When it comes to landscape photography, sunrises and sunsets usually get all the attention. This time of day is called the golden hour and it is a landscape photographer’s bread and butter.
However, there is another time that is equally as magical to photograph but often gets overlooked. It’s known as blue hour. This is when the sky turns a deep cobalt blue, emanating a serene and ethereal mood.
To photograph blue hour all you have to do is arrive a little early for sunrise or stay a little later after sunset. So often sunset photographers pack up as soon as the golden light fades, missing a second opportunity to capture some incredible photos under entirely different light. And if you’re an early riser, blue hour also occurs within the hour before sunrise. This is such a peaceful, quiet time to be out photographing.
At twilight the light is soft and the sky is infused with hues of blue which sometimes overlap with the first or last bits of golden light. Scenes that look dull in the middle of the day are transformed. It’s the ideal time to photograph things like city lights, reflections, and campfires. Beyond landscape photography, blue hour is also wonderful for architecture images.
As a bonus, blue hour images usually look good under a range of weather conditions. So both clear and cloudy skies will work for this type of photography.
An important thing to know is the camera can see this type of light better than the human eye. You’ll be amazed at how vibrant twilight skies look through your lens.
Now, let’s take a deep dive into capturing the magic of photographing blue hour. Let’s start with a few simple tips…
Tips for Photographing Blue Hour
Include Artificial Lights
Blue hour pairs really well with artificial lights. For example, city lights look even more vibrant and eye-catching in contrast with the blue sky. Most artificial lights such as street lights, neon signs, headlights, candles, and campfires cast a warm, golden hue. Combined with twilight skies, this creates a beautiful contrast of warm and cool colors.
Use a Wide Angle Lens
A wide angle lens will usually be the best choice to capture blue hour landscapes, cityscapes, or architecture shots since you’ll want to include the sky along with your foreground or subject.
Look for Interesting Clouds
Clouds can add lots of drama to your blue hour landscapes, so don’t worry if your skies aren’t perfectly clear. Blue hour can really accentuate moody skies.
Reflections look amazing at blue hour. If you can find a still pond, lake, or even a rain puddle, be sure to include that in your composition. Any body of water or other shiny surface will become a canvas that beautifully mirrors the soft pastels of twilight skies.
Photograph Year Round
Blue hour looks amazing in all seasons, but if you have the opportunity to photograph in the winter, definitely give it a try. Snow is very reflective, so you’ll be able to retain quite a bit of detail in your winter wonderland scene.
Equipment for Blue Hour
During this time of day you’ll be shooting with very low light levels which means your camera will be using much slower shutter speeds to achieve proper exposure. It’s almost impossible to hand hold your camera without getting blurry shots from camera shake under these conditions. Using a tripod will be essential for getting sharp photos.
Remote trigger (cable release)
Though not required, this will help you keep your camera as steady as possible when firing because you will avoid inadvertently wiggling the camera when you press the shutter release button. These are available to attach to your camera wirelessly or with a cord. If you don’t have one, I’d recommend using the self-timer that’s built into your camera to fire the shot.
Consider bringing a headlamp and a foldable chair or a small foam pad to sit or kneel on. Bringing these things can make your experience a bit more comfortable depending on how long you’ll be out there. It’s also a good idea to bring plenty of warm clothing layers and perhaps a thermos of hot tea since it’s often chilly at this time of the day. The more comfortable you are, the longer you can stay out photographing.
In order to capture the blue of twilight, make sure to set your camera’s white balance to “Daylight”. Doing this will really help blue hour colors to pop.
As mentioned above, you want to avoid any movement of the camera when taking low light photos. If you don’t have a remote trigger release, simply turn on your camera’s self timer to give time for any motion to dissipate when taking a photo. The two or five second self timer is all you need.
In low light conditions, it can be tough to tell if your camera is level. Using the electronic level built into your camera can be especially helpful in this situation. Not every camera has this feature, but many of them do. Head into your viewfinder or live view display options to see if you can turn this handy guideline on. It will save you from having to straighten your image later on in post-processing.
For the cleanest (noise-free) images, it’s best to keep your ISO low when possible. By using a tripod and a longer shutter speed, you should be able to keep your ISO fairly low. However, if your subject or something in your scene is moving around, you’ll need to raise your ISO to allow for a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion. In a nutshell, keep your ISO as low as possible, but certainly raise it when it’s necessary.
Particularly if you’re photographing streetlights, you may want to make sure you’re using a small aperture opening such as f/11 or f/14. This will render the points of light as starbursts rather than blobs of light.
When shooting in low light conditions, you will probably notice that your autofocus may struggle. Autofocus typically needs light and contrast to focus properly. A work around for low light photography is to switch to manually focusing. This is where you turn a ring on your lens to focus.
Additionally, if your camera has focus peaking as an option, this could be a good time to turn it on. Focus peaking is a handy indicator to tell which part of your scene is in focus.
If you’ve never tried manually focusing before, I highly recommend practicing in daylight conditions before heading out to photograph blue hour. Once you get the hang of it, I think you’ll find that manual focus gives the sharpest, most dependable results when photographing in low light.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction
While photographing blue hour you may end up with some longer shutter speeds. I recommend turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction in your camera settings before shooting. Doing this will tell your camera to remove any “hot pixels” that are created by the longer shutter speeds.
Note that if you turn this setting on, it will take some extra processing time for your camera to remove the hot pixels for each shot taken at long shutter speeds. For example, if you shoot a photo with a 20 second shutter speed, plan to wait an additional 20 seconds while your camera removes any hot pixels. During this time your camera is busy, so you won’t be able to use it.
It’s enormously helpful to check your histogram when photographing in low light. Looking at the bright glowing screen on the back of your camera can fool you into thinking you have proper exposure when in fact you’ve underexposed your image.
For low light photography your histogram graph should primarily be weighted toward the middle and left of middle. You just want to make sure that it isn’t skewed entirely to the left, as that could mean you have a very underexposed image. If you have any bright lights in your scene, then part of the graph should skew towards the right as well. Most cameras will let you view a histogram either in real time while you’re taking the photo or once you’re reviewing an image you’ve already taken on the back of your camera.
If you’re shooting in full manual exposure mode, you can adjust your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO as needed if you need to brighten your image. Likewise, if you’re shooting in program mode, aperture priority, or shutter priority mode, you can use the exposure compensation dial to brighten or darken your image as needed.
Creative Techniques & Ideas
Now that we have the technical details of photographing blue hour out of the way, let’s look at some fun and creative things you can do during blue hour!
During twilight, it might be tough to capture a lot of detail in your foreground. But that’s ok because this is the perfect opportunity to create silhouettes. The key to a good silhouette is having a distinct, recognizable shape. It could be a person, a tree, a boat, or a mountain to name a few. Silhouettes add visual interest and complement the mysterious nature of blue hour photography.
From a technical standpoint, to create a silhouette all you need to do is expose for the sky and let the other elements become dark shadows. The more distinct the shape the better. You want to avoid silhouettes that are unrecognizable shapes or which look like blobs. For example, if you’re photographing a person, be sure to have them stand in a way that leaves space between their arms and legs so that they don’t become a single stick figure as a silhouette. You don’t want their limbs to blend together.
Shooting in low light brings a fun opportunity to play with motion. These are the perfect conditions for long exposure photography and intentionally blurring motion. All you need is something moving in your scene which can become an artistic blur when paired with a long shutter speed. It could be waves at the ocean, a flowing stream, or the headlights from a moving car. Clouds can even become an artistic blur with a long enough shutter speed.
The best advice is to experiment with different shutter speeds and see what results you get. Every shot will be a little different. That’s the fun of it. If a long shutter speed is what you’re after, don’t forget to keep your ISO low. With long exposure photography you’ve suddenly added another element to make your image dynamic and unique.
Speaking of unique, blue hour is also the perfect time to try your hand at light painting. This is where you use a flashlight or other light source to illuminate certain parts of your photograph or “paint” designs through your image. With a long shutter speed, a light beam can resemble a brush stroke, leaving a colorful trail in your image. Embers flying from a campfire or car headlights can also create a light painting sort of effect as they leave artistic lines through your image.
Don’t be afraid to include people in your blue hour photography. Bonus if they are wearing a warm color that contrasts with the blue light!
Post-Processing Blue Hour Images
I highly recommend photographing in the raw file format and editing your photos in a program such as Adobe Lightroom. This will allow you to refine your blue hour images in a way that isn’t possible when shooting in jpeg.
Images taken at blue hour will obviously have a strong blue color cast which is naturally quite vibrant. You’ll want to be careful not to add too much contrast or additional color saturation as you edit. As you work with a photo on your computer, it’s easy for your eyes to start to adjust to the color. It can be easy to overdo it. The best advice is to take breaks while editing and come back with fresh eyes to evaluate your changes.
Something else to be aware of is your exposure values. It’s easy to overly brighten the shadows when editing blue hour images. This time of day shadows are naturally on the dark side, so you don’t want to overly brighten them in post-processing. Aim for a natural looking photo that looks like it was taken on the edge of daylight.
If you have a scene with both bright artificial lights and dark shadows, you may need to photograph two or three images and blend them with HDR in Lightroom. With this technique you would take an image that’s exposed properly for the highlights and a separate image that’s exposed for the shadows, and combine them into one image with HDR. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually a piece of cake in Lightroom as long as you use a tripod to minimize movement between images.
Planning for Blue Hour
A bit of planning in advance will go a long way with helping you have a successful photoshoot when photographing blue hour. Don’t be deceived by the term “blue hour”. Depending on where you are located, this magical light doesn’t usually last a full hour, unfortunately. In fact, the most vibrant blue color is usually relatively short lived, depending on your latitude. You definitely want to be ready to make the most of it.
There are tools you can use before you ever leave home which will help ensure you are in the right place at the right time to capture the images you want without missing the best light.
Apps like Photo Pills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris allow you to enter a specific date and location in order to see the exact times of twilight.
Google Earth is also great for virtually scouting locations in advance. You can use it to find vantage points and previsualize the view you’ll get from a particular spot. I definitely recommend taking some time to try out these very helpful apps.
And of course, if possible, try to scout your location in person during daylight hours. It’s much easier to find your composition and the best angles to shoot from when you can see what you’re doing.
No doubt, the hardest part about photographing blue hour is getting the motivation to arrive early and stay late. Hopefully this article gives you plenty of reasons to give it a try. It truly is a magical time of day and can yield some stunning photographs!
If you are interested in finding out more about beautiful light to photograph…check out this article!