Look at a sky watcher’s chart and you will see sunset listed as a precise moment of time. I, however, prefer to think of it as an event — an event that can last hours.
There’s more to a sunset than the instant when the sun slips below the horizon. Sometimes an hour before, the western sky can begin to turn golden. Puffy cumulus clouds that are low in the sky can go from being pure white to intense yellow.
After the sun disappears, the colors continue to change. The clouds may become fire engine red, then vibrant violet before fading.
There’s probably a colorful show going on behind you as well. The warmer tones at the horizon can stretch across the sky, bathing everything around you in a golden light. Objects that are dull-colored midday can almost appear to glow.
Depending on the terrain at the horizon, the sun may appear to grow larger as trees or other features of the land provide a sense of scale. As it sets, it becomes smaller and smaller until it’s just a pinpoint of light.
Animals take note of the sunset as well. Particularly during the winter, you may see large flocks of birds passing by on their way to their roosts for the night.
I think the sunset show is most spectacular on days when the sky is full of wispy cirrus clouds. Thicker clouds block too much of the sunset light. Cloudless days, meanwhile, provide nothing to reflect it.
A little over a week ago, I got to witness a truly spectacular sunset from Camano Island in Washington state. The island is about an hour from my house and I set out because the clouds looked ideal to put on a wonderful sunset show. The sunset didn’t disappoint.
The image at the top of this post was taken about a half hour after the sun had set. Fifteen minutes later, the sky was ablaze. I took photos for more than an hour. Rather than sharing a single image, I’m providing a few that illustrate just how dynamic a sunset truly is.
As the sun was setting, about a dozen ducks were diving off the beach to catch their last meals of the day. I loved how the water was beginning to reflect a little of the golden light. Here you see a common goldeneye in mid-dive.
About 45 minutes after sunset, the last of the ducks left to head to their roosts. Here you see a black scoter in flight. The colors were still spectacular, but the light was dim. It required a long exposure to make the image and I had to pan the camera with the bird to collect enough light. I think the subtle blur of the water adds to this scene.
This final image helps illustrate how much the colors can change. This was taken about 10 minutes after the picture at the top of the post. In just that short amount of time, you can see how the clouds shifted from bright golden to intense red. Ten minutes after this, they were deep purple. Because the light was fading fast, I used a telephoto lens to zoom in the Olympic Mountains and the clouds that were still colorful.
The next time you have a chance to watch the sun set, stay for a while. There can be a lot to see.