How we got here
Almost twelve years ago, I read that the primary difference between a professional photographer and an amateur was simply the amount of time spent in the field. I was single at the time, and had more time than I realized, so I decided I’d try to narrow that gap.
I started by spending every free night trying to capture a sunset that came close to the ones I had seen in books, galleries, and photo contests. I figured a week or two would be all it would take. It took just short of a year, and I finally witnessed (and captured) a sunset that I will never forget.
It was January 9th, 2003 and I had chosen to go for a bike ride, with a plan of catching sunset at my favorite spot in the middle of a bridge overlooking the James River on my way back home. The ride took much longer than expected (found a new place to explore with my camera) and by the time I reached the bridge, the sky was already pink. I rushed to the center of the bridge and started firing away. Lasers of glowing pink lasers shot out from under the clouds in a way like I had never seen. I could not believe my luck. It did not last very long and I needed to get home with whatever light twilight was going to provide, so I packed up and started off for home. Nearly across the bridge I looked up and noticed the pink lasers had widened and turned fire engine red. The clouds appeared to be roasting by the sun light. I quickly grabbed my camera and took a handful of photos that, to this day are the most memorable of my life. (This is the photo in the background on the forecasts for sunrise/sunset for the desktop site)
For the next several weeks, I went out over and over hoping for something just close to how wonderful that day was. Occasionally, the sun and clouds would cooperate, but most of the time it did not. On the nights I stayed in, it seemed, almost always had the most colorful skies. Frustrated, I turned to the web to figure out what makes for a great sunset. I already knew that having some clouds were key, but I did not realize that the type is equally as important. I also learned that haze muddies up colors, which is why most of my best sunset photos occurred in the cooler temperatures January. However, all this knowledge was not particularly useful because all I could use was the cloud coverage forecast from the weather channel, which was only showing me part of the picture.
A few years passed, and it was not only me in the house any more. I was married and had two kids and finally understood what it meant to have little free time. My ability to go out multiple times a week to capture sunset was long gone. From time to time, I would have a few evenings to go out and capture a few shots. I rarely came home with much of anything exciting and often found myself choosing the wrong nights again to stay in. There had to be some way I could figure out when my chances were better.
I wrote an app for my mobile phone that allowed me to see all of the factors that contributed to a great sunset and released it for others to use. While a handful of smarter people than I found it very useful, I kept forgetting how each factor made a difference so I stopped using it. A year passed before I realized that I could turn all my notes about what makes the clouds glow like hot embers into an algorithm and simply spit out a numerical score that I could easily compare between days (or hours). No longer would I need to remember all the details, I just needed to remember that 8 was bigger than 2 – and that 8 night was the one to go for.
It took nearly a year to consistently get the weather data I needed before I could truly start testing the algorithm. The early versions were good at telling me when there was going to be a sunset, but often failed miserably in letting me know that while the chance is low, if it works out, it will be spectacular. Another half year of testing, and I believe it now does a great job at letting me know what each night’s opportunity may bring. How is it working for you?