How To Predict A Good Sunset Or Sunrise

When you want to capture the perfect golden hour photo, it can be frustrating when the sunrise or sunset is underwhelming. Although it may seem to be completely random, there are a lot of ways you can easily predict a good sunrise or sunset to take photos of. All it takes is an understanding of some basic weather conditions and the help of a few free apps. Best of all, you don’t need to be a top-level meteorologist to figure it out. Here you’ll learn exactly what conditions make an amazing sunset or sunrise to help you accurately predict their outcomes in the future.

What Makes A Great Sunset Or Sunrise?

Nothing beats golden hour. That fleeting moment just before the sunrise or sunset. The warm hues and more vibrant tones are unlike anything else in the day.

With so much color, it’s no wonder that golden hour is the preferred time of day to take photos. After all, if you want to capture a scene in the best conditions possible, this is the time to do it!

As you’ve come to learn, not all sunsets and sunrises are made equal. Sometimes the colors are more vibrant than ever while other times there’s not much of anything.

With this inconsistency, it can be hard to know when you should be getting out to take a photo. Nothings as deflating as anticipating an epic sunset just for it to be exceptionally underwhelming.

So what’s the secret behind learning how to predict a good sunset or sunrise?

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Before you can figure this out, you need to learn what actually makes a sunset or sunrise look incredible.

As explained in The Science Of Sunset, golden hour occurs because light has to travel further through the atmosphere when the sun is closer to the horizon. With an increased distance, the shorter color wavelengths (like blue) scatter out before they ever reach your eye.

The result is an excess of warmer tones like orange and yellow when the sun is closer to the horizon. These colors end up making the vibrant hues of golden hour you know and love.

Although there is a sunrise and sunset every day, there are a variety of factors that alter how it appears. Things like moisture levels, cloud types, cloud height, wind levels, and air quality to be more specific.

In order to predict the perfect sunset or sunrise, you’ll need to understand each of these aspects.

Clouds

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Clouds are one of the biggest contributors to predicting a good sunset or sunrise. Different conditions will create a variety of clouds that each sit at varying heights above the ground.

In order to capture the best colors at golden hour, higher-level clouds provide the safest bet. Since there’s no chance of them blocking any light, high-level clouds will reflect color the best.

Of course, you can capture a great sunset or sunrise with low-level clouds, but it’s far less consistent. All it takes is one cloud to pass in front of the light and it’s game over.

For the most consistent golden hour conditions, opt for clouds that float higher above the ground.

– Best Types Of Clouds For Sunset & Sunrise

Luckily you don’t need to be a meteorologist to figure out the best types of clouds for sunset and sunrise. All it takes is remembering which types of clouds will create the best light.

In a nutshell, the best (and most consistent) cloud types for great sunsets and sunrises are high above the ground. There are a few main cloud types that do this.

1. Cirrus

Cirrus clouds are among the highest floating clouds typically at 18,000ft or higher above the ground. This cloud type is known for creating fantastic sunsets and sunrises since it reflects light extremely well.

Since they’re one of the highest cloud types, Cirrus clouds often hold color the longest during golden hour.

They most often appear as long, thin, and wispy clouds. Often they look very smooth in appearance and stretch across the sky in groups.

2. Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus clouds typically sit around 18,000ft above the ground like the Cirrus cloud. This cloud type often stretches across most of the sky and resembles a large group of small white puffs.

Since Cirrocumulus clouds stretch across much of the sky, it makes them a great cloud type for sunset and sunrise. They will beautifully reflect the sunset colors and can be lit up in a variety of warm hues.

Unlike some other clouds, Cirrocumulus will never create rain or merge with other clouds. This means it’s a safe bet that you’re in for some good weather if you see these clouds!

3. Altocumulus

Altocumulus clouds range in height between 6,000ft – 20,000ft above the ground. They resemble a group of cotton balls and can make for a pretty epic sunset or sunrise.

With so much texture to these clouds, they look great in golden hour photos. They usually occur when a warm front is coming in and are common across all parts of the world.

4. Cumulus

Cumulus clouds are among the lowest of clouds in this list sitting at just 6000ft or lower. These are commonly the type of cloud that many kids will try to find shapes in since they’re extremely fluffy. Taking on the appearance of a heaping cotton pile, Cumulus clouds are easy to spot.

Although they sit far below the height of other clouds, their fluffy look and heaping appearance work great for sunsets. Cumulus clouds will make any sky look more interesting during sunset or sunrise.

If you want to learn how to predict a good sunset or sunrise, remembering cloud types is important.

Although the major cloud contenders for great sunsets are listed above, check out ZME Science for more info on cloud types.

Weather Factors That Affect The Quality Of Sunrise And Sunset

There are a lot of aspects that come together to create amazing golden hour colors. Here are some things to keep aware of when trying to predict a good sunset or sunrise.

Cloud Ceiling

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As we talked about in the clouds section, the height of a cloud plays a massive roll in creating a good sunset or sunrise.

The cloud ceiling is the height of the lowest clouds in the sky. The higher the ceiling, the more vibrant and colorful golden hour is likely to be.

When the ceiling is higher up, the colors of golden hour will last far longer. Since the light will still hit higher areas, these clouds will remain lit up even once the sun is down.

If the cloud ceiling is high, it’s a safe bet that there will be some great sunset or sunrise colors.

Humidity

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Humidity plays a huge roll in how much moisture is in the air. If there are increased amounts of moisture, light rays will scatter far more than before.

As the light rays break apart and scatter, they become less and less vibrant. This is because there are simply fewer colors that actually reach your eye.

This isn’t to say that the sunset will be non-existent, but it will mute the vibrance significantly. The fewer times that waves of light get broken up, the better the sunset or sunrise will be.

That’s why in fall or winter time it’s common to have extremely vibrant sunsets since there is less humidity!

Air Quality

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Having clean air is essential in capturing the best sunset or sunrise possible. Whether it be pollution or dust, dirty air will heavily mute the colors of golden hour.

After a storm, the air quality is significantly increased. Any rain can help to settle the dust in the air and strong winds can clear away pollutants.

Typically the first sunny day after a storm offers incredible sunsets or sunrises because of the air quality. With less debris for light to fight through, it appears as vibrant as possible!

Wind

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Wind can have both a positive and negative effect when it comes to predicting a great sunrise or sunset.

It can be good in the sense that it will clear away pollutants and help to improve the air quality.

It can be bad because it may blow away all the clouds. Without clouds, sunset and sunrise become a lot less interesting to photograph.

Becoming aware of the wind is important to better predict the conditions for golden hour. With high winds, the clouds you see now could be completely gone by the time sunset or sunrise hits.

How To Predict A Good Sunset

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To predict a good sunset you need to take into consideration a variety of factors. Things like cloud type, cloud ceiling, humidity, air quality, and wind, play the biggest role in making a good sunset. Here are the main aspects you’ll want to look for to predict a good sunset:

  • Mid to Higher-level clouds such as Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, Altocumulus, or Cumulus clouds
  • Less than 60% cloud coverage 
  • Clean air, especially after a storm
  • Low humidity 

How To Predict A Good Sunrise

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To predict a good sunrise, you need to think about important aspects around temperature, humidity, cloud type, cloud coverage, and more. Here are the main aspects to look for in order to predict a good sunrise:

  • High-level clouds like Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, Altocumulus clouds
  • Less than 60% cloud coverage 
  • Clean air 
  • Low humidity and cooler temperature

Tools To Help You Predict Good Sunsets And Sunrises

Sure you could use your eyes to make a guess at how good the sunset or sunrise will be.

But what if you wanted some added reassurance?

There are a few different apps that you can use to accurately predict a good sunset and sunrise with ease. Here are a few different options you should try:

1. SkyCandy (Free Mobile App + In-App Purchases)

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SkyCandy is a mobile app that uses current and future weather data to predict the quality of an upcoming sunset or sunrise. In the eyes of this app, the quality of golden hour depends on the vibrance of colors there will be. It’s up to 80% accurate making it a reliable tool for planning your outings around.

Notable SkyCandy Features:

  • Will send you alerts when there is going to be a great sunset or sunrise
  • Save different map locations and receive sunrise and sunset forecasts
  • Has a sun position tool to help plan exactly where the sunrise or sunset will be from any location

Learn More And Download SkyCandy

2. SunsetWx (Free Website)

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SunsetWx is a free online app that forecasts the sunrise and sunset quality around the globe. It allows you to access a variety of maps and view an hourly prediction for the quality of golden hour. Although it looks complicated at first, the more red the color, the more vibrant the sunset or sunrise. This is another useful tool to help you choose when to go capture golden hour photos!

Notable SunsetWx Features:

  • Hourly sunset and sunrise models
  • Global, European, and US map models.
  • Daily and future sunrise and sunset predictions

Click Here To Access The SunsetWx Website

3. My Sunset App (Free Mobile App)

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My Sunset allows you to look at current and predicted sunrise and sunset models with ease. It automatically shows predictions based around your current location and allows you to navigate a map in real-time. This app is completely free with no in-app purchases but only has a 50% reliability rating. My Sunset is a useful tool if you want an idea of what to expect, but don’t be upset if it’s wrong.

  • An interactive map that you can toggle between sunrise and sunset modes
  • Set custom locations to see forecasted sunrise and sunset conditions
  • Unlimited custom locations to forecast from

Learn More And Download My Sunset

How To Capture The Perfect Sunset Or Sunrise Photos

Now that you know exactly how to predict a good sunset or sunrise, let’s talk about capturing one. If you’re serious about taking amazing golden hour photos, use these tips to help make it happen!

– Arrive Well Before Sunrise Or Sunset

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One of the biggest mistakes photographers make when shooting sunrise or sunset it arriving too late. The best light will only last for a few minutes, so you better make sure you’re ready!

Don’t scramble around trying to set up your gear, pick your settings, or find a place to shoot. Show up early to allow yourself time to get situated.

Take a walk around to see where the best photos could be taken from. Think about what lens or filters you want to use. Take a moment to get yourself sorted before the show begins.

It’s best to arrive at least an hour early before sunset or sunrise. This will give you enough time to organize your thoughts and capture the perfect golden hour photo.

– Make Sure To Define A Clear Subject In Your Frame

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A lot of people get so excited about an amazing sunset that they just take a picture of the sky.

What about all the amazing light hitting the ground?

Rather than just focusing on the sky, be sure to establish a clear point of interest in your photos. That could be a person, a beach, a cliff face, a mountain, you name it.

Anything that will give your photo more context is fair game.

Establishing a clear subject is an important part of composition in photography, but is especially important at sunrise and sunset.

– Try Using A Graduated ND Filter

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A graduate ND filter is a lens filter that only darkens a portion of your image. This is extremely useful to balance your exposure and make the colors of the sky appear more vibrant.

These filters are especially useful for landscape photographers who are trying to capture an overall environment. Graduated ND filters come at a variety of price points and are a worthy investment for many photographers.

I currently use the Lee Filters ND.6 Soft Edge Grad and have no complaints. It’s been a must-have in my camera bag for a number of years.

– Capture A Sun Flare

Sun flares are a great way to spice up your sunset or sunrise photography. Since it creates a star shape to the sun, it draws a lot more attention to your image.

Sun flares can be easily captured with just about any camera with a manual aperture. With a smaller F-stop you can manipulate the incoming sunlight to create a star shape in your photo.

To do this, all you need to do is use an aperture of F/16 or higher. You can make your sun flares pop even more by partially hiding the light behind an edge. This creates an awesome effect where the sun star stretches out around the covering edge!

Learn More: How To Capture Sun Flares In Your Photography

– Use The Right Camera Settings

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In order to capture the sunrise or sunset as you imagine in your head, you need to use the right settings. With golden hour photography, there are a few important aspects to consider with your camera settings.

For example, you can utilize a more shallow depth of field to create a more glowy effect to the image.

You could use a longer focal length to make the sunset or sunrise feel more dramatic.

You could make use of an ND filter to capture a long exposure to add a new level of interest to your image.

Camera settings are essential for perfectly capturing any sunrise or sunset. Check out my guide to the best camera settings for golden hour to get started on the right foot!

Conclusion

So that’s how to predict a good sunset or sunrise with some added tips to help you capture the perfect shot. By utilizing the strategies, apps, and photography tips outlined here, you’ll be sure to capture amazing golden hour photos in no time.

With all that said, keep in mind that predicting a sunset or sunrise won’t always be accurate. There are times where things look like they’re lining up for some epic colors, but not a whole lot ever show up. Rather than getting frustrated over an unsatisfactory sunset or sunrise, enjoy it for what it is.

After all, a bad sunset is still better than a good day at work.

If you know someone who you love to know how to predict a good sunrise or sunset, be sure to share this post with them!

If you want to level up your photography, you’ll love this 12-Week Photography Blueprint. If you’re a beginner photographer and aren’t sure where to start, this blueprint offers actionable advice to help you improve. With weekly challenges and countless tips, this is the easiest way to jump-start your photography, even on a busy schedule!

Happy Shooting,

– Brendan