Half a million sunsets: Prague writer has a passion for capturing the setting sun

Expats.cz staffer Raymond Johnston rarely misses the chance to shoot a brilliant sunset in the Czech capital

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas
Published on 30.10.2020 16:23 (updated on 30.10.2020)

Expats.cz staffer Raymond Johnston has been covering the news in Prague for over two decades, as an editor of the Prague Post as well as a prolific blogger on the topic of magic and alchemy in the Czech lands.

What those who follow his work may not know is that he's also a devoted sunset photographer, setting out each day at dusk to capture the perfect composition of oranges and pinks before watching the sun slip below the horizon.

Sunset over Prague/ photo by Raymond Johnston
Sunset from Riegrovy sady / photo by Raymond Johnston

I recently spoke with Raymond about what it was that sparked his love affair with sunsets and asked him to share his tips for best vantage points with fellow sunset chasers.

What compelled you start to photographing sunsets?

In 2010, I read that after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland the volcanic ash would cause spectacular sunsets for a while. But I kept up with it as the sunset is different every day, and unless people make an effort they almost never notice it. Also it makes me get at least a little exercise every day.

Do you really photograph the Prague sunset every day?

Almost every day. In the summer, the sunset is pretty late, so if there is an indoor concert I’m not going to be able to go out and get back in. I’m not going to miss Ozzie or Roger Waters just to get a shot of a potentially gray sky. But even then I try to get something with the clouds in the early evening or after the show.

Anticrepuscular light at Charles Bridge / via Raymond Johnston
Anticrepuscular light at Charles Bridge / photo by Raymond Johnston

How many sunsets have you photographed since you started?

It has to be hundreds of thousands, I think half a million. On a really good day, it is easy to shoot a couple of hundred shots as the sun and clouds both move. The colors and shadows can change rapidly. Also I use a zoom lens, so I can take wide shots and get details along the horizon.

What are the best vantage points in Prague?

This depends on the time of year. The sun sets at a different point every day, in spring and most of the summer, there is a hill in Riegrovy sady where you can get good shots of the sunset with Prague Castle and the Petřín Tower, but then in fall and winter the sun goes too far to the left and gets lost in the trees.

Sunset at Charles Bridge near the summer solstice / via Raymond Johnston
Sunset at Charles Bridge near the summer solstice / photo by Raymond Johnston

In late June and early July, you can catch the sun with Prague Castle from along the banks of the Vltava, between the Rudolfinum and the National Theatre.

The week around the solstice, June 21, right at the Old Town side of Charles Bridge gets you really good shots of the sun setting on St Vitus’ Cathedral. This alignment was supposedly planned by Charles IV and his astrologers, something like Stonehenge.

Along the Vltava is tricky due to the hills on the other side, which can get in the way of the sun and the colorful clouds on the horizon. But the reflecting water can make up for that if the sky takes on an interesting color, and there is usually some classic piece of architecture you can work into the frame.

Sunset in the mist from Riegrovy sady
Sunset in the mist from Riegrovy sady/ photo by Raymond Johnston

Vyšehrad is good for a lot of the year due to its elevation. You can get bridges and reflections in the water.

In the fall and into the winter, Parukářka is good, and you can get the sun near the Žižkov TV Tower. There are also good views from Grébovka villa and Havlíčkovy sady in the fall and winter, with some skyscrapers on the horizon.

In the very late summer, the bridges Štefánikův most or Hlávkův most let you get the sun setting on the water with the Castle on the side.

Sunset over Prague/ photo by Raymond Johnston
Sunset from Riegrovy sady / photo by Raymond Johnston

A new place that is really flexible is back of the Deloitte building and the Churchill project, overlooking the back of the main train station.

The older part of the station has glass domes that catch the light, and there is also a view of Prague Castle and some Old Town spires in the background. It is high up and has no trees at all, so nothing will be in the way most of the year.

But every neighborhood has a few good spots.

Sunset from behind Praha hlavní nádraží
Sunset from behind Praha hlavní nádraží / photo by Raymond Johnston

How do you determine the time of sunsets? Is there an app for that?

The sunset time and location changes every day. Latest and furthest to the right as you face the sun is on the summer solstice, around June 21 give or take a day. This is technically at 9:15 pm, but you have to go about half an hour earlier to catch the sun above the horizon.

The earliest is the winter solstice, at December 21 or so. Then it is at 4:01 pm. Remember we lose an hour at the end of Summer Time, which the EU is going to abandon soon.

Red srays from the sum creeping under the clouds / photo by Raymond Johnston
Red rays from the sun creeping under the clouds / photo by Raymond Johnston

There are astronomy websites with the sunrise and sunset times for Prague, and several astronomy apps that are useful for showing the angle of the sun and moon. Just typing “sunset Prague” into Google will get you the time every day.

How long do you shoot for?

It depends on the day. If it is all clouds or no clouds, then not very long. A cloudless day is the most boring sunset. They are all the same. On overcast days, there is also nothing but you shouldn’t give up too fast. Sometimes the sun gets under the clouds beneath the horizon and the sky can turn red for a few minutes quite unexpectedly. Even in the rain.

Sunset over Prague Castle / via Raymond Johnston
Sunset over Prague Castle / via Raymond Johnston

Then sometimes in summer the clouds are still reflecting red light a good half hour after sunset.

You share a lot on social media, what kind of response does it get?

A lot of my posts on Facebook are friends only. I only share a few with everyone, as I don’t want to overshare with strangers and look like a spammer.

I’m surprised though, that a lot of ones I post in a folder just to keep them somewhere accessible get a lot of likes from people I haven’t seen or heard from in a long time. Often they’re not the ones I would have picked as the better ones.

Sunset at Charles Bridge / photo by Raymond Johnston
Sunset at Charles Bridge / photo by Raymond Johnston

Instagram has a lot of sunset competition, though many there to my mind are too heavily processed and fake looking. I get a fair amount of likes and comments, but also a lot of likes I think are just so I’ll follow back.

How has COVID changed your daily pattern?

After COVID I looked for more isolated places. Riegrovy sady had way too many people and nobody was social distancing or wearing masks. I went to the back of the railway station a lot more or down by the river near the Rudolfinum or on bridges, as there were very few people.

Do you edit the photos at all or touch up the color or are they unfiltered?

Mostly I just use the camera settings for either sunset or color saturation. I use a pocket camera most of the time, and a phone on occasion but that is only good for wide shots. The camera has a much better zoom, but gets shaky in low light.

Sunset at Praha hlavní nádraží
Sunset at Praha hlavní nádraží / photo by Raymond Johnston

I use a tripod to steady the camera on rare occasions, usually if I am trying to catch the full moon rise right after sunset.

Once in a while I’ll add something like an ink sketch filter or a painting filter but then it is fairly obvious that I’ve done something. The filters can help cover up some flaws like a slight blur or overall flatness.

For Instagram I just use the basic filters and balancing tools to bring the colors out.  

Dragon's breath at sunset with St Vitus' Cathedral / photo by Raymond Johnston
Dragon's breath at sunset with St Vitus' Cathedral / photo by Raymond Johnston

Do you have a favorite photo of all time?

I shot one a few years ago when there was dragon’s breath, a long low cloud right above the Vltava. It made the effect that Prague Castle was sitting on a cloud in a lemon yellow sky, like in a fairytale.

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Another one I liked was a father and his son looking down a street in Vinohrady, and the sun was setting way down the end of the street. There was this sense of wonder at nature, but in an urban setting.

Father and son watching a sunset in Vinohrady / photo by Raymond Johnston
Father and son watching a sunset in Vinohrady / photo by Raymond Johnston

I have several good ones with streaks of red clouds above the statues on Charles Bridge, and also of course the solstice alignment.

Recently I got one with the sun seeming to be a red circle right in front of St Vitus, and lots of dark clouds in a red sky. It looked the cover of a heavy metal greatest hits album.

The sun in the haze or thin fog always makes good shots. I have one with a hazy, almost invisible sun between the Petřín tower and a radio tower.

Sun next to the Petřín tower
Sun next to the Petřín tower / photo by Raymond Johnston

Sometimes on cloudy days there is crepuscular light, those fingers of light coming through the clouds. When the sun gets lower you get the light pointing up. That is anticrepuscular light, for people who like technical terms. Those are always nice.