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Blue Hour Photography: The Essential Guide (+ Tips)

PostingBlue Hour Photography: The Essential Guide (+ Tips)first appeared inSchool of Digital Photography. It was written byDena Haines.

blue hour photography your essential guide

Photographers love the blue hour, especially because it provides a velvety, dazzling,ethereallight. But learn to take advantage of the blue hour to be gorgeousportraits,landscapesandurban landscapesit’s not always easy. It requires special settings, special equipment, and careful consideration of artificial lighting.

Fortunately, I am a veteran blue hour photographer and have developed many tips and tricks to help you achieve amazing results. Here’s everything you need to know, including:

  • What blue hour is it
  • When the blue hour occurs
  • The best team for blue hour images
  • Much more!

When you’re done, you’ll be ready to capture great blue hour shots like a pro, so let’s get started!

What is the blue hour in photography?

The blue hour is the time just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sun is below the horizon and the sky (usually) turns a beautiful shade of blue. Blue hour skies can also take on shades of orange, yellow, purple, and pink.

Photographers love blue hour lighting thanks to its softness and lack of directionality; as a result, during the blue hour, the tracks take on a kind of timeless quality. The blue hour light also matches the yellow street lighting – in cities and suburbs, at least – making for a beautiful warm-cool contrast.

Here are some examples of the beautiful light you’ll find during the blue hour:

blue hour photography tips 2 blue hour photography

Of course, the blue hour light has a downside: while it’s wonderfully soft, it’s also very dim, so working during this time of day can be difficult. Photographers often carry tripods andremote releases(which will be discussed in detail below), and to get the best shots you will often need to useextremely long. shutter speeds.

Note: The times before and after the blue hour canalsobe great for photography.Golden hourit offers soft, warm light, while pre-dawn and post-dusk light can create stunning nightscapes, so you certainly shouldn’t feel like the blue hour is the only time you can capture outstanding images.

When does the blue hour occur?

Technically, the “hour” blue is a misnomer. Depending on the weather and your geographic location, the blue hour lasts anywhere from a few minutes to around 45 minutes.

So if you want to take advantage of the beautiful light, you need to act fast! I recommend you download an app likePhotoPills, which will give you blue hours specific to your location and time of year. (PhotoPills also indicates when the golden hours begin and end, which is also very useful for most forms of photography!)

At a minimum,You should research sunrise and sunset times the night before your photo shoot, then arrive at the location early and set up ahead of time. If possible, find a good composition or two. And once the magic starts, fire away!

Keep in mind that if you’re looking to capture pre-dawn blue hour shots, it’s usually a good idea to scout the location the day before. Trying to find compositions in the dark can be difficult, so if you can do it early, you’ll dramatically improve your chances of capturing great shots. Conversely, if you want to capture shots in the blue hour after sunset, make sure you know exactly how to get back to your car, and don’t forget to bring a flashlight; You don’t want to be stranded with 8+ hours of darkness on the trail!

What kind of photos should you take during the blue hour?

The blue hour is absolutely gorgeous, so don’t let the genre you choose stop you from going out for some ethereal blue light. You can shoot moody street scenes or long-exposure architectural images. You can even capture gorgeous blue hour portraits by combining flash and natural light.

That being said, the blue hour is especially well-suited for landscape and cityscape photography. Combine colors, clouds, long exposures and flattering light – pretty much everything from the serious landscape and cityscape photographer’s playbook. This kind of shots of the blue hourdoit requires a bit of patience and some extra equipment, but with the right focus, you can capture photos that really shine.

blue hour photography cityscape long exposure

Best Blue Hour Photography Settings

During the blue hour, the sky becomes relatively dark, so you will need a long or high shutter speedISOget a goodexposure, both of which come with significant trade-offs. You also (usually) want a narrowopening, which will make an entire scene sharp and in focus. So you need a camera mode that offerscontrolabout their exposure variables.

lighthouse at blue hour

Aperture Priority Modeallows you to set the ISO and aperture while your camera sets the shutter speed for a well-exposed result.Manual modeallows you to select the ISO, shutter speed,andAperture. Any of these can work, although aperture priority is generally the best option for beginners, while manual mode is better suited for a professional workflow.

If you choose the Aperture Priority path, you should set an aperture that will keep the entire shot sharp (f/8 is a good starting point) and set your ISO to around 100 (to avoid unwanted high ISO noise). Then let your camera determine the proper shutter speed for a good exposure.

If you decide you want alongestshutter speed that the camera selects – to create beautiful streaks from moving clouds or moving water – you can reduce the aperture, which will consequently cause your camara lengthen the shutter speed. If you decide you want ashortershutter speed (to freeze motion), you can widen the aperture or increase the ISO, though note that a wider aperture will reduce depth of field, while a higher ISO will introduce noise into the image.

If you choose the Manual mode route, just dial in your camera’s base ISO and a good aperture (as if you were using Aperture Priority). Then set the shutter speed so that your camera’s exposure meter is more or less balanced. If you need to increase or decrease the shutter speed, make sure toalsoincrease or decrease another exposure variable (i.e. aperture or ISO) to keep the exposure meter balanced.

One thing to keep in mind: because blue hour tends to look relatively dark, your camera may try to overexpose the scene, which will ultimately create an unnatural looking result (and may cause lights to blow out). . If you’re using Aperture Priority mode, you’ll need to add some negativesexposure compensationto counteract this tendency, and if you’re using Manual mode, you’ll need to deliberately underexpose by a stop or two.

The best advice I can give is to always check the LCD preview and histogram after each image, and if you find that photos look too bright (or too dark), take steps to correct the problem. Make sense?

city on the banks of a river during blue hour

The best equipment for photography in the blue hour

Because blue hour offers such limited light, you need specialized equipment to make sure your photos stay sharp and noise-free. Here are my Recommendations:

A full frame camera

While you can capture absolutely beautiful blue hour shots with any camera – including a smartphone – A mirrorless or full-frame DSLR offers one big advantage: it will allow you to increase the ISO as needed without overwhelming your images with noise.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s best to keep your ISO as low as possible, but if you’re shooting moving subjects, working handheld, or doing astrophotography, keeping the ISO at 100 isn’t always a good choice. option. Also, the more you can increase your ISO, the more flexibility you’ll have and the faster you’ll be able to shoot (waiting for your camera to finish a five minute exposure isn’t always much fun!).

That’s when a full frame camera will come in handy. Newer mirrorless models – as theSony a7 IV, theCanon EOS R5, and theNikon Z6 II– They tend to work best at high ISOs, but older and/or cheaper models can work just fine too.

A quick lens

Most landscape and cityscape photography at the blue hour is taken at narrow apertures, so a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is not necessary. but if you want to do street photography, portraiture, or astrophotography in the blue hour, a lens with a wide maximum aperture will make a world of difference. You will be able to use shutter speeds They’re manageable without bumping your ISO to 12800, and you’ll also be able to freeze moving subjects.

If you’re just starting out, I recommend taking a prime lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8, and a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is even better. You can pick up one of these models for cheap (like a 50mm f/1.8), so you won’t have to worry about breaking the bank.

A tripod

(Note: If your goal is to capture blue hour street photos or portraits, you can skip this section; instead of using a tripod, you’ll need to rely on a high ISO and wide aperture to keep your shutter speed easy to manage. )

In my experience, the average blue hour shutter speed is between one and six seconds. If you select such a long shutter speed and then try to shoot handheld, you’ll end up with frustratingly blurry shots.

Of course, you can always increase your camera’s ISO to compensate for a shorter shutter speed, but the noise is often unbearable. And while you can widen your lens’s aperture to f/2.8 and higher, you’ll lose the effect of depth of field so prized by landscape, architecture and urban landscape photographers.

So for best results you really should use agood tripod.

A tripod will hold your camera in place while you take a 1 second, 6 second, or even 30 second exposure. Be sure to invest in a heavy-duty model; While there are plenty of inexpensive options out there, most will have a hard time handling your setup, especially in windy conditions.

If you’re the type of photographer who walks long distances or travels frequently, I recommend a carbon fiber tripod, which combines sturdiness with portability. If not, an aluminum model is fine (they are usually cheaper, but they are also much heavier). Whatever you do, however,don’t buy plastic. It’s too flimsy.

mountainscape during blue hour
Image by Darlene Hildebrandt

A remote release

Even once your camera is mounted on a tripod, pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, which will create blurry photos.

That’s where a remote shutter release can help. It is a small portable device that will allow you to activate the shutter remotely. And this, in turn, will prevent additional camera shake.

long-exposure shot of the Flatiron building during blue hour

Fortunately, remote shutter releases are quite cheap. You can get basic models – which generally consist of a single button and nothing else – for around $20. If you want to do serious long-exposure or time-lapse photography, you might want to consider picking up a slightly more sophisticated remote (some options feature LCD screens with timers, interval timer functions, and more).

That said, if you want to get started with blue hour photography right away or if you really don’t like the idea of ​​a remote launch, you have a few other options. You may be able to connect your camera to your phone and activate it with an app. Alternatively, you can usetwo-second self-timer function(The delay will give time for the shutter button vibrations to die down.)Neither of these options is terribly convenient – phone connections are often unreliable, while automatic timers throw up split-second timing – but they will work in a pinch.

people standing in front of a fountain
Image by Darlene Hildebrandt

3 tips for shooting beautiful blue hours

Yes, the blue hour is a good time to take photos. But you can’t just go out at night, find an interesting topic and start pressing the shutter button. Instead, you should combine the beautiful light of the blue hour with technical knowledge, which is where these tips come in handy:

1. Shoot in RAW (and post-process your photos)

bridge long exposure
Image by Darlene Hildebrandt

It’s basic advice, but shooting onRAW over JPEGdoes abigdifference, especially when shooting blue hour scenes.

Why? RAW files provide excellent post-processing flexibility. You can easily adjust the exposure and colors of a RAW file, and these adjustments are often the difference between an impressive shot and a mediocre one.

For example, you can bring out the shadows in a RAW photo to reveal all kinds of beautiful details. You can also bring out the blues and pinks in the sky, enhance the warmth of artificial lighting, and even darken the edges of the frame, drawing the viewer’s gaze toward your main subject.

And while you can dosomeadjustments to JPEG files, the effects are much more limited. Also, if you over-tune a JPEG, you can start to see unpleasant artifacts, like banding.

RAW files have one drawback: they need editing. (A RAW file literally cannot be displayed in its original form – you must first edit it and convert it to a viewable format.)

But as I explained above, editing is a key part of every blue hour image. Without editing, you won’t be able to bring out all the key details and colors in your shot.

Shoot RAW and enjoy the editing process. It’s the fastest way to improve your photos!

2. Include electric lights in your shots

Don’t get me wrong: you can takeamazingblue hour photos of undisturbed, naturally lit landscapes.

But in my experience, electric lights offer two benefits:

  1. Exposure times decrease. As the blue hour progresses, the sky will quickly darken – and you may find your shutter speeds increasing to 10 seconds, 20 seconds, and beyond. However, one or two electric lights will add extra lighting to the scene, shortening your exposures and creating time for a few extra shots.
  2. They add drama and interest to your photos. If you use a narrow aperture (ie f/8), the electric lights will appear as beautiful starbursts, which can create a focal point or simply complement your main subject.

For example, check out the image below, which relies on star-shaped lights to captivate the viewer:

light trails and Empire State building
Image by Darlene Hildebrandt

However, electric lights present some challenges. If you stand too close to a light source,you may get flare across the entire frame. And if you’re not careful, electric lights can create major points of overexposure in an otherwise well-exposed scene.

So don’t get too close to the lights – the smaller the highlights, the less problematic are areas of flare and overexposure – and if you’re having exposure issues, check out my next tip:

3. Use HDR techniques to recover reflections

As I mentioned in the previous tip, photographing blue hour skies combined with electric lights can look amazing. Unfortunately, they can also lead to all sorts of exposure problems, because electric lights are significantly brighter than their surroundings.

One approach is to expose for the electric lights and let the rest of the scene go dark. The idea is that you can later recover the shadows in post-processing – but this will generate a lot of noise, so it’s really not ideal.

Another approach is to ignore the highlights. Expose the rest of the scene, let the lights go down, and enjoy the resulting shot. This may work, but there is a better option thancombinethe two approaches I have shared.

You see, the best way to handle bright electric lights and dark skies is to capture two shots. First expose the lights and let the rest of the scene go dark; second, expose the other parts of the scene and let the lights go down. Then you canmerge the two images togetherin your favorite post-processing program – both Lightroom and Photoshop have this capability – and you’ll end up with a well laid out and fully detailed result!

Blue Hour Photography: Final Words

blue hour photography tips boat in the evening

Blue hour is a great time to take photos – And now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to head out with your camera, adjust the settings, and get some awesome photos.

Just remember: unless you’re planning to work with an ultra-wide aperture, a tripod and remote shutter release are absolutelykey. They’ll keep your photos sharp, and that’s what counts!

Now it’s your turn:

What do you plan to film in the blue hour? Which of these tips will you implement? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

PostingBlue Hour Photography: The Essential Guide (+ Tips)first appeared inSchool of Digital Photography. It was written byDena Haines.

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