You probably already love to go out and shoot a great sunset, am I right? But do you pack up and head home as soon as the sun passes the horizon? If you do, you're missing the best part of the day for photography – blue hour! In this article, you will learn the importance of blue hour and how to use it to take more spectacular “night” photos with a deep, rich blue sky and twinkly city lights.
To help you get the most of the blue hour I'll cover:
- Location scouting
- Why you must use a tripod
- Camera settings
- Getting the right timing
- Have patience
#1 – Location scouting
Finding a good location for shooting at blue hour is just as critical as shooting a sunset. The sky cannot be the subject itself, it holds no interest for the viewer. It is the background, so you must find a good foreground for your blue hour.
Urban locations work really well because you can get the city lights and buildings in your shot as the main subject. Look for a spot where you can get a nice clean skyline view without obstructions, or an interesting perspective. The color contrast of the blue sky and orange hue of electric lights makes for great interest in your scene too – so use it in your composition.
If you go for a more rural or natural area, find a location where you can put something interesting in the foreground as a silhouette. A large tree, grain elevator, or something that has a recognizable shape will work well. You might even choose to do a little light painting to illuminate the subject a bit as well.
The bottom line for finding a good location is to have a good clear subject, that you're able to get there at the right time of day, and make sure you have permission to shoot there if necessary.
#2 – Use a tripod
Using a tripod for blue hour photography is a MUST! This is non-negotiable. If you want to create spectacular blur hour images there is no way around this one. Get our your tripod and actually use it.
Benefits of using a tripod:
- You can use a lower ISO than if you shoot hand-held.
- Get sharper images because the camera is more stable and solid.
- You're able to use a smaller aperture. This may not seem like a big deal, but read on about camera settings below to see why this is a huge deal (especially for cityscapes)!
- It forces you to slow down which will increase your chance of nailing the shot.
If you don't have a good tripod read this: Stress-Free Tips for Buying a Camera Tripod
Along with setting your camera up on a tripod, I recommend either using the 2-second self-timer or getting a remote trigger to fire the shutter. This will ensure that you are not touching the camera when it takes the exposure and will help keep it steady for the sharpest images possible. Camera shake is the biggest issue that causes blurry images. Don't skip this step.
#3 – Camera settings
To shoot blue hour there are many options for camera settings, but this is what I suggest.
- Set your shooting mode to Manual. You want to control all aspects of the exposure.
- Choose a low ISO to keep noise to a minimum, 100-400 is fine.
- Set your camera to either manual focus or back button focus so it doesn't try to autofocus and get it wrong. Low light will fool your camera and it will struggle to focus. By doing it manually or with back button focus you can lock it in. Use Live View and zoom the screen (not your lens) to help you focus. Alternatively, you can activate autofocus, use a single focus point, lock on the subject (not the sky) and then switch it to manual.
- Turn OFF your camera's Long Exposure Noise Reduction. By using a low ISO you'll avoid most of it anyway and in my opinion, most cameras add too much blur to try and get rid of the noise, resulting in a less than perfectly sharp image.
- Choose a medium to small sized aperture like about f/8 or f/11. Remember above when I mentioned twinkling city lights and why it's important to use a tripod so you can use a smaller aperture? This is why! Anything around f/8 and smaller (f/11-f/32) will result in pin-point light sources like city lights becoming really nice little starbursts. It's awesome, no filters needed!
- The shutter speed will fall where it may after you set up your ISO and aperture.
Once you have all that set up, do a test shot. Review the histogram. Remember most of the scene is dark so the graph should be mostly pushed over to the left. You want a bit of detail to show and for the lights to be bright, so make sure the graph at least touches the right side. If it doesn't – adjust the shutter speed slower until you achieve a good exposure.
Note: Do not use your LCD playback screen for judging the exposure! If you have the brightness turned up or down it will give you a false reading. Always look at the histogram. Read this if you need help on that: Why is the snow gray in my winter photos?
#4 – Time it right
This is the big tip. You need to get the timing just right for blue hour, especially for cityscapes and urban shots. Just past sunset, the sky will start to turn blue. But don't shoot just yet. Wait for the city lights to come on and the sky to darken a bit.
Use a good app like PhotoPills to help you determine the time for blue hour. Keep in mind that it happens twice a day! Blue hour also occurs right before sunrise as well. So if you are an early riser give that a go. It will give you twice as many chances of getting the shot, especially if you're traveling. I love to shoot blue hour on my travels because it helps create unique images that most people don't get because they're in having dinner at that time. So a little sacrifice may be necessary to get the shot you want.
The length of blue hour will depend on where in the world you live. The farther you are from the Equator the longer it will last, and the more shooting time you'll have. To make sure you don't miss blue hour, get to your location early. If you're shooting it at dusk arrive before sunset – you might as well shoot that too! Then just wait. Which brings us to my last point.
#5 – Have patience
The biggest tip I will give you here is to keep shooting, don't stop too soon. Wait until the city lights come on, then keep waiting. There comes a time when the light in the sky becomes perfectly balanced with the light in the city. If you quit too early you'll still have a bright sky and dark city or buildings. Keep shooting until the sky is all but pure black. Then you know that blue hour has indeed ended.
That's the thing about getting great night shots that I mentioned at the top of the article. Most truly great night photographs are not shot in the middle of the night but instead during blue hour. It's much more desirable and adds depth to your images to have a deep dark blue sky than one that's all black.
So have patience. Where I live we're fairly far north so sunset doesn't happen until late in the summer months, and blue hour lasts an hour after that. You need to be prepared to stay out late or get up super ridiculously early if you want to get spectacular blue hour images. But I assure you, the results will be well worth it.
Besides just taking a blue hour shot, there are other special effects and things you can do at this time day that work great. One thing you can do is to shoot light trails from cars. Read: Guide to Photographing Light Trails at Night for more on that.
Or you can make some spectacular zoom burst shots. And you can also do light painting!
Blue hour is one of my favorite times of day to shoot. In busy popular locations, the crowds start to thin and disappear after sunset, leaving you to photograph the spot unbothered. So sticking around for blur hour has that added advantage.
If you haven't tried this kind of photography before go get your tripod, find a buddy (it's always more fun with a friend) and get going! Share your blue hour photos with us below, I'd love to see what you create.