A beginner's guide to beautiful sunrise & sunset photos
Updated: Jul 20
Did you know I had a degree in meteorology? It actually comes in very handy for planning my photography, so I thought I would pass on a few tips. "But I can just look out of the window?" Well, yes you can, but that doesn't work very well when it's dark and you're getting up for sunrise, and it also means that if you're planning a sunset you will just get a photo from your window at home, since you won't have time to travel anywhere else! It's not an exact science, and I can still drive an hour only to witness a rubbish sunset, however with a little bit of knowledge I guarantee you will increase your hit rate for good sunrises and sunsets. .
1 Don't plan too far ahead
Whatever you may think, the fact is that weather forecasts now are hugely better than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Whenever I hear the usual moans of 'they got it wrong again' I like to tell the story of Storm Eunice in February 2022, when the Met Office were issuing strong wind warnings even before the storm had started to form in the Atlantic. Try doing that just by looking out of the window!
Having said that, although they are good at forecasting the general weather story several days ahead, this does not mean that they can always capture the detail more than a day or so ahead, and Apps which claim to tell you the exact temperature, and time of rain, 14 days ahead are basically a work of fiction!
So, whilst I will sometimes make a rough plan a few days ahead, I never make a firm plan until the day before, or even on the day itself if necessary. Here are a few pointers on planning ahead:
Use Apps only to give a general flavour a few days ahead, e.g. a run of days with just a sun symbol or just a rain symbol gives a good indication of a generally settled or unsettled period. Don't pay too much attention to the detail.
Read what a human forecaster says about the general weather story over the next few days e.g. If I go to www.metoffice.gov.uk and search for 'Honiton' in the 'Find a forecast' box then I get the general forecast shown below. This tells me that today is a washout, but tomorrow, Thursday afternoon and into the weekend might work for some photo shoots, but it will depend on the detail and I won't make a decision on this until nearer the time.
2 Don't be fooled by apparent phone Apps detail
I'm sure we have all looked at out phone App which shows it sunny all day today and we've gone out and got wet, or the App has shown us that it's going to rain all day and in fact it was quite nice! This is where a little knowledge goes a long way.
If the weather situation is such that there is a band of rain moving in from the west and then clearing in the next day or so, then forecast models are quite good at predicting this, and so your App should be too. See the example below from an App called 'Morecast'. As there is a band of rain coming through today, I will be reasonably sure that the rain will stop sometime around .10pm as shown in the App.
However, if it is a showery situation, forecast models are great at knowing 'there will be showers' but are not yet good enough to know exactly where those showers will be. This means that if the forecast model for the location you are at predicts a shower at 10am, your App might show rain at that time. But actually, the shower might happen 10 miles up the road, or might happen an hour later and it's actually sunny at 10am. So, in showery situations I will generally ignore the detail of phone Apps, and go by what the humar forecaster says (as discussed in point 1 above). For example, if the forecast is for 'sunny intervals and scattered light showers' then my decision to go out with the camera is likely to be very different from if the forecast is for 'frequent torrential downpours'.
3 Predicting a good sunrise
Predicting a good sunrise is harder than predicting a good sunset (because it's probably dark when you get up so you can't see the sky), but the general rules are roughly the same.The best conditions for a good sunrise are when there is scattered cloud to reflect the colours of the rising sun - anything between 30 and 70% cloud cover is great (cloudless sky sunrises can be a bit boring). However, critically, there should not be a deep band of cloud on the horizon where the sun will rise, as this is a sure way to destroy a decent sunrise.
So how to know whether the conditions may be suitable for a good sunrise the following day? For this I again turn to the Met Office website and their forecast cloud map HERE. This shows the forecast cloud (white is cloud) over an interactive map of the UK for the next few days (although as mentioned above, I don't pay much attention to the detail after around the next 24 hours). Using the time line at the bottom, and the zoom capabilities of the map, you can see what sort of cloud cover is forecast for the time of sunrise the next day. For example, in the map shown below, patches of cloud (in white) are expected over Devon, which is a good sign for a decent sunrise, however there is a thick bank of cloud to the east or south east (depending on season) that could block the sun as it rises, and any chances of some decent colours. This band would probably need to be at least 50-100 miles away from my intended location in order to not affect the sunrise. Once the basic conditions in place, it's just a matter of luck and how close the cloud forecast was to what you actually find the next day!
4 Predicting a good sunset
The rules for predicting a good sunset are largely the same as for a sunrise; you want some nice patchy cloud to reflect sunset colours (again, 30 to 70% is best), and this time you don't want a deep band of cloud in the direction of sunset (the west or south west depending on the season). However, for planning a sunset shoot you have some additional tools at your discretion; firstly, if you're planning on capturing a local sunset, you can look out the window to see whether there is some nice patchy cloud (for colour) and also check for the dreaded deep band of cloud on the west / south west horizon that is likely to kill a sunset. Secondly, if you're planning on travelling somewhere for sunset, you can get some idea of the cloud conditions where you are going by looking at the visible satellite sequence HERE. This shows where cloud is from space (white is cloud, dark is clear). An example from today is shown below. It shows just patchy cloud across the south west, with some thicker cloud drifting down from Wales. This can be used to give you a good idea if there is patchy cloud where you are going, and even if there is a deep band of cloud out to the west that might block the sunset.
5 The holy grail of conditions for a stunning sunrise or sunset
Although other weather factors (such as humidity, wind speed and visibility) can all also affect the sunrise / sunset, the amount of cloud, and where it is in the sky is the most important factor to try and understand. In my experience. the holy grail of conditions for an amazing sunrise or sunset is to have a sheet of cloud across the sky, but with a window of clear sky where the sun rises or sets. In these conditions, the light of the sun lights up the base of the cloud sheet, and the colours can be incredible. Sadly they almost impossible to plan for but the tips above can help a little; essentially you want a lot of cloud where you are planning to be, but a clear slot of no cloud (for 50-100 miles) towards where the sun will rise or set.
Below is an example of such conditions from a memorable sunset on Dartmoor a few years ago. It was looking like a boring sunset, with an almost completely cloudy sky, but the sun set into a small gap in the cloud on the horizon, and as it dipped below the horizon, the whole sky lit up with incredible colours, which started orange before going to reds, and the colours continued for more than half an hour after sunset. It's the rare moments like these, that landscape photography is all about. All I could think was 'wow'
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