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 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.
+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.
-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.
+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.
-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.
+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.
-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.
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.
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?
[Insert Shameless Plea for Comments Here]
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/
Jura – those are beautiful sunset photos. That is a photogenic spot with the rocky shoreline and islands in the background.
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. 🙂
I saw two of the best sunsets of my life in Santorini and Istanbul the day after a complete dud. You just never know. I am glad that my rating scale could bring some humor into your life.
good stuff here! I love how it can go from a -3 to a +3 without any indication. Those often end up as a +4! I’ve seen 2 sunsets that stand out in my mind one in Port Townsend, WA and the other one here in Park City: http://ericephoto.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/special-moment-in-photography/
That night was overwhelming as a photographer. So much good light and it came out of nowhere!
Dang Eric, those photos are awesome. I really like the top photo as the whole world was cast in a red glow.
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) 🙂
Jennifer – you need a new strategy. You are supposed to take your drink of choice with you when you take sunset photos. See, my wife has it figured out.
Ah, yes. That is a much better strategy. Your wife is quite smart and obviously has her priorities right. Great pic, too!
That is why I married her. She is always thinking.
Great post – I really enjoyed your sunset rating system and I’d like an honest opinion on this one – http://jvdphotography89.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/golden-sunset/. I’m not sure if it is more of a 1 oder a 2.
The most dramatic sunsets were the ones in Arizona. I lived there for 4 months and saw some of the most beautiful and dramatic evening skies ever. I definitely have to check some photos from that time.
That is a beautiful sunset and ranks a solid +2.
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.
Those are some very beautiful sunsets with some intense colors! Thank you for sharing.
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.
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.
Thank you Phil.
Very cool and amazing 🙂
Most welcome Jeff | Planet Bell 🙂
FANTASTIC post … I give it a 3+! I agree … being in the right place at the right time does not always pay off!
There is always that element of luck involved in a great sunset. Thank you for commenting!
Such a top idea; not only are you correct but you crack me up. I love sunsets, sun rises an storms and all of that.
I love sunrises also, but they are more difficult to catch than sunsets.
Coz it’s hard to wake up that early? lol great post by the way. genius and funny!
I ought to wake up earlier and see more sunrises, but I am simply not a morning person. When I do wake up that early, I am always glad I did though.
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Hilarious, clever, and unique like so much of what you write! Love it Jeff! Cheers to 2016 and all the shitty and epic sunsets we will see!
Thank you. That is one of my favorite posts. To 2016!