November 14, 2019

Cover photo by Carl van den Boom.

Step aside Golden Hour! There’s a new favourite time of the night for photography. If you’re one of those photographers who pack up and go home after the final rays of sun dip behind the horizon, you’re probably missing out on one of the best times to shoot. Similar to Golden Hour, Blue Hour isn’t really an hour at all. In fact, it’s much shorter and sometimes only last 15 - 20 minutes. Is it still worth your time? Absolutely.

As the warm temperatures fade, deep rich royal blue colours flood your scene and create the perfect opportunity to shoot moody night scenes with still plenty of light. 

1. Scout your location and be prepared:

Is it just me or does everyone else also never feel prepared enough when it comes to shooting Golden Hour or Blue Hour? Of course, I know, there’s a very small window of time to get the shot but it seems like no matter the prep I do, I’m always running around last minute like a chicken with its head cut off.

If you’re going to shoot in one of the two very short blue hour windows, you’ll need to make sure your location is scouted and planned well before the sun begins to drop. When finding your location, don’t forget to go back to your basic composition principles. Interesting foreground, rule of thirds, leading lines, etc. Just pointing your camera at the sky ain’t gonna work. The sky, while always beautiful, isn’t compelling enough. Put some time and thought into what you want the image to look like and where you want the viewer’s eye to go. 

Ariel shot of an urban landscape at dusk. Photo by Z S on Unsplash
Photo by Z S on Unsplash

If you’re in an urban area, try utilizing the electric lights or winding streets to help compose the shot. If you’re in a more rural area, make an effort to find some sort of foreground or focus point. Perhaps it’s a mountain or a tree or a country road. Seek out objects that have some sort of illumination on them once the sun goes down. 

Planning this out in the day will save you a big headache later and you’ll be much less prone to missing the perfect shot due to being ill-prepared. Don’t forget that just like Golden Hour, Blue Hour happens twice a day. If you want to get precise in your planning, check out PhotoPills, an amazing app that pinpoints exactly when you need to be ready for your shot. In general, Blue Hour can be shot 30-45 after sunset or 45-30 before sunrise, depending on your location (the farther you live from the equator, the longer your blue hour will last). 

Quick Settings:
Aperture: f/8 - f/11
ISO 100 - 400
Shutter Speed: 2 seconds - 30 seconds (Adjust accordingly depending on the light after setting aperture and ISO)

Blue hour mountains with town in front_ photo by cezary-kukowka via upsplash
Photo by Cezary-Kukowka via Upsplash.

2. Don’t forget your tripod:

As with any lowlight photography, a stable tripod is a must. Just like night photography, you’re going to have your shutter speed open for longer than normal which makes your photo prone to motion blur if it’s not completely still. Luckily, tripods can help you solve this issue easily. Set up your shot and position your tripod. When you’ve composed your image, use a remote shutter release or, if you’re on a budget, simply use the 3 (or 10!) second timer to make sure the motion of your physically pushing the button doesn’t create excess blur in your photo. 

Man adjusting tripod during sunset_Photo by Garrett Patz on UnsplashPhoto by Garrett Patz on Unsplash

3. Get your settings dialled:

First things first, double-check that you’re shooting in RAW. If you are planning on digitally altering your photo at all later, you will want to be working with a RAW image instead of a JPEG. Once you’ve got the right file type selected, it’s time to start setting your dials. 

Switch your camera on Manual so that you have full control over your settings. To start with, keep your ISO low to reduce unnecessary noise. Try starting with ISO 100 - 400 and adjust as necessary after you’ve set your other settings.

Set your camera to manual focus and choose your focal point. Autofocus is often unreliable when it comes to blue hour shooting because the camera chooses to focus on the wrong thing. For your aperture, I tend to go middle of the range such as f/8 - f/11. The smaller the aperture (f/8 and smaller) the more likely you are to get little starbursts for your electric light sources. For the shutter speed, adjust it as needed based on your low ISO and your aperture. It’s okay if you have to keep your shutter open for longer as you’ll be using a tripod which will reduce blur. 

Take a test shot and adjust as you see fit. Don’t forget to have a peek at your histogram. Your image will likely be dark so the histogram will trend towards the left but because of your illumination and light sources, the histogram should also touch the right side. 

Snowboarder hitting a jump at dusk. Photo by Carl Van den boom
A faster shutter was needed for this photo to freeze motion which means having an artificial light source or bumping up the shutter speed. Photo by Carl van den Boom.

4. Balance the Light

When you go out in the field to shoot Blue Hour, try staying out for the entire duration from the when the sun dips down to when it’s pitch dark. You’ll see which part of Blue Hour works best for you. Too early and you’ll find the city lights haven’t come on yet. Too late and you’ll find the sky has lost most of its blue colour and instead just looks dark and black. If you kept shooting the entire time, you’ll find the perfect Blue Hour shot somewhere in the middle there. 

A main goal of shooting at blue hour should be to balance the natural light with electric light. You'll want enough natural light to give the sky its deep blue colour but you might also want to add in electric light. A great way to showcase this is by using a slower shutter speed which will make lights from the traffic into long, bright trails. A longer shutter speed is also great for showing the motion of moving water such as a waterfall or waves at a beach. 

Illuminated building during blue hour. Photo by Mark Boss via Upsplash.
Photo by Mark Boss via Upsplash. 

5. Editing Blue Hour Photos

A couple of tips to get you over the finish line.

Increase the contrast: Without the sunlight creating shadows and highlights you will need to bump the contrast and make sure there is depth to your image. This should also be something to consider when framing your shot, so make sure your subject stands out from the surroundings.

White balance: Obviously there will be a blue tint given the.. well this whole post is about blue hour so you get the point, but it doesn't mean it needs to go overboard.

If your image looks overly blue, not to worry this is an easy fix. Pick an area in your shot that should be a neutral grey and slowly adjust the white balance slider to where that grey area looks more neutral. I like to grab the eyedropper, select a grey area and let Lightroom choose the white balance. I definitely don't leave it at that because it will usually go overboard and try to make the blue-tinted clouds a shade of yellow, but it gives me two sides of the spectrum and I can then adjust to find a happy medium: clearly blue hour but if there is a person in the shot, they don't look like a smurf. 

Norwegian mountain during blue hour. Photo by Carl van den boom
Photo by Carl van den Boom

 

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