Blue Hour 101

A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting during the Best Time of the Day

Finding the right location to shoot during blue hour is only one factor in producing a successful photograph. Learning how to control the light and to use it to your advantage is the key

WHAT IS BLUE HOUR?

Blue hour is also known as twilight. It’s the period between sunset and night, when the last bit of light in the sky transitions into darkness. During this short period, the sky takes on a blue color, starting with a lighter tone and gets more pronounced before it turns completely dark. The length of time blue hour lasts depends on your geographical location, the current weather condition and the time of year. As a general rule on a good day, blue hour lasts about 20 minutes.

Blue hour also comes in the morning, just before sunrise. Although there are the obvious disadvantages of shooting blue hour in the morning, such as early wake-up call and not always having full cityscape lights on, the atmosphere can be nice with an early morning mist or fog, and the absence of people gives you an  uninterrupted control over your location.

There are websites and phone apps that will tell you the exact time of blue hour. Check out The Photographer’s Ephemeris, VelaClock or Magic Hour. There are also weather apps or websites that display the times of civil, nautical and astronomical twilight  – the 3 different phases of blue hour.  A good point of reference that explains these 3 different phases can be found here: The Different Phases of Twilight by James Brandon

SHOOTING DURING THE BLUE HOUR

Early morning blue hour at the Carnevale di Venezia in Italy. People can make good subjects for blue hour but you might need additional light.

  • ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS. Well-lit structures and buildings or cityscapes in general make good subjects for blue hour. Since there’s not enough light in the sky, artificial illumination enhances the overall blue tones in the atmosphere. Early morning blue hour at the Carnevale di Venezia in Italy. People can make good subjects for blue hour but you might need additional light.
  • STARBURSTS. If you’re one of those who like the appearance of starbursts in your photos, shoot in an area with streetlights. To create nice starbursts, you need a smaller aperture – I like to use f/14 or smaller. Don’t forget composition when creating starbursts and make sure they compliment and not distract your scene.
  • MOONLIGHT. When moonlight is available, you can extend blue hour period using the extra light in the sky provided by moonlight. Take advantage of this time.
  • LIGHT TRAILS. When you’re near a busy street, shooting light trails can make your shots look dynamic and alive. Try to include a landmark or a structure with the light trails to give the whole scene a sense of place.
  • PEOPLE. People are not a common subject for blue hour, but it doesn’t mean you can’t shoot them at this time of day. You can either shoot silhouettes (you will need a faster shutter speed to avoid motion blur), or you can use additional light sources to illuminate your subject – this can be by having your subject stand near a light source, or by using flash.
  • NO LIGHTS, NO PROBLEM. It is a challenge to take blue hour shots without artificial lighting, but it is possible. Start early into blue hour when the sky still looks a lighter blue. You will have to open your aperture and/or adjust ISO to let some light in. This might be the best time to use the manual mode of your camera to give you more control over your exposure settings.

If you're really determined, it is possible to take photos in the blue hour even when there are no artificial lights available. Such was the case here at Southworld Pier in England. The process won't be as easy, but the results can be dramatic.

A well-placed starburst must be treated as part of the composition and not distract from your subject. Starbursts are created by using a small f-stop. The appearance of the stars will be different depending on your lens. I used my favorite Nikkor 24-70mm lens for this shot of the bridge in Mainz, Germany. The 18-point star was made possible by the 9-rounded diaphragm blades of the lens.

PREPARING FOR BLUE HOUR

  • ARRIVE EARLY. When shooting blue hour at night, try to arrive before sunset. That way, you can shoot two birds with one stone, so to speak. There is enough time between sunset and blue hour to walk around (I like to grab a cup of hot cocoa) and pre-visualize your compositions, plan your route, and measure the amount of time it will take you to get from one location to another. This way, you can maximize your time.
  • SHOOT IN RAW. If your camera enables you to shoot in raw mode, by all means use it. Raw files take a lot of memory space but memory is cheap compared to quality, which is priceless. If you don’t shoot raw because you have no time to post-process your photos, you can choose to shoot RAW+JPEG, if your camera allows it. That way, whenever the time comes when you’re finally able to commit yourself to post-processing, your raw files will be available.

If you are unfamiliar with what raw is, basically, a raw file is a minimally processed file which bypasses the steps used to process a jpeg file after an image has been captured. This includes compression and applying contrast, sharpening, white balance etc. (I have all these settings set to 0.) By shooting in raw you are able to record photos with the most minimum loss of data, so your photos will keep a lot of important details.

A raw file is also like a digital negative. It is not a usable image straight out of the camera and will need to be processed in photo-editing software like Photoshop.

There is a never-ending argument among photographers about the topic of shooting RAW vs. JPEG, and post-processed vs. straight-out-of-the-camera (SOOC) images, so I won’t get in depth on this issue. Do your research, compare photos, and decide on what is best according to your time, style, commitment and ultimate dedication to photography.

  • USE A TRIPOD. There’s no way around it. Even with high-end cameras boasting low-noise performance with high ISO, using a tripod for any type of long exposure is still the best way to produce sharp, clean and professional-looking photos. Sure, it is still possible to take a blue hour shot without a tripod by using high ISO handheld, but I don’t advise it. Tripod, for me, separates the grown men from the boys, or in photography terms, the pros from the amateurs.  A tripod can be a burden to carry, but only if you think it is.
  • TURN VR/IS and AUTO ISO OFF. Vibration Reduction or Instant Stabilization is a lens feature that reduces camera motion when using a slower speed. When used while the camera is on tripod, the VR sensors will continue to hunt for movement even when there’s none, and by doing so, it can create its own unnecessary vibrations.

Some people like to turn their auto ISO feature on during the day. Turn this off when shooting during blue hour.

  • USE SELF-TIMER or a REMOTE RELEASE. If using a self-timer, set it to at least 5-second delay; that will give time for the camera to settle down from any minor shakes. Ten-second delay is too long for me to wait; light changes quickly during this time and every second counts.

I personally use a cable release so I can enable the mirror lock-up function of my camera. I wait a few seconds after my first shutter-click to lift the mirror before I press the shutter again for the actual exposure to start.  Mirror lock-up is a camera feature that flips the mirror up before the shutter opens, and when used with a cable release, it greatly reduces any vibration-induced motion blur.

Some cities like London have tighter security and may not allow the use of tripods in the location. Try to get your shot as fast as you can without looking suspicious, but when asked to leave, be nice and obey. You can try your luck again next time or choose a different point of view.

EXPOSURE AND CAMERA SETTINGS

Now that you’re all set to shoot during the blue hour, how do you set your exposure? First of all, if you’re still on Auto or Program Mode or using other presets of your camera (like landscape, vivid, etc), this is the time to get off it and explore other options. You want to be in control. If you’re finally outside shooting at twilight chasing the best light of the day, it means that you’re now serious about what you do and want to take charge. You don’t want your camera to do all the work for you.

  • CAMERA MODE.  Unless you’re shooting sports or any event where shutter speed is a big factor to your exposure (then you might use shutter-priority mode), you can choose to use either the Aperture-Priority (AP, or in other cameras AV) or full Manual Mode.

APERTURE-PRIORITY mode means you choose the aperture, and the camera chooses the shutter speed. I like to use this mode because it saves me a lot of precious time during this time of day, and I can still have control over depth of field, which is important in my shooting style. F/8 or F/11 is said to have enough depth of field to render you a sharp image. At night, and when your subject(s) are generally in the same distance or are all far away, choice of aperture does not really matter. If you have a foreground that needs to be in focus as well with your background, you will need a smaller f-stop. The choice of aperture is also influenced by your own creativity, the amount of available light present, and what they call the “sweet spot” (the sharpest opening) of your lens.

In MANUAL mode, you set both aperture and speed in accordance to your camera’s light meter. I use this mode when light gets trickier and I need full control over my exposure.

  • EXPOSURE TIME. The length of exposure varies depending on the brightness or darkness of your scene. If I’m shooting waterscapes, I like to have a longer exposure time to smoothen out the water. If it’s still early into twilight and I need to lengthen my exposure time, I either use the smallest f-stop (f/22), or use a neutral or grad-neutral density filter to achieve this. When shooting cityscapes filled with bright lights or neon signs, choosing a shorter exposure time or shooting early into blue hour will help prevent blown highlights.

Some people have suggested that I open up my lens and use exposure time longer than 30 seconds – that’s something I don’t normally practice. Blue hour lasts only about 20 minutes on a good night, a good fraction of that is usable in well-lit locations. When I am traveling, I pay for every minute that I am not at home, so I like to make the most of the incredibly short amount of blue hour light. 30 seconds is already long enough for me to stand in one spot to take a shot. I like to be mobile, try different angles, and sometimes run from one location to another to cover as much as I can for variety in my portfolio.

For this reason, I also do not take multiple exposures or use auto-bracketing. Some people like to bracket their shots, or shoot the same scene in different exposures to ensure them of the best dynamic range. These shots are then blended or merged in post-processing to create one image. While this might be their style and works well for them, it is not something I do. I take all my blue hour shots in one exposure – I just make sure it’s a good one.

  • WHITE BALANCE. There are different types of light available at night. The most common of these is sodium vapor that is commonly used in streetlights. This usually produces a red or orange cast to your photos. I always set my WB to AUTO and my camera usually does a decent job on this aspect. Shooting in raw also assures me that I can adjust WB safely in post if I need to, but I find that I don’t really need to do this often.
  • ISO. Always shoot in the lowest ISO settings of your camera – it can be 50, 100 or 200 depending on your camera. Shooting in low ISO will give you the cleanest, most noise-free image you can possibly get. I will only move up to higher ISO when there is not enough light anymore to help me or when I need a faster speed.
  • LIVE VIEW. It won’t help you exposure-wise, but if your camera has it, it’s a nice thing to know that it can be helpful during instances when you need to use a lower or higher perspective and are not able to peek into the viewfinder. After composing in LV mode, remember to dial back to self-timer or mirror lock-up.
  • LCD. Everything looks good in a tiny 2 or 3-inch picture viewer at night, but don’t be fooled. To avoid disappointment when you get home where you’ll finally get the chance to look at your photos in a bigger monitor, you can do these 2 simple steps right after you’ve taken your shots—
  • MAGNIFY. Most cameras have this feature where you can magnify your images on your LCD at 100%. I have the middle button of my cursor-movement pad customized to use the magnify feature, so that it’s accessible in just one push of a button. I use this feature to make sure my images are not blurry, especially on a windy night.
  • CHECK YOUR HISTOGRAM. The histogram is a graph that displays the brightness levels of the image or the scene you’ve captured, from the darkest to the brightest. This feature is available in most DSLR’s and even in compact cameras. Although there is a learning curve to this and you do need to know how to read a histogram properly, it’s a great tool that can help you evaluate your exposure. Generally speaking, when the histogram displays a high peak on the left side of the graph, a good part of your image is in the shadows (might be underexposed), and if it’s on the right, most of the pixels are bright (might be overexposed). Your goal is to create a balanced exposure with a good distribution of tones across the range; this way, you don’t lose details in the shadows or in the highlights. It’s a bit trickier at night where obviously you’ll find that the graph will likely be bunched up on the left because of overall darkness. How to interpret this and using your own judgment will depend on experience, which will eventually grow with practice.

Checking your images on magnified view or glancing at your histogram after a shot will steal a few seconds of your time, but it’s worth it.

  • GET YOUR SHOT! Finally, and the most important of all, do not leave until you get your shot. There’s nothing more disappointing to a photographer than investing a lot of your time and effort to get that perfect shot only to come home with blurry, out-of-focus, poorly-composed or poorly-exposed shots. It is better to come home with one decent photo than with several photos that you can’t use.

© All text and photos copyright Yen Baet. Do not download photos or use/copy all or part of this article and claim as your own. Give due credit.

Combining silhouette and motion blur with blue hour at the Fetes de Lumiere in Lyon, France. Take advantage of the long exposure needed during low light and look for things that will allow you to capture motion. Conversely, golden tones also look great against the blue sky.

Make the most of the moonlight. It helped illuminate this otherwise dark statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy in Budapest, Hungary.

Recording light trails with an interesting landmark like the Hadrian's Arch in Athens, Greece gives the scene a sense of place. It also creates a focal point where the eyes can rest, rather than merely following the trail lights to nothingness.

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