How to capture the perfect sunset: It’s as easy as 1-2-3!

Forecast model of optimal sunsets as developed by Sunsetwx.com (Courtesy of Sunsetwx.com)

Predicting the weather is hard enough, let alone predicting when to have the camera ready for the perfect sunset.

While companies like SunsetWX.com have put together forecast models that indicate the optimal atmospheric conditions for a spectacular sky, you can actually use your own observation methods to predict when the sky’s splendor will be at its best:

1.) Determine when sunset occurs, and set up about half an hour beforehand

Sunset at the Hard Dock Decatur

As the sun drops lower towards the horizon, its rays are entering the earth’s atmosphere at a lower angle; as a result, the sunlight passes through a thicker layer of atmosphere before being observed by our eyes.

Shorter wavelengths — like blues and purples — scatter away faster, allowing for deeper oranges and ambers to pass through. Click here to find out what time the sun sets where you live (it changes with latitude as well as with each calendar date), and then set up about 30 minutes prior to take in the full show of the evening sky.

2.) Determine if clouds will be present during sunset

While a clear sky will provide a stunning backdrop, clouds make for a much more dramatic visual during sunsets.

Sunset in Hazel Green. Courtesy of Dustin Taylor

Many of the pink and purple sunsets occur after scattered storms fizzle yet water droplets and water vapor continues to linger in the sky. These droplets — as well as dust and dirt particles — further scatter the light and produce rich hues of reds, pinks, and purples.

You can check the radar and see if storms are dissipating (our interactive radar is available online as well as on our mobile apps). In addition, you can check satellite data to see what kinds of clouds may be present (high, thin clouds like cirrus are made of ice crystals, which will scatter the light and produce different hues from lower, thicker clouds made of water like cumulus clouds).

A great “cloud forecast” tool for predicting the sky condition several hours to a day ahead of time can be found at a website called ClearDarkSky.com, which is frequently used by astronomers for predicting ideal conditions for stargazing.

3.) Familiarize yourself with some of the best sunset features

Sunset is the best time to view the following features (see gallery below):

  • Crepuscular rays
  • Anticrepuscular rays
  • Thunderstorm anvils
  • Thunderstorm overshooting tops

No matter what you see out there, be sure to share your sunset photos with us!