How To Predict a Colorful Sunset
I've been trying a free demo for a new service called Skyfire. It was recently added as a subscription service within the Photographer's Ephemeris app on iOS devices. Unfortunately, it hasn't been made available yet on the TPE app for Android devices, so I'm stuck having to use this service on my iPad. The idea is, your standard weather report can tell you basic information about how weather conditions will be but it doesn't predict how colorful the sunrise and sunset will be. That's where services such as Skyfire step in to fill that gap.
Before Skyfire, I would check the weather report for cloudy conditions and then head out to shoot photos with the hopes that the weather conditions would provide a beautiful sunset. As every landscape photographer knows and has experienced, a cloudy weather forecast is no guarantee for optimal conditions. A cloudy forecast could mean anything from being completely grey and overcast, to being clear skies with an occasional cloud. The only way to know for sure how conditions are is to take a leap of faith and drive to your destination, all while hoping for the best conditions along the way. Skyfire helps to alleviate the frustration of showing up to your destination only to find out that weather conditions will make for a very dull sunset.
How it works is, you search on the map within the TPE app for your destination and then tap sunrise or sunset. The TPE app will overlay color shading on the map surrounding your plot point. The color shading indicates how colorful the sunrise or sunset will likely be, relative to the plot point where you plan on shooting photos from. Red shading indicates a 90% or greater chance of there being a colorful sunset, yellow is a 75% chance, turquoise is 50% a chance, white is overcast, and clear indicates a clear sky with no clouds.
The concept is fantastic but it's not without its flaws. There's also a fairly big learning curve to be able to use it effectively. Sadly with all weather prediction services, you have to take it with a healthy sized grain of salt. In my experience using it, the forecast was accurate to a degree. The accuracy was limited to the exact area in the sky where the sun was setting, which is also what the TPE app helps you find, and is also the direction you will likely be photographing in if you're shooting landscape photos. There are some obvious exceptions to this. Often times you can turn your back to the sunset and experience even more beauty in the sky. However, if the sky is overcast, all hope is usually lost for experiencing a colorful sunset in any direction. This is the part that gets confusing because when I searched for Laguna Beach, the app shaded the entire region with yellow to indicate a 75% chance of a colorful sunset. In reality, I arrived in Laguna Beach to discover that the entire area was blanketed in dark grey clouds except for a small break where the sun was setting. This area in the sky was also being hidden by all the cliffs. I'm not entirely sure how Skyfire makes it's predictions but based on my experience, I suspect it takes into account what the local weather report predicts. On this particular date and time, the weather report was saying partly cloudy skies, which makes sense why Skyfire indicated a 75% chance for a colorful sunset. Case in point, Skyfire will only be as reliable as your local weather forecast.
Feeling frustrated, I got back in my car and headed North up Pacific Coast Highway to look for an unobstructed view of the sunset. By the time I got to Corona Del Mar I realized I had to stop driving and find a spot. The sun was setting quickly and I was almost out of time. I knew if I didn't stop right then, I would miss the opportunity to shoot photos completely.
I parked my car anyways a little further north than I usually do at Corona Del Mar and ran out to the railing against the edge of the cliff. Despite Skyfire telling me Corona Del Mar would have a colorful sunset, it too was blanketed in clouds. I couldn't believe it. I felt completely let down. I stood there against the railing and veered north while contemplating what to do. A small break in the clouds was began to form and the sunset started to look spectacular, just as Skyfire promised it would be. What I also discovered completely blew me away. There was a small look out point called Inspiration Point mid way down the cliff and a trail leading there. I couldn't believe how I had never discovered this before. I've been to Corona Del Mar more times than I can count and I never knew it was there. It was the absolute most perfect look out point overlooking Corona Del Mar and it was positioned right where the sun was setting. I ran down the trail to the look out point and stood there in pure bliss as the sun peaked itself through the clouds to light up the entire sky and the beach around me.