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Chasing The Sweet Light - Why Dawn And Dusk Are So Beautiful

Have you ever wondered why sunrises and sunsets are so colorful?  And why are some more orange and some more red? Well, it’s not because of the colors that are there, but rather the colors that are not.

Sunset Light Waves

Best Sunset photographs in Washington state by Peter James

Light travels in waves, and all of the colors in the visible spectrum have different frequencies.  The cool colors like violet, blue and green have the shortest wavelengths and the warmer colors have the longest.  All the waves travel together at the same speed until they hit the earth’s atmosphere. During the day, the light comes from above and travels through relatively little atmosphere, so all the wavelengths stay together, combining to make white light.  But when the sun is low on the horizon, the light has to travel through much more atmosphere. Particles suspended in the air will actually block the light waves and refract them in different directions.  

The Sweet Light Hours

As a rule, the best time to take colorful photographs is the two hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset.  This this the time that photographers call “sweet light”. The light at this time is also better because it is coming from the side rather than the top, so it emphasizes the shape of objects and people. In the fall, the sun is already lower in the sky so the sweet light colors tend to be even more dramatic, enhancing your sunset photos and really making the fall colors pop.

Mount Baker (Washington) in full bloom with fine art photographer Peter James

Keep in mind that because the atmosphere is scattering so much light before it reaches you, there will be less light entering your camera, and therefore you will have to use larger apertures and/or longer shutter speeds to get good exposures.  You won’t be able to capture moving subjects well at this time of day, nor will you be able to use telephoto lenses without a tripod. However, there’s usually enough light to hand hold your camera right through the sunset.

Pictures After The Sun Has Set

When taking sunset pictures, I always bring along a tripod.  Not for the sunset itself, but for the afterglow.  At this point in the day, there is no direct light from the sun reaching you, but the scattered light is still bouncing all around in the atmosphere.  With your camera on a sturdy tripod, you can continue to 

Second Beach on the Olympic Peninsula at Dawn with photographer Peter James

take pictures for 30 more minutes or longer. Notice the colors that you can capture now.  They usually start warm, orange and pinks, and gradually fade to purples and blues.  It is in this twilight time that we can see those cool color wavelengths that are being scattered from other areas bouncing around the sky and reaching us, while the more direct traveling warm colors keep their course and no longer reach us.

To see dozens more of my sunrise and sunset pictures, click HERE.

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