Friday Foto Talk: Blue Hour   12 comments

Blue Hour on the California Coast. Clouds from an approaching winter storm lend a moody look.

Blue Hour on the California Coast. Clouds from an approaching winter storm lend a moody look.

Blue hour is often mentioned by photographers as offering great picture opportunities.  I definitely agree.  In case you don’t know, blue hour is that transitional time between sunset and darkness when the sky and land take on a blue color.  They also occur in the morning before sunrise.  The peak of blue hour is about 45 minutes after sunset (or before sunrise).  But it really is a transitional time which offers opportunities from the time of fading orange sunset glow to inky-black skies.  Here’s why I believe blue hour is worth staying out late or getting up early for:

      • Blue hour is..well…it’s blue!  Blue is a beautiful color.  It’s my favorite, and I’m not alone.  Everybody likes this color.  It easily imparts mood as well.
      • Blue hour can help to impart mood, but not only because of the blue color.  Low light forces longer exposures, which can lend an abstract quality to an image.  If clouds are present, they impart a moody counterpoint to any expanses of deep blue in sky or water.
The crescent moon at blue hour in the desert of the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

The crescent moon at blue hour in the desert of the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

      • Blue hour allows you to achieve long exposures without filters.  Filters are another piece of glass between you and the image, which in some cases can introduce artifacts or otherwise lower quality.  If you want to blur water or imply motion, shoot ghost-like figures, create leading lines by streaking clouds, or achieve any other long-exposure effect, blue hour naturally gives you the low light you require.  If it is early blue hour, you might need a polarizer to slow things down enough.  But you won’t normally need heavy neutral density filters & you aren’t forced into using small apertures.
Blue hour in Portland, Oregon.

Blue hour in Portland, Oregon.

      • Blue hour is also the time when you’ll find the moon very low in the sky and making a great photo subject.  An almost full moon and a thin crescent moon both show up low in the sky at blue hour.
      • Blue hour offers a great time to photograph cities and urban areas.  The lights of a city, the light trails of car tail-lights, any artificial lighting is set off nicely against the deep blue of the sky.
Pre-sunrise blue hour in Death Valley, California.

Pre-sunrise blue hour in Death Valley, California.

Blue hour is a pretty easy time to photograph, since exposures are fairly consistent and even, with little contrast to worry about.  But there are definitely some things to keep in mind:

      • First and most important, a tripod is absolutely necessary.  Yes you can shoot a portrait using flash at blue hour and get away without a tripod.  But for landscapes, cityscapes, motion blur, any of these require a good solid tripod.  You will want to use the timer delay or a shutter release cable so you don’t have to touch the camera when it’s taking the picture.  Also, use mirror lockup if your camera has this feature.  It eliminates any possible movement from the mirror moving during the capture.
Blue hour is a great time for a visit to a fair, and a great time to experiment with long exposures.

Blue hour is a great time for a visit to a fair, and a great time to experiment with long exposures.

      • When shooting in the direction of where the sun just went down (or will come up), the sky will be a brighter blue.  You’ll need to handle contrast between the bright sky and your foreground, so I strongly recommend using a graduated neutral density filter.  The contrast is most pronounced early in blue hour, whereas later toward dark you’ll have a more even (and dark) scene.
Mount Hood towers over Lost Lake after sunset.

Mount Hood towers over Lost Lake after sunset.

      • What’s pretty cool about blue hour is that just about the end of blue hour is when you will generally reach the 30-second time limit of most DSLRs, at least at fairly small apertures.  You can switch to bulb mode and have the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds of course, but I have found the magic of blue hour is largely over by this time.  It is replaced by the magic of nighttime and the stars, but that’s a subject for another post.
      • When you are anywhere near water, use it to your advantage.  Not only will it expand the area of beautiful blue, the long exposures will give it a nice silky smooth look.
The Virgin River flowing through Zion Canyon, Utah, makes a great blue-hour subject.

The Virgin River flowing through Zion Canyon, Utah, makes a great blue-hour subject.

      • Be conscious of your long exposures.  When shooting any moving subject (people, boats, etc.) there will be blurring.  This can be a nice effect but it often results in a distraction.  The same is true of the moon, which moves surprisingly fast.  It depends on your focal length, but any shutter speed longer than a few seconds will result in blurring of the moon’s outline and features.  If you zoom in, use shutter speeds shorter than a second.
The full moon rises over Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

The full moon rises over Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

      • Also with the moon, early blue hour (just after the orange of sunset fades) is best for avoiding contrast.  As blue hour progresses and the sky darkens, the moon will appear much brighter and there will be no chance of getting any detail in it while exposing correctly for the rest of the scene.  Basically, you’ll have the choice of either blowing the moon out (too bright), or exposing correctly for the moon and underexposing the rest of the scene.  There are ways around this.  Check out my post on the subject.
Although there is still some orange in the sky, this scene along the lower Columbia River, Oregon I count as very early blue hour.

Although there is still some orange in the sky, this scene along the lower Columbia River, Oregon I count as very early blue hour.

      • You can jump the gun a bit and get the best of both worlds.  I’m talking about combining some of the color of sunset with the blue hour by shooting right at the short transition between sunset and blue hour.  You can do the same at sunrise by shooting just before the golden color of the rising sun invades the whole sky (see image below).
A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington's Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington’s Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

      • Raise your ISO to keep exposures long enough to get the desired effect.  This will likely be necessary only in late blue hour when you are using small apertures for maximum depth of field.  Depending on your camera, you might not be able to raise ISO much without introducing too much noise.  But it’s much better to raise your ISO a stop and get a well-exposed photo than to decrease exposure compensation and have very deep shadows.  Later on the computer, you will see that brightening those deep shadows (to see some of the detail in them) will result in more noise than if you would have raised ISO a bit and gotten a bright enough exposure in the first place.  Don’t go crazy raising your ISO.  The rule of thumb to keep ISO as low as possible still applies.
A clear and cold blue hour skiing near Mt. Hood, Oregon.

A clear and cold blue hour skiing near Mt. Hood, Oregon.

      • Finally, shooting at blue hour demands that you either get out well before the sun rises or stay out well past sunset.  You’ll need to commit to it, through either an early rise or the patience to stick things out past sunset.  No packing up after the sun is down, patience is key.
      • Given the above point, it’s important to be prepared.  Have a good flashlight in your camera bag, and make sure the batteries are charged.  Be very aware of your surroundings.
Blue hour is when many cruise ships depart, but this one in Ensenada, Mexico is staying put.

Blue hour is when many cruise ships depart, but this one in Ensenada, Mexico is staying put.

      • In cities, the gathering darkness of blue hour can be an unsafe time to be in some areas.  In the wilds, at least in some places, being out as dusk turns into darkness can be risky.  You don’t want to present yourself as an easy meal to a hungry predator.  Fortunately, simple precautions can make a big difference.   Don’t position yourself close to any sort of cover; surround yourself with open space instead.  Carry a can of mace, people mace in cities and bear mace in the wild.  Never run from a predator (human or animal really) unless you are sure you can get to the safety of your car, a crowd of people, etc.
Blue hour from within Zion Canyon in Utah.

Blue hour from within Zion Canyon in Utah.

Blue hour can provide a soft edge to hard industrial subjects, such as this gas drilling rig.

Blue hour can provide a soft edge to hard industrial subjects, such as this gas drilling rig.

Photography at blue hour can be a rewarding way to capture moody yet beautiful scenes.  The light is low, allowing for long exposures and smooth, deep colors. But more important is the fact you are at the edge of night, lending a mystical quality to your images.  If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them to go to my galleries page.  Once you have the full-size version in front of you, click “Purchase Options” to see prices for prints, downloads and more.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry.  If you have any questions, just contact me.  Thanks for reading!

Mount Adams, Washington is reflected in Tahklakh Lake at blue hour.

Mount Adams, Washington is reflected in Tahklakh Lake at blue hour.

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12 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Blue Hour

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  1. Pingback: Single-Image Sunday: Burnt Orange River | MJF Images

  2. Great pictures! …. and many thanks for the very helpful tutorial! 🙂

  3. Helpful tips and stunning images!

  4. Thanks for the helpful information. I haven’t done much at all during that time so it’s nice to pick up your knowledge.

  5. Thank you for explaining the blue hour, MF! I don’t know I’ll ever capture a scene like that through my lens, but am happy to learn about how the scene can be captured 🙂 Happy weekend.

  6. LOVE the blue hour! Thanks for sharing!!

  7. Thanks for the tutorial about blue hour photographic opportunities. The ones you featured are certainly works of art by a talented photographer.

  8. Great set and thanks for the tutorial. It is not a subject covered too often. The Columbia River shots are cool and offer good blue contrasts. My favourite though is the long exposure of the wheel at the fair.

  9. Thank you for the beautiful photos and all of the helpful advice. This novice really appreciates it.

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