Did you know that it’s possible to predict – often hours in advance – the drama of the sunset? That way, you know whether it’s worth heading out to shoot, or if you’re better off staying indoors and relaxing on the couch.
As a longtime landscape photographer, I’ve become well-versed in sunset predictors. And in this article, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned over the years, focusing on:
- cloud cover
- air quality
Bear in mind that you can never predict a sunset with absolute accuracy (to do that, you’d need to see the future!). But the prediction tools and techniques that I’m about to share will give you a strong sense of the coming sunset, even if they’re not perfect.
Let’s get started.
What causes sunset drama?
To understand why dramatic sunsets occur, we’ll need to do a quick physics dive (it’s not hard, I promise!).
Light from the sun is made up of all the colors in the rainbow. As the sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere, blue light is scattered in all directions, more than any of the other colors; during the day, this causes the sky to appear blue.
But at sunrise and sunset, the light must travel farther due to the low angle of the sun in the sky (i.e., the light moves through more of the atmosphere). The blue light is scattered until it’s no longer visible, the longer wavelengths of red and yellow stay in the sky, and we (potentially) see a stunning sunset.
Of course, there are times when the sunset doesn’t look so great, but this isn’t because the physics fail – rather, it’s because the sunset is blocked by clouds or diminished by other factors. On the other hand, the sunset is occasionally above-and-beyond spectacular, and by understanding the different factors affecting sunset quality, you can predict a gorgeous sunset in advance (or whether the sunset will be a complete dud).
Factors affecting sunset quality: the four predictors
Predicting a dramatic sunset is all about following the weather (and looking for the right indicators). So the first step, even before you learn about sunset predictors, is to find a good weather app or website.
Specifically, you need a weather forecast that provides information on the four sunset predictors: cloud cover, air quality, humidity, and wind speed. I recommend Intellicast, which gives you detailed hourly reports, though feel free to search around for other options.
Now let’s take a closer look at your key predictors:
1. Clouds and cloud cover
Clouds are a crucial factor for predicting dramatic sunsets.
Why? Well, without clouds, there won’t be much of a sunset to see. And with too many clouds, the sky will look dark and drab.
One common misconception is that clouds create sunset colors; in reality, clouds only serve as the canvas on which the beautiful colors are displayed. High to mid-level clouds are the most effective canvases, as they easily reflect the colors of the setting sun. Puffy clouds on the horizon at sunset will generally not allow the sun rays to pass through them, thus muting the sunset colors. Lower clouds (such as dark, rain-filled clouds) are not very helpful at reflecting much light and will therefore dull the sunset.
Bottom line: Cloud cover is good, but not too many or too few clouds. Check out your detailed weather report for cloud cover percentages and try to aim between 30 to 70 percent at sunset.
Ideally, you should observe cloud conditions in the afternoon. If the sky looks favorable, you can hope that the clouds will still be present at sunset. There’s never any guarantee, but without much wind, clouds may stick around and create a beautiful sunset.
Here are a few cloud types that can produce dramatic sunsets:
- Cirrocumulus clouds, which look like ripples on water. Blue sky is the usual backdrop.
- Altocumulus Clouds, which often occur in sheets or patches with wavy, rounded masses or rolls, like little cotton balls. They are generally white or gray and usually appear after a storm.
- Cumulus Clouds, which are easily recognizable, large, white, and fluffy, often with flat bases.
- Cirrus Clouds, which are generally characterized by thin, wispy strands. These clouds arrive in advance of frontal systems indicating that weather conditions may soon deteriorate. Nevertheless, cirrus clouds are some of the best for photographing dramatic sunsets!
2. Clean air
Clean air is very effective at scattering blue light – and as you now know, more blue light scattering equals a more magnificent red, orange, and yellow sunset.
For this reason, one of the best times for dramatic sunsets is right after a rainstorm or windstorm. While lower clouds rarely reflect brilliant colors, note that in places where the lower atmosphere is especially clean, such as in tropical regions over open oceans, more vivid colors are allowed to pass through.
It’s the reason so many beautiful sunset images are captured in the tropics.
The amount of humidity in the air will also affect the colors of your sunset.
Lower humidity will produce more vibrant colors, whereas high humidity conditions will mute the colors thanks to the water content in the atmosphere.
So the morning before a possible sunset photoshoot, make a careful note of the humidity – the lower the percentage, the better!
Ah, wind, the most fickle of all sunset predictors. Wind can enhance a beautiful sunset – but it can also destroy it, depending on the time of day.
You see, a change in wind direction can cause the clouds to develop ripples or billows, and this can create a beautiful effect; the setting sun may reflect a nice red glow onto the ripples, which is all-around gorgeous.
Also, as discussed above, clean air will produce more brilliant colors. A nice breeze before sunset can help clean things up and create some magical results.
Unfortunately, on days when favorable clouds are present in the afternoon, strong winds can remove those clouds and leave you with a clear sky at sunset – not so great for photography.
So I highly recommend checking the weather on your preferred app or website. Keep an eye out for wind speed and wind direction, and think about how it might affect existing cloud cover.
Your sunset drama prediction factors, recapped
Predicting sunsets doesn’t have to be hard! Just keep an eye out for these key indicators:
- Mid to high-level clouds
- 30 to 70 percent cloud coverage
- Clean air
- Lower humidity
- Calm winds (or a change in wind direction during sunset)
A final point to consider: sometimes the afterglow of the sunset, which can occur 15 to 20 minutes after the sun sinks below the horizon, can be much more spectacular than the actual sunset.
So stick around until after the main event, and you may be rewarded!
How to predict dramatic sunsets: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, it’s time to start practicing! Look at your weather app, head outside, peek at the sky – and try to determine tonight’s sunset!
Now over to you:
Do you have any other tips for predicting dramatic sunsets? Share them in the comments below!