by Kahli Hindmarsh
There’s nothing better than seeing the sky explode with a colourful sunrise and knowing it was worth getting out of bed early for. But a lot of the time it can feel like a bit of a gamble, will it or won’t it light up. As fun as it is losing hours of sleep, driving to the location only to be met with dull/overcast conditions… there are some pretty reliable tricks you can use to ensure you get it right, more often.
#1 – Forecast
The first and MOST IMPORTANT tip, check the forecast! Sounds obvious but there’s a little more involved than just showing up at the right time. Clear skies = no good. You want some cloud in the sky. 100% cloudy = no good. You don’t want the clouds to block the light from the sun. This is what creates the colour in the clouds.
If you like a little risk in your life, you can check your usual forecast website or app – partly cloudy, sweet! Might get something? But here’s the pro tip… if those clouds are low, I’m afraid you won’t likely get any colour. The perfect conditions for colourful sky is high cloud. Mid cloud works too but that crappy low cloud that hides mountain tops and gets in the way, it very rarely picks up any colour.
I use a combination of forecasting apps for different information:
https://www.yr.no/ – dig through the detailed options and you’ll find cloud height. You can find out as much as the hourly cloud height and the percentage of high, med and low clouds.
https://www.windy.com/ – Turn on the cloud layer and you can get an extremely accurate map of cloud coverage. It’ll also give you an idea of which way the clouds will be moving and how fast which can come into considerations for your composition.
https://spotwx.com/ – I find this information consistently reliable. You get information from various weather stations and can use that to average the likelihood of the forecast. It also lists things like cloud height, coverage, hourly precipitation and a bunch of other scientific weather stuff, if that’s your thing.
Once I’ve consulted these three apps I can usually make a pretty educated guess as to what the chances are of colourful clouds. My perfect recipe? High, wispy cloud, somewhere between 50-75% coverage. It also pays to look at the hour before and after sunrise so you know if the weather will be changing quickly. Many times, I’ve been set up with a perfect forecast and an approaching storm as arrived a couple of hours ahead of schedule.
Once I know the forecast I use the app “Photographer’s Ephemeris” (TPE for short) with the additional plugin called Skyfire. This gives you a colourful sunrise/set forecast prediction. It has lots of useful settings such as a visual map representation of the colour and the option to add “favourite locations” so you receive a snapshot of upcoming percentages of likelihood of your saved locations. It’ll even send you a notification if the likelihood is above a certain percentage. I’ve found it is correct around 50% of the time, but I live in the mountains so the weather is a bit more tricky here.
At the end of the day keep in mind, the weather is unpredictable and even with the most promising forecast, sometimes things don’t align. These are just guidelines for the most likely scenarios for success.
#2 Give yourself a time buffer
I like to arrive an hour before sunrise/set is due to give myself time to find a composition. If I haven’t been to the location before, I scout it first during the day when the light is good to familiarize myself with the area and look for potential compositions. There’s nothing more stressful than arriving right as the colour explodes and not having a composition. This goes for the back end of the colour as well. Don’t pack it in too early if you think nothing is going to happen. I’ve seen some colour appear 45minutes after the expected time. Make sure you stick it out to the end.
#3 Know what time sunrise/set is
A matter of minutes can make the world of difference during the beginning and end of the day. I’ve seen some colour last only 3 minutes then go back to complete grey. Unfortunately “around 6:30” won’t always be accurate enough. I use the app PHOTOPILLS which gives you the exact minute each day. Depending on the time of year and where you are in the world, the time the sun rises and sets can change quite a lot day to day.
#4 Sun direction
Considering the direction of the sun, rises in the East, sets in the West, can be handy for planning your locations. Keep in mind the direction the sun will be coming from and what direction the light will be. Some mountain ranges will be in complete darkness for example as the sun rises/sets behind them while others will catch the light. This is where I again use Photopills to plan locations. It will give you an exact overlay of the sun’s path as it travels across your scene.
#5 Long exposure
You will likely be using a longer shutter speed due to low light while shooting at these times of the day so you should consider the necessary gear to allow for that – A tripod to keep the camera still and a remote or delay to eliminate shake when you press the shutter.
As you’re capturing a long exposure, the wind can affect your image. Either by streaking clouds across the sky or blurring water you might have in your frame.
#7 Changing settings
As the light changes quickly, your camera settings are also going to need to be adjusted for correct exposure. Aperture priority mode is one trick you can use to deal with this, so the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed as the light changes.
This one is a personal preference but I like to underexpose my images by about one stop. As the clouds light up, the contrast in light is often quite extreme and can be easy to lose detail in the colourful highlights. If the light range is too extreme, I will bracket exposure to make sure I capture lights and darks accurately, then blend in post if necessary.
By using your histogram you will save yourself a lot of guesswork around correct exposure. As there is a high dynamic range for your camera to deal with at that time of day, it’s easy to blow your highlights or lose detail in the darks. By reading your histogram you can ensure you’ve not lost any data at either extreme ends of light.
#10 ND Filters
These can come in handy to extend the shutter speed and take advantage of a longer exposure. If you want to capture streaky clouds and flowy water with the colourful sky, a filter can help capture that motion.
Make sure you set your ISO to a low value and don’t leave it on auto. With the low light, your camera will try to set your ISO higher to compensate and the higher the ISO, the more noise you introduce into your image.
It’s easy to be distracted by the pretty colours of the sky and be tempted to just point the camera straight up at it. Take the time to find a stronger composition that still incorporates the sky but also features some of the landscape to add a sense of place.
#13 Shoot vertical
As you’re trying to feature the sky in the frame, it can be tricky to also incorporate any low foreground features in bottom of the image and fit it all into the frame. By shooting vertically, you allow more space in the frame for the sky, as well as some of the landscape without having to cut anything off.
#14 Two camera bodies
If you have two camera’s, take them both. I’ve been caught out countless times by wanting to shoot a wider scene, and a telephoto of the light hitting peaks at the same time. Rather than having to switch between compositions, change lenses, settings and waste time, have two bodies so you can make the most of the peak of the light.
I love the chase and reward of planning to create images during epic colourful skies and I hope these tips can help you do the same! Thanks for reading.
Kahli originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!