Like the changing colour of leaves, sunsets too have such an array of different colours and paint a different picture from the same location time and time again. The best sunset we have seen at the cottage was on our last visit in 2014.
We were about to leave, but stood for another half an hour on the dock, unable to peel away until the curtain of darkness fell. What a show! First the land is bathed in a red and orange glow and shadows make things look more dramatic than they did in full sunlight. Then as the sun slips behind the horizon the finale is the spectacular afterglow. It only lasts 15-20 minutes and I find myself savouring every last moment until it has totally gone.
Apparently late fall and winter are the best times for sunrise and sunset views. Air circulation is more sluggish during the summer and the increase in smog and haze makes the colours more subdued.
I have discovered that there are five factors that I need to come together to photograph the ultimate sunsets; height of clouds, cloud coverage, clean air, lower humidity and calm winds. Having said that, a change in the wind can cause clouds to develop ripples or billows, which are exactly what a great sunset needs, but if the wind is too strong it might blow those clouds away before the sun actually sets and that isn’t going to help.
Clouds are necessary for a dramatic sunset, but not too many and they need to be high or mid-level clouds. Low thick clouds on the horizon will mute the colours because the light will not be able to shine through them. The sunset can still be beautiful and enjoyable, but not as spell binding as other sunsets where the cloud cover is less and higher in the sky. The cloud cover needs to be between 30-70 percent at sunset for a good sunset.
You can see with the above photograph how there was some cloud that did catch the colour as the sun set, but it was low on the horizon and muted the colour. If that cloud had been higher in the sky this would have been a much more dramatic sunset.
The picture above shows the cloud is higher in the sky, there is more drama than the previous photograph, but the cloud cover is thick and colour is muted because of that.
Even if the cloud cover looks promising, high humidity and large dust droplets will impact the colour of a sunset. Too much water vapour or large dust droplets that make daytime skies appear grey, give a yellow or pink sunset instead of the vibrant oranges and reds that we get when the air is clear. Those hot, humid summer days are not the best days for a fantastic sunset, but in the right position with the silhouette of trees it is still very beautiful!
Clean air scatters the blue light. The reason there is often a good sunset after rain is because the air is cleaner then. So why does it look red and not blue? When the sun is low in the sky the light passes through the thickest part of the atmosphere. We see the red because the red wavelengths are the longest in the colour spectrum. The shorter blue wavelengths, the ones that we see during the day, are scattered and broken up at sunrise and sunset.
Weather lore “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” does have some merit. Usually weather moves from west to east. When we see a red sky at night, it usually indicates high pressure and stable air coming in from the west, so good weather should follow. However, if sunrise is red, then it indicates that a high-pressure system has passed and low pressure might be moving in. A deep red sky in the morning can indicate that there is high water content in the atmosphere, so rain might be on the way.
Even without the cloud that produces dramatic skies, it is very relaxing to sit and watch a peaceful sunset. The pink light dancing on the water is a very soothing tonic before bed.
And even without those coveted red tones, the twinkling white light on the water makes a beautiful display before the twinkle of the stars appears.