Making Better Photographs—Learning the Light: Four Phases of Sunset

The other day my brother sent some brilliant sunset images from Philadelphia. I commented, ‘nice drop-under’, and this led to a conversation about sunset light.

‘You should make a post about that’. And so here we are.

I’ve quantified sunset into four phases. There may be more. And in fact, sunset isn’t really so-divided, but rather one continuous changing of light. But recognizing these four phases can allow you to be in position to make better photographs (and that’s really what I’m trying to convey).

Too often, I’ve been traveling and just before the light reaches its optimum, I’ve found myself out of position.

As the sun sets, the quality of light is altered by clouds, air-pollution, and the horizon. Sometimes a lack-luster sunset in one of the early phases wll blossom during a later phase. Or vice versa.

Watch the sun and clouds and be patient.

My four phases of sunset are:

  • 1) Sun above the clouds
  • 2) Sun behind the clouds
  • 3) Drop-under (sun below the clouds)
  • 4) Afterglow (sun just beyond the horizon)
Phase 1. As pictured with an eastward Conrail doublestack train at Elkhart, Indiana.
Phase 1. As pictured with an eastward Conrail doublestack train at Elkhart, Indiana.
Phase 2: As seen with an Irish Rail overflow cement train at The Curragh, County Kildare just after 10pm  back in 1998.
Phase 2: As seen with an Irish Rail overflow cement train at The Curragh, County Kildare just after 10pm back in 1998.
Phase 3: 'Drop-under' as seen with Shiprock in northern New Mexico in August 1991.
Phase 3: ‘Drop-under’ as seen with Shiprock in northern New Mexico in August 1991.
Phase 4: Looking west on 18th Street in San Francisco.
Phase 4: Looking west on 18th Street in San Francisco.

Phase three, drop under is the often the best, yet most fleeting and unpredictable element of a sunset. This often occurs on an otherwise cloudy evening, when for a moment the sun as it nears the horizon will illuminate clouds from below.

The drop-under effect is accentuated when there is a thick layer of air-pollution as the combination of particulates and gases in the atmosphere bend the light toward the red-end of the spectrum.

The bottom line: if you want to make better sunset photos, don’t abandon your photography too soon. Find a suitable location and wait for the light.

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