sunrise vs. sunset: do they look different?

Sunrise and sunset seem different to me when I look at them, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem like there should be anything objectively different about them, but is there? For example:

-temperature gradients in the atmosphere

-time rate of change of brightness/position (too slow to consciously perceive, but maybe noticeable on a subconscious level)

Or are all the factors resulting in that different perception purely subjective, e.g. having just awoken versus having experienced a whole day of activity?

To clarify, you’re asking about a “freeze-frame” instantaneous sight of them, where you’re seeing sun-at-horizon, not sun-moving-above-horizon or sun-sinking-below-horizon?>

Well, for one, the air in the morning sky is going to be much more stable than the air evening sky (think the wavy desert lines thing).

Pretty much. This morning as I drove to work, the sun was above the horizon, but hidden by a line of clouds. It was hard to think of it as anything but a sunrise. I guess you could call it instantaneous, although I was driving east for maybe a mile, thinking about it and watching it most of the way.

Oh, another thing.

If its cool enough in the morning to have trace amounts of fog, thats might make things look a bit different than that same water in the air thats in its gaseous form. And, obviously the more fog, the more different the look.

Where do you live that both sunrise and sunset have the same background? Here sunrise is over the ocean and sunset is behind the mountains. There is a city in between but there is a world of difference looking East or West any time of day.

I started this exact same thread a few years ago. Yes, they most definitely look different, and it’s not the amount of light or which direction you’re looking in. The best anyone could come up with is moisture content in the air, but I found that explanation to be… unsatisfying.

But any artist can tell you that the difference is striking.

At sunrise the sun is rising over a landscape that’s still cool from the evening, while at sunset it’s retreating over a landscape that’s been heated by the sun all day. That will certainly create differences, although exactly what they are depend upon the time, season, and circumstances. It will certainly make a difference in amount of moisture in the air, presence and absence of fog, and so forth. To tell the truth, I don’t know enough about the differences to tell you, given a snapshot of an unfamiliar location, whether it’s a sunrise or a sunset.

Moviewise, they’re very similar. To the point that they are used interchangeably (filming sunsets like it’s a sunrise, and the reverse).

I remember reading “somewhere” and this was a long time ago that a studio wanted to show a romantic shot of a couple watching the sunrise on a beach so they simply filmed a sunset on a California beach; supposedly no one noticed that the waves were running backwards and the seabirds were flying backwards. This story is probably apocryphal but I’ve always been curious about it. Any info would be appreciated and I apologize for the hijack.

Unless they wanted to show them watching the sun at the moment it came up, this story sounds apocryphal. A couple on a beach with the sun partway up – you can shoot that forward, and unless your shot lasts a few minutes constantly looking at the sun, most people won’t know if it’s sunrise or sunset.

Out in the ocean on a ship, they look very much the same. The only difference was at sunset the sky would turn from blue to red to black, sunrise the sky would go from black to blue without the red. There would be less red at sunset the further you were away from land.

Well, major differential background cues (e.g. mountains versus ocean) make it really obvious, but only if you’re familiar with them. Bring in someone who’s not from around there (e.g. the west coast), and that association between ocean and sunrise doesn’t exist for them.

Alternatively, there are places where such blatant cues don’t exist - for example, many places in the Great Plains region of the United States, which is a large region that doesn’t have a lot in the way of acute elevation changes. Stand in the middle of a square (mile) of farmland in Kansas, Nebraska, or South Dakota, and you won’t see much difference no matter which way you face. Sure, if you study the scenery, eventually you’ll spot minor differences in the treeline or farm buildings, but if you move one square over those cues will be totally different - in other words, there are no visual features around you that are intrinsically and uniquely related to sunrise or sunset, or east or west. In spite of that, I’m pretty sure that sunrise and sunset would be perceived differently by an observer there.

One doesn’t really even need to be in the midwest. I’m in a coastal city and I rarely see the sun rise over the ocean.

I’ve always heard that there’s a lot more dust in the sky in the evening than in the morning, so there’s more scattering of light. Which makes sunsets in general more colorful than sunrises.

No sunrise can rival a autumn sunset.

There are colors in an autumn sunset I’ve never seen in any sunrise.


Of course, it’s not just the atmosphere that’s different. You’re different at sunrise and sunset, too. On the rare occasions when I see a sunrise, I’m usually sleep-deprived, bleary-eyed, and not in a very good mood, all of which could contribute to it looking different.

Thats certainly possible (though not sure its true enough to make a difference). Very fine dust will make a sunset more colorful.

On the flip side, fog makes a sunrise less colorful. Now that I think about it, around here when the fog is pretty heavy, you can get sunsets that are almost black and white. By the time the sun is high enough to be seen (the fog greatly attenuates the brightness but doesnt do much to the color) its so high you don’t really get the color filtering you get down low.

So, if on average, the evening is more dusty and or the mornings are more foggy, then on average sunrises will be less colorful than sunsets.

I lived on the Atlantic coast of Florida on the beach for 4 years and was up at the crack of dawn almost every day for my job. Sunrises were anything but picturesque. So must moisture and fog over the ocean that you never actually saw the sun come up. It just got lighter out and eventually the fog would burn off and by that time the sun was up in the sky.
In contrast the sunsets I’ve seen off the west coast of Florida on a clear day are awesome. The distinct circle of the sun being intersected by the sharp line of the horizon is something you never see on the east coast.

Except that (in the northern hemisphere) the sun moves to the right, so that a reversed sunrise/sunset will appear to be moving to the left. This is obviously most noticeable in time-lapse shots.

Whenever I see a leftward sunrise/sunset in a show that is not set in the southern hemisphere, I know they’re running it backward. But most people don’t know or notice.