I don't know whether the sunsets are actually more glorious at this time of year or whether they just show up in more attractive places. A little of both, probably. The clouds (if any) in summer are usually thunderheads—impressive and sometimes beautifully colored, but fairly localized. In late autumn and winter, on the other hand, the clouds (if any) tend more toward the altostratus or cirrus side, lighting up huge stretches of sky in the middle or upper atmosphere as soon as the sun skims the horizon. At this time of year, too, with the sun setting farther to the south—at the end of a long, open street rather than tucked between roofs—I have a better view from the upstairs window of those vivid colors, if you can overlook a few telephone poles and wires. And antenna towers and commercial buildings. Sunsets are among the few real perks of the cold months.
People sometimes ask me whether I fiddle with the colors of sunset photos before posting them. I don't. They usually turn out more orange than I expected and less pink, but that's just the whim of the camera. I do, however, always take them ⅓-⅔ of a stop (do we still call them stops?) darker than what my camera's light meter suggests, which brings out the life, the wonderful depth and vibrancy, in the colors.
As I understand it, in its default mode, a camera's light meter is the Goldilocks of the photographic world, wanting a visual porridge that's neither too hot nor too cold. "Just right" to a camera is "18% gray" (or 12%, depending on who's talking): a neutral shade halfway between the light that reflects off black objects and off white ones. When the meter tells you that a photo is correctly exposed, it's telling you that with the current settings you'll get a picture where the overall balance is at that 18%-gray middle point between dark and light.
You have to feel for the poor light meter, trying to make the best of situations when it has no way of knowing what the parameters really are; at one time or another we have all been in that boat. Faced with a sunset, no matter how dramatic the darkening upper atmosphere or how brilliantly glowing the clouds, the camera will do its living best to neutralize the whole scene, to find the intensity that is equivalent to that medium gray. It means well. Unfortunately, if you heed its advice it will also give you a sunset that's pale, drab, and washed out—a fair-to-middling sunset, when the one you saw was spectacular.
I was thinking about all of that, looking at sunsets this week, and looking beyond into winter. I still dread this time of year, even here where the season is sunny and relatively mild. The problem isn't the weather or the shorter days. It's the isolation—the way closed windows shut you away from the sounds connecting you to the world: the ambient noise of neighborhood life that in warmer weather, at least to those of us who spend most of our free time alone, resting, is a kind of company. Without those connections, the world can look a little pale and drab.
So the goal this winter is to override the norm of neutral gray, to live ⅓ of a stop more intensely than average—maybe even ⅔, if I really want to kick up my heels. I don't know quite how I'll do that in a way that's quiet, low-energy, and has me home on a sofa by 6. If cameras are a good role model for life, though, and I don't see why they can't be, ⅓ of a stop is all it takes to go from fair-to-middling to spectacular. One-third of a stop: nothing radical, nothing extreme.
Just one little flick of the dial, to bring things into warm, vibrant life.