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Are sunrise and sunset different?

We all know that you get the best light early or late in the day, so we go to extraordinary effort to get out at dawn and dusk. But do these two times of the day look any different?
Well, there’s the obvious fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so they will light the landscape from very different directions, and this will usually determine how they appear. But what I’m not so sure about is whether, apart from this, is the light any different?
I know from experience that when I’m shooting they do look different, but this is probably down to my perception and the effort that it often takes to get to a location for sunrise (especially I’ve had to get up at some ridiculous hour)! Psychologically, all of the extra effort needed to get there for dawn means that I’m determined that it should look different (in fact it must look better)!
But ignoring these perceptions for a minute is there any reason why dawn looks different to dusk? In terms of weather, there tends to be more chance of mist early in the morning, which will give a very different appearance to the landscape. There’s also some evidence that there is likely to be less pollution and ‘rubbish’ in the atmosphere at sunrise than at sunset. Often the pollutants from cars, factories and other human activity build up during the day, reaching a peak at around sunset. While overnight these have a chance to dissipate, making the atmosphere a little ‘clearer’. This means that the light at sunrise should appear a little cooler and clearer, while at sunset it will be a little warmer and potentially more colourful.
These differences will only be comparable if the weather and cloud cover are exactly the same, though, so it’s difficult to really compare them. If you had no idea about the location of a photo, would you be able to tell if it was taken at sunrise or sunset? I’d like to think that I could make a good guess, but I’m sure it would be tough to call.
Aside from all of this, I still ‘prefer’ shooting at dawn, despite the extra effort. There’s a calm and silence that you often get around dawn in a remote location that just makes it more ‘special’. Being out and about when you know that there is hardly anyone else awake within 50 miles, and you may be the only person to be watching this event, is a really good feeling. Which is one of the main reasons that I’m still shooting landscapes after all these years – the experience of being in a stunning location and watching some of nature’s most wonderful sights is actually almost as important as capturing them. But I still need the ‘fix’ of shooting them to make the experience complete…


Llangattock Escarpment, South Wales, Dawn
Llangattock Escarpment, South Wales, Dawn

Seatown, Dorset, sunset
Seatown, Dorset, sunset
Perspectives
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