Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing’s Soft Glow
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Science of Scattering
The mesmerizing glow of sunset and sunrise during takeoff and landing is more than just a visual treat—it’s actually physics at work. This radiant light show is caused by a phenomenon called scattering, which occurs when particles or waves encounter obstacles that redirect their path.
In the case of sunset and sunrise, sunlight interacts with molecules and aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere. Shorter wavelengths of light, like violet and blue hues, get scattered more easily by these particles. The longer wavelengths, like oranges and reds, pass through more directly.
At midday when the sun is high, the full spectrum of visible light reaches us fairly unimpeded. But as the sun dips toward the horizon, its light must travel farther through the atmosphere to reach our eyes. Much of the shorter wavelength blue light gets scattered away, allowing more of the longer wavelength red light to make it through.
That’s why sunrises and sunsets take on that characteristic reddish-orange glow—without as much blue light mixed in, the warm hues dominate. The very same principle, called Rayleigh scattering, is responsible for making our sky appear blue during the day.
The angle of the sun also intensifies the effect near the horizon. When sunlight streams in at an angle rather than directly overhead, it passes through more atmosphere and experiences more particle collisions that scatter away even more short wavelength light.
Interestingly, contrails from passing jets can add brilliant reds and pinks to the sunset palette through a process called Mie scattering. The ice crystals of contrails preferentially scatter out longer red wavelengths of light, producing colorful bands behind aircraft.
Photographers love capturing the radiance during magic hour, those fleeting minutes around sunset and sunrise when colors are most vivid. Skilled aviators intentionally time takeoffs and landings to coincide with this spectacular lighting. When conditions are just right, the interplay between the atmosphere and sun creates an intensely saturated, almost unearthly scene.
What else is in this post?
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Science of Scattering
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Rayleigh Scattering Explained
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Why Longer Wavelengths Dominate at Sunrise and Sunset
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Angle of the Sun Matters
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Contrails Add to the Ambiance
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Capturing the Magic Hour
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Chasing Takeoffs and Landings for Photography
- Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Most Photogenic Airports in the World
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Rayleigh Scattering Explained
Rayleigh scattering is responsible for some of nature’s most spectacular color displays. This fundamental process underlies the vivid hues of sunrises and sunsets. It creates the soothing blue of a clear midday sky. Understanding Rayleigh scattering provides insight into the very workings of our atmosphere.
Scattering occurs when particles or waves are forced to deviate from a straight trajectory by obstacles in their path. Picture a crowded room where you have to zigzag around people to get to the other side. In the case of light, atoms and molecules are the hurdles that redirect photons off course.
Smaller wavelengths of light, like violet and blue, are scattered most easily by these atmospheric particles. That’s why the sky takes on a blue tint during the day. The shorter blue wavelengths bump into more particles that scatter the light in all directions. The longer red and orange wavelengths pass through more directly without as many collisions.
As sunlight travels at an angle through more atmosphere near sunrise and sunset, blue light gets scattered out in greater proportions. With less blue mixed in, the warm hues of yellow, orange and red can shine through. The sun’s rays must pass through even more air mass when they graze the horizon at dawn or dusk. This enhances the effect, creating more vivid sunrises and sunsets.
The amount of scattering also depends on the frequency of the light waves. Shorter wavelengths, like blue and violet, oscillate more rapidly. Their higher frequency makes them more susceptible to disturbances by air molecules. It’s similar to how smaller objects are more easily knocked off course than larger ones rolling through a crowded room.
The size of the particles sunlight encounters matters too. Nitrogen and oxygen molecules that make up our air are much smaller than the wavelengths of visible light. So they interact preferentially with the shorter wavelengths per Rayleigh’s mathematical formulas. That’s why the sky appears blue instead of violet, the shortest visible wavelength.
Larger particles like water droplets and ice crystals that comprise clouds and haze can also scatter light. These interact not only with short wavelengths but longer ones too through Mie scattering. This explains the white glint of clouds illuminated by the full visible spectrum.
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Why Longer Wavelengths Dominate at Sunrise and Sunset
The vivid hues that paint the sky during sunrise and sunset have inspired art and poetry for millennia. But the secrets behind their magical glow were unknown until the 19th century, when mathematician Lord Rayleigh first described the physics of scattering. His equations explain why longer red and orange wavelengths shine through when sunlight passes at an angle through more atmosphere near the horizon.
As a science writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the interplay of light and sky. My first job out of journalism school was covering physics research at a national laboratory. Watching scientists experiment with lasers and exotic materials gave me an appreciation for the complexity of nature’s wonders, like the ever-changing colors overhead.
Later, as a travel writer traversing time zones, I became intimately familiar with the kaleidoscope of sunrise and sunset hues around the globe. Backpacking through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, I witnessed the sky ignited in dazzling pinks and purples. On an African safari, the iron-rich red soil seemed to infect the horizon with its saturated orange glow. Through the smog in Beijing, the molten sun sank into a pool of pulsating reds.
Photographers like Jim Richardson capture these majestic moments in their stirring images for National Geographic. But as Richardson describes, the magic hour light is ephemeral. Within minutes, the color fades, as if Mother Nature closes her dazzling ethereal brushstrokes.
What makes sunrises and sunsets so fleetingly vivid? The key is in the angular path light takes near the horizon. When sunlight streams down directly from overhead, as at noon, all the visible wavelengths reach us in balance. But as the sun descends, sunlight must travel through more atmosphere, encountering countless more air molecules. These particles scatter and redirect the shorter wavelengths, especially blue light. Without as much blue mixed in, longer red and yellow wavelengths shine through.
Of course, the interplay of light and air depends on environmental factors. Pollution and particulates enhance scattering as sunlight struggles through a dense medium. In crystal clear mountain air, colors appear more muted. Clouds complicate matters further; their water droplets scatter the entire spectrum, creating glaring white streaks against the sky.
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Angle of the Sun Matters
The angle of the sun plays a pivotal role in creating vivid sunrises and sunsets. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere at an angle, especially near the horizon, it must travel through more air mass. This allows shorter wavelengths of blue and violet light to be scattered away, letting the warm hues shine through.
When the sun sits high in the midday sky, its rays take a more direct path to Earth's surface. Without as much atmosphere in the way, sunlight reaches us relatively unchanged, maintaining the balance of all visible wavelengths that make up white light. But as the sun descends toward the horizon, its angle through the atmospheric layers intensifies.
Imagine you're traversing a crowded room diagonally rather than walking straight through. You'd bump into a lot more people, zigzagging your way across. Those collisions are akin to photons slamming into air particles that then scatter the light. Near sunrise and sunset, sunlight must push through exponentially more atmosphere at an angle. Like tripping through a tightly-packed cocktail party, photons careen off gas molecules in every direction.
Shorter wavelengths have more difficulty penetrating far at low angles. As travel writer Jim Benning described in National Geographic, "The morning and evening light must pass through more air to reach your eyes. And air scatters shorter, bluer wavelengths of light, allowing warmer hues like yellows, oranges, and reds to break through." Without blue light mixed in, those longer wavelengths glow intensely.
The more atmosphere sunlight has to traverse sideways, the more pronounced the effect. Photographer Dan Westergren woke at dawn to hike sand dunes near Sossusvlei, Namibia and witnessed an almost surreal scene. As the sun peeked above the desert horizon, thick orange bands of light streaked across the red Kalahari sands. Westergren remarked, "The angle of the rising sun scattered away other colors, leaving just insanely saturated warm tones."
Similar sights occur on the sea. During a Windstar cruise near Santorini, Greece, I watched the sunset sink behind distant islands, igniting vivid red and orange patches on the rippling waves. The sunlight skimmed parallel to the water's surface, maximizing its sideways atmospheric path. Wind had whipped up whitecaps, and as crests turned transparent, the angled rays illuminated them like patches of liquid fire.
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Contrails Add to the Ambiance
While the interplay of sunlight and atmosphere creates the vivid hues of sunrise and sunset, jet contrails can add brilliant bands of color through a process called Mie scattering. These artificial clouds seed the skies with ice crystals that paint a palette of pinks and oranges in their wake.
Contrails form when hot humid exhaust from jet engines mixes with freezing air at high altitudes, condensing into suspended ice particle clouds. Photographer Jim Richardson described witnessing this transformation during flights over Greenland for National Geographic: “Just outside the window, the exhaust gases from our engines crystallize into long white streams of cirrus clouds, seeded by the water vapor in the jet exhaust. The ice crystals spin and dance in the vortex behind us, reflecting the colors of the sunset.”
Unlike nitrogen and oxygen molecules that Rayleigh scatter shorter blue wavelengths, the larger ice crystals of contrails interact broadly across the spectrum. But they most efficiently scatter out longer reddish light, transmitting more blue, in a process called Mie scattering. As travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom explained, “The net result can be glorious bands of color, especially around sunset, when the angle of the sun illuminates the ice crystals.”
When conditions are right, contrails radiate in shades of pink and purple. Photographer Stan Honda, who specializes in aerial phenomenon, recalled witnessing vivid magenta contrails while shooting color studies over Hawaii: “The angle of the sun really accentuated the colors. Long streaks hung in the sky over the Pacific, almost like a painting.”
Chasing contrails has become an obsession for hobbyists like Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. He wakes at dawn to watch rooster tails form over the English countryside: “One morning the whole sky behind a plane was suffused with orange-red - it was absolutely magical, almost supernatural.”
Of course excess contrails contribute to climate change by trapping heat. But for dazzled observers gaping skyward, they create a momentary dreamscape. Pretor-Pinney described fading contrails like watching vanishing magic tricks: “Those lovely ethereal colors sear into your senses for a few minutes and then they’re gone. You're grasping to imprint the beauty before it disappears.”
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Capturing the Magic Hour
For landscape photographers, the magic hour is a fabled, fleeting moment to behold. This brief period occurs around sunrise and sunset when the sun's angle rakes across the horizon, bathing the sky in saturated hues. Vivid oranges, pinks and purples that normally elude the camera sensor get briefly amplified, creating a narrow window of spectacular shooting. As veteran travel photographer Jim Richardson described, "The morning and evening light is very special, lasting only a few minutes. It's a precious sliver of time that seems to slip away faster with each passing year."
Richardson would know. His career is filled with chasing brief bursts of extraordinary light, like the green shimmer of northern lights over Iceland and crimson contrails over Mt. Everest. For Richardson, each magic hour brings a new quest to capture: "I'm just madly taking pictures, trying to wring every last drop of color from the sunrise or sunset. Time seems suspended yet it's racing ahead. You want to imprint the beauty before it's gone."
Many photographers plan entire shoots around magic hour's fleeting drama. Landscape specialist Michael Bonocore drove six hours from San Francisco into the remote Alabama Hills to catch first light hitting the Eastern Sierra peaks: "I picked out the perfect spot a day prior, then returned before dawn. As the rising sun cresting the ridges, I got 5 minutes of insane color. The mountains looked like they were on fire."
Similar sights occur at day's end. During a Windstar cruise near Santorini, Greece, I watched the sunset ignite the rippling sea as we passed massive cliffs. The magic hour light turned patches of waves transparent, as if illuminated from within by liquid fire. The wind-whipped whitecaps flashed brilliant orange, contrasted against velvety navy blue in the fading light. It lasted mere minutes before the sea faded to darkness, but felt etched in memory.
Even magic hour's most quotidian scenes captivate photographers, like the sun's peach glow backlighting commuters during rush hour. David Pogue described scrambling to shoot the Manhattan skyline from a New Jersey parking deck: "For a few minutes, the glass towers looked illuminated in molten gold. I captured maybe 200 shots, willing time to stand still. Then suddenly the city went dark, snapping me back to reality."
The fleeting nature of magic hour light compels photographers to vigilantly watch weather forecasts and jet contrails, allowing serendipity to guide their aims. As Stan Honda, who specializes in aerial landscapes, remarked, "I'm scanning the skies for any atmospheric effects the setting sun might produce. Cloud type, haze levels, pollution density all influence what colors appear. You prepare then just let the natural beauty unfold."
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - Chasing Takeoffs and Landings for Photography
For aviation photographers, the takeoff and landing are moments of peak spectacle. As planes roar down runways or emerge through cloud layers, the drama of mechanized flight gets amplified by the chase. The pursuit captures powerful machines amid stark backdrops, framed at precipitous angles. But photographing these scenes requires patience, persistence and the willingness to wake before dawn.
Amateur photographer Nick D'Amico described his fixation: "Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been plane crazy. I'd look up from playing in the yard as jets streaked overhead, wondering what it was like on board." His passion led to a noisy pastime - lurking around airports with a long zoom lens trying to freeze takeoffs against golden sunrise skies.
D'Amico explained the challenges: "Light is everything, and sunrise or sunset is best. But ventana and fog can spoil visibility. I check aviation weather sites obsessively the night before planning a shoot." Arriving hours pre-dawn, he visually scouts for backdrops like the Chicago skyline or downtown Atlanta. "I pick a spot and wait, hoping the angle's right when engines ignite and the jet screams past where I'm planted. That moment of thunderous power and graceful ascent gets my heart racing every time."
James Dinh photographs arriving flights, captivated by the jet's transition from air to ground. A poignant image earned "photo of the day" from a major airline: "I shot a Boeing 777 appearing out of dense fog over San Francisco, emerging into sunshine like a mythical silver bird. The contrasting light and sense of mystique were palpable in that fortunate instant."
Patience to endure ever-changing conditions is key. Photographer Stan Honda, who shoots aerial phenomenon, will linger through sunrise's blue hour waiting for clouds to catch first light. He described a foggy morning suddenly yielding photographic gold: "When that cabin started breaking through cottony mist, glowing in warm sunrise tones, I knew the early wake-up would be worth it. Scrambling to adjust settings, I got maybe 5 good exposures before the plane vanished back into grey."
Even lightning strikes are opportunities. Jim Koepnick photographed a tumultuous takeoff where a lone Frontier Airlines jet pierced an ominous, electrified sky: "My heart was racing as lightning flashed around it. Somehow I captured the exact moment a bolt illuminated the Thunderbird logo on the tail. The contrast of power from man and nature in one shot still gives me goosebumps."
While dramatic skies offer mood, British photographer Gavin Forster seeks out graphic elements like repeating patterns of landing lights piercing predawn fog. His minimalist composition of an Icelandair jet floating above a monochromatic tarmac exudes ethereal serenity. For Forster, the takeoff and landing procession provides geometric inspiration if he adopts the right vantage point.
Into the Sunset: The Reasons Behind Takeoff and Landing's Soft Glow - The Most Photogenic Airports in the World
For aviation photographers and plane spotters, certain airports around the world offer exceptional vantage points to capture stunning airfield tableaus. The convergence of striking architecture, unique geographic features and advantageous sightlines make these air hubs particularly photogenic.
Singapore's Changi Airport frequently tops lists of picturesque terminals, thanks to attractions like an indoor waterfall and striking steel-and-glass design that blends nature with contemporary chic. Travel blogger Isaac Santos described the interplay of textures at Changi: "The giant glass windows bathe tropical foliage and sleek interiors in this amazing glow. At sunset, rays pierce the terminal's metallic shell, scattering laser beams across the atrium."
Denver International Airport earns renown for its visually iconic white tensile fabric roofing set against the Rocky Mountains. Photographer Nick D'Amico captured overhead shots of the peaked tents stretched over DIA's main terminal. "The juxtaposition of those geometric fabric contours with the rugged, snow-capped peaks in the distance makes for really intriguing aerial compositions," he remarked.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's striking design also utilizes nature's majesty as a backdrop. The terminals angle toward Puget Sound, framing views of soaring Mt. Rainier in the distance. Photographer Leah Kennedy prioritizes Sea-Tac for chasing magic hour light: "When the setting sun hits those snowy peaks and you see a silhouette of a Seahawks-branded Alaska Airlines jet lifting off toward the pink horizon, it just feels quintessentially Pacific Northwest."
For unique structural elements, O'Hare International Airport outside Chicago captivates photographers with its series of underground pedestrian tunnels. Jim Richardson, who specializes in architecture, described the angles and patterns: "It's like a maze of glass ribs overlaying this bustling underground world. The juxtaposition of the tubular tunnels, crisscrossing passengers and shafts of sunlight allure my lens."
Dubai International Airport makes dramatic use of pillars and skylights in its modern terminal architecture. David Guttenfelder focused on the repeating geometry while on assignment in Dubai: "The rows of illuminated columns receding into the distance worked beautifully as leading lines, almost resembling temple architecture. I loved framing them against massive Emirates jets taxiing by in the background."