Best Tips for the Perfect Sunset in the Midwest

June 03, 2019

You've seen Andy Merkel's work all over our Instagram feed and we're counting ourselves lucky that he's up with the dawn and seemingly always finding the most perfect dusk skies, too. He goes by @grantplace, and we're SO thrilled to have him share just how he captures those amazing lake and skyscapes today on the blog. Promise you'll never stop capturing this magic? Thanks! Take it away...

Some of the best and easiest photographs that anyone can take and appreciate are of the sunset or the sunrise. Those golden and pink colors light everything up and turn a landscape from ordinary to spectacular.  Here are some quick tips for capturing the perfect sunset when you are out with your camera, or phone.

Reflections and foreground interest.

When taking your photos at sunrise or sunset, it’s a lot more meaningful to find an interesting subject than just pointing your camera up to the sky. Find a local lake, pond, river, or stream and walk along it until something catches your eye. You need to transport the viewer to the scene as if they are actually standing there experiencing it for themselves. Reflections are the best way to capture a sunset.

Cave Point County Park Door County Sunset RocksSunset reflection over an alpine lake

Create silhouettes.

Find a pier, a fisherman, a tree, a boat, cattails, or anything that might create contrast with the light and the color in the sky. If you are lucky enough to find a puddle, bring your camera down to it and create a reflection for a colorful frame from top.

Sunset silhouette over the lake Sunset silhouette on the ocean

Look in both directions!

Just before the sun actually sets or rises, the pink and purple colors will start to appear in the east first and work their way west. Shooting into the sun and away from the sun create completely different effects. When you shoot into the sun, everything becomes very golden and bright, and silhouettes are created. When you shoot away from the sun, you get golden light on all of your landscapes, pink skies, and more pastel like colors overall. These colors are sometimes the most vibrant so you need to find your subject from every angle, or just enjoy the color show until it reaches the point where you are focused on!

Cave Point County Park Wisconsin Door County Sunset

Get to your location at least 30-45 minutes before sunset, and stay at least 30-45 minutes after the sun actually sets.

If you plan on capturing any golden light, the clouds start to turn color approximately 30 minutes to sunset. The pink and purple colored clouds start to change about 10-15 minutes after and can still linger up to 45 minutes after sunset! There is always another shade or hue to see when you are outside capturing photos.

Sunset over calm lake orange sky with buoy

Use weather tools to your advantage!

There are so many tools out there for landscape photography. A lot of it is honestly variability, luck, and a little bit of planning. These are the tools that I use to create, plan, and (hopefully) get what I’m looking for before I go out with my camera!

1. Suncalc.org or Suncalc.net 

Knowing where the sunrise or sunset will line up changes everything drastically when it comes to landscape photography. This is how people know when the Manhattan or Chicago-henge is going to happen (when the sunset lines up with the streets). I always use this before scouting out locations just to see where the sun lines up on a particular month of the year. If you are anywhere near the shoreline, you could have a great sunset down the coastline if this angle lines up perfectly. Some apps and websites even allow you to see elevation as well. If you are anywhere near the mountains, you know for a fact that this isn’t accurate as the last light may be 2 hours before the actual sunset if there is a 2,000 ft bluff in the way!

2. Sunsetwx.com

This may be the most interesting site out there for a landscape photographer. This is something that will predict if the sunrise or sunset will be colorful or not. The warmer the colors, the better “chance” you will have a great sunrise/sunset. I have found success in this about 50% of the time as it only accounts for those clouds that high in the atmosphere that are already going to turn orange and pink. It doesnot account for any low hanging clouds closer to the ground that may contain rain droplets. Overall, I do check this website regularly and cross reference it with the paid subscription from The Photographer’s Ephemeris App “Sky Fire”. If both of the apps state that there will be good activity, I will be out the door fast! Take this website with a grain of salt. In my experience it truly is just an estimate/predictor. Weather changes so drastically all of the time. It has been bright orange and red before on this site and then there was nothing actually there when sunset came, and vice versa. Either way, it is fun to plan these events!

If your goal is to see morning fog/mist on the fields or in the valleys, you need to make sure that you have a clear night, low wind, and high humidity in the morning. Of course, you will want to know if it will rain or not as well, Dark Sky gives up to the minute forecasts which are pretty accurate. Ideally these are the conditions that you are looking for if you want fog in the valleys and around the bluffs (at least in Wisconsin):

  1. Humidity is greater than 80%
  2. Temperature and Dew Point are +/- 5 degrees of each other.
  3. Wind speeds less than 10 mph
  4. Clear skies overnight (there is some controversy over this one).


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