime, good luck with your efforts next week.


  2. Oh Robin, your photos are spectacular! I can only imagine what it must have been like to be able to both experience and capture the moment. We were living in Khartoum, Sudan for the 1986 appearance of Haley’s Comet. At dusk we drove out of town, into the Sahara Desert, set up our lawn chairs … and let the show begin. Truly awesome – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I just wish I’d had your photographic skills and talent. 🙂 ~Terri


  3. Near perfection is just perfection! First photograph is breathtaking! Living in London it’s more than difficult to get star trails, I attempted one in Nairobi this week (it’s been on the photography bucket list) and I have much much more of an appreciation for the work that goes behind it and I think it’s becoming one of my favourite long exposure photographs. It’s also great to hear behind the scenes too, not sure if the hike makes getting the photographs that more satisfying…


  4. Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate your taking the time to express your thoughts. Like London, Star Trails are virtually impossible to do here in the Washington, DC, area but I don’t know how it might be once you get outside of Nairobi. But in Yosemite there are many places where this can be done, often without having to walk more than a short distance from a parking lot.


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