The sun has set, but the moon has yet to rise. Everything is cast in a comfy blue balm and the harsh shadows cast by the sun now dissipate leaving everything cloaked in a mysterious air that is captivating. Photographers call this magical, emotive, captivating, beautifully surreal span of time known as the blue hour.
If you read long exposure photography and astrophotography blog posts, you should know how to take pictures in low light conditions, but we decided to focus more on this magical point(s) of the day and night. The same kind of skills can apply not just to nighttime but in twilight and right before dawn as well.
So let’s dive in and learn more about how to capture stunning images that are cloaked in melancholic mystery
What Exactly is the Blue Hour?
The blue hour tends to happen twice a day. Much like the golden hour, the blue hour is the inverse a period of time just after sunset or just before dawn where the sky becomes a wash of rich blue, indigo, and other cool colors. That said, blue-hour skies can also include purple, pink, yellow, or orange colors as well.
The name “blue hour” really doesn’t describe it accurately, it's more of a misnomer than anything else. When a blue hour occurs depends more so on your position on the Earth. Most countries have some form of a blue hour.
Though places closest to the Earth’s poles (think Canada, Northern Russia, the upper parts of Scandinavia, Alaska, and the like) may experience one or no blue hours due to Polar Night in winter and Midnight Sun in summer. Regardless of various geographic differences, blue hour stands, at least in photography parlance, as the point of time when the sun has just set or is just about to where the light tends to have a blue-ish hue to it.
The type of natural light this creates is truly unique, and cannot be replicated. It's a serene, calm, and peaceful time of light, and it’s a perfect time to capture illuminated cityscapes, wildlife, seascapes, and other forms given the unique lighting conditions.
What's the Difference Between the Blue Hour and the Golden Hour?
In contrast to the twice-daily appearance of the blue hour, the golden hour, also known as the magic hour, occurs shortly after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon.
During this time, the sunlight travels a longer path through the atmosphere, resulting in more light and in a warm, golden glow that casts soft and flattering light on subjects. The golden hour offers a beautiful interplay of light and shadow, with long, warm-toned shadows and a warm color palette.
It is highly sought after by photographers for its ability to enhance textures, add depth, and create a sense of warmth and romance in images. The golden hour is particularly well-suited for capturing portraits, landscapes, and nature photography.
While the blue hour is characterized by its predominantly blue hue, cool tones, and even lighting, the golden hour is renowned for its warm tones, soft directional light, and rich color palette. Each period offers its own unique mood and atmosphere, providing photographers with distinct opportunities for creative expression.
Blue Hour Photography Tips
Get to Your Location Early
Because of how very brief the blue hour lasts, it's best to arrive early as possible to set up and dial in your camera settings prior rather than trying to do everything right at the moment. Whether you are in an urban environment, a landscape photographer, or just a humble amateur, You’ll save yourself precious time and mental stress and more time getting the right shot!
Experiment with ISO
If you lack a tripod, upping the ISO can counteract what would become a blurry photo for a grainy one. Sometimes motion blur and other artificial effects can elevate a photo over sharper images. Because of general low light conditions found in blue hour photography, it's normal to shoot with a lower ISO, but those without a tripod could struggle, so if you lack a tripod, don’t be afraid to experiment with your ISO settings.
Like other styles of long-exposure photography, blue hour photography is another great opportunity to play with movement by capturing light trails from passing cars, rushing water, or even the clouds themselves.
As always, remembering color theory can elevate a simple photo into a great one. Due to the prominence of blue (and other cool) hues during this time, you can leverage this to your advantage by finding splashes and pops of warm colors like yellow, orange, or red to contrast the overall color scheme of the photo for a breathtaking composition.
Reflections of Light
As mentioned above, the warm (and harsher) colors of street lights, city lights other artificial lights can dazzle and pop during the blue hour if cast across reflective surfaces like glass, water, and other places. Use this to your advantage to create interesting and eye-catching compositions.
The soft, diffuse light that’s found during the blue hour can lend a dreamy, surreal, and distinctly unique atmosphere to portraits that cannot be replicated in a studio. If taking portraits of people, use this to your advantage and create melancholic and mystical portraits that’ll dazzle your client.
Watch Your White Balance
On most digital cameras, the auto white balance will suffice, but because of the unique conditions found in the blue hour photography, setting your white balance on auto is a no-go. It will attempt to subdue both your cool and warm colors, so by adjusting the settings manually you’ll be able to capture vivid photos.
For an even simpler rule of thumb, increasing your white balance will add orange to the overall photo, while decreasing the white balance will add more blue to the photo. Experiment accordingly!
Take as Many Photos as Possible
Given the relatively short amount of time you have to work with for blue hour photography, try to take as many photos as possible. You can accomplish this by having a wider lens aperture; think something around f1.2, f1.4, or f1.8.
You can experiment with different settings, angles, and locations in an effort to make the most out of your limited photo shooting time during this alluring period.
Use a Tripod
Because of the low light conditions and long exposure times needed, it's generally considered a best practice to invest in a tripod so as to keep the camera steady while it captures the image to prevent camera shake. This tip aside, a tripod is considered a piece of essential gear for a professional photographer at this point.
Shoot in RAW
It should go without saying at this point, but if you're using a professional-level camera, such as a DSLR one, you should be capturing your photos in RAW so as to have all available data at your disposal during the post-production process.
Use a Remote Shutter Release
As blue hour photography is a type of long-exposure photography, it may be worth investing in a remote shutter button so as to capture the best image possible and minimize camera shaking to zero when out during a photoshoot.
Finally, after a photo shoot, you should always upload your photos to post-processing software for some final touches. Applications like Lightroom or Photoshop are industry standard, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Places to Photograph During the Blue Hour
Urban landscapes during the blue hour are particularly enchanting. The combination of city lights, soft blue tones, and the contrast between artificial and natural light creates a mesmerizing atmosphere. Capture iconic landmarks, city skylines, or bustling streets bathed in the tranquil twilight.
Bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, or coastlines, take on a mystical quality during the blue hour. The soft light reflects beautifully on the water's surface, creating a dreamlike setting. Experiment with long exposures to capture the serene, glass-like effect of the water or incorporate reflections for added depth.
Buildings and architectural structures can be elevated during the blue hour. The diffused light enhances the details and textures of structures, adding depth and creating a serene mood. Explore capturing the intricate designs, lines, and silhouettes of buildings against the soothing, blue sky backdrop.
Blue hour landscapes have a unique and otherworldly feel. Whether it's rolling hills, mountains, or expansive fields, the soft light during this time can create a sense of depth and tranquility. Consider incorporating elements such as silhouetted trees or foreground interest to add visual interest to your composition.
Bridges are fascinating subjects for a blue-hour photography shoot. They often feature beautiful lines and architectural details that can be accentuated by soft lighting. Capture the symmetrical or leading lines of a bridge as it stretches into the distance, creating a stunning visual effect.
The combination of soft blue light and the serene ambiance of the ocean can result in breathtaking images during the blue hour. Explore seascapes, capturing waves crashing against rocks or serene beach scenes with the soft glow of twilight.
The calmness of water bodies during the blue hour lends itself to capturing stunning reflections. Look for opportunities to photograph buildings, city lights, or other subjects mirrored in still water surfaces, creating a sense of harmony and symmetry in the final image.
Nighttime Street Scenes
Blue hour can provide a unique blend of natural and artificial lighting in urban environments. Street scenes with a mix of streetlights, car lights, and streetlights against the soft blue backdrop can create a captivating atmosphere. Experiment with long exposures to capture light trails and add a dynamic element to your images.
In conclusion, blue hour photography offers a truly enchanting and magical experience for photographers. The tranquil twilight hours provide a unique blend of soft, diffused light and vibrant hues that can transform ordinary scenes into extraordinary works of art.
By understanding the characteristics of blue hour, taking photos, and employing creative techniques, photographers can capture stunning images that evoke a sense of calmness, serenity, and wonder. Whether you're an aspiring photographer or a seasoned professional, embracing the beauty of blue hour opens up a world of endless creative possibilities.