One of the most popular misconceptions of people new to photography is that night photography is best done at night. Actually, the very best time to get those stunning low-light shots is not when night’s darkness has fully enveloped the scene, but during what photographers call the blue hour—that wonderful time of day before the sun has risen in the morning and after the sun has set in the evening. It is a time when there is still enough ambient light to add detail to your subjects, yet it’s dark enough to let any artificial light really shine through. The blue hour gets its name from the deep dark blue of the sky during this time, and comes from the French term l’heure bleue used by painters to describe the time of day. So, let’s have a little look in detail at the blue hour.
A classic blue hour shot
The term “blue hour” is something of a misnomer, as it isn’t really an hour. In the tropics, where the sun sets quickly, the blue hour can be over and done with in fifteen minutes or so, whereas in more northern and southern latitudes, it can be a long, drawn-out period of time. One great site for determining the times and period of the blue hour in your location is the BlueHourSite.com
What can we shoot during the blue hour? The answer is: virtually anything outdoors. Landscapes often take on an ethereal beauty, particularly in the morning blue hour. The yet-to-rise sun casting its light underneath clouds can create beautiful and inspiring landscape shots. Another type of shot often made during the blue hour is the classic seascape, where the use of a long shutter speed allows the ocean to become a surreal soupy mist.
Some of the most common shots taken are cityscapes and urban landscapes. The combination of low, soft, ambient light with strong, powerful artificial light adds up to a potent combination for creative photography. The available light still remaining in the sky gives definition and interest to the picture, leading to those wonderful cityscapes you may have seen.
Portraits also can look great in the light of the blue hour. The deep rich color, especially when combined with a low level of fill flash, can create a striking contrast.
Ethereal water during the blue hour
A blue hour portrait
When it comes to shooting the blue hour, there are several things you need to consider.
Firstly, despite what your eyes might be telling you, the light is actually very low for the camera sensor, meaning that you will need to use a slow shutter speed or high ISO. Increasing the ISO goes against the grain of what you are trying to achieve (i.e. high-quality shots), because it will increase the noise in the image. The other, and usually the best option, is to use a slow shutter speed. The issue here, of course, is camera shake, so a good-quality tripod is essential. There are additional bonuses to using a tripod, such as being able to compose and focus your scene more easily in the fading light. The downside is that it can slow you down, so make sure you become familiar with operating quickly with the camera on a tripod.
Your main concern for getting great blue hour images is your exposure. You will need to think about what you want to achieve in the image. If you want a deep depth of field, you will need to close down the aperture and use a very slow shutter speed. The effects of this are that light sources often have a starburst effect to them, and also that you may get car headlamp trails in the scene. Both of these can be attractive features in an image, but if you are looking to avoid them you will need to reconsider your exposure.
Because it is often quite difficult to determine how an image will look during the blue hour, your best policy may be to bracket your exposure; that is to say, take a range of exposures around the metered exposure. Another thing to consider is that camera meter systems can be quite unreliable in low light, so experimentation is the key. Learning to use your camera’s histograms will be a distinct advantage over relying on the LCD to determine whether a shot has the correct exposure.
Starbursts often found in long exposures and small apertures
Another major consideration is color temperature. A blue hour cityscape will commonly not only have multiple light sources, but very often those light sources will have very different color temperatures. This can be a nightmare for color balance if shooting on jpegs; the best option is to shoot RAW files. RAWs do not apply color temperature information to the file at the point of exposure; rather, they allow the photographer to choose the correct temperature in postproduction. For this reason, they are perfect for blue hour photography.
Blue hour white balance can be tricky
The blue hour is perhaps one of the most rewarding and exciting times of day for photographers. It is also a time when you will need to work fast, concentrate on exposure, and work from a tripod. With some practice of these three elements, you will soon be taking great blue hour photos.