It's happened to all of us. You've been sitting on the couch happily watching TV when suddenly a bright glow out the window catches your eye - sunset is going off! And you wonder - how on earth did I miss this?
Sunsets that result in colourful skies can be very tricky to predict. Firstly, there's skies that look promising with lovely high cloud an hour or two before sunset, so you head out in anticipation only to find that the clouds disappear altogether in the lead up to sunset - I've lost count of how many times that has happened to me, it can be incredibly frustrating.
Then there's the sunsets that come out of nowhere, when it has been 100% cloudy and looks grey almost right up until the moment of sunset and suddenly colour explodes across the sky. You might be surprised to learn that these sunsets are actually quite easy to predict if you know what you are looking for - and that's where these 5 handy tips come in.
So what do you look for in a potential sunset or sunrise? Getting the right amount of high cloud in the right place is absolutely key.
I use 2 different weather apps to check the weather in advance, often a day or two beforehand to get an initial indication, but checking again on the day itself as the forecast can and does change with great regularity, sometimes every couple of hours. There are two apps that I use to get an idea of what the sky will be doing, Yr.No and Windy, and I also talk about these in more detail in my post 5 Tips for Finding the Best Landscape Photography Conditions in NZ.
Yr.No is a Norwegian satellite service but does a remarkable job of predicting conditions halfway around the world - and does a better job than our own Metservice most of the time! The trick with using Yr.No is to use the desktop version which includes the Details tab which is where all the good stuff is.
Under this tab you get a heap of different information, and I'm always looking at the cloud cover section which breaks the type of cloud into High, Medium and Low levels. Ignore the fact it says Barn% (this means Low) and Mellomh% (Medium) as this is in Norwegian!
You can see in this example that there is high cloud right around sunset at 8pm with little or no low or medium cloud. Low and medium cloud can easily block the light when the sun gets low on the horizon and our goal is to have the sun light up the clouds from underneath.
Windy is another weather app that I love as it shows pictorially what Yr.No shows in table form, and it's very easy to navigate to different locations just by zooming in and out, you can also search for a location using the search bar. Use the layers (turn on and off) to look at wind and different cloud cover levels. These examples show high cloud over the centre of the island which could result in a good sunset.
You also need to click in the red bar at the bottom of the app to select the METEOGRAM view so you can see the cloud layers.
The next important thing is to keep an eye on the satellite radar a few hours before sunset, sunrise is a little trickier unless you plan on getting up in the middle of the night to check it. I use the satellite feature on the Windy mobile app, it's really good and shows the most recent 2 hours of footage. From this, you can predict where the cloud will be in a few hours by the time sunset rolls around and the direction the cloud is moving. The image that I have screenshot below shows the North Island approximately 3 hours before sunset, the cloud out to sea was moving towards the island and by the time sunset was here there was a much bigger gap offshore for the sun to light up under the clouds.
You can also use the MetService satellite imagery but I don't find this one as easy to scroll back and forth with over the time period, and it's also pitch black overnight which isn't terribly helpful if you are trying to look at satellite imagery before heading out for sunrise.
Did you leave it too late to forward plan? Don't worry! Sometimes all it takes is to look up at the type of clouds and sky out the door to know that some magic is likely to happen within the next couple of hours. So what exactly are you looking for? Look for textures and a sign that you can still see the sun quite easily through the clouds - this means it's not thick and is likely to be just high cloud. The lower cloud with the textures is what is likely to light up in a fiery display of colour just on or after sunset. The images below are from the same night as the shots in Tip 4.
The last thing you need to do is keep the faith. When you can see a sky with high, streaky clouds but a lot of blue sky showing behind, you're likely to see the clouds turning from yellow to orange quite early on in the sunset often in the last 20 or so minutes before the sun goes down, and eventually turning to pink after the sun has set. This gives you a lot of time and opportunities for shots as the clouds are transitioning through the different colours, these are what I call easy sunsets. But they can also be very disappointing if there isn't enough cloud and then it all evaporates as it often does in the last hour leading up to sunset.
However, if you're chasing a sky with 100% high cloud and hoping for that last minute gap on the horizon to light everything up, you'll need to be super patient. Skies like this don't usually light up until after the sun has set, so don't pack up and go home, be patient! I've been caught out so many times thinking nothing is going to happen and then at the last minute the sky goes nuts - it even happened to me last week! The sky was looking like nothing at all, so much so that I actually left and drove off with about five minutes to go until sunset but only got two minutes up the road and then turned around in a hurry to come back as right on sunset the sky erupted!
Often once this happens, the sky will stay alight with colour right up until it's dark. On this occasion, using my drone was a bit limiting as it doesn't have a great dynamic range so I couldn't shoot once it started getting darker but your camera should certainly be more capable even when it's getting quite dark to the naked eye.
It is a very satisfying feeling when you accurately predict a sunset that looked for all intents and purposes like a sea of grey until the very last minute but then lights up in a fiery display across the sky. But it's equally as awesome when you accidentally stumble upon moments like this unexpectedly too. Often the sunrises turn out like that because you wake up not knowing exactly what's been happening with the clouds overnight and you just have to take a punt on going out and hoping for the best. I've seen some pretty incredible sunrises, particularly on the South Island's east coast, none of which I was prepared for or expected based on the forecast I'd checked when I went to bed the night before. Sometimes you just have to enjoy a surprise! Here are a few of my favourite all-sky banger sunrises and sunsets captured over the past few years.
This sunrise was made all the more special because it was on a weekend workshop I was hosting in Dunedin and the Catlins and this was our first sunrise of the trip, and what a treat for us all, the combination of cloud plus a perfect gap on the horizon created the perfect conditions for an amazing display! I'm pretty sure this was the best sunrise I saw in 2021 - the colour lasted a good hour and being able to capture the reflections in the wet sand added another dimension to the images we captured over the course of the morning.
This sunrise took me completely by surprise. You have to remember that there's no reception on the track so I hadn't been able to check any weather forecasts for 2 days. I actually got up to go to the toilet early and spied the colour out the window of the hut door while it was still almost dark. Talk about moving fast - or not given the excruciating knee pain I was in on that hike, it was more like a slow hobble using my tripod as a walking stick to get to this little vantage spot up the hill. And then I remembered I hadn't swapped my battery over and it was only on 8% - I could have cried! Luckily Mark had woken up too and I saw him in the distance on the hut verandah - I yelled at the top of my lungs "I need my other battery" - my poor legs wouldn't have made it down to the hut and back in time - so I was very happy when my knight in shining armour arrived with my other fully charged battery just a couple of minutes later.
After a rather uneventful grey sunset up in Arthurs Pass, my friends and I made a last minute decision to travel back to Christchurch after dark in the hope of capturing the sunrise on the coast the following morning. Once again, a tiny sliver of a gap on the horizon combined with some incredible cloud resulted in an all-sky display that hung in the sky for a long time, delighting both us and the local photographers we'd agreed to meet there for a catch up. This was certainly one of the most memorable sunrises of 2020.
We'd been camping just outside of Twizel near Lake Ohau hoping for clear skies overnight for astro. That wasn't to be and we weren't in a great location for sunrise facing the opposite way. I'll never forgot my friend Laurie peeking out the windows of the campervan and jolting me up from a deep sleep saying 'get your butt out of bed, the sky is going off!' Cue a mad dash 20 minutes up the road to find a location where we could do some justice to the scene that was unfolding before us. And both of us agreed that we'd never seen anything quite like the resulting range of colours - the entire world seemed to have turned a shade of pink and even the hills were purple. This was a sunrise that was pretty widespread across the whole South Island and pre-empted some pretty bad weather, it's very common that in the Mackenzie country you'll get incredible skies before bad weather and this was no exception!
I actually missed the best of this one. I left home in the dark and was on my way out to photograph a sunflower field on SH26, but changed my mind mid-drive when I saw the sky starting to go crazy. Trying to think of somewhere that I could get to in time while on the fly, I came up with this little view over Lake Karapiro. I made it just in time for the brightest part of the sunrise before the sun peeked over the horizon.
I got a little lucky with this sunset back in February 2018. I'd already planned to do this wee hike along the Coromandel coastline for sunset, but just happened to be there on a night where the sky was all kinds of delightful. As we were almost opposite where the sun was setting it didn't stretch quite as far over the whole coast, but I quite liked the fact there was an amazing transition from warm sunset tones to cool deep purple and blue tones across the sky.
The VERY NEXT night (after the Coromandel shot above), I was back in the Waikato and my friend Andrew (who I'd also been with the previous night) said he thought we were in for another good sunset. I was really skeptical and said I thought he was dreaming - at that stage I didn't know as much as I do know about these 100% high cloud sky formations, but I took a punt that he was right and joined him down at Lake Karapiro. And what a result! It was really the first time that I'd seen the sky go from zero to hero from grey cloud to all-sky colour in the blink of an eye. So you can bet I now pay attention whenever he messages me and says 'I think sunset could be good tonight' though I'm usually well ahead of the game myself sky watching and looking at the apps religiously these days and already onto it!
Last but not least, this sunset just before Christmas last year was one I definitely saw developing over the afternoon and made the call to go out locally to capture it. Again, it started out incredible hazy and grey and nothing special at all, only to put on this incredible show overlooking the whole of the Waikato - it made a lovely early Christmas present that's for sure!
I hope that you have found these tips useful and you can use them yourself to have the best chance of capturing an incredible sunset or sunrise. And do you have any other tried and tested tips for predicting all-sky colour like this? If you do, I'd love to hear!
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