How to Master Red Sky Photography

Morning red needs some special requirements to appear. Find out how to plan and photograph red sky to get a masterpiece.

My latest YouTube video is about how to predict and photograph a red sky. The red sky is one of the most beautiful weather phenomena, but the thing is: it doesn’t appear every day. We need some special requirements, and basically, it is all about the right weather, place, and timing.

Where Comes the Red From?

When white sunlight passes through our atmosphere, particles in the air filter the spectral colors with different strengths. Blue is most filtered; it is scattered in all directions. This is also the reason why the sky is blue and this is why the white sun looks yellow during the day.

When the sun is low, as it is around sunset and sunrise, the light has to pass a much higher distance through the atmosphere. More light gets filtered, and as red is the color that gets least filtered, the light turns red. But this is not enough to turn the sky red.

The Canvas for the Light

Whenever we want to paint, we need any kind of canvas or paper. For the red sky, the clouds are our canvas. When red light hits the clouds, they turn red. But we need the right clouds in the right position.

Cumulus clouds are these single, fluffy clouds, which have just a small area at the bottom. Layer clouds, on the other hand, cover the entire sky or at least a big part of it. The area at the bottom of them is quite high.

Bringing the Sun Below the Clouds

We want the clouds to be illuminated from below. But how should that work? At the first sight, this seems to be impossible, because the sun will always be farther away than the clouds. But when we consider that our planet is a sphere and the sun is not setting or rising, but our Earth is rotating, it should be easier to understand how to get the sun to a position so that our clouds get illuminated from below.

Some minutes before sunrise and some minutes after sunset, the sun is below the horizon. If there are clouds above our subject and if there is a gap in the sky behind our subject, the sun can shine through that gap, and our clouds will be illuminated with sunlight. As the light has to pass an extremely far distance through the atmosphere from its position, the light gets filtered more, and ultimately, red light illuminates clouds at the bottom side. Single cumulus clouds lead to a lot of small saturated areas in the scene. Layered clouds lead to a big area that gets illuminated instead.

How to Predict Red Sky?

It is quite difficult if not impossible to predict red sky over weather apps. Weather apps just give you one version of a weather prediction for one single point. They don't show you the type of clouds and also don’t show you the gap you need.

This is why it is recommended to use weather maps instead. You just have to look for a nice subject, to be sure, that there are clouds above your subject and that there is a big gap in the clouds behind it. How big the gap should be depends on the height of the clouds. But if your gap is 120 miles or bigger, the chance is high that it will work.

What You Should Also Consider

Avoid low-level clouds. They will block the sunlight. Go for mid-level or high-level clouds instead. They are much higher up, and the sun can illuminate them from below.

If you want to use a shorter focal length, consider that the red sky will be just a tiny part of your composition. You can use the red sky to accentuate a special area in your composition, which could support the tranquil mood in the morning or the evening. If you go for a longer focal length instead, the red sky gets more weight in the image. The sky itself could be the subject, and the mood can be quite dramatic.

Quite important is the histogram. The sun is below the horizon, so we just get the light reflected from the bottom of the clouds. And it is red — really red. Sometimes, it gets so red that I have to desaturate the image afterward. This is why your histogram is lying. The histogram shows just the sum of red, green, and blue light. In red sky conditions, there is nearly no blue and no green there, just red. It happens quite easily that the histogram shows a well-exposed image, although the red channel is already overexposed. I look at the histograms of the color channels only. For red sky photography, only the red channel is of interest here for me.

Don’t Just Capture the Weather Phenomenon

The reds turn everything into such a magical mood that is overwhelming. The problem is that the red sky itself looks so amazing already that we could forget to consider everything we need to get a compelling composition as well. But it is the composition that makes the difference between an average shot and a masterpiece.

In the above-mentioned video, you will see how I have photographed a panorama of a stunning mountain range in the distance. I considered the subtle ripples in the right bottom corner to emphasize the contrast in the reflection between the shadowed mountain and the bright sky. The shutter speed makes a big difference here. These ripples anchor the image, and due to the diagonal ridge line of the mountain, we get led back to the vanishing point, which is accentuated by this awesome red sky in the distance. All the mountains, the clouds in the sky, and all the fog above the water are nicely balanced.

To get more tips about red sky photography and to enjoy the whole adventure, watch the video above.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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It is sad that the very red sunrises and sunsets we have these days are due to the particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10, ...) and chemicals in our very polluted atmosphere. Using a spectrometer, the amount, size and even height of the pollution can be measured from the colour and depth of the red light vs. the solar spectrum. Beautiful red sunrise/set photographs are like beautiful landscape photographs of vast landfills, polluted dead rivers or bulldozers clearing of pristine forests. Long gone days of bright yellow, not dull red, sunsets (and clear blue sky). It is sad we are documenting the destruction of the very atmosphere we depend on for life on this planet!

Hi Bob, I think you are talking about another weather phenomenon. The "red sky phenomenon" just works with clouds. I think you mean the "orange stripe phenomenon" shortly after sunset, instead - at the side where the sun has set before (for sunrise it works in the opposite order). This just appears without clouds at the horizon and is a blue hour phenomenon. And some minutes later there appears also a "pink stripe" on the opposite side. These phenomena are indeed a product of haze in the air, given through dust. And as you said right, pollution is boosting this effect, even. Human has affected our planet dramatically, especially over the past 150 years. That's absolutely sad and should give us to think. But it should not stop us from enjoying and photographing landscapes, in my opinion. Also, the orange stripe would appear without pollution by humans, as there is a lot of dust blown up through wind, from pure nature.
Thank you for your comment and nice greetings,