Ahhhh Those Sunsets

The Colors of Sunset
Monterey by Christy Sharp

We love sunsets. Why do we love them? We love their beauty, their various colors and formations. It’s like the sun is natures paintbrush and the sky is the canvas.

Although colorful sunrises and sunsets can be seen anywhere, certain parts of the world are especially famous for their early evening glow. Do the tropics and deserts come to mind?

Eye-catching sunsets favor certain times of the year too. In some parts of the United States, fall and winter generally produce the most spectacular low-sun hues.

Why do some parts of the world entertain more beautiful sunsets than others? Clean air is the main ingredient for brightly colored sunsets.

Why the different colors? At sunrise or sunset, sunlight takes a much longer path through the atmosphere than during the middle part of the day. This results in an increased amount of violet and blue light that is scattered. Scattering is the scientific term used to describe the reflection or re-direction of light by small particles. The light that reaches us early or late in the day is then reddened. That means sunsets are red because the daytime sky is blue.

Negril, Jamaica by Craig Gilmore

Hazy daytime skies, that appear grayish or even white gives us sunsets that are pale yellows and pinks when dust and haze fill the air.

BWI Airport by Mark Champion

Colors at the surface on dusty or hazy days tend to be muted and subdued, even though purer oranges and reds persist in the cleaner air above. For example: This effect is most noticeable in an airplane, shortly after take-off on a hazy evening: A seemingly bland sunset at the ground gives way to vivid color aloft as soon as the plane ascends beyond the haze.

Zanzibar by Jeff Ohlfs
When you get that dark band just above the horizon it’s when the sun has dropped enough below the horizon and is no longer illuminating the haze.
Door County, Illinois by Clair Smith

Clouds catch the last red-orange rays of the setting sun and the first light of the dawn like a theatre screen, and reflect this light to the ground.

To produce vivid sunset colors, a cloud must be high enough to intercept “unadulterated” sunlight.

When low clouds do take on vivid hues, as they often do over the open ocean in the tropics, it is a clue that the lower atmosphere is very clean and therefore more transparent than usual.

Heard the saying Red sky at night, traveler’s delight; Red sky in morning, traveler take warning.” This means a passing jet stream disturbance; i.e., they mark the zone of transition between west-to-east moving regions of atmospheric ascent (cloud cover) and descent (clear skies). When viewed at sunrise, a sky of this type implies that the weather is likely to deteriorate, at sunset, the opposite is true.

Certain cloud forms also characteristically assume shapes and textures that add interest.

Deep Creek, MD submitted by Mark Champion

Why do they favor certain months? Because air circulation is more sluggish during the summer, and because the photochemical reactions which result in the formation of smog and haze proceed most rapidly at that time of the year, late fall and winter are the most favored times for sunrise and sunset viewing over most of the United States. 

How typical sky colors are produced. The familiar blue of the daytime sky is the result of the selective scattering of sunlight by air molecules. Scattering is the scientific term used to describe the reflection or re-direction of light by small particles. Scattering by dust or by water droplets is responsible for the shafts of light that appear when the sun partly illuminates a smoky room or mist-laden forest. Selective scattering is used to describe scattering that varies with the wavelength of the incident light. Particles are good scatterers when they are very small compared to the wavelength of the light.

At sunrise or sunset, sunlight takes a much longer path through the atmosphere than during the middle part of the day. Because this lengthened path results in an increased amount of violet and blue light being scattered out of the beam by the nearly infinite number of scattering “events” that occur along the way (a process collectively known as multiple scattering), the light that reaches an observer early or late in the day is noticeably reddened. Thus, it could be said that sunsets are red because the daytime sky is blue. A beam of sunlight that at a given moment helps produce a red sunset over the Appalachians is at the same time contributing to a deep blue, late afternoon sky over the Rockies.

TIPS (Provided by Christy Sharp)

  • Plan Your Shot Ahead of Time:  Sometimes you get lucky with a spontaneous shot but usually the best shots are planned out.
  • Check the reports to find out what time sunset is, so you can make the best of that short 30 or so minutes before the sun goes down.
  • Look for an interesting place to shoot from.  Look for a place where you can follow the sun all the way down to the horizon line.  Look for foreground elements to create a silhouette (ex. Trees, People).
  • One thing I see a lot of people do is they do not add a flash when shooting people in a sunset.  If you do not use a flash you will only get the silhouette of the person (they appear black) but you will get the sunset.  We call this a fill flash.
  • Look for clouds.  A clear day doesn’t always create the best shots.  Dust, smoke, and pollution can make for great sunsets too because the light bounces off the particles, not through them like it does with water.

Exposure:  There is not right or wrong. Experiment with different shutter speeds and apertures. 
  • One thing I do is Bracket my shots.  You look at what the camera suggests to take the shot at and then you shoot, then you shoot one f-stop down and shoot, then one f-stop up and shoot.
  • I play with the white balance mode.  If you shoot in auto you may lose the warm tones in your photos.  So, I experiment with different white balance choices.  I use shade and cloudy white balances sometimes.
  • I also put my camera in Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter Priority Mode.  They can allow you to take several shots and different exposures.   I prefer Manual so I can get more creative with my shots.  It’s best for extreme lighting.    If the lighting is low it can be difficult for the camera to focus so you can manipulate your shots more in manual mode.
  • I try not to use filters. Polarizer filters don’t help saturate the colors in a sunset.  Also, UV filters don’t seem to help when shooting sunsets.  The extra flat piece of glass will decrease the saturation/richness of colors in your photo.
  • I read this once by a photography professor of mine but he said do not be fooled into using the sunset icon on your mode dial.  It is an automatic mode that can take away your ability to choose a creative shutter speed, aperture, etc.
  • Shoot in RAW format.  The reason why is the camera throws out some information in the photo when you shoot in JPEG.  For a sunset picture this can be crucial because the information the camera may be throwing away could be valuable light information.  So, shoot RAW.

  • Directional Forces/Focal Points:  Find a point of interest in the shot where your eye leads to.  I love silhouettes in a sunset photos (ex. A boat, a couple cuddling on the beach, birds, trees, mountain ranges).  It creates interest and mood.  Speed up your shutter speed and you’ll have a silhouette.
  • Rule of Thirds:  If you look at your photo it is more times than not, best to put your point of interest off center.  I usually put my object of interest off to the side, top, or bottom of a photo.  I hardly ever put it in the center.  I never put the horizon line in the dead center of the frame either. 
  • Size of the sun – if you want it to look small then shoot with a wide-angle lens.  If you want the sun to look large, shoot with a telephoto lens.
  • Don’t be afraid to shoot a sunset on a rainy day.  Clouds can break open light coming through and that can make a beautiful photograph.  Also, look around your and back of you.  The scene may be just as beautiful because it is being lit up by the sunset.

Resources: Stephen F. Corfidi