Here is the science behind what makes sunset photos so beautiful

Feb 22, 2020

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

Here is the science behind what makes sunset photos so beautiful

Feb 22, 2020

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

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Golden Hour and Blue Hour are the optimum times for us photographers. It’s been drilled into us since day one. We have apps that tell us when the sun will rise and set, and tell us in which direction. The thing is, it’s only worth knowing that information if the sunset or sunrise is going to add to our shot.

There’s a science behind beautiful sunrises and sunsets. This article aims to arm you with the key factors which make for a beautiful sky.

The colors of the sunset result from a phenomenon called scattering. Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter.

Scattering

Scattering affects the color of light coming from the sky, but the details are determined by the wavelength of the light and the size of the particle. The short-wavelength blue and violet are scattered by molecules in the air much more than other colors of the spectrum. This is why blue and violet light reaches our eyes from all directions on a clear day. But because we can’t see violet very well, the sky appears blue.

Pollutants

That said, we don’t want much moisture or pollution in the atmosphere. These things don’t scatter the blue and violet. They scatter the entire spectrum and mute the colours of sunrise and sunset.

Clouds

Clouds are another key factor. Even if they’re only thin, wispy cirrus clouds. These clouds will reflect the dispersed, scattered light and without the presence of the clouds we wouldn’t see the light. If the clouds are too thick they won’t allow any light to pass through. Cloud coverage is measured in meteorology in 8th’s, so on some forecasts we want to see between 2/8 and 6/8, which is roughly 30-70% coverage.

Wind

To keep the status-quo, we want a calm wind. A strong wind can destroy our sunset by pushing the clouds all over the sky and can even break them up and spread them out.

Horizon

The sun is low on the horizon at sunrise and sunset, so the light from the sun has farther to travel and more opportunity to be scattered. The short-wavelength violet and blues are sometimes not only scattered, but lost altogether. This can leave only the warmer end of the spectrum.

 

 

It’s worth spending time shooting sunrises, too. At sunset, our eyes are tired from the brightness of the day, but at sunrise, we are adapted to the dark and notice the colors and brightness so much more vividly. With these factors in mind, there’s one further thing that steps sunrise up a gear over sunset – the change in view! Sunset shots are far more common than sunrise, so if we shoot sunrise we’re able to get a more unique perspective by changing our focus in the opposite direction to the more commonly seen angles of famous subjects.

On the whole, we, as a species, don’t like to be up early enough to shoot sunrise. Not regularly, anyway! It’s more ‘normal’ for us to sleep in a little and spend our energy shooting throughout the day and into sunset. The rewards of shooting a sunrise range from being set up to an awesome day ahead, through to potentially capturing the best photos we’ve ever gotten. Oh, and if you’re not so much of a people-person, their absence in at sunrise will be great for you!

To determine whether a sunrise or sunset will look good, knowing what we now know, here’s what to look out for: –

  • Mid to High-level clouds to reflect the light
  • A clear lower atmosphere
  • Low humidity
  • Calm winds

The signs and clues we use for sunset also apply at sunrise, but it can be harder to spot them because it’s dark! In the case of sunrise, it helps to use weather apps and forecasts to determine the chances of success.

Moving away from the photography, a good sunrise or sunset is good for your health! Just as an added bonus!

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David Williams

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

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6 responses to “Here is the science behind what makes sunset photos so beautiful”

  1. Igor Mitrovic Avatar
    Igor Mitrovic

    Bled… always some dramatic clouds in scene
    https://500px.com/photo/63791807/Bled-Slovenia-by-Igor-Mitrovic :D

  2. Michael Estwik Avatar
    Michael Estwik

    I shoot both.

  3. Nicholas Kau Avatar
    Nicholas Kau

    I prefer sunrise. It takes dedication to get out there on your days off. Plus not as many people out in the shots.

  4. Dunja Djudjic Avatar
    Dunja Djudjic

    Great read. I prefer sunsets because I’m SO not a morning person. I only shoot sunrise if I stay up all night, but I just can’t go to bed and wake up for the sunrise. :)

    1. Vilim J. Peterman Hlušička Avatar
      Vilim J. Peterman Hlušička

      Most of people are not morning person – it’s one of main reasons why sunrise shooting has lots of advances and opportunities :)

  5. Paul Menard Avatar
    Paul Menard

    when ive been up early ive found sunrise is often less spectacular than sunset? :/