Sunrise or sunset?

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

—Dylan Thomas

How can you tell the difference between a photo of a sunset and a sunrise. One of the most popular classes of photos on instagram are these, but we depend on the artist to tell us which is which. I began to wonder if there is something intrinsic in the quality of light by which we can tell. Is there something to the metaphors of rebirth and hope or death and melancholy which are associated with these two daily events, or is it just a fancy?

I went through my old photos, classifying them into bunches: so many minutes before sunset, so many after sunrise, looking in the direction of the sun, away from it, or at angles to it. Then I measured the colours and luminosity. There was no way to tell by these visual cues which was a sunrise and which a sunset.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

—T.S. Eliot

But it turns out that there is a subtle difference. It is not the sky that gives it away, but the earth. The temperature at dawn is lower than the temperature at dusk. This is most visible in winter, when the mist, if there is any, is thicker in the morning. In Mumbai, when it is seldom cold enough for the mist, the haze is worse at sunset, because the sea water has warmed through the day to saturate the air. If you know local conditions, you can usually use these other cues to figure out whether a particular photo you are looking at is from dawn or dusk. “Satisfactory,” as Nero Wolfe might say.


Yesterday morning we said goodbye to our clifftop refuge. We woke before dawn, pulled ourselves out of the warm blanket, and walked out past the garden to the edge of the cliff. Far below us was Arthur Lake, with a huddle of houses around it. But we could see beyond it to the ranges which enclose the Kalsubai wildlife sanctuary. It was just the beginning of winter, but the valleys were enveloped in a morning fog. The sky was still dark. We were not warm in our shirts, but not too cold either.

We stood there for about twenty minutes, our heads pointing towards the far away stars, as the earth rolled on its axis, its horizon dropping towards the sun. The dark of the sky paled from a blue to white; the deep rose above the furthest hill brightened into a red, and then a blazing yellow, as the horizon slipped below the disk of our nearest star. The glowing ball of fusion flame seemed to rise above the hills. It is such an ordinary sight, but new and exciting each time!

In the measure of our own lifetimes, the cosmos is completely regular and predictable. The intersection of this regularity with the unpredictability of the atmosphere renews our experience of the sunrise every day. In hours the sun would burn away the mist. By the time we left for the drive back to our home, the valleys were clear.

Lioness at home

A lioness never disappoints. Our attention was drawn to this individual when she stood up from rest in tall grass. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was pretty light. We watched her as she sniffed the air, moved a few paces, and coughed once.

The Family was watching her through binoculars; I had my camera. As we watched, she moved a little and looked around. Was she restless? Was something going to happen? I looked at Stephen, our guide. He was relaxed at the wheel of the Landrover.

The queen preferred to conserve her energy. She sat down, but she wasn’t gping to rest. Her head poked clear of the grass around her. “She can sit like this for a long time,” Stephen told us.

I zoomed back. It was a beautiful sunrise. The sky was still pink. It would be a while before the horizon dipped below the sun. Meanwhile the lioness was completely at home, relaxed but alert. We watched for a while, and then moved on.

Ending the year right

On almost the last day of the year I got up to see a sunrise for the first time in twelve months. The fiery photo you see above is of a sunrise seen from Neil Island in the Andaman archipelago.

Sunrise in sitapur beach on Neil Island

Sitapur beach is the place in Neil Island where people go to see the sunrise. The photo above is a panorama of this little crescent shaped beach in the early light of the dawn. We saw about a hundred people in the morning. The beach is almost deserted through the rest of the day.