A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or hazy air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. Despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. But if particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its vivid sunsets and Hawaii’s main claim to fame would be its beaches. (Okay, and maybe its luaus. And waterfalls. And pineapples. And Mai Tais. And…. Well, maybe lots of great stuff, but not its sunsets.)
So what is the secret to a great sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a good start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally. I look for a mix of clouds (to catch the color) with an opening for the sun to pass through and light the clouds. But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air—the cleaner the better.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to color the sky. Visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length. The color we perceive is a function of wavelength, ranging from short to long: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various wavelength points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of wavelength-depenedent colors between each of these colors.)
Because a beam of sunlight passing in a vacuum (such as space) moves in a straight line (we won’t get into relativity and the effect of gravity on a beam of light), all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white. When a beam of sunlight encounters something (like Earth’s atmosphere), its light can be absorbed or scattered, depending on the wavelength and the properties of the interfering medium, and we see as color the remaining wavelength that reach our eyes.
For example, when sunlight strikes a leaf, all of its wavelengths except those that we perceive as green are absorbed, while the green wavelengths bounce to our eyes.
Color my world
Since our atmosphere is not a vacuum, sunlight is changed simply by passing through it. In an atmosphere without impurities (such as smoke and dust), light interacts only with air molecules. Air molecules are so small that they scatter only a very narrow range of wavelengths. This atmospheric scattering acts like a filter that scatters the violet and blue wavelengths first, allowing the longer wavelengths to pass through. When our sunlight has traveled through a relatively small amount of atmosphere (as it does when the sun is overhead), the wavelengths that reach our eyes are the just-scattered violet and blue wavelengths, and our sky looks blue (the sky appears more blue than violet because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light).
On the other hand, because the longer orange and red wavelengths are less easily scattered, they travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere. When the sun is on the horizon, its light has passed through much more atmosphere than it did when it was directly overhead, so the only light reaching our eyes at sunrise or sunset has been stripped of its shorter (blue and violet) wavelengths by its lengthy journey, leaving only the longer, orange and red wavelengths to color our sky. Sunset! (Or sunrise.)
Pollution dampens the filtering process. Rather than only scattering specific colors, light that encounters a molecule larger than its wavelength is more completely scattered—in other words, instead of scattering only the blue and violet wavelengths, polluted air catches some orange and reds too. Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kale—uhh, yum?) knows the smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. Midday light that interacts with large particles in the atmosphere is similarly muddied, while polluted sunrise and sunset light has already had much of its red stripped out.
Verify this for yourself the next time a storm clears as the sun sets, and compare the color you see to the color on a hazy, summer evening in the city.
Tips for maximizing sunset color in a photograph
Any time rain has cleared the atmosphere and the remaining clouds are mixed with sunlight, there’s a good chance for vivid sunrise or sunset color. I have a few go-to locations near home, and at my frequently visited photo locations (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Hawaii, and so on) that I beeline to when there’s a chance for color in the sky.
When I’m on location and preparing my shot before the sunset show begins, I look for clouds receiving direct sunlight. This is the light that will most likely color up at sunset, starting with an amber glow that transitions to pink, red, and eventually a deep orange.
An often overlooked color opportunity when the air is clean is the horizon opposite the sun after sunset or before sunrise. When the sun is below the horizon, the opposite horizon reveals the transition between the blues of night and the pinks of the sun’s first or last rays the best color of the day. This is especially true when there are no clouds in the direction of the sun. Photographing this twilight color with your back to the sun’s horizon has the added advantage of being much less contrasty and easier to manage with a camera.
Maximizing sunset color in your images requires careful exposure and composition decisions. By far the most frequent problem is overexposure—giving the scene more light than necessary. In scenes of such extreme contrast, your camera can’t capture the entire range of light your eyes see. And of course your camera has no idea what you’re photographing, so if you leave the exposure decision up to automatic metering, you’ll likely end up with a compromise exposure that tries to pull detail out of the shadows at the expense of color in the sky.
Since it’s the color you’re most interested in capturing, it’s usually best to spare the color in the highlights and let your shadows darken. This usually requires some planning—finding striking finding foreground subjects that stand out against the brighter sky, or water to reflect the sky’s color.
When you’ve found your sunset subject and are ready to shoot, base your exposure decisions on your camera’s histogram, not the way the picture looks on the LCD (never a reliable gauge of actual exposure). Remember, since your camera can’t capture what your eyes see anyway, the amount of light you give your scene is a creative decision. After you’ve exposed, make sure you check your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped one of your color channels (most likely the red channel).
You can read more about metering in my Manual Exposure article.
For example: Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Sentinel Dome in Yosemite provides a 360 degree view of Yosemite and surrounding Sierra peaks. Among the many reasons it’s such a great sunset spot is that from atop Sentinel Dome you can see what’s happening on the western horizon and plan your shoot long before sunset arrives. On this summer evening I was up there shortly after an afternoon rain shower. Though air was crystal clear, lots of clouds remained—and there was an opening on the western horizon for the sun to slip through just before disappearing for the night.
Rather than settle for a more standard Half Dome composition, I wandered around a bit in search of an interesting foreground. I ended up targeting this group of dead pines on Sentinel’s northeast slope, a couple of hundred feet down from the summit. It was no coincidence that sunset that night, one of the most vivid I’ve ever seen, came shortly after a storm had cleansed the atmosphere. Not only did the clouds fire up, the color was so intense that its reflection colored the granite, trees, and pretty much every other exposed surface.
For example: Hilltop Oaks, Sierra Foothills
I was driving the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento looking for the right subject to put with this fiery sunset. Earlier in the sunset it had simply been a been a matter of finding a photogenic tree (or trees), but with the sun more than 15 minutes below the horizon, the foreground was so dark I needed a subject to silhouette against the sky—anything else would have been lost in the rapidly blackening shadows. These trees showed up just in the nick of time.
Color like this comes late (or, at sunrise, early), in the direction of the sun long after most people have gone to dinner (or while they’re still in bed). Everything in this scene that’s not sky is black, which is why my subject needed to stand out against the sky. I was so happy with my discovery that these trees have become go-to subjects for me—browse my galleries and count how many times you see one or both of them (often with a crescent moon).
For example: South Tufa, Mono Lake
The air on Sierra’s east side is much cleaner than air on the more populated west side, and the clouds formed as the prevailing westerly wind descends the Sierra’s precipitous east side are both unique and dramatic. Mono Lake makes a particularly nice subject for the Eastern Sierra’s brilliant sunrise/sunset shows. Not only does it benefit from the clean air and photogenic clouds, Mono Lake’s tufa formations and often glassy surface make a wonderful foreground. The openness of the terrain surrounding Mono Lake allows you to watch the entire sunrise or sunset unfold. Many times over the course of a sunrise or sunset I’ve photographed in every direction.
The image here was captured at the start of a particularly vivid sunrise. The air was clean, with just the right mix of clouds and clear sky; perfectly calm air allowed the lake’s surface to smooth to glass. I find that the more I can anticipate skies like this, the better prepared I am when something spectacular happens. In this case I was at the lake well before the color started, but because it looked like all the sunrise stars were aligning, I was able to plan my composition and settings well before the color started.
A sunset (and sunrise) color gallery