Beginners' guide to blue hour photography
Updated: Jul 20
If you're a follower on social media, then hopefully you've been enjoying my photos on the theme of 'blue' this week. My personal favourite was the photo of Dartmouth (above) which was taken in the so called 'blue hour'. As it's one of my favourite times of day for photography, I thought I would do a quick guide to help you to understand the blue hour and get the most out of any blue hour shoot.
1 What is the blue hour?
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the 'Golden hour', that period of beautiful golden light shortly after sunrise and before sunset. However, a time of day that is often unappreciated in photography is the time just before or after the sun has disappeared. The half an hour or so before the sun rises or after is sets is a fantastic time to take photos, with the beautiful soft tones and peaceful blue hues of the 'blue hour'.
2 The morning blue hour is generally better
If, like me, you struggle to get out of bed early, then the evening blue hour can be beautiful. However, there is no escaping the fact that the morning blue hour can often be better, especially in winter, when frost or winter mist can greatly enhance a scene. Shooting the morning blue hour also has the bonus that you're more likely to have the place to yourself; perfect for a bit of serenity and mindfulness.
3 You'll need to use longer shutter speeds or higher ISO
The simple fact is that there isn't a huge amount of light around in the blue hour, so you're going to have to think about which settings to use to get the best out of the scene. Firstly, it's best to understand how to shoot on either manual mode (M) or semi Shutter Priority mode, where you can control shutter speed and / or ISO. If you don't have a tripod, you may be able to just about get away with taking shots handheld and using a high ISO value in order to keep the shutter speeds fast enough to hand hold without introducing movement blur. However, the down sides to this are that you may end up with grainy images (due to the high ISO) and if there is water in the scene, you won't benefit from being able to produce artistic water blur by using longer shutter speeds. My advice for the blue hour is therefore always to use a tripod so that you can use longer shutter speeds, rather than higher ISO to get well exposed images.
4 Think carefully about your choice of location
Although you can take blue hour shots anywhere, some scenes naturally lend themselves to the blue hour more than others. A good example, as in the Dartmouth photo above, is where you have artificial lights and water, such as riverside towns and harbours. These provide the opportunity for more than just a bright sky and a darker foreground, by providing beautiful pops of artificial light, and as an added bonus the water provides reflections of these lights as well.
5 Shoot in raw
I always recommend shooting in Raw format (rather than Jpeg) but this is especially important for shooting in the blue hour. Although Jpeg files may be smaller, their creation throws away a lot of information, especially in shadow areas. And guess what you tend to get with a bright sky and a darker foreground in the blue hour? Yes, lots of shadow areas! To give the best chance of being able to retrieve detail in these shadows, it's essential to shoot in Raw format. This does of course mean you will need to know how to post process your images too.
6 Aim silhouettes or learn how to bracket
The sky is surprisingly bright in the blue hour, and this can lead to some challenges with having such a wide dynamic range (from bright to dark) that your camera can't capture it all. One approach, that works for some scenes, is to expose for the sky, and have the foreground elements silhouetted against those beautiful blue hour sky colours. This would work well for a distinctively shaped foreground, such as a church, or monument. The alternative is to ensure that you captured all of the dynamic range in the scene, by taking multiple exposures and blending them in software later (a technique called bracketing). This can be done manually (take one shot that is exposed for the sky, and another that is exposed for the foreground) or alternatively most cameras have an automatic bracketing facility, which takes multiple exposures one after the other.
7 Get up early or stay out extra late to enjoy the serenity of the blue hour
When I'm out for a sunset shoot and other photographers are around, it never ceases to amaze me how as soon as the sun has set, they all go home! A great example was when I was on a visit to Dartmoor, for the bluebell shot below; I was struggling to get the shots that I wanted, because there were so many photographers getting in the way, but as soon as the sun set I had the place to myself! This meant that not only did I get to enjoy the lovely pastel colours at the start of the blue hour all to myself, but the lack of people around meant that the Dartmoor pony decided it was safe to wander into my shot! So next time you're out for sunrise or sunset, consider getting there a little earlier (or later) to enjoy the serenity (and photo opportunities) of the blue hour.
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