You’ve seen them; great looking photos of sunrise or sunset over Pikes Peak of the Garden of the Gods. They get posted on websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TV stations. (If you follow me on Twitter, you know that will occasionally send a “#SunsetAlert #ColoradoSprings” tweet when it looks like a nice looking sunset is about to occur.)
What makes a sunrise or sunset great are clouds. As I’ve written in previous blogs
, one of the elements of a great landscape photo is clouds. A plain blue sky is, well, plain. And just blue. But, add some puffy clouds, and the sky comes alive with color and texture. And while that sounds pretty common, it really isn’t. Most sunrises and sunsets aren’t accompanied by clouds, and though cloudless sunrises and sunsets may still be pretty, they aren’t awe-inspiring.
Cloudless sunset. Nice, but not WOW.
Getting up before dawn to shoot sunrise photos or driving to your favorite photo location for sunset can end in disappointment if Mother Nature doesn’t provide some nice clouds in the sky. Sometimes you just give up and sleep in or stay home and surely miss some great views.
Clouds gave this sunset more depth and color
The good news is that scientists and meteorologists have developed ways to predict the attractiveness of a sunrise or sunset — much like they can predict whether tomorrow will be sunny or rainy. The algorithms aren’t perfect, but I’ve been testing some of these systems for a little while and have found them to be generally accurate.
The most accessible and easiest way to get sunrise or sunset forecasts is from the website sunsetwx.com
. The website is simple to use; using two color-coded maps of the United States, one for sunrise and another for sunset. The warmer, red colors over a specific area indicates a better chance of a colorful sunrise or sunset. The colder, blue color indicates a lesser chance of seeing colorful skies. In my experience, refreshing the site several times during the day provides updated information and increases the accuracy of the site’s predictions.
Screenshot of a SunsetWX.com map
For the more advanced photographer there's a cell phone app called The Photographers Ephemeris
. “TPE” uses your phone's GPS to pinpoint your location on a map, then it shows not only the time of sunrise and sunset amongst a lot of other information, but also from what direction the sun will rise and set.
A plug-in for TPE called “SkyFire
” provides information similar to what you see on SunsetWX but with better accuracy based on your location. Currently, the SkyFire plug in is only available for the iOS (Apple) versions of TPE, but an Android version should be available soon.
Finally, if you want to learn more about how to read the weather to determine when to shoot the best outdoor photos, then the book Weather Forecasting For Photographers
may be more to your liking. Written by local National Weather Service meteorologist and landscape photographer Stan Rose, it provides in-depth information on weather forecasting, how to photograph sunrises and sunsets, and more.
Now, go out and shoot some great skies!
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 24 years. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.