One thing virtually every photographer has in common is a love of beautiful sunsets. Predicting where and how to capture a sunset of stunning quality is not always luck; it is a skill that can be acquired with a little know-how and some experience.
The following factors are helpful in helping you predict if a sunset will be beautiful or not. The air should be clean with relatively low humidity, and the best sunsets typically happen when you have mid and high-level clouds covering around 25% to 60% of the evening sky.
Having some quick tips in your photographer’s tool belt is good but getting stunning shots comes from leveraging the basics into a robust process. And knowing what you expect from your sunset photography is the other half of the equation. Some of the best sunset photographs have been taken before, and even after, the actual sunset itself so always be prepared to hang around for a bit after the main event.
The golden hour
You may have heard this term before. It refers to that special time of day when the light is softer and more golden than at other times. The period referred to is after sunrise and before sunset. This time frame does not mean that wonderfully rich and beautiful shots cannot be had at other times. But the golden hour is a good time to be at a location and begin your preparation and shooting. It also gives you plenty of time to be ready for sunset itself.
Seasons play a huge part in the type of sunsets you get so doing some research on the location you are shooting will help you immensely. If you are working to capture sunsets in and around your familiar stomping grounds, then you will have an excellent working knowledge of what to expect from season to season. Knowing this is incredibly beneficial to your photography because you have built-in your predictive process unconsciously. If you are on a trip or are shooting somewhere new, be sure to access the local weather apps and do some research as they will fill in some blanks for you. You may already be doing this on your home front, which is always good practice.
Most professional photographers agree that winter is the best time to capture sunsets. The reason for this is that for one, the sun is low in the sky for the majority of the day which gives a beautiful low light extenuating shadows. It also means that sunset is at a reasonable hour rather than late at night. But most importantly the crisp, cold air helps air quality which has a huge impact on sunset shots.
Air quality is essential for a good sunset shot. Ensure you plan your shoot when the air quality at your location is high. The lower the level of pollutants, the longer the visibility and the better quality of shot you are likely to get. Photographing a sunset after rainfall helps to clear the air of pollution and haze which makes those dramatic colours of sunset skies pop out more.
A good rule of thumb to follow when predicting an excellent sunset for photography is that when the humidity in the ambient environment is comfortable for you, it is ideal for photography. Too much or too little humidity can make for challenging situations. But that’s not to say you won’t get dramatic sunsets.
Cloud cover is different from humidity and is a leading indicator for whether you will experience a beautiful sunset or not. Ideally, you will want some clouds in the sky so that the light from the sun bounces off them and creates the striking colours that you see. A clear sky will usually not give you the best sunsets. A great time to capture great sunset shots is after a storm or rainfall. If the clouds disperse enough you could end up with some incredible colours in the sky at sunset.
For the best sunsets, ideally, you need broken, scattered mid to high-level clouds. Low clouds, especially ones that are over the horizon line may end up blocking the light from the sunset so you don’t get the sunset that you wanted. But it’s important to persist as even just a few minutes of the sun peeking through the clouds can provide amazing colours.
Know Your Clouds
You do not need to be a meteorologist but having a basic knowledge of clouds, especially for the types of clouds that commonly help make a sunset spectacular will help you predict the quality of the sunset.
- High-level clouds hover in the 5 – 13 km range and are named cirrocumulus, cirrus, and cirrostratus. These are the wispy and delicate clouds that always appear to be pressed against the top of the sky.
- Mid-level clouds float between 2 – 7 km above sea levels, such as altocumulus, altostratus, and nimbostratus. The mid-level clouds can appear fluffy like cotton balls to uniform grey such as in overcast skies to those which provide imminent rain
Location, location, location
Though we initially touched on this subject, it is important to stress that the location you pick directly adds to your shot’s quality. Provided you have scouted out one area or several, you have given yourself a leg up on when and where to set up for a perfect sunset shot. The more locations you have scouted, the better your chances of success; you will understand its microclimate and position relative to the sunset you would like to capture.
Moreover, the location adds depth and interest to the shot. Exciting features such as a scraggly old tree, or a run-down barn, or even a distant major city, can add a fantastic array of depth and texture to your creation. Because a sunset by itself isn’t that exciting for a viewer to look at. They need a point of interest as the main focus of your shot.
“There is no such thing as luck”. Only, there is, but it is called preparation. Suppose you make a habit of carrying your camera with you daily. In that case, you are likely to stumble on a beautiful sunset that even your most intense preparation might not have delivered for you.
Whatever you decide, you will thank yourself one day when you realize that unexpected perfect shot. It is essential to ensure that you have charged batteries and a spare set as well. Don’t forget your tripod.
Other suggestions for sunset photography
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a free app that delivers weather and sunrise/sunset times for the area you select. There are also many sunset apps that you can download to your smartphone which try to predict the quality of sunsets in your area. But keep in mind that weather changes all the time and sometimes a prediction for a beautiful sunset doesn’t come to fruition.
A beautiful sunset shot is often something that all outdoor travel and landscape photographers crave. These are often the shots that are the most striking and can wow the viewer. Whilst all the preparation and predictions in the world can’t guarantee when you will get that perfect sunset, they can certainly help narrow down the chances of it happening. But ultimately what makes great sunset photos so satisfying to capture is their unpredictability.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.