An Extensive Guide to Blue Hour Photography
The sun isn’t arose yet, but you are starting to clearly see the details of the landscape; the shapes and lines that were creepy till 10 minutes before are finally becoming familiar again, and the night is clearly passed and gone. The birds are starting to sing again, and you still feel cold as hell even if you see the first lights coming through. Photography wise, you can finally start to reduce a bit the shutter speed and decrease the ISO, and maybe close down your aperture to gain a bit of depth of field; every shot must be well prepared though, since light is changing (increasing, in this case) every minute, otherwise your exposure won’t be right.
Did I made a decent description? This is just the 2% of the things that pass in your mind while you during the blue hour in the morning.
You can take the text above, reverse it, and you’ll have also the description for the blue hour in the evening!
In this article we’ll discover together what is in the specific the so-called “blue hour”, what you need to shoot it and all the tips and tricks that go into capturing some great blue hour photos, so keep reading if you want to nail the blue hour photography!
1. What is Blue Hour Photography
When you talk about “blue hour photography”, you refer to all those pictures taken during a specific window of time that generally happens twice a day (well, apart a bunch of exceptions), specifically when the sun still needs to rise in the morning and right after it has set in the evening.
You can easily recognize photos made during the blue hour since they generally have a strong blue-ish hue all over the shot, no matter where the photo was taken. If you are shooting some cityscape, you’ll probably have a nice dark blue sky with the first city lights turning on, if you are shooting wildlife you’ll notice a blue cast over your subject, if you shoot landscape instead you’ll probably end up having that blue-ish cast all over the scene.. I think you got the drill by now, right?
2. When is the Blue Hour?
As I already hinted in the previous paragraph, the blue hour is a specific time of the day that in 90% of world’s countries happens twice a day, all-year round; the remain 10% is for those countries that are located near the Earth’s poles, which in winter and summer they may get only one blue hour per day (or even none!), since they have the polar night in winter and the midnight sun in summer.
The specific time when the blue hour happens is right before sunrise and right after sunset; to be more specific, you should start shooting around one hour/50 minutes before sunrise to capture the start of the blue hour, or keep shooting after sunset for the same amount of time. That’s when the “magic” happens and the whole scene gets filled with those wonderful blue tones!
Since each location has its own blue hour times (and we’ll learn how to discover them in the next chapter), let’s say that generally to shoot the blue hour you must be on the spot a lot earlier than the actual sunrise and/or stay on the spot a lot later than the actual sunset.
Cinque Terre are the perfect fit for blue hour photography.
The moment when the city lights go on in Cinque Terre is the best time of the day to capture the magic of these towns. Check out this 3-nights photo tour of Cinque Terre!
3. How to Plan Your Blue Hour Photography Shoot
There are many types of photography where you can just grab your camera, go out and shoot: blue hour photography (unfortunately) isn’t one of those. Taking photos at blue hour always requires a little bit of planning to do before, no matter what you aim to shoot.
Luckily, nowadays we have many ways to easily set up the perfect blue hour shoot!
The best way by far to plan your blue hour photography session is to use dedicated apps on your smartphone or by checking some websites; in this way you’ll get to know exactly when the blue hour will start/end on that day at the location you want to be.
Between the multitude of mobile apps, I can personally recommend PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris: they are both available for Android and iOs and they have all the most important features you may need and probably plenty of others more too!
The Photographer’s Ephemeris also has a website where you can insert day/location and it will tell you at what time the blue hour will be, in case you can’t to use the app. Apart from this specific website, you are free to check every website that can give you sunrise/sunset times at the location where you want to shoot; by having those times, just be sure to be on the location at least one hour and 20 minutes before (for sunrise) or after (for sunset). In this way you’ll have plenty of time to find the best composition, scout the place and find the right settings to get the perfect exposure.
3.2 Best Subjects to Shoot for Blue Hour Photography
Without the sunlight sometimes it can be hard to find the right scene to shoot; of course there is not a general rule about which ones are the best subjects to capture during the blue hour, but keep in mind that cityscapes, architecture or even landscapes with some artificial lights in them are probably the best scenes that you can take pictures of at that time of the day.
Why? Well, in the first place the color contrast that is visible at that specific moment; the blue hour is the only time of the day where you can still get a colorful sky, generally blue, with the contrasts of the warm artificial lights. The warm/cold contrast in the frame will give a pleasant look to the image. Then, let’s talk about the exposure: with some artificial lights you’ll get a nicely lighten up foreground that will balance the lack of sunlight in the scene.
Just to be clear, these are not the only scenes that you can shoot at the blue hour, it’s just a personal recommendation if you want to try out a blue hour shoot and get to see some nice results.
4. What to Pack for Blue Hour Photography
As I briefly told you earlier in the previous chapter, planning for blue hour photography isn’t an easy thing.. And even when we talk about gear, you’ll need a bit more than just your camera (unfortunately).
In this section I’ll give you specific recommendations about what pieces of gear are required during the blue hour and what will be quite useless instead, so keep reading if you want to know what to put in your bag!
I guess no surprises here, right? You’ll obviously need a camera if you want to shoot anything, but for blue hour photography it’s a little bit trickier than that. Depending on what type of photography you want to practice, you may need to have a camera with excellent high-ISO capabilities, otherwise you’ll end up with really noisy and barely usable shots; unfortunately, these kind of cameras (mirrorless or reflex) are the most expensive ones.
Instead, if you have the possibility of putting your camera on a tripod and shoot long exposures, you won’t have the high-ISO issue to deal with and pretty much all the cameras will do the job!
There is not a specific kind of lens that works better during blue hour; but since you’ll work in low light conditions the recommendation goes along with the one for the camera: if you can’t place your camera/lens on a tripod, you better have a really bright lens (at least f/2.8) so that you can work with faster shutter speeds, while if you can use a tripod you might also want to step down your aperture to f/8 or so to gain depth of field and more sharpness, so a bright lens is not necessary to get some good shots!
I should have probably put the tripod at the first place on this list; why?
Because a good, sturdy tripod is by far the most important piece of gear that you should bring with you when going out to shoot the blue hour; in some photography genres more than others, but it is always important to have a tripod. Keep in mind that you’ll shoot in low light, and unless you like really noisy and grainy shots, a tripod is fundamental. Actually, not only for the noise: if you need to do some multiple exposures, bracketings or long exposures, the tripod is the only way to go.
I don’t think there’s much more to say here, and just in case you still didn’t got my point.. Take the tripod with you when going to shoot the blue hour!
4.4 Remote Shutter Release
Another important part of the equipment that you should bring with you is a remote shutter; the main reason why you need this is to avoid any camera movement in your photos. When shooting on a tripod, even the slightest vibration (such as you while pressing the camera shutter button) could be visible in the shot; to make sure you don’t have any camera shake in the shot, use a remote shutter!
Well, this is not properly part of the camera equipment, but still, it can be very useful and I’d recommend to have at least one always in your bag!
Whether you decide to go out before sunrise or after sunset, you’ll probably be on the location when it’s really dark, and a good light can help you find the right subject and of course to walk around easily!
After many years of experience I found for me that headlights are the best, so that you can keep your hands free; that’s just my experience though, so you may find more comfortable using some other kind of lights such as a torch or a flashlight!
Another piece of non-photographic gear that it’s really helpful when shooting at the blue hour; since you may want to capture some really long exposures with the Bulb mode of your camera, a stopwatch to keep track of how many seconds passed till you pressed the shutter button can be really useful.
Personally I forget everytime to bring a stopwatch and I end up using the one on the smartphone, but, specially when it’s cold, it can be a big pain to take your gloves off (or use the light ones) to use the smartphone, so please, don’t be like me and take a stopwatch with you!
What about golden hour instead?
Blue hour and golden hour go in pair. Check out this guide about how to shoot the golden hour!
5. Camera Settings for Blue Hour Photography
As always, we need to start by making a distinction between the shots taken with a tripod and the handheld shots;
With a tripod: the only setting that I generally change when shooting from a tripod is the shutter speed, I barely remember to have also the ISOs and the aperture to check! Unless it’s really, really dark, you should always keep the camera ISO to 100 and use a close aperture (around f/7.1 to f/11), then play with the exposure times. Things are a little bit different if you need to mantain a specific exposure time (es. 4 seconds): in that case you might want to start opening up the aperture a little bit first, then raise the ISO up to 400/800.
Handheld: conscious of end up with some noisy shots, the only thing you should worry about is keeping the shutter speed fast enough to not have any camera shake in the shots. As a really, really general rule you can use the opposite of your focal lenght (80mm → 1/80sec, 200mm → 1/200sec, 24mm → 1/25sec, and so on) as a limit that you shouldn’t cross and go slower than that.
Set up the ISOs and the aperture accordingly to the shutter speed to get the right exposure; you’ll probably need to open up the aperture and raise the ISOs quite a lot if it’s dark!
6. Post Processing Blue Hour Shots
Even if each blue hour shot is different and so it will require different adjustments, I can give you a few general tip to follow during the post production phase of your work.
The first tip, and probably the most important one, is to keep the blue tones under control during the whole workflow. It may sounds really easy and really obvious, but it’s not. The demonstration is the multitude of over-saturated blue hour photos that you can see everywhere on the internet. And don’t get me wrong, most of the times it’s not even your fault; actually, sometimes I cross the limit too! The problem is that your eyes get used to the image saturation gradually during the post-production workflow, and after a while you work on the image you’ll barely can distinguish if the shot is overdone or not (unless some really “off the chart” adjustments).
What can you do to fix this issue? Well, my tip is to work on the image at multiple times; let the shot rest for a while, so that every time you pick it up again you’ll notice if you went too far with contrasts/colors the previous time or not.
Another tip is to give the shot the correct exposure; many times we tend to brighten up the scene to be able to see all the details even in the darkest of the shadows, but you should also think at what you could see while you were shooting on the location. Generally at the blue hour many details are not visible with the eyes, you get a soft faint light on the foreground but the parts in the shadows are generally really dark and barely visible. Try to keep that atmosphere also in post-production!
Last tip is to avoid pushing too much on the contrasts; as I was saying a few lines above, the typical blue hour light is really soft and delicate, so consequently the contrasts shouldn’t be too harsh.
7. Tips for Blue Hour Photography
In this final big chapter I’ll try to do a sum up of the most interesting and important tips about shooting at the blue hour, all the things that you shouldn’t forget when going out and that will hopefully help you to get some great shots!
7.1 Arrive Early
I already mentioned this a few times all along the article, but arriving early on the location is seriously a crucial factor when you want to shoot blue hour pictures; why?
- To find the best composition: if you are shooting before sunrise, you’ll struggle to see around you since it will be really dark, so arriving early on the location will give you more time to scout the place and find some nice foregrounds in the darkness. Instead, if you are planning to shoot after sunset you might want to be on the spot when there is still light, so that you can find a good foreground way more easily than in the dark.
- To set up: after you found a composition that works, it’s time to open up the tripod and prepare the gear to finally shoot. It may sound easy, but sometimes can be quite tricky to prepare the camera, lens, tripod, remote shutter, etc and could require a few minutes, so you should take this into consideration.
- To find the right settings: okay, now that you prepared all the gear and you are finally ready to shoot, it’s time to make a few test shots to find the perfect exposure. Since there won’t be much light, consider that each shot could take up to one or two minutes to be ready, so to find the right exposure you could spend as much as 10/15 minutes. Oh, and the light is changing really fast, so each should could need slightly different settings than the previous one.
7.2 Use a Tripod
Just in case you skipped the part where I was talking about the tripod, here I am again with this suggestion! I’ll never stop to recommend a good tripod to shoot in low light conditions such as the blue hour, it is really fundamental. Without a tripod, you won’t be able to take long exposures, multiple exposures, bracketings, HDRs, etc.
Basically you’ll be forced to use fast shutter speeds, wide apertures and really high ISOs, and your pictures will probably be grainy and noisy, let alone the fact that if you don’t use fast enough exposure times, they will be blurry too!
I could continue to list all the pros of having a tripod (or well, cons of NOT having it) for at least another 10 pages, but I’ll pity you and I’ll stop here. Please, just take a tripod with you!
7.3 Shoot RAW
This tip never gets old; if you plan to do ANY adjustment in post production, even the slightest one, then you should shoot in RAW on the field (or at least RAW + JPEG). Blue hour shots generally requires a good amount of post production work since you’ll have some strong highlights coming from the brightest parts of the sky, but also some very dark shadows because there’s no sunlight.
The RAW format will allow you to play more with the shadows and the highlights in post production without creating some bad artifacts in the finale image, and of course there will be many more details in the shot compared to the JPEG format.
7.4 Take Multiple Exposures or HDRs
As I was just writing in the previous tip, in many blue hour shots you’ll have to deal with some strong highlights in the sky coming from the rising/setting sun while at the same time some dark shadows because of the lack of a strong light source.
The best solution to deal with this huge dynamic range, in my opinion, is to work with multiple exposures (or the so-called HDRs); you can take multiple shots with different exposures, starting from the brightest till the darkest (or the opposite), and then merge them together later in post production. It’s a really easy process nowadays, since many softwares (such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop) are offering automatic features that will merge all the shots together with just one click, and you’ll get to work on a HDR (high-dynamic-range) shot in no time.
You might be interested in HDR photography.
You should definitely read this article if you want to learn more about HDR photography.