Lake Tahoe, California is more than meets the eye
Want to know the best locations for landscape photography in Lake Tahoe.
Unlike other locations, Lake Tahoe is simply a central point where you need to position yourself.
Situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, directly on the border between California to the west and Nevada to the east, Lake Tahoe is a popular spot for summer vacations for families in the western United States. However, this lake and the surrounding areas are magnificent all year round for budding and professional landscape photographers. It’s no secret that lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water are simply made to be landscape models; striking contrast and depth are ready-made when the lake is shown either in the foreground or the background, and light from sunrises or sunsets are enhanced in the reflections of the water.
Located between Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe is the largest freshwater lake after The Great Lakes. It is a huge tourist attraction for winter sports and summer activities but also as a prime location to capture beautiful landscape photography.
These are the types of images where the usual remark is “where did you capture this?”
This article will highlight some greats spots to shoot from and how to approach the vast lake for great photography.
Lake Tahoe certainly offers some of the best locations for landscape photography in the U.S. Here's just a sample of the best locations.
1. Rainbow Bridge
Also known as the Donner Summit Bridge, named for that ill-fated group of pioneers headed to California in the mid-1800s, the Rainbow bridge is one of the most popular landscape photography areas around Lake Tahoe. Landscape photographers will get a twice the photo opportunities from this bridge. Photos taken some ways back of the bridge will enjoy outstanding architecture and nature in one photo. Its manmade concrete structure offers an astounding contrast to the tall pines and snow-capped mountains around it. However, the bridge itself may be used as a vantage point for photos of the lake nearby. Photos taken from the bridge itself offer a spectacular view of the lake below and the surrounding rocky areas.
2. Sand Harbor
Sand Harbor is located on the Nevada side of the lake, just one mile north of Bonsai Rock, and offers beautiful views of the sparkling blue waters of the lake. Because this area is popular with adventure sports enthusiasts, be prepared to take advantage of the activities going on and include them in your landscape shots. A lone kayaker or a swimming couple can add a touch of romance or complexity to your photo. In the absence of local humans, try to include the sandy beaches as a natural line that draws the eyes to where the green mountains meet the blue waters. If you’re feeling adventurous, a trip up the mountain will offer the best vantage points for catching all of the harbors in view.
People arrive at this beach very early to claim their spots and go for a swim, so be sure to head to this spot earlier than you plan on shooting to scope out your own location. This beach also faces the west, making it great to photograph in the morning for soft light and at night for vibrant colors. For stunning shots from this popular location, bring a polarizer to reduce glare and highlights off of the water and still see different depths in the shadows. Try shooting long exposures of the lake, anywhere from 1/10 of a second and longer to create a smooth, soft look of the water as the movement blurs together throughout the exposure. If you do not use a long exposure you will see every break and line in the water from the tide. When shooting a long exposure you must use a tripod or else you will see the camera movement. If you are afraid that your hand is shaking the camera after hitting the shutter release button, try using a remote for your shutter.
3. Emerald Bay
On the California side, Emerald Bay is one of the most easily identifiable areas of the Lake Tahoe region. A short, somewhat easy hike allows landscape photographers and unparalleled view of the lake below, along with a waterfall, and of course, they piney woods surrounding the area. This location is particularly photo-worthy in winter when snow brightens up the area and creates a most astounding blue color in the water and the sky. This site is also unique in that it provides lovely shots of both sunrise and sunset. However, sunrise is particularly photogenic from this area. For some of the best photos of this area, spring is a good time for an outing, as the snowmelt from the mountains drives through to the Eagle Creek waterfall, creating an exceptional rumbling foreground.
To reach here from Heavenly Mountain Resort you can follow Highway 50 to Highway 89. This bay is a national landmark, protecting the shipwrecks that scatter its floor if you are up for underwater diving photography. When capturing the bay, fall and spring times are ideal with fewer tourists posting for a swim and no snow to shut down the nearby roads. This lake is known for the emerald colors that can be seen in the water. To capture this color, again use a polarizer to reduce glare on the water and make sure there is no overcast. On a gray day, the lake will show silver and grays rather than deep greens.
4. Flume Trail
Predominantly a biking trail, Flume Trail provides some of the most gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe. This winding trails hug the mountainside tightly, with a precipitous drop on the outside edge. Biking enthusiasts seem not to mind too much, so if you can get up there for some photos, there will be no shortage of excitement. Again, try to take advantage of the human element as it can truly enhance your photos. A bright yellow or red jacket on a cyclist will draw the eye to the photo while simultaneously creating a stark divergence between man and nature. If they human-landscape juxtaposition isn’t your personal photography style, this area still offers some of the most untainted panoramic views of the lake that will be sure to attend to your landscape photography needs.
5. Martis Peak Fire Lookout
This lookout is accessible only by two different hiking trails, though one is partially drivable, so be prepared for a bit of adventure before you can take advantage of the astounding views this lookout has to offer. Located in the North Lake Tahoe area, this site is particularly popular in autumn and winter. The hikes are still doable with a bit of snow cover, and the views of the lake and trees below, covered in powdery white snow are a vision of the magic of the natural world.
As a photographer, you’ll have the added benefit of the wooden lookout structure to help stabilize yourself and your gear without having to worry about taking a tumble down the slippery rocks. From this small building, you’ll have a clear view in every direction except to the east, where the actual summit of Martis Peak lies. If you’re feeling like you need a more sweeping view of the area, continue on the hike for 500 more feet to reach that true summit for truly one of the best locations for landscape photography in Lake Tahoe.
6. The Clearing Storm
While this one isn’t necessarily a location at Lake Tahoe, it certainly is a good place to be shooting. Lake Tahoe is well known for its unpredictable and wide-ranging weather. One of the best times to shoot in any of the above locations is following a large storm. These storms usually enter the area from the western (or Californian) side of the lake and begin to break up at the end of the day. Try to situate yourself on the eastern shore of the lake in order to catch the sun setting through the storm clouds. The light, colors, and reflections all combine to create an ethereal ambiance. Utilize the rocks and even small islands in the lake to provide the stability of a visual anchor.
7. Bonsai Rock
On the northeast side of the lake in Nevada is a very popular landmark known as Bonsai Rock. Right off of Highway 28 is a hill down to the water of the lake. Be sure to wear hiking shoes or boots when attempting to make your way down the hill. The rock can be seen about fifty feet away from the water’s edge. A collection of smaller rocks huddle closer to the beach that is perfect to climb out on to get a closer view. Bonsai Rock emerges peacefully out of the water topped with small Bonsai trees. This is best photographed at sunset, as you face west looking from the beach to the rock, a perfect opportunity to capture its silhouette. In August the Milky Way can be seen above the rock at night. To capture this you will need to layer multiple images together in an editing program: one image with a long exposure for the stars, one image with a long exposure for Bonsai Rock, and if you would like the foreground, another image exposed for the foreground.
8. Herlan Peak
Continuing up the highway about 3 miles further is a turn onto Ponderosa Ranch Road with an immediate turn onto Tunnel Creek Road. If you follow this for about 4 miles you will reach 041 Trail. Hike this trail heading southwest for about one mile and you will reach Herlan Peak. Here you can have a sky view out over Crystal Bay onto the lake. Still facing west the lake is best viewed from here towards sunset.
10. Heavenly Gondola
Still on the Nevada side down south is Heavenly Mountain Resort. Here you can purchase a Gondola ride that takes you 2.4 miles up. At the top of this ride is an observation deck that looks at the lake. Or you can take the second chair lift to reach more trails and mountain scenes, Because this attraction is only open 9am-5pm you will need a polarizer to create more depth rather than a washed out photo from too much sun exposure. If possible pick a day with some dynamic clouds to fill the sky and change the lighting.
11. Tahoe City Marina
As you follow Highway 89 to the northern California side of the lake you reach Tahoe City Marina. Here the pier walks out to the perfect place to take pictures throughout different seasons of the pines that stretch along the edges of the lake. Boats bob in the calm waters, perfect for subjects against distant peaks and a sun that will show brilliant colors. You can take the highway to North Lake Boulevard that takes you right up to the marina, making this the most accessible location to shoot from in which you won’t need any extra adventure equipment.
12. Dollar Point
Just 3 miles north of Tahoe City Marina is Dollar Point. Here is the perfect winter wonderland scenery. Pine trees, cabins, and snow-topped mountains are in every direction across the lake and seen in the distance when looking West from the point. Don’t forget to dress for the weather and to bring extra microfiber towels to keep your gear and lenses dry as you explore this area that will most likely be covered in snow in the winter. Because you want to see the distant white mountains coming up above Lake Tahoe, bring a long focal length lens, at least 200mm long to compress the scene.
For any landscape photographer that finds him or herself in the Lake Tahoe region, these locations will be sure to satisfy. With a natural landscape as varied and fulfilling as this, there is no shortage of perfect landscape photographs just waiting to be shot by the right photographer.
These suggestions will get you started at great locations for capturing Lake Tahoe, each one unique. As a photographer continue to keep a lookout for other trails, look out points, and landmarks that aren’t as populated to get your own view and photograph of the lake. Just because you found a good area to compose a shot doesn’t mean there isn’t another area nearby for you to compose.
Check out our posts on “best landscape locations in Utah, and Colorado. Also, review our post on what landscape lens some of the top landscape photographers recommend.