About eight weeks ago I was beginning to look for a sunset predictor. I knew of Skyfire and I was (still am) not in the financial position to drop money on an app every month that tells me the sky above my home or local national park sucks. I can see that for free. But I would pay attention to something that was free. So I began to look for another option. As if the heavens heard a prayer that I had not actually made, a local photographer on a group on Facebook that I follow asked the very same question I had. “Does anyone know of a free sunset and sunrise predictor?” Within minutes someone named this website, Sunset WX.
I became intrigued and looked them up. Their site is kind of basic. It has a picture of the US (this can be changed) from a satellite view and the picture is overlayed with a heat map. The heat map represents the probability of a good sunset. The warmer (closer to red or higher percentage) the image gets the better chance of a mind-blowing sunset. The cooler it got the better chance for a poor sunset. After playing around on it for a bit I realized the interface sucked. Trying to plan out anything seemed difficult and was not user-friendly at all. I plunked around the site for a bit and was about give up on it. That's when I heard of an app called MySunset.
Disclaimer: This is not a review of MySunset. The app works fine, it's a bit clunky here and there, but overall it does what I wanted. It took the data from Sunset WX and put it into an easily readable form.
Now I had something to work off of. I could easily use the app and see up to four days in the future plus the current day what Sunset WX was predicting. It also provided a google map overlay that I could zoom in and out on and see what my local area or distant area would have for a sunset or sunrise prediction. With this, I could actually quantify (not really but I like the wording) if the sunset was going to be good. With this new app in hand and the unfortunate reality of unemployment, I had all the free time in the world to pay attention to sunrises and sunsets.
Pro's of Sunset WX
The biggest pro is a boost of optimism. Literally, Sunset WX predicts awesome sunrises and sunsets all the time. Awesome means anything over 75% chance of a great sunset/sunrise. Almost every week for the past month I could see four days out and somewhere within those days it was saying in many locations that there was going to be great sunrise/sunset. The other thing it would do would predict absolutely awful sunrises/sunsets well. If it was below 30% chance of a good sunrise/sunset it was accurate. But in the end Sunset WX has major issues.
Cons of Sunset WX
Updates Making Planning Useless
This app, really its data from Sunset WX, updates as soon as it gets new information. Literally, every update would just be a buzz kill. When I went to bed sunrise was 84% chance of amazing, by the time I woke up it completely shifted to 35% chance of a good sunrise and it predicted it accurately and the sunrise sucked. What is the point of a prediction if it can't make a good prediction within 8 hours of the event. If you were planning a big trip and it would take you eight hours to get there and you used Sunset WX data only you might find yourself in a world of bad information and bad skies. Sunset WX was like this constantly.
In some ways this is good. It provides the most up to date information and if you are close to your subject it would keep you from going out and wasting gas. But the ability to make plans on the information more than a day in advance… Not so useful.
Inclement weather seems to trip up the prediction programs behind Sunset WX. The shot below of horseshoe bend was taken when weather predicted partly cloudy skies but only after the storm passed through. Sunset WX gave it an average reading for a good sunset. If you just went off this photo alone, you might agree with the prediction it gave.
What you can't see is the walls of clouds directly above me. These clouds were lit up in every shade of orange imaginable. In fact, I would have called this sunset nuclear if I was photographing it specifically. It seems that as the inclement weather comes in Sunset WX starts calling for bad sunset prediction.
This might be for a couple reasons. 1- Bad weather often only has a few minutes of stellar light. Since part of the calculation that goes into predicting a good sunset is the duration of amazing color, it might give the inclement weather a poor rating and thus predict inaccurately. 2- Inclement weather can turn from great to overcast really quickly. Since that is the case it will just call for bad conditions to spare you the heartache.
Clear Sky Failures
The other day I used Sunset WX to predict when I should photograph Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park. The night before it was calling for a decent sunrise, not great, but decent. Before I went to bed I looked at the weather. It gave Kolob Canyon clear skies. I knew clear skies were not what I wanted to photograph, but now I wanted to test the app's ability. So I went to bed, got up way too early for humanity to function and met with another photographer to go to Kolob. We ended hiking four miles in and just like the weather predicted, we had terrible cloud conditions aka no clouds, and it turned into a poor sunrise. Sunset WX gave it a good chance for a good sunrise the night before.
This seems to be the norm for this app. I am not sure if it reads current conditions and uses that for predicting the future, but it incorrectly predicted that sunrise. In fact, it does this a lot. I call this now the 50% unknown.
The 50% Unknown
The 50% Unknown is the average prediction that Sunset WX gives you. But!!!! At any given time I have had spectacular sunsets within this range of predictions. This image below was on a poor prediction evening. I would beg to differ and say it was an amazing sunset. But with the same condition predictions, I have had poor sunsets/sunrises as well. With this 50/50 flip of the coin on whether the sunset/sunrise will be good or not, why would I bother to use this information at all? I can run off of data from weather apps and NOAA to get %cloud cover and use that for my planning.
Should you use Sunset WX… No probably not. Not until it can predict at least eight hours in advance accurately. It gives within the hour really well, but for long-term planning, I find it useless.
Should it be a tool in your bag? Maybe. I am about to delete the app and give up on the sunrise/sunset predictor, but I might hold onto it for the possibility that it might be right as well. So if you are looking for another tool to help you plan your trips, this might be somewhat worthwhile. If you are just in it for fun and would go out under any conditions to take images, then don't bother using Sunset WX.
Other surprising findings, over the course of the month, Sunset WX never once gave my area an 85% or higher for amazing light at the time of sunset/sunrise. It would say it was coming constantly, but would always fall apart by the time it arrived.
If you have ever used a sunset/sunrise predictor let me know. I want to know your thoughts. If you use Sunset WX give me your opinion and tell me how you use it.