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  • Austin James Jackson

How to Predict the Best Sunsets and Sunrises for Landscape Photography

It's no secret that the best photographers always seem to be in the right place at the right time. As landscape photographers, we yearn for those killer sunsets where the sky is on fire. If you've been shooting photos for long, you've certainly been out shooting and the conditions just weren't what you thought they'd be. I know the feeling, and because of it, I've spent months researching and testing different technology in order to give myself the best chances to predict the burner sunrises and sunsets. This week's post is dedicated to sharing all of my knowledge on how to predict the best sunsets and sunrises for landscape photography.

Sunset over The Enchantments of Washington.
A beautiful sunset that I was fortunate to capture in the backcountry of Washington.

A Note on

Sunset/Sunrise "Predictors"

After spending over a year bouncing back and forth between two different sunset/sunrise predictors, I was frustrated at the lack of accuracy that they gave me. When I looked at a general weather forecast online, I'd see clear conditions, yet my sunset predictor showed bright red, meaning the sky was predicted to explode with color. On the other hand, often times when the predictor called for poor skies, I'd look outside from my desk to be disappointed by an amazing sunset or sunrise that I didn't go out to shoot. I spent so many days trusting these predictors where I didn't get the conditions that I had hoped, and so I decided there must be a better way.

It is worth noting that the predictor was generally somewhat accurate in predicting a poor sunset, but this isn't a very hard task. If you know it's raining with horrible low clouds, it's clear that the sunset will not be good. You don't need an app to tell you that! However, the forecast often predicted incorrectly when the sunset was incredible, or when the predictor thought it would be good but it turned out to be nothing but grey sky. I purchased a membership for Skyfire, which offered both a basic and premium membership, both of which charged money. In the whole year I was subscribed (it's not free), the predictor only accurately predicted one good sunset out of many dozens of time I went out shooting. I was so locked into trusting the predictor that I would never go out unless the forecast showed amazing skies, and I lost a lot of great opportunities because of it.

The other predictor that I used off and on was the free SunsetWx, a web based model. It wasn't any better in predicting than the Photographer's Ephemeris, and so I quickly abandoned that as well.

Ultimately, I was frustrated. I have limited time to go out and shoot, and I want to make sure when I do go out that the conditions are great! I knew there had to be a better way, so I researched apps that could help me predict these great sunsets myself.


Helpful Apps

Clear Outside

The first app I quickly became fond of is called Clear Outside. Fair warning, it does not have the most user friendly interface and can be difficult to set up, but once you've used it for a while, you will get the hang of it.

clear outside app landscape photography
Using the Clear Outside app

Clear Outside is nice because you can put exact GPS coordinates for any spot you'd like. In this example, I'm using Pacific City as my location. The app shows me the date, and a bunch more information in a table. The date goes out about 6 days, which is nice for predicting the best night to shoot in advance.

When we look down into the table, we can see that it shows quite a few things, but what's most important here is the total, low, medium, and high cloud, and how that lines up with your sunset. Total cloud cover is important because if it's 100 (%), you won't have any color and if it's 0 (%), you'll have a bluebird sky. If you're like me, neither of these are considered very ideal conditions. However, when I start to see numbers between 50-90, I get excited. This means that there will be some gaps in the clouds, and if these gaps happen to be on the horizon, you have a pretty good shot at some amazing conditions.

Even better yet, I love to look at the low, medium, and high clouds. Low clouds rarely will produce a great sunset, but medium, and especially high clouds often deliver those red skies we are all after. High clouds are best, but medium clouds are also worth going out for. I like to look at how the clouds are trending as well. Is the cloud cover a constant all day? This generally won't produce a great sunset. However, if the cloud cover is increasing or decreasing over a short period of time, this maximizes your chances for a great sunset or sunrise. In the above example, I would DEFINITELY take my chances on Pacific City this night. In just five hours, clouds go from essentially blue sky to 92% cover. 92% is pretty high, and you have a decent chance of being skunked, but those high numbers are going to deliver the most amazing skies, or a bust. High risk, high reward, am I right?

Dark Sky

For trip planning, I love using Dark Sky on the web, as well as in the Dark Sky Mobile App. The web version is free, and I prefer to use it online, but the app ($2.99) is very useful because you can pull it up anywhere on your phone.

The web version has a lot of features, but the only one I really find myself using for photography is the Maps. You can find this option at the top of the page. Once you're on the maps page, you'll want to switch the option on the top off of temperature (the default) and set it to "Cloud Cover". You'll then see a map (mine defaults to a map of the whole US) that is white and blue, with white being cloud cover, and blue being clear sky.

Dark sky cloud cover map
This is the cloud cover map for October 16th at 7am. If I was on a road trip on the Oregon Coast, I'd notice that Brookings has a 77% cloud cover at 7am (sunrise). I'd use this map to plan on being in Brookings that morning.

As I mentioned before, I love using this tool for road trips. As I write this, I'm on the road in Utah, and I've been using this every day to decide where I want to go next. I simply zoom in to the state of Utah, and I change the time and date to see where I can expect clouds over the next few days.

The mobile app is nice to have as well, since you won't always be at a place where you can flip open your computer and go to the Dark Sky Maps website. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, the Dark Sky Maps inside of the app only support a temperature map and a precipitation map. However, you can still use the tools to see cloud cover for every hour, and you're able to load out cloud cover for every day in the next week. Obviously, forecasts change, and the app seems to be updated very regularly.

Again, just like in the Clear Outside app, I'm looking for 50-90% cloud cover to really get me excited.

viewing cloud cover in the dark sky app
This gives the forecast for the exact place I am in now, which is one of the key advantages of the app. I've changed the filter to "Cloud Cover", and it shows the next 22 hours of cloud cover. If I scroll down, I can select a different date, which would allow me to look at up to the next week's worth of cloud cover.

Ultimately, the best way to catch great conditions is to go out as often as possible. Unfortunately, most of us don't have unlimited time on our hands, so apps like these help us find out when the conditions might be exceptional. By no means do I consider this a formula for guaranteed success, but it definitely helps quite a bit.

By using these tools, I've been able to grab so many amazing sunsets and sunrises that I otherwise would not have went out to shoot. Thanks for reading this week's blog post on predicting the best sunsets and sunrises for photography, and I'll leave a few of my favorite sunset and sunrise images below: