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5 Tips for Creating Spectacular Photos at Blue Hour

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.

I've seen this fountain many times in Las Vegas at the Bellagio so I took a different approach here.

To help you get the most of the blue hour I'll cover:

  1. Location scouting
  2. Why you must use a tripod
  3. Camera settings
  4. Getting the right timing
  5. Have patience

#1 – Location scouting

At blue hour electric signs and neon come alive and make great subjects. Notice the sky is blue, not black.

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.

Hoodoos in Drumheller, Alberta, this image was taken at my weekend workshop there. We lit them up with a big flashlight. The light lower right is the moon! ISO 400, f/5.6 for 30 seconds.

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.

The color contrast of the warm orange glow from the lights and the blue sky make this shot dramatic and interesting. ISO 200, f/9.0 for 4 seconds.
More color contrast. I froze my butt off getting this shot in Canmore, Alberta in the winter. ISO 100, f/5.6, 25 seconds. Notice that at this aperture of f/5.6 the street lights are more like blobs than stars.

#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:

  1. You can use a lower ISO than if you shoot hand-held.
  2. Get sharper images because the camera is more stable and solid.
  3. 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)!
  4. It forces you to slow down which will increase your chance of nailing the shot.
Djan MacAlister

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.

ISO 100, f/11, 15 seconds – 17mm lens. I used a tripod for this shot in Cienfuegos, Cuba. The driver actually returned and was going to leave with his car and I begged him to wait 30 seconds – thankfully he did!

#3 – Camera settings

To shoot blue hour there are many options for camera settings, but this is what I suggest.

Close up of a modern, digital camera.
  • 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.
Shot at ISO 200, f/22 for 25 seconds. Notice how the street lights have become stars?!

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

Route 66 Odell, Illinois. I got lucky here as this building had motion activated lights. So I had my husband turn them on and I shot quickly enough to get the shot during blue hour. This is actually a combination of several shots put together in Photoshop later.

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.

This is too late at night to get the rich blue sky. Notice that the sky is black. There's no amount of exposure or processing that will fix that – only shooting earlier will do it. If you want to see how we “lit” up the headlights and the car read this: Night Photography Quick Tip – Adding Light
Blue hour with some light painting on the train caboose. ISO 100, f/5.6 for 30 seconds.
After blue hour is done this is what you get for the sky. Still a dramatic shot but which do you prefer? ISO 200, f/5.6 for 30 seconds.

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.

Too early and you get no city lights and the sky is still just a pale blue. ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/80th of a second.
Shot just 20 minutes after the last images. See what a difference it makes? The final image (above under point #3) was another 30 minutes after this one. So I spent almost an hour shooting the Colosseum to get just the right timing for city lights, blue hour and car trails which was my goal. ISO 100, f/8, 1.5 seconds.

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.

Shot from the Manhattan Bridge in NYC at about 8 pm. ISO 200, f/8.0 for 20 seconds.
20 minutes later the sky was almost black and the image lacks the depth of the early shot. ISO 400, f/5.6 for 30 seconds.

Bonus items

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.

Car trails on the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. This is a few shots combined into one.
ISO 200, f/5.6, 1.6 seconds zoomed during the exposure.

Or you can make some spectacular zoom burst shots. And you can also do light painting!

Blue hour light painting in a ghost town. That's how we roll at my Drumheller workshop.
More light painting, done by my group near Drumheller on our 3-day workshop.
Boothill Graveyard Tombstone, Arizona. ISO 400, f/4.5 for 1/2 a second. The sky was still fairly light but I wanted to use the passing car's headlights to illuminate the old Hearst at the famous cemetery.

Conclusion

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.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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