Blue hour photography is photographed during the twilight periods in the morning or evening when the sun is below the depth of the Earth’s horizon, in which the remaining sunlight takes on a primarily blue shade.
The best time to shoot blue hour photography is approximately fifty minutes before sunrise, after sunset, or when the sun is between 4° and 8° below the horizon.
The blue in the sky occurs when the sun is far enough below the horizon so that the sunlight’s blue wavelengths dominate the atmosphere, a term known as Chappuis absorption caused by the photo-dissociation (breakup) of the ozone molecule.
Furthermore, since the term “blue hour” is colloquial, it lacks a definition, such as dawn, dusk, etc.
Like the golden hour, the blue hour is a special time in the day to photograph architecture, landscapes or seascapes in which the blue can add a striking contrast to subjects that are pink, yellow, shades of pink, red, white, peach, dark blue, and warmer purple tones, such as orchid as opposed to indigo.
Many photographic artists value blue-hour photography because of the quality of the soft blue light. Furthermore, photographers use the blue hour for the tranquil mood it sets.
I’ve always loved shooting blue hour photography; however, I always find it challenging to maintain focus and exposure (which is a common problem) regarding this style of photography because there is a lack of natural light.
Furthermore, if the exposure isn’t correct during this unique time of the day when you come to edit your work in post process, you’ll often find colour banding issues.
There are many advantages to shooting blue hour photography, such as:
- Compared to sunset, sunrise, and most genres of outdoor photography, you’ll find there are not a lot of blue hour photos online or in books because this genre of photography is poorly documented, which makes this genre of photography valuable.
- Blue hour photography attracts fewer photographers than golden hour photography, meaning you’re more likely to find a suitable location with minimal distractions.
- Blue hour photography is a great way to express feelings in photography that would be difficult to capture otherwise. Blue hour photos invoke calm, relaxation, peace, tranquillity, and security. Research has also shown that the colour blue can decrease depression and suicide. While this may seem insignificant to some people, it’s valuable to those who use photography to help people suffering from mental illness.
- Unlike sunrise and sunset, when you can catch various colours, photographs taken during the blue hour are monotonous. Even vivid subjects like green trees and red rock formations take on a blue hue at the correct times of the day.
- Blue hour photography is a great way to add depth and mood to an otherwise dull subject. For example, a city skyscraper’s indoor lights contrast effectively with the blue sky. The same can be said for fields of pink, yellow or white flowers; these colours contrast nicely with the blue sky, adding depth and mood to an otherwise dull background.
Blue hour photography does have a few disadvantages, too, such as:
- Getting the correct exposure and focus can be challenging due to a lack of light.
- Colour banding can occur in images that aren’t shot with the correct exposure, which is challenging to remove in post process.
- Most countries have some form of blue hour. Though places closest to the Earth’s poles (think Canada, Northern Russia, the upper parts of Scandinavia, Alaska, and the like) may experience one or no blue hours due to Polar Night in winter and Midnight Sun in summer.
- You may need to have a camera with excellent high-ISO capabilities. Otherwise, you’ll end up with really noisy and barely usable shots; unfortunately, these cameras (mirrorless or reflex) are the most expensive.
- The colour blue doesn’t always work on its own. For example, shooting a blue hour sky without a subject to contrast the blue would look dull. Therefore choosing your location and subject material is essential to set the right tone.
- Like the golden hour, the blue hour lasts approximately 20-30 minutes.
- Blue hour photography requires a mirrorless or reflex camera with high ISO capabilities.
- Tripods are essential for blue-hour photography to reduce noise and grain. Furthermore, the tripod is necessary to shoot multiple exposures, bracketings or long exposures. To find out more about tripods, read my article here.
- A remote shutter is a must to avoid any camera movement in your photos.
- A torch and headlamp help you set up your equipment and find your way around.
- A stopwatch is helpful when shooting at the blue hour; for example, I use a stopwatch when shooting long exposures in bulb mode to avoid compromising noise and sharpness. Long exposures over 10 seconds can also lead to colour casting.
Settings vary depending on the shooting style, i.e. long exposure, multiple exposures, etc., and the equipment you’re using, i.e., camera model, lens and environment; unless it’s very dark, you’ll want your ISO set to 100, though I tend to switch my ISO to auto. You can find more about Auto ISO here. Ideally, you will need a tripod too.
Regarding focal length, no specific kind of lens works for blue hour photography though you’ll want to aim for a lens with a wide aperture of around f/2.8. I’ve shot some lovely blue hour photos with an aperture between f/7.0 and f/11.
Concerning shutter speed for a regular shot, a rate of between 1/150-1/200 is best; however, this depends on your working environment. For example, if the wind is still, and there’s not much movement in the background, lower that shutter speed by all means.
However, you will need a reasonably high shutter speed if you’re shooting coastal blue-hour skies next to fields in moderately high windy environments.
In contrast, long exposures should ideally be kept to a minimum of ten seconds.
Apps & Websites
Apps and websites are great for monitoring weather and environmental conditions from a smartphone in real-time, while websites can help narrow down a suitable shooting location and plan ahead.
Unfortunately, there are no tried and tested apps for the blue hour like there are for the golden hour, which is where you’ll need to improvise a bit and add a little mathematics and meteorology to your planning.
- SolarWatch by Apple is an excellent app for monitoring the sunrise and sunset. At the same time, Sun Surveyor Lite is just as good for Android and can be used on most Apple devices.
- Sunseeker for Apple and Android shows the sun’s hourly direction intervals, equinox, winter and summer solstice paths, sunrise and sunset times, twilight times, sun shadow, the golden hour and more.
- Blue Hour Photo Calculator and ViewFindr claim to help aid photographers by predicting weather via computer simulations and radar readings; however, I’ve not tried or tested either of these apps. Therefore, I cannot vouch for them.
- JeKoPhoto is one of the more advanced websites I located for estimating the time and locations of the blue hour. I found JeKo Photo easy to use, though it’s not so straightforward on cell phones.
Subject & Style
Blue hour photography is an art that’s best practised with a subject, i.e. a building, mountains, etc., and a specific photographic style, i.e. long exposure, ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), multiple exposures, etc.
Cityscapes, landscapes, mountains, architecture, and skylines depicting skyscrapers with artificial light are great subjects to shoot during the blue hour because they may help contrast with the blue hour sky.
For example, the image below illustrates a city skyline and skyscrapers lit with artificial light. The busy city road at the bottom right also draws the viewer’s eye towards a specific point of interest: the larger building in the background.
In my opinion, and based on some of the images I’ve shot of city skylines, the image would look dark, uninteresting and dull without the artificial light, which contrasts with the blue hour and adds more mood.
The building situated off-centre (foreground) adds depth and context and creates a unique composition too.
The critical thing to remember when shooting blue hour photography isn’t just the placement of subjects, rule of thirds, or storytelling but contrast. The blue hour dominates the entire image; therefore, it’s essential to remember contrast.
With regards to photographic style, by all means, try anything you can. However, it’s important to note that you’ve only 20-30 minutes max. Therefore timing your shot correctly is essential.
The image below was shot by photographer Daniel Cheong illustrating a quiet coastal long exposure of approximately five seconds, marking the beginning of the blue hour.
The remaining sunlight is in the middle centre, broken up with the foreground and dark rock formations to the right.
As mentioned, contrast is critical even if it’s bare minimal because the blue hour dominates the entire image, and with a lack of light, it’s essential to get this right. The image might not have looked so appealing if Daniel had not included the remainder of the sunlight in the background.
Sometimes you may struggle to find contrast in the sky or surroundings, such as cityscapes with little light. Blue-hour photography depicting bare landscapes without much colour can also be challenging.
However, this is where the photographer’s enemy is helpful for once; too much dark contrasts with blue. Moreover, long exposure of running water increases the whites in an image, thus contrasting with the blue hour, as seen in the image below.
What to Pack
Packing for the blue hour is critical because, as mentioned, you’ve only 20-30 minutes to nail the shot you’re after. Therefore you’ll want everything at hand within easy reaching distance.
Below is a list of essentials and must-have equipment I take when shooting blue hour photography.
- Camera with high ISO capabilities.
- Wide aperture bright lenses of at least f/2.8.
- A sturdy tripod with spikes, snow shoes and weights (depending on the environment). I tend to use snow shoes when shooting in soft sand because it helps to spread the bearing load and spikes in mountainous or grassy and hilly terrain. Center weights come in handy when shooting in high wind.
- Remote shutter release.
- Torch, flashlight and headlamp.
Always arrive before the twilight period and consider travel delays, equipment setup etc.
Always use a tripod.
Shoot in RAW. The advantage of shooting in RAW when dealing with low-light situations is that you will have more flexibility to recover data in the image while processing your photo. You’ll also have an easier time adjusting the exposure and contrast to ensure the image is well-lit.
Take as many images as possible, multiple exposures, long exposures, HDR, and regular shots.
Blue hour is a unique time as the light during this period produces a beautiful blue hue in the sky that adds depth and contrast to photographs. It also provides a narrow window of opportunity for capturing stunning cityscapes, landscapes, and portraits.
Like the golden hour, you’ve only 20-30 minutes to shoot the blue hour, and in some geographical locations, you may not be able to shoot it at all; for example, in Canada, Northern Russia, the upper parts of Scandinavia, Alaska, and the like) may experience one or no blue hours due to Polar Night in winter and Midnight Sun in summer.
While there are a few disadvantages of shooting the blue hour, such as maintaining the correct exposure, ISO, sharpness, etc., the advantages are many and pay off in the long run.
The critical element to remember when shooting the blue hour is contrast because the blue hour will dominate most, if not all, of your image. You can have all the critical features laid out in your composition, such as subject, story, foreground, leading lines, etc., but your artwork will look dull without something to contrast with the dominating blue.
Before I shoot the blue hour, I research my subject and look for contrasting elements to make that image pop and come alive. For example, a white lighthouse with a yellow light on, a dusty pink or red farmhouse building on a hill, fields of yellow or red flowers, etc.
All of the above colours contrast with blue, but it’s also essential to note that the blue hour is also darker; therefore, adding a story is often necessary; as mentioned, you may want to include a building with its lights on, a red bus waiting under a yellow street light.
Alternatively, you may skip all of the above and opt for an abstract approach, for example, incorporating blues, the primary dominating colour, with leading lines in the landscape and wispy white clouds.
Blue hour abstract photography is challenging but not impossible, and one of the best places to achieve this is in Eastern Europe before the sun rises or sets. Eastern Europe, on the border of Poland and Germany, is home to some unique medieval churches situated in the middle of nowhere, and come sunrise and sunset, the landscape comes alive with thick dense fog.
A church on a hill with dense fog whispering around it and the surrounding landscape during the blue hour would make for an incredible blue hour photo.
Blue hour photography is a unique way to express yourself, and the colour blue has also been proven to aid relaxation, reduce anxiety, and has been proven to reduce suicide.
It’s also important to note that your blue-hour photography must be genuine. As mentioned, there aren’t many genuine blue hour photographs online or in books because this genre of photography is challenging to shoot. The majority of blue hour photos online are, in fact, golden hour or low light images that have been over-processed in Adobe Photoshop.
We all like a bit of photographic editing and manipulation; however, authentic photography focuses on real experiences and genuine emotions rather than highly polished shots. An original photo is worth more than a fake one.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.