Let me tell you about blue hour photography.
The sun has dipped below the horizon and the orange glow of the sky begins to fade. A few minutes later the street lights come on and illuminate the city into an extraordinary scene.
It seems too good to be true for a photographer. But then again you are into the blue hour.
Many people have heard of golden hour photography, but less have heard or utilise blue hour photography. The blue hour is a time that is wonderful for photography, especially photographing cities. So why do so many photographers pack up and go home after sunset?
When Is Blue Hour?
Blue hour photography or blue light photography is the process of taking photographs during the time of the day that is known as the blue hour. The blue hour occurs before sunrise in the morning and after sunset in the evening.
The sun has dipped a certain amount below the horizon. The sky picks up a cool, crisp blue colour before it gets too dark or what we refer to as night.
If it is a clear day it wouldn’t be unusual to also see some pink/red colour near the horizon line as well. It’s worth mentioning that a night sky is considerably darker and occurs after the blue hour and is very different.
But whilst it’s called the blue hour, it doesn’t actually last an hour. In fact, on average it lasts around 20 to 40 minutes but can be even shorter.
Exactly how long the blue hour lasts on any given day will vary depending on the season and where you are in the world. The good news is that there are a ton of websites and also apps that can give you this information on blue hour quickly and easily.
Plan Your Blue Hour Photography Shoot
The downside of blue hour photography is that you only have a short window to capture your images. So unless you are prepared you may end up missing the shot you wanted to take.
As with any photo shoot, planning is vital. Your starting point should be what you are actually going to photograph. Is it a cityscape? Is it a famous landmark?
Once you know what you are going to be photographing, you can begin to plot a few shot locations on a map. Using Google Maps street view, you can check your location to ensure that your view isn’t going to be obstructed.
You can also check that there is actually going to be somewhere for you to be able to take the photo from. There’s no point thinking you are going to capture a great shot from a location only to find when you get there that it involves standing on train lines.
Keep in mind that you are not going to have time to travel vast distances so keep your shot locations to a few around the same place.
Don’t forget to also check and make a note of the time that blue hour will occur on that day. You can use The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which also provides a whole host of other valuable information such as the direction of light at different times of the day and more.
Pack for Blue Hour Photography
Besides your camera and lens, the one vital piece of equipment you will need for blue hour photography will be a tripod. You will not be able to hold the camera steady enough to capture sharp photos at slow shutter speeds.
For anything below 1/100 sec shutter speed, I will use a tripod if possible. The slowest shutter speed I would try to handhold a camera would be 1/60 sec. At slow shutter speeds, even the smallest movement will cause camera shake.
This will make your photo look blurred. The only way around this will be to raise your ISO setting which will, in turn, mean excessive noise in your photos. So if you want to capture the best possible blue hour photograph, make sure you pack your tripod.
Besides a tripod, the other item which you may find useful for blue hour photography is a remote shutter release. This means that you won’t have to touch the camera when taking a photo. This again reduces the chance of camera shake.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release, fear not as you can set your camera on a timer, so that when you press the shutter button it will take a couple of seconds before a photo is taken.
Other than a tripod and a remote shutter release you won’t need anything else. Remember that long exposure photography such as blue hour photography uses more battery power than usual, so pack spares.
Arrive Early But Be Patient
As we have already discussed, you have a short window to capture photos during the blue hour. So make sure you arrive early at your location to give you time to scout the area.
This is imperative because even though you might have planned your shoot and looked at Google Maps, things could have changed. For example, there might now be building works which show up in your shot. Or you may actually find a better spot for a photo than the one you had planned.
Once you have a final set of locations in your mind, run through the shots in your head and take some test photos. This will help you work out your composition and mean you are more efficient when the time comes to take the actual photo.
Once you have done this, it is time to wait for the blue hour. You might be waiting a while as the blue hour doesn’t occur straight after sunset. For example at the time of writing this article, the blue hour at my location will start approximately 45 minutes after sunset.
So don’t make the mistake of taking a few photos after the sun has gone down and go home. Hopefully, you remembered to check the blue hour times and you are already aware of when it will occur.
Choose Your Settings
One of the great things about blue hour photography is that it gives you some flexibility in what settings you choose. This will depend on what type of photo you are taking.
For example, if you are photographing a city skyline during the blue hour you will want to make sure that you keep the majority of the foreground and background sharp. In other words, your depth of field (f-number) will determine your settings.
You should start at around f/8 and work your way up depending on what you need. The higher the f-number, the slower shutter speed you will need. It’s at slow shutter speeds that you will also begin to see things like light trails from cars.
But, if you want to freeze the action and make sure people and or cars are sharp, you will need a faster shutter speed. Depending on how fast the movement is, you may need to set your shutter speed as fast as 1/200 sec or even faster.
Due to the low light during the blue hour, this will mean you will have to have a lower f-number such as f/4 but even that might not be enough. In addition to a lower f-number, you might also need to raise your ISO to be able to have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.
As you can see there are many options for you for blue hour photography. It all depends on what your vision for the final blue hour photo is.
Lock-up the Mirror
You may not know that when you press the shutter button on your camera, a mechanical process takes place. The shutter opens and a small mirror in the back of the camera flips over. This mechanical process is so fast that when you are photographing using a fast shutter speed it is not noticed by the camera.
But, in low light photography, this process can cause a small vibration that makes the camera shake. This movement can make your image look blurred. It is arguably one of the most common rookie mistakes when photographing in low light and blue hour conditions.
The good news is that you can avoid it with a simple solution.
In all DSLR cameras, there will be an option in the menu to “lock mirror”. This flips the mirror and holds it in place until you change it again in the settings. This eliminates the camera shake from the mirror and means your photos won’t be blurred.
Another option is to set your camera to “live view” mode which also flips and locks the mirror.
It’s important to work quickly due to the limited time of the blue hour. Nevertheless, you should still try to experiment as well. Blue hour photography gives you the opportunity to capture some unique photos. But to do so, you have to be willing to look beyond the obvious scene in front of you.
Experiment with different angles, like setting your camera very low on the ground. Try different shutter speeds and see how that affects the composition by introducing light trails and movement. You could even try zooming in or out whilst the photo is being taken for a surreal effect.
If you work quickly and have planned well, you should still have some time to experiment with a few different blue hour shots.
Don’t Forget Post-Production
There always seems to be a debate around post-production on photographs. But whether you are a purist and believe there should be no post-production done on photos, or vice-versa, there is no doubt that every photo will benefit from some level of post-production. This is no different with blue hour photography.
It could be as little as just straightening and cropping. Or more extensive elements such as boosting contrast, saturation, vibrancy or even retouching can help enhance the photo.
At the very least you should ensure that your photos are straight, with the correct white balance and free of blemishes or dust particles. Beyond this, how much post-production you do will come down to your preference and also what the photograph needs.
Always remember that the key to good post-production is subtlety. Too much and it will look fake and negatively impact the photo.
Everyone at some point in their life has looked at a beautiful blue hour photograph and been captivated by the colour and the lights. A good blue hour photograph wouldn’t look amiss hanging on a living room wall or as a double page spread in a magazine.
The great thing about blue hour photography is that it is also one of the easier scenarios to photograph. For example, because you are not dealing with harsh shadows or bright sunshine, it makes composing and taking the photo much easier.
But as with all types of photography you have to ensure you plan well and are willing to put the effort in. Whether it’s before sunrise or after sunset, if you are willing to get out there and capture this magical blue hour time, you will no doubt be pleased with the results.