Chasing That Perfect Sunset!
Many of us photographers have shot enough sunrise/sunsets to know that if there’s no clouds or too many clouds that your sky won’t have that “OMG WOW” look you are after. When I started out 8 years ago I was going out almost every morning hoping for a good sunrise but got frustrated with not just a wasted morning but the costs of travel and time. Clouds just intensify the colour of the whole scene through light reflections and ambiance.
This blog post is for those that want to learn how they can better plan ahead for that next shoot and whether or not they will actually rise at 3am to make the trek to their chosen location.
What’s interesting about being a landscape (outdoors) photographer is your connection to the land and earth is strengthened by being in tune with the weather. You start to watch the wind in the trees, the position of the sun and how the clouds are shaping in the sky. Something akin to this feeling is being a surfer, which I was back in my uni days. You are always feeling the wind and watching it’s direction, watching the swell and how the ocean is moving as these all affect the waves you might surf. This is what I love about this practice of watching the weather as a photographer, your relationship to the earth just grows stronger.
For me, I am looking for the goldilocks number of clouds around 50% medium and 50-60% high clouds. As well as little surface wind as this can make it difficult to shoot in. If I am shooting seascapes I also want a high swell and low wind speeds as high winds will make the surface of the water all choppy, make the water discolored and not to mention your camera tripod needs to be steady.
If you want the scientific explanations for colours in the sky then read this online paper – “The Colors of Sunset and Twilight”
Ways to Improve Your Chances...
Weather forecasting has advanced to the point where we are better able to predict cloud cover in a percentage a few days ahead. But, it’s important to use trusted, reliable services for these predictions as I have found many are not even close to being correct.
Along with cloud cover photographers can also get valuable information on wind speed and direction, ocean/river tides and swell, humidity, chance of rain, air quality and many other factors that will contribute to the perfect conditions for making that jaw-dropping photo a reality!
"My Trusted" Websites & Apps for Predicting Weather for Photographers
Let’s start with the site Windy.com as it’s usually where I start 🙂
On Windy.com you can zoom in and out of the interactive map right in your web browser and it will give graphical representations of both live and predicted weather conditions. I actually love to check the weather this way, especially watching the clouds and pressure systems move across Australia. There is so much information on this site, soooo much! Like you can select a location and get a very detailed view about it and then view that area in all the various modes like wind, rain, temperature, clouds and waves.
Here’s and example of the cloud map in forecast mode and you can also see all the wind particles moving across the graphic, and it actually moves! It’s so cool.
You can zoom in to any area on the globe and click on that city and an information bar will slide up at the bottom showing you everything from temperatures to rain and wind readings for that area. You can even view webcams for that city and see what the weather is like with live video.
I think Windy.com is easily a first stop for most photographers when planning if they will set that 3am alarm in the morning! If you haven’t tried windy yet, go there NOW! and start clicking all the buttons on there and you will be amazed.
Next up is Weatherzone.
Weatherzone is my trusted weather site for getting information quickly on my local area. I also use the Weatherzone app on my phone, which you can find in your app store, and it will give you quick and to the point weather forecasts. I have found that it is fairly accurate when it comes to predicting the weather, so that is why I have stuck with this one over the years. I also used to use a weatherzone+ acc to chase lightning storms when I lived in the more tropical climates of Australia. You can get live views of lightning strike locations on a live map, so it’s a great way to know when the storms are coming and more importantly where they are heading. All doing this on your phone whilst out hunting lightning to photograph was very exciting to say the least.
The web browser version of Weatherzone offers up more detailed information. A great feature on the browser version is that you can view radar, synoptic and satellite maps. If you select satellite maps you will actually be able to view the clouds and lightning is available free in the web browser version. But this is a good way to view what are the major cloud systems are and which direction they are going and when they will be moving towards your city.
Another site I use, and is Australia only sorry guys, is CloudFreeNight
What I like about this is that I can focus in on Sydney, Australia, and get forecasts for the various levels of cloud these being low, medium and high. What I am looking for is a nice level of high clouds as they’re the clouds which produce those deep reds and orange sunrise/sunsets. A good mix of high and medium clouds and with a gap on the horizon for the sun to poke through is the perfect setup in my opinion. Of course you needs to make sure that wind speeds are going to be low because high winds equals bad day for photography (I know I’ve had a tripod blow over with a Nikon D800 + Nikkor 14-24mm on it on a rock shelf by the sea).
You can also get a prediction of the total cloud cover and compare it to Windy.com and Weatherzone. But CloudFreeNight breaks the clouds down into their various levels in the atmosphere and gives the percentage forecasts.
Below is the cloud forecast for sydney I took off CloudFreeNight just now for the rest of the week and if you look at Weds 15 AUG 19:00 you can see some good middle and high cloud percentages. Sunset is currently at 5:25pm so it would be cutting it close to that time if the high cloud system would arrive for the sunset. But looking at the weather for the rest of the week it would be worth a gamble for me to go out and shoot this sunset. You can see Sydney has a LOT of 0% numbers throughout the week which means we have blue skies ahead, not great for photography but good to know in advance before planning your trips!
This app I kind of use for fun and it can be really hit and miss but worth a share! It’s called SkyCandy
In the free version it gives you a prediction score (%) of how good the next sunrise/sunset is going to be. Well I took a reading on Skycandy for Aug 15th and it gives a score of 65%. You want the result to be as close to 100% as possible for a colorful sky during the sunset/sunrise, so 65% is just okish but not amazing. (I’ll put the screenshot below, image on left)
The app also has times for your golden hours, sunset/sunrise and blue hour (middle image below). These can actually be really handy to know what time you need to be at your location and what time you will leave.
There’s a few premium feature that lets you predict scores for 5 days ahead as well as selecting other locations and removing the ads. But, if you just want to see a prediction for the current sunset/sunrise then the app is free. You can have up to 2 predictions a day free before the app will make you watch a short ad. So, this isn’t so bad really… how many times do you need to check the score??? 🙂
You can do all the planning in the world and then mother nature can just turn the world on its head. Weather forecasting isn’t 100% and you realise this the more you read weather. But the sites I have shared are the best out there and I have found there information to be very reliable over the years.
Hope you found this helpful, I will be heading out tonight to shoot that sunset so fingers cross my Skycandy score of 65% and CloudFreeNight predictions for high and medium clouds are correct. Perhaps I will share the photos regardless of the brilliance of the sunset, for scientific purposes 😉