How to Predict and Photograph Dramatic Sunsets

f2.8 1/60 sec. ISO 640 This is unprocessed color. Cool colors, no?

And did we have one last night…. want to know when one is coming?

This was the view at the end of my street above the Niagara River and Falls on Wednesday night. The vegetation you see is the trees and understory along the Niagara Gorge rim, before the big drop down to the river. The sky and sunset were just spectacular.

I have been wanting to do this post for a while because the tip is pretty simple, but I had to wait until nature was obliging for a really colorful and crazily patterned sky. There is just one simple thing to be aware of to up your percentage of photographing a dramatic sunset.

f8 1/640 ISO 400 The sun is almost behind the tree, but in moves a storm front.

Most everyone can photograph a nice sunset, that is not hard at all. But looking for and wanting more, it is often like trying to capture the spirit of a moment and grabbing nothing but a handful of smoke. It just seems out of reach sometimes. Everything has to gel and come together for a sky like above.

Predicting when you will have a dramatic sunset is not all that easy either since clouds are always on the move. But at least there is a way to know where to start. The best displays are dependent on how high and thin the clouds are above. Wind speed and direction helps determine the scene also. One hour you have them and another you don’t.

f2.8 1/80 ISO 640 Taken about four minutes before the first image.  The sky deepened in vibrancy as I walked the half block and crossed the street at the end. It became more beautiful the nearer I got to the point where the glowing ball was setting.

This view was directly above my house, but of course I would not be satisfied with this and walked to the end of the street for something better with the sun setting over Canada to the west of us. Walking further to get a clean view across the river in the first image would have resulted in all this drama disappearing really fast, so I stayed put.

This type of high cloud scene above creates some of the most spectacular visual effects, including the red and orange skies seen here at sunset. Cirrus clouds are joined by cirrostratus clouds, which appear as thin sheets across the sky. The thin, wispy cirrus clouds thicken to form cirrostratus (flatter and thicker) clouds, the darkened areas I presume.

I am not very familiar with cloud types, but do know there are many variations on most of the major cloud formations. All have a slightly different form, water makeup and shape.

f9 1/160 sec ISO 125 Niagara River at the power intakes.

One can watch the clouds in the afternoon and get a sense of whether or not they will be the right ones hours later. There is no guarantee, but if winds are low, they may stick around, or be followed with similar clouds.

The high, thin single layer of clouds need to stretch across the sky like you see above. The layer has to exist singularly, not in combination with thicker clouds along the horizon. If puffy clouds are at the horizon, like below, the sun will not likely make it past them to light the underside of the thin clouds above.

f11 1/500 sec. ISO 100 Stormy sky in Lockport, NY.

The ribbon-like cloud formation in this photo is pretty amazing, but notice the heavy clouds on the horizon. Also note the rain filled clouds. They would likely block out the sun from shining through and making the display. As the sun sinks, there would be little chance of the sun breaking through to produce a dramatic sunset.

Below is the wide shot of an image above. You can see this sunset below disappearing before your eyes. From my list below, this is Stratocumulus clouds moving in to snuff out the pretty sky.

f8 1/1250 ISO 400 See the mood change from the lighter image of this scene, shown earlier? It was all in the shutter speed selected. Image from Scenic Sunday. Image taken at the Farm.

I mentioned early in the post about waiting in a location for the right moment. And in this image below, waiting for the sunset, the unexpected can happen. Scroll down for the same image minutes apart and see the difference. I was not waiting for geese, I was waiting for a sunset, but which turned out better?

A processed image from the post, Scenic Sunday. Image taken in Maine.

 f10 1/320 ISO 200 Casco Bay, Maine. An unprocessed image minutes before.

This cloud formation was looking promising, then no clouds appeared in proximity to the setting sun. The result is a flat looking photograph and sunset. I was so happy for the unexpected to happen in the image above to add interest. So all is not lost on waiting for sunsets. But we have to know how to get the best ones, right?

f9 1/125 ISO 200 about a half hour later off Cliff Island, Casco Bay in Maine. Same location as above, just zoomed out and reoriented to Landscape view.

For a little sunset interest, try for a scene where the ground plane has a good focal point, goes into silhouette and becomes dark. The foreground elements help give the sky some scale and interest, yet do not compete for attention. The little boat in the image above is not all that helpful, but the shore and mid-ground sailboats were in the golden image below.

From the post Scenic Sunday. Image taken in Maine.

I was waiting to capture the moment even though the sky and water meld into a golden homogeneity. It actually was a better image than the typical sunset in my opinion. It has a little of the unexpected.

Most of my images were taken with a wide-angle lens (17-35mm), including the one opening the post, enhancing the dramatic look. It may be preferable to have a singular tree for added focal drama, but that would require some really well planned waiting by the preferred foreground subject. This is sort of “the handful of smoke” example. Finding good elements and hoping nature complies. It is worth the effort though.

Our preferred clouds, Cirrus clouds, are high and thin and made entirely of ice crystals from the freezing of supercooled water droplets. Cirrus generally occur in fair weather and point the way of the air movement in their shape. You don’t need to know their names, just how they present. But it is fun to learn something new, so I went looking for more types of clouds.

f11 1/500 sec. ISO 200 I could not find what type of clouds are above, but my guess is a type of Cirrostratus.

Altocumulus occur at mid level. Altocumulus clouds usually form by convection in an unstable layer, resulting in the gradual lifting of air out in front of a cold front.

f10 1/320 ISO 200 The Falls viewed from the Observation Tower on the American side.

The cumulus (puffy) clouds will not make for the prettiest sunsets generally.  There are ten basic cloud types according to Weather Wing.

Here is what I learned:

High in the air above 10,000 feet, our preferred clouds

  • Cirrus- thin, wispy
  • Cirrostratus – thin and sheet-like
  • Cirrocumulus – Tiny, white puffy heaps

Mid range clouds 6500 to 20,000 feet

  • Altocumulus – Grayish-white puffy heaps
  • Altostratus – grayish white and sheet like
  • Nimbostratus – dark gray sheet-like with rain or snow falling

Low clouds below 6500 feet

  • Stratus – Sheet-like
  • Stratocumulus – Low, grayish white, sheet-like with bumpy bottom

Vertical Development below 6,500 feet

  • Cumulus – Heap-like
  • Cumulonimbus Giant clouds with black bottoms. They are dangerous clouds if they develop hail or produce tornadoes.

Orographic – form by forced lifting of air

There are many more types, with variations on the basic types. Here is another site having photos of the different cloud types. This site is very science centric, but has some really interesting images and information.

f10 1/250 sec. ISO 125 Nimbus or rain producing clouds in Wilson, NY. A very cool formation.

Cumulus clouds are low, individual, billowy puff balls in the sky. They are about as tall as wide and form on sunny days from pockets of rising air.

This biggest stumbling block is being in the right place to catch the short time period you will have to capture the scene. Living near open water is a great location. The water is a nice foil for the sky and if calm; reflective too.

But had I scurried to the Falls for my scene at the beginning of the post, it would have resulted in too busy a photo – unless I did some very creative camera work. Included in the image would have been the Falls, rapids and the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  So you see, picking out locations is really important.

In a few of my dramatic sky images, only the sky was what was important and interesting, and anything other than a silhouette foreground would have taken away from the resulting photo.

f5.6 1/40 ISO 400 Above my house last Fall.

It really is worth the wait. It is nature’s painted masterpiece.

f2.8 1/60 ISO 400 This is in Lewiston, NY. Real color on all the images!

I have been showing quite a few dramatic skies recently. The last post showed some angry skies, Ordinary Trip Quick Pics. Finally, Fall is here and the rains are making everything refreshed.

Update on the recent post All Tech and Little Talent. See the Update link I added. If you think that all us casual clickers are NOT affecting the professional, think again. The link goes to a podcast at Photofocus for Saturday, October 6th. where a few photographers are discussing the very point of “everybody has a camera now a days,” and the impact it has on the professional shooter. Please check out what the pros have to say.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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37 Responses to How to Predict and Photograph Dramatic Sunsets

  1. Those clouds yesterday were so cool! I thought, if I tried to paint that sky, it wouldn’t look real. But I was out jogging without my camera and didn’t take a shot. I’ve actually never noticed a sky before where the clouds were both horizontal and vertical. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Brian Comeau says:

    I love the shot from Maine with the birds!
    Thanks for the refresher on the types of clouds too. I remember studying it in school but that info has long left my brain. 🙂

  3. rayaadawiah says:

    amazing picture..
    i like the last of this picture.. 🙂

  4. Victor Ho says:

    One thing that I learned from using a point and shoot camera set to ‘sunset’ (Canon G11) is that the darned thing is spectacular at sunsets. Then, I stumbled across a Photoshop adjustment that makes my Nikon DSLR do sunsets as well as the P&S. Dial up the saturation. It’s a simple adjustment. Your clouds and golden red glow will suddenly look much better. Even if there’s a faint glow in the evening sky, everything looks better with more saturation. Of course a good cloud cover helps too. Great photos and good tips.

    • Try Vibrance instead of Saturation. It is a more mild adjustment. These cloud formations did not need the extra color, they were so amazing to look at. I know the Maine images could have used a little lift, but they were just trying to support my written word.

      I will do a full editing sometime to show what can be done. There is the more simple way with adjustments, then the next is adjustment layers with masks, then there is working with channels. That is very advanced, too advanced for anyone to follow my instructions, but boy do they make images magazine worthy.

      Here is a tip you may not know. If you use the adjustment, Image>Adjustment>Hue/Saturation, immediately go to Edit>Fade Hue/Saturation. It is almost the same as an adjustment layer, but a one time fix. You can fine tune it this way.

      The Golden image and the one with the geese were edited.

  5. You are such a pro, Donna! Sunsets are always elusive for me–partly because I don’t have a good angle for viewing from my lot, partly because of my ineptitude, and partly laziness. We had an incredible sunset tonight, but it’s really cold and I’m feeling like a wimp. Cold fingers are a drag. 😉

    • I really don’t have so great a view at my house either. I get phone/electric/cable lines out back, and out front the Norway Maple trees. I have to go to the end of the block or to the Farm for a clean view. This is a great time of year for sunsets and cloud shows. Go outside next one!

  6. Great post. I’m forwarding to Judy, who hasn’t taken a sunset picture in a while.

  7. Very helpful, Donna.

  8. thequeenofseaford says:

    It is time for me to start a little notebook and keep it with the camera. What f-stop, which ISO, what speed for the shutter for various types of photos… Are you using a tripod with the slower shutter speeds? I am finding movement in the photos that I take.

    • That is a good way to learn too. You start getting a sense of what works without thinking after awhile.The lighting will always be different, but you know where to start. I hand-hold the camera mostly. Today, I used a tripod at the botanical gardens, but usually I don’t. All you have to do is up the ISO. It will allow you to have a faster shutter speed. The first image with the 1/60 sec is the slowest shutter speed most can hand hold. I have hand held at 1/20 sec. and got a good focus, but that is difficult to do.

  9. Indie says:

    Interesting tip about the type of clouds! (And you had me searching my brain from those elementary school days when we learned all about the different types of clouds.) I absolutely love the golden picture with the sailboats. It’s extraordinary.

    • I remember the main cloud types from school too. When you check the weather sites, you find there are so many more types it makes your head spin. I can’t tell the difference with the small nuance changes, so just noting, say Cirrus, it really something a little more descriptive than that.

  10. b-a-g says:

    The shots with the boats and golden horizon is outstanding. We had altocumulus clouds in the UK today (now I know what they’re called!).

  11. So, sooo beautiful!! I was also able to take a similar pic like Pic#1 above about a week ago here in Southern California…had been a while since I saw such a sunset!:)

  12. I will have to bookmark this page. I do look and wait for dramatic sunrises and sunsets. Usually this time of year I only catch the sunsets as I am driving into the sunrise…my point and shoot is limited as what colors it will pick up in the limited light or perhaps it is the limits of this holder and user of the camera…see I did not say photographer as I do not consider myself one. I will have to explore it more as I do catch some interesting colors and clouds especially around storms.

  13. Great Photography – Great Advice – thanks for sharing!

  14. Pingback: Sunset | The joy of Photography

  15. lula says:

    I am back to you blog! And what amazing posts, this is not only gorgeous for the images but also informative about photography techniques. I love so much color in the skies that makes me impossible to chot at then, I get so impressed by the shapes of clouds and colors, than when I am ready to shot they are already gone!! So with your post I have the chance to see the northen clouds. Thanks for sharing!

    • They leave here fast too. I find it challenging to know what weather might bring the clouds and color, that I started paying close attention. Then I started researching the weather sites to see the likelihood of the colorful skies and found my observation to be correct. Hence the tip.

  16. debsgarden says:

    You demonstrated some fabulous sunsets and gave some great tips. My favorite shot is of the the sailboats bathed in gold. I think that one is really special.

  17. Les says:

    This is one of my favorite subjects and I have several preferred spots to get a capture, all within biking distance. I don’t know the names of the clouds, until now, but I am always aware of when sundown is, and I can look at the sky to see if it is something not to miss. I have a pile of sunset shots and more than a couple of sunrises as well, but i will keep taking them.

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