Why is it that certain sunsets stand out more than others? After all, it’s not every day we see a good one. Well, that depends on a few different things that must come together to produce the kind of sunsets we want to capture in camera. In this piece, I'll outline what to look for and when.
Roaring reds and triumphant yellows are what we picture when we talk about sunsets. This special time of the day is favored by photographers because of the sun’s low angle, which skips across the landscape with graceful highlights and long shadows. It’s also known as the “golden hour,” because it’s a time when we see the warmer tones of the sunlight in the sky.
Over the years, I've spent countless hours waiting for the golden hour, in all kinds of climates, on many different continents. The amount of time I've wasted waiting for a glorious sunset that falls flat isn't worth talking about. I've learned a great deal about how to read the sky's patterns to avoid these failures and have condensed the main points into this piece so that you know when to wait it out and when to quit.
Sunset and sunrise are, quite obviously, at different ends of the day, and each has its own unique characteristics. Sunrise is much more likely to wake over fields of dew, clinging to grasses from the colder night, and sunset will glow through thick haze produced from the day-long warming from the sun. Although I’ll be concentrating on sunsets in this piece, a lot of the information can also be transferred to sunrises.
You Need the Right Type of Clouds
Cloud cover is the first noticeable difference between sunrise and sunset, because as the sun passes through the day, it warms the ground, which in turn heats up the air above it, causing particular types of clouds to appear that you wouldn’t ordinarily get first thing in the morning when the air is a little cooler. So, while a lot of the tips can be used for sunrises as well, bear in mind that they are slightly different.
In my mind, the sunsets that separate the incredible from the bland are the type and thickness of the clouds. Picture a sunset sky in your head right now and take note of what you see. Is there an orange ball hanging deep in the sky alone, with nothing but gradients of reds, oranges, and yellows? Well, I'd argue you need to avoid empty skies and instead look for clouds.
High, puffy clouds are among the best types you can hope to see during sunset. That’s because the separate puffs don’t block the sunlight too much, which means more of the clouds in the sky can be lit by the warm tones. Also, if they’re higher in altitude, you’re more likely to get rich bursts of pink later into the sunset when the sun is nearer the horizon, which makes the scene much more impressive.
My favorite types of clouds for sunset are cumulus and cirrus, specifically altocumulus or cirrocumulus, although lower-altitude cumulus are also good if I have an interesting foreground. Cumulus are those fluffy clouds that look like sheep or cotton candy. The name actually derives from the Latin, cumulo, which means pile or heap. If I spot lenticular clouds, I’m especially grateful, as they’re somewhat rarer and provide a wonderful brush-stroked soft appearance, likened to a UFO or lens shape.
You don’t have to become a meteorologist to predict whether a sunset will be good or not. There are a few things to look out for that’ll instantly tell you if a sunset will be worthy of your time or not. Beware of skies containing no clouds. This might seem counterintuitive, but if there’s nothing to soak up the warmer tones, the sky will only get yellow and a tad orange when the sun is very close to the horizon.
Nor do you want too much cloud in the sky. Look towards and just above the horizon for banks of thick clouds. If there’s no gap, then it’ll likely be a flop, as the clouds will cover the sun just when the colors start to get good.
Find an Interesting Landscape
Shooting a great sunset set against a boring landscape is like having a sandwich with no filling. It feels a little wasteful not to find something that’ll please the eye in the lower portion of the frame as well as the top. Pay attention to your environment, and aim to place key features in your composition so that they complement the sunset.
For example, look for classical compositional techniques that’ll help combine foreground and background. Leading lines provide something for the eye to follow through the frame, so a path or tree line that leads to the center of the frame, resting on the sunset, is a great idea. Or if the foreground is lacking, then use the rule of thirds to place the horizon towards the lower third, leaving two-thirds of the frame available for the sky.
Shoot Into the Sun
I love shooting into the sun. A warm but washed out flare is appealing to me in my sunset shots because it conveys a sense of atmosphere, both literal and figurative. I tend to use this effect on telephoto lenses, as I can visually compress my foreground and background subjects together to further embellish the flare effect.
You could also create sunbursts when the sun is visible in the frame. They don’t exist to the naked eye but are actually the result of the lens aperture being stopped down to f/11 or f/16. It’s the coming together of the aperture blades inside the lens that determines the intensity and amount of sunbursts you’ll get. The starry-shaped spikes are loved by some and hated by others, so whether you use this technique is down to personal taste.
Of course, if you’re stopping down to f/16, you may need to keep an eye on your shutter speed if shooting handheld, but if you’re shooting directly into the sun, it’ll likely be bright enough to freeze the scene without any camera shake blur.
Look for shapes in the landscape that’ll work well as silhouettes. That way, you don’t necessarily need to have an interesting foreground. Underexpose your scene so that the foreground dips into darkness and the comparatively bright sky is now correctly exposed. To take the silhouette-look further, just run an adjustment brush over the darker portions in Lightroom and set a negative exposure value to keep things dark.
Shoot Away From the Sun
Just as looking into the sun can create some great, washed-out summer vibes, so too can shooting away from the sun. Landscapes and buildings will be awash with glowing orange tones. Red brick buildings look especially vibrant at this time of day.
By facing the anti-solar point (away from the sun), you should now be looking for shapes in the landscape that are enhanced by the golden light. Pay particular attention to long shadows if you see them, as they can help with the composition.
Keep looking toward the sky after the sun has set as well, as the remaining warmer tones will build up at the anti-solar point, leaving behind a wash of pink or purple in the sky, despite being on the opposite side of the sun.
Download Some Useful Apps
Finally, to complement the visual cues listed above, I recommend using a sun-tracking app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer's Ephemeris.
I use these apps to see where the sun will rise and set at any given location and even check the length of time the light will be golden or calculate shadow length. You can skip forward in time and place a pin anywhere in the world, meaning you can plan your next shoot with a little more precision before you even get there.
Sunburst image used with permission by Jeremy Bishop, via Pexels.com
Great article, I love sunset and I agree that clouds and interesting forgrounds are key.
It's funny tho, even when you think you have figured out how to predict an awesome sunset you can be left underwhelmed with a less exciting sunset, but on the other hand I have been unprepared for a breathtaking one that I was not expecting to be so beautiful. Just get out and be ready for anything. Adapt accordingly.
Lovely shots, Dan. I'm sure you're already aware, but that top photo actually has an optical phenomenon in it called a 'sun pillar'. Fantastic capture!
Thanks! Actually I never heard of sun pillar before, I learned something new today 👍