Photographers like to talk about golden hour photography and the beautiful, glowy light they find right before sunset or after sunrise. Golden hour is amazing. But for my money, you can’t beat blue hour photography for some peaceful, serene images. Don’t be so hasty packing up your gear after the sun has set. Stay a little while to enjoy the blue hour!
Exactly what is blue hour photography and how do you shoot it? Follow along below for our beginner’s guide on when, what and how to shoot to take advantage of this really cool period of day!
What is Blue Hour?
Blue hour is the period of morning or night when the sun is below the horizon but still casting light into the sky. The result is a beautiful, cool sky that makes a stunning backdrop for your photography. Blue hour skies are crisp, cool and full of gauzy shades from indigo to navy with hints of red and pink.
When is Blue Hour?
The general rule of thumb for blue hour is up to one hour after sunset or one hour before sunrise. Your blue hour might not last a full hour, though. Sometimes we only get 20-40 minutes of photography of beautiful blue before the skies turn completely black at night or the sun clears the horizon in the morning.
How long the blue hour lasts and what it looks like depends on your location, season, and the weather. The best blue hours, in my opinion, occur on nights with few clouds.
Why Should You Shoot Blue Hour?
Shooting during blue hour has several advantages. First, blue hour can add more visual interest to your images. The blue hue of the sky is a more appealing backdrop than a completely black sky, and is a great contrast to electric lights.
Also, blue hour photography helps add creativity to your photo by allowing you to convey motion. Because there is less ambient light, you can use a lower shutter speed like 1/60, 1/10, 5, or even 30 seconds. A slow shutter speed lets you convey motion by smoothing out water, creating light trails, or blurring clouds. Also, you aren’t fighting mid-day or late evening sun. So blue hour gives you more flexibility when it comes to adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in dim light.
What to Photograph During Blue Hour Photography
Blue hour is a popular time to photograph lots of different types of images, from portraits to carnivals. Try shooting any of these images as blue hour photography subjects:
- Travel images like busy, winding roads or freeways
- Landscapes like beaches, bridges, wharves, or marinas
- Fairs, circuses, or carnivals
- Portraits with suitable ambient light or off-camera flash
- Moon photography
What Equipment Do You Need for Blue Hour Photos?
To capture your own blue hour photo, make sure you’re ready with the following gear:
- DSLR or mirrorless camera that shoots in manual mode and RAW. Your camera should also be capable of shooting in bulb mode to create long exposures.
- Lenses that matches your intended composition. A wide-angle lens, such as an 18mm or 24mm, is a great choice for cityscapes and landscapes.
- Tripod (to stabilize your camera)
- Flashlight (to adjust settings in the dark)
- Stopwatch or intervalometer (for a time-lapse photo)
- Remote shutter release (cable or wireless)
- Extra batteries and warm clothes if you’re shooting in cold temperatures
How to Capture the Blue Hour
Blue hour photography isn’t a hard concept to master, but it does take some planning and forethought to get it right. Here are my best tips!
- Plan your blue hour photography shoot ahead of time. Scout out possible locations in the day and know when blue hour will occur for your location. An app such as PhotoTime or Photopills can help! Look for locations that have artificial light for interest but aren’t overwhelmed with light pollution. Too much light in the background dilutes your skies. You’ll get a sky that’s orange or pink instead of that tranquil deep, dark blue.
- Pack your gear ahead of time. Make sure you have everything you need for a blue hour shoot before you leave the house. You don’t want to find the perfect location and have beautiful weather only to realize you’ve left your tripod at home.
- Arrive early to set up your equipment. Allow plenty of time to set up your tripod, frame your shot, and dial in focus and settings. I always plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to sunset or 90 minutes before sunrise. The best blue hues can fade quickly, so you want to be ready to make the most of your opportunity.
- Choose your settings based on your goals for the photo. Slower shutter speeds help create light trails or smooth out water or clouds. Wider apertures such as f/2.8 or f/1.8 can create beautiful bokeh orbs. Narrower apertures turn points of light into sun stars. Prioritize your settings based on what’s most important in your image.
- Be patient! Don’t get in a hurry to start snapping pictures too early! You want to wait for the moment when the sun has sunk below the horizon at night. For morning blue hour, you’ll want to wait for the moment when the light turns from black to dark blue.
- If light trails or buttery water/clouds are your goals, shoot in shutter priority mode. That way the camera will choose ISO and aperture for you, allowing you to focus solely on shutter speed, composition, and timing.
- Turn off auto white balance. The camera gets fooled by the blues and tries to neutralize them, which kind of defeats the point of shooting gorgeous blue skies! I prefer to use Kelvin instead. Start in the 6500K range and adjust as needed.
- Use a shutter release cable or remote to fire the shutter. This will make sure you aren’t jiggling the camera and creating blur in your images when you manually press the trigger. If you don’t have a remote or cable, you can also use the timer function of your camera. This lets the camera settle first before firing.
- If you’re still getting blur even if using a tripod and remote, try shooting in live view or locking up your mirror. Occasionally the minor act of your mirror flipping up to expose your sensor is enough to introduce blur into your image. But if you shoot in live view or adjust your setting to lock the mirror in the up position, the mirror stays in place and helps eliminate shake.
- Remember your other composition rules! Use the rule-of-thirds where appropriate. Look for leading lines to accentuate your subject. Shoot from different angles and perspectives.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment! Try different combinations of settings to give your images a slightly different look and find what YOU like best. For example, I usually keep my ISO between 200 and 400. But you might find you really prefer the added grain of ISO 1000 better. Take multiple exposures with different settings and pick your favorites. Soon you’ll find your perfect blue hour setting combo!
Post-Processing and Editing Blue Hour Images
How you process your images will vary according to your personal style. I always shoot in RAW so I have the most flexibility in post-production. My style is bold and colorful, so I usually add some vibrance, saturation, and contrast to my images from the hour blue. Split toning helps enhance the color of the sky while keeping natural skin tones. Split toning also ensures you don’t wind up with all blue photos…remember it’s the contrast between blue and the other colors in the scene that add visual interest. Finally, adjusting the luminosity may give your photo the pop it needs! Try editing in your typical style first, then tweaking your blue hour images to find a style you best!
Don’t be such a slave to the golden hour that you miss photographing in the blue hour. It really can be every bit as magical as golden hour and lends a certain tranquil and calm spirit to your photo. You’ll love the tones and ethereal quality for landscapes, cityscapes and more!