How to predict the perfect sunrise

“Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” The adage is often correct. And when you can forecast that red sky, you can be ready to capture a beautiful view.

The U.S. Capitol at sunrise on March 10. Three hours after this photo was taken, rain arrived in D.C. (Kevin Ambrose)
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"Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” There’s some truth to the adage for predicting a storm. We can revel in the awe of a beautiful scarlet sunrise -- and even capture it -- before the lashing to come.

Sunrises are most colorful when storm clouds arrive from the west while skies are clear to the east. The light passing through clear skies from the rising sun illuminates the underside of the incoming clouds.

As dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere scatter the sunlight, clouds glow with colorful lights — red, yellow and magenta hues — for 20 to 40 minutes until the sun rises higher.

Still, many sunrises are far from such stellar scenes. When storm clouds blanket the view at sunrise, without a gap of clearing, the sky will transition through shades of gray.

Below, I’ll walk you through how to forecast and photograph the perfect sunrise.

Forecasting a colorful sunrise

If you want to watch or photograph colorful sunrises but would rather skip the gray and drab ones, tools are available to help predict when color will appear in the morning sky. Infrared (IR) satellite imagery shows the location of clouds and clear sky needed to produce the color, and computer weather models can forecast future cloud cover and visibility.

When planning a sunrise photo shoot, I check IR satellite imagery the evening before the shoot and again in the morning before sunrise. If the satellite imagery shows cloud cover overhead with clear skies nearby to the east, there is an excellent chance the sunrise will be colorful. Only a small opening in the clouds to the east is needed to produce beautiful shades.

But when the satellite imagery shows widespread cloud cover extending hundreds of miles east of the area, direct sunlight will be blocked, and the sunrise will be gray.

To increase my odds of success, I usually target approaching storms for my sunrise photo shoots because there will be plenty of clouds in the sky to glow with color, provided there is a gap of clear sky to the east. My rule of thumb is that this gap needs to be 100 miles away or less.

Of course, colorful sunrises can occur without approaching storms. Patches of mid- to high-level clouds can produce picturesque dawns. Cirrus and altocumulus clouds display wispy and speckled color patterns.

We can also check satellite imagery to find scattered clouds for predicting sunrise color. Patches of clouds can be fleeting, however, so there is often an element of luck involved with the timing and position of patchy clouds at dawn. If I make an effort to wake up early and drive to the District for a sunrise shoot, I usually target approaching storms and not patchy clouds to increase my odds of success.

Forecasting a clear-sky sunrise

I photograph clear-sky sunrises when cherry blossoms bloom or when the sun aligns with a memorial or monument. These sunrises are less colorful than cloud-filled ones, but the scene is striking when the sun is positioned with blossoms or a recognized landmark.

Clear-sky sunrises are easy to predict by checking IR satellite imagery. If there are no clouds for 100 miles or more in all directions, the sunrise will be clear and bright.

And, with a clear sky, you might be able to create starburst effects in photos with the sun by using a high f/stop (f/16 to f/22) on your camera’s aperture setting. The starburst is created by sunlight diffracting into uniform rays on the camera’s sensor. It helps if an object such as a building, tree or blossom partially blocks the sunlight to reduce brightness. See an example below.

Sunrise spoilers

Common spoilers of a good sunrise are low clouds and fog. Low clouds typically don’t show up on IR satellite imagery because their tops are often close to the same temperature as the ground. So I check to look out for low clouds. I don’t photograph sunrises under low cloud cover because it will block out direct sunlight.

For fog, it’s best to simply look out the window and check weather reports from nearby weather stations. I avoid photographing sunrises when visibility is low because of fog.

Another spoiler of a good sunrise is undesirable objects in the foreground. For example, when the Reflecting Pool by the Washington Monument is drained, sunrise reflections on water are replaced with an unattractive view of an empty concrete basin. It’s the same when cranes and construction equipment are parked next to a memorial or monument — the scene’s beauty is diminished. It’s good to have a backup plan when shooting a sunrise.

Sunrise and sunset prediction apps

If you don’t want to use IR satellite imagery to track clouds, apps are available to help predict colorful sunrises and sunsets. Popular ones include Alpenglow, Skyfire, SkyCandy and MySunset. The app reviews are generally good, but the results vary.

During a recent sunrise photo shoot of the cherry blossoms, a photographer next to me complained that their sunrise app predicted a colorful scene, but that the sky was clear and blue. I mentioned that the IR satellite imagery showed no clouds within 100 miles of our location, so I knew we would have a clear-sky sunrise without much color.

There is also an app for IR satellite imagery so clouds can be tracked on a smartphone.

Tips to photograph a sunrise:

  • Check the time of the sunrise. Plan to be in position 45 minutes beforehand because the best sky color often precedes sunrise by 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Always use a tripod and a remote shutter release, wired or wireless, to avoid camera movement.
  • Various apps can be used to plan where the sun will rise on a particular day. Popular ones are PhotoPills and Photo Ephemeris.
  • Include a famous landmark in a sunrise photo to make the scene more interesting. D.C. is full of them, of course.
  • Plan a shoot with a large body of water in the foreground to reflect colors. Nearby options include the Tidal Basin, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Capitol Reflecting Pool, and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
  • Turn off autofocus and lock the focus on objects on the horizon. Otherwise, the autofocus may jump around during the photo shoot.

Final thoughts

  • I find that forecasting sunrise color makes watching the sunrise more fascinating because my skills are being tested. It’s fun to see if my prediction holds.
  • Sunrises on the edge of storms make for colorful scenes, but the closer the storm, the higher the risk for gray skies because of the abundance of clouds and moisture.
  • In the D.C. area, sunrises are generally more colorful in winter than summer. Less pollution allows better visibility in winter, which is needed for crisp, vibrant colors. During summer, however, haze and humidity can reduce visibility and make for subdued colors.
  • When watching sunrises, don’t stare at the sun after it rises above the horizon to avoid eye damage. It seems like common sense, but it’s a recurring problem for photographers. Instead, I focus my gaze on my camera’s LCD.

The tools and tips I’ve mentioned should increase your chances of watching and photographing colorful, brilliant sunrises. And, I hope, the challenge of forecasting color in the sky makes your quest to capture an awesome sunrise more interesting and enjoyable.