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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Do you have a sunset rating system?
Where was the most dramatic sunset you’ve ever seen?
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