Evolution of a Sunset

I bet you’re a bit like me: at end of a long day, I look forward to a brilliant sunset. This seems especially true during the summer when I welcome the transition into the cool evening air. Seeing the sunset colors evolve is a beautiful way to end the day.

Sunrises and sunsets are guaranteed to happen each day, and yet they’re never the same.  Somedays they are a “dud”, and somedays they knock your socks off.  Is it possible to know beforehand how colorful the sunrise or sunset will be?

Yes, by knowing what conditions to look for, you can do pretty well in predicting how colorful things will be.

Continuing on my earlier discussion on the artistic light of New Mexico, I present conditions that favor stunning sunsets along with some images from the other evening outside of Santa Fe.

Will it be a good sunset?  Some clouds were forming and there was still a gap, albeit a shrinking one, on the western horizon for sunlight to sneak underneath the clouds.   At this point, I was not too excited about the sunset potential due to the clouds on the western horizon.  One of the most important things to look for are clouds that can be underlit at sunrise or sunset.

About an hour before sunset keep an eye out for:

  1. Are there any clouds in the sky? Think of the clouds as the painter’s canvas on which the sun will paint warm colors.
  2. Clear skies are usually boring at sunset.  Ideally you want some clouds.
  3. Before sunrise, look east and check if the sunrise will be completely occluded by clouds.  Do the same looking west at sunset.

At this point, I am pleasantly surprised to see rich sunset colors slipping underneath the clouds as the sun begins to drop below the horizon.  Could I be lucky enough to experience the rare “gap light”, that results in phenomenal atmospheric lighting?

The best light occurs before sunrise and after sunset.  I am always blown away as I watch crowds of photographers pack up and leave when the “sunset is over” — only to wonder what the bright scarlet red colors are in their rear view mirror as they drive away.

Clouds on the western horizon usually prevent a good sunset from occurring.  They block the light. On rare occasions though there is a very narrow gap between the landscape and the clouds.  The resulting sunset can be phenomenal when the clouds block the intense white light in the sky around the sun and only let through a narrow band of saturated colors from sun rays that briefly shine through this gap.  This is referred to as “gap light”.

A good strategy is:

  1. If you did venture out to photograph the sunset and find clouds on the western horizon, then be patient and wait at least 30 minutes after the sun fully sets below the horizon.  If incredible light will occur, this is when it will happen.  For sunrises you need to get up early and be in your preferred viewing location at least 30 minutes before sunrise.
  2. Learn to distinguish between completely occluded horizons (fog, big storms), and cloudy horizons with the potential for gap light to occur.
  3. Have a few preferred settings close to home, or work, where you can quickly get to when sunrise or sunset conditions are looking good.

In a surprisingly fast time, the sky lit up with the most amazing light.  New Mexico does have incredible skies, and tonight’s sunset was one of the best I have seen in 25 years here!  My patience and persistence paid off tonight.  Just when I thought the clouds on the western horizon would quench the sunset, gap lighting happened!  To “ground” the photograph I  moved a few hundred yards to include this rock formation in the composition.

Just imagine being out on this landscape and experiencing the sky light up suddenly from softer pastels of blues and pinks to an explosion of reds and oranges.  I was blown away by how fast this transition occurred.

Gap light happens quickly.  The brightest colors remained only for a couple of minutes at most.  There was no time for messing around.

In order to ensure you photograph the scene well, it pays to take multiple exposures.  Expose the sky darker than the foreground.  To properly display what your eye can see out in nature you may have to combine multiple exposures, or selectively lighten the dark foreground.

The glow from the clouds now lit up the landscape.  I noticed a pink illumination on one side of the rock formation — moving my location to capture it.  This light was coming from clouds that were glowing red.  The sun was now well below the horizon at a different angle.  Clouds towering high above the landscape lit up by red light, were now the source of light — soft with a pink hue.

I was glad that I convinced myself to venture out and photograph the sunset this night!  When I saw the clouds thickening on the horizon I almost headed back home.  Clouds on the eastern horizon at sunrise, or western horizon at sunset, have blocked many sunrises and sunsets for me in the past.  Experiences like this gap light sunset continue to motivate me to just head out and see what nature has to teach me.

This article is Part 2 of an ongoing series I am writing about “Artistic Light in the New Mexico”.  To read about why the sky is so colorful with reds and oranges at sunset please see my earlier article.

New Mexico is not the only place these incredible sunsets occur.  Areas where some clouds decorate the sky, and the air is dry and clean, tend to have colorful sunrises and sunsets.

Just out of curiosity, where have you seen your best sunset?

“There is never one sunrise the same or one sunset the same”
–Carlos Santana

7 replies
  1. Tammy Nelson
    Tammy Nelson says:

    My favorite place to photograph sunrise and sunsets are in Park County, Colorado, where, the clouds hang up in the mountains, which, surround the rolling grasslands. I also enjoy photographing Arizona.

    Thanks for the tips!

  2. Paul Malinowski
    Paul Malinowski says:

    Great articles, Ed. I got my most spectacular sunrise ever this March in the San Luis Valley at about 30 minutes before sunrise from that same lookout you took us to a couple years ago. Only drawback: the reds were so vivid everyone assumes I have altered it in post-processing!

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Thanks, Paul. That is a great area for some incredible skies. It is disappointing when people assume that you have altered your photographs, or that famous question “Is this Photoshopped?” One trick I have been doing is to take a selfie with my phone camera that shows my serious camera on the tripod and the LCD display all lit up, along with the sky — as evidence that those colors are indeed real. In many cases, in fact, for two of the images in this blog article, I actually de-saturated the reds and oranges some. So the natural colors were even more intense. Glad you are getting out to the San Luis Valley, hopefully, we can meet up there in the fall.

  3. werner (hank) beckerhoff
    werner (hank) beckerhoff says:

    Thanks Ed. Verifies what I have thought. Now to get myself in the right place at the right time. Motivation.

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      You are welcome, Hank. I like to have a few sunrise foregrounds, and a few sunset locations, that I can get to quickly if the sunrise/sunset looks good. Motivation… oh yes, that! There have been more than a few times when I opted to lay in bed, thinking “Nah… the sunrise will not be that good…” — only to wake up by the bright glow of the sky later:-). Hope you are doing well, I have been enjoying your phenomenal woodworking art you have been posting!


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