Photo Essay / Photography

Not All Sunsets Are Created Equal – A Sunset Rating System

One of the joys of nature and travel photography is watching sunsets in spectacular places. The magic hour, that time of soft light that begins about 30 minutes before sunset and lasts until about 30 minutes after, is when most famous landscape photos are taken, when the world is coated with soft light or sun rays slice in sideways filling the world with drama.

But not all sunsets are created equal. After watching and photographing hundreds of sunsets (and sunset fails) I have created a very complex sunset rating system.

You can use this scale also to rate the sunsets you see, if you so choose. It is not copyrighted and free to all. It is my gift to the world.

Sunset Rating Score

Sunset rating system explained

Zero – Or Sunset Classic

Sunset Classic occurs when there is not a cloud in the sky. Sunset Classic is always beautiful, but rarely magical. These are the sunsets where the eastern sky is rimmed by a pink layer and the western sky fades rapidly from yellow to orange to red and then to darkness.

There is nothing wrong with Sunset Classic – it is beautiful yet simple. It is the Amy Adams of sunsets.

Goreme Sunset Cappadocia

“Sunset Classic” over Goreme in Cappadocia. Beautiful, but hardly magical.

+1 Sunset Beautiful

This is a Sunset Classic that is accentuated by a haze or thin, scattered clouds. Almost every dry-season sunset in Africa is a +1 as suspended dust particles make the sun a huge, red orb at dusk. The same goes for my home state of Oklahoma where the relentless wind (Texas sucks, Kansas blows) means the air is always dusty and sunsets are usually pretty.

Elephants at a water hole in Etosha

Dry season sunsets in Africa always score a +1.

Oklahoma Wind Turbine Sunset

A better than average sunset in western Oklahoma.

-1 Sunset Meh

Is very close to a +1, but the haze is too dense. Instead of the setting sun being magnified by the haze or thin clouds, it is stifled by them.

Sad sunset Santorini

A disappointing sunset in Santorini

+2 Sunset Inspiring

This is when things start to get special. Towering clouds rise high above or thin clouds are scattered across the sky and as the sun slips below the horizon, shafts of light paint sections of the sky brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange.

Sunset on Likoma Island

Sunset from Likoma Island on Lake Malawi. Inspiring in its beauty. But, it gets better.

Sunset in Denali National Park.

A sunset near my summer home in Denali.

-2 Sunset Blerg

This then when things start to get disappointing. There are elements in the sky for a better than average sunset as scattered clouds congregate on one side of the sky or high wispy clouds hang out just waiting to be painted by the setting sun. But when it comes down do it, there is mimimal color in the sky and everything turns just sort of gray and blue and goes dark. Blerg.

Bad Udaipur Sunset

Everything seemed right for a great sunset in Udaipur, India. Alas, it was not meant to be.

+3 Sunset Ethereal, or F$%^*#g AWESOME Sunset

These are the sunsets the prove the existence of God. These sunsets make photographers famous and get blown up into large photos that are framed on walls.

These are the photos that go viral and land on list-making orgy websites like Buzzfeed or Bored Panda with titles like 37 Photos of Sunsets You Will Think Are Photo-Shopped But Really Aren’t. I hate those websites.

Beautiful sunset over santorini

Sunsets don’t get much better than this.

Galata Bridge Sunset

A mind-blowing sunset in Istanbul.

-3 Sunset Fail

A minus three is the worst. These are the nights when all the conditions are right for a +3 and I am armed with a tripod and perched someplace beautiful.

And then as the sun slips toward the horizon, a mega cloud from hell sweeps in and blocks out all light leaving the world dark and gray and forlorn. It makes me look silly walking around with a tripod and thinking there has to be better hobbies in the world. It also makes me look around and wonder where the closest bar is located.

Cloudy skies in Istanbul

The dismal, non-sunset over the Galata bridge. It was also cold and windy. At least there was a bar nearby.

There is a fine line between a +3 and a -3. The same elements that conspire to make a great sunset can also lead to a gray and dull evening. This is what makes nature photography so exciting and aggravating and where camera enthusiasts are born.

Take this photo for example:

Galata Bridge at Sunset fishing poles

Glorious sunset the day after a lugubrious sunset.

This is a sunset +3 taken the day after the melancholic -3 above. I returned to the Galata Bridge for a second straight night because I knew there was potential for a great sunset (and because I could stash my wife in a bar below).

And I was rewarded with one of the more spectacular sunsets of my life, a glorious +3 from a photogenic spot in a strange land. There is nothing better.

That is why I love photography.

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Do you have a sunset rating system?

Where was the most dramatic sunset you’ve ever seen? 

[Insert Shameless Plea for Comments Here]

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34 thoughts on “Not All Sunsets Are Created Equal – A Sunset Rating System

  1. Great post – really funny and spot on though I had never thought to create a chart! So true about the best ones being so close to the worst. In the Isle of Man it is the presence of clouds that makes phenomenal sunsets but also ruins them. The number of times I have driven 15 miles to the west of the island to a tiny point called Niarbyl in hopes to get a great sunset just to be thwarted at the last minute! Cloudy places definitely have the best potential – 3 years in Sudan and the fact that there were no clouds and just a lot of dust haze resulted in endless average sunsets. Probably some of the best I saw were taken on a tiny island off Scotland – despite rain most days the clouds got it together at sunset! http://juraphotos.wordpress.com/travels/europe/fladda-scotland/

  2. Jeff I laughed out loud recalling times while traveling where a great sunset is at hand only to be sorely disappointed including Santorini and Istanbul. I am certainly not the photographer you are but will smile using your scale in future outings. :)

  3. I didn’t have a rating system before, but I do now. And to think, I lived my whole life without one…

    So, I just browsed through my pics and I don’t think I have a single sunset picture. Maybe it’s because by the time the sun is setting happy hour has already started? I don’t know, but I’m on a new mission (and I’m armed with a fancy rating system) :-)

      • Thanks for your rating. In the meantime, i looked up some photos from AZ. Sadly we haven’t had much free time, so must of the unbelievable sunsets just happend while we were studying, but nevertheless, sometimes we sneaked up the roof of the building to get some snapshots. The first three happened during our first month in AZ, the last one was a more “professionell” photoshoot. These pictures aren’t edited in any way, just the jpegs i got from the camera. I hope you enjoy them.

        Regards.

  4. A Jeff Bell chart. It’s been too long.

    My fave moment. 1999, Needles district of Canyonlands, 3rd night of a backpacking trip. The sky was steel grey with storm clouds,so I was casually finishing dinner. Suddenly a shaft of light burst through, illuminating some pillars while leaving the sky dark. I full out sprinted 10 minutes wi camera bag and tripod to a previously scouted spot and got 3 exposures before the light died. One of my top shots ever. Someday I need to scan it.

    • Very cool. I’ve had a few like that in Alaska which isn’t surprising since it is cloudy all the time it seems. You know what I’m talking about. I think you need to scan those and submit them for analysis so we can determine if they are +3s.

      • After I am settled in my new job and home – a 2 bedroom apt. Woo hoo! – I am considering doing a flashback series of my years of desert trips when I was far more adventurous and a better photographer to boot. Several hundred nights in the Utah desert provided lots of photo opps.

  5. And to think you’re giving this away for free! I have often been amused by our collective fascination with sunsets. I keep thinking there must be some reason other than the obvious but I’ve never put my finger on it. Maybe it’s just the colour.

    • Lyle – Maybe the beauty of the sunset releases endorphins or something. We need a scientist to help us on this one.

      I thought about charging for my rating system but turned down the windfall. I can be rather charitable sometimes.

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