Wondering whether tonight’s sunset will look dramatic or boring? You’ve come to the right place. Most folks don’t know that it’s possible to predict – often hours in advance – the beauty and intensity of the sunset. But with a basic understanding of the variables that go into sunset drama, you’ll be able to (roughly) determine the way a sunset will look in advance.
That way, you can decide whether it makes sense to a) head out with your camera to capture some stunning shots, or b) stay indoors and relax on the couch!
As a longtime landscape photographer, I’ve gained a keen understanding of sunset-prediction techniques. And in this article, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned over the years, focusing on factors such as:
- 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 sun’s low angle in the sky. And as 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 really materialize or just rather underwhelming, but that isn’t because the science fails – rather, it’s because the sunset is blocked by clouds or diminished by other factors. For instance, when the sky is completely covered with clouds, the sunset is practically unnoticeable. And if there is zero cloud cover whatsoever, the colors can be a bit of a letdown.
On the other hand, a sunset can occasionally be above and beyond spectacular, and by understanding the different factors affecting sunset quality, you can predict this in advance!
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 like Weather Underground’s Intellicast maps, which give 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 in predicting dramatic sunsets.
Why? Well, without clouds, there won’t be much of a sunset to see. Sure, you’ll get some colors, but they tend to feel rather faded, and the sky will generally make for boring landscape photos that need to be anchored by other elements of interest:
On the other hand, with too many clouds, the sky will look dark and drab, like this:
So basically, you want clouds, but not tons of clouds. And for the best nicest sunsets, you want certain types of clouds!
Specifically, 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.
Again, 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.
Don’t rely too heavily on your forecasting app, however! Ideally, you should observe cloud conditions in the afternoon. If the sky looks favorable, and the weather forecast suggests that the clouds will still be present at sunset, you’re in good shape. There’s never any guarantee, of course, 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 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! It’s also the reason that I recommend checking the air quality indices when trying to determine whether the sunset will be nice; the cleaner the air, the better the colors (all else being equal!).
By the way, while the tropics are great for sunsets, areas with a lot of particulate matter, such as big cities, tend to be a lot less impressive. So if you’re thinking about traveling for some sunset photography, it’s always worth keeping your location in mind and steering for a cleaner spot.
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, which is better than nothing but hardly ideal for photography.
So I highly recommend checking the wind forecast 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)
Also, the afterglow of the sunset, which can occur 15 to 20 minutes after the sun sinks below the horizon, can sometimes be much more spectacular than the actual sunset.
So stick around until after the main event, and you may be rewarded!
Oh, and be sure to check the entire horizon – in every direction – for potential photo opportunities. If the western view is boring, the eastern, northern, or southern view might prove more impressive!
Finally, always remember that weather can change, and if you’re patient, even a dismal sky can come to life, if only for a few moments!
Predicting dramatic sunsets: final words
We all love capturing breathtaking sunset photos – and we’re all likely familiar with the frustration that comes from heading outside with a camera, only to find that the cotton-candy sky you expected to see simply failed to materialize.
Fortunately, now that you’ve finished this article, you’re much better prepared to anticipate and take advantage of spectacular sunset colors. So the next time you’re wondering whether the sunset will actually be nice that evening, use the tips that I’ve shared. 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!