Looking to capture mesmerizing blue hour photography? I share everything you need to know for breathtaking results.
Photographers love the blue hour, not least because it provides velvety, stunning, ethereal light. But learning to take advantage of the blue hour for gorgeous portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes isn’t always easy. It requires special settings, special gear, and careful consideration of artificial lighting.
Fortunately, I’m a veteran blue hour photographer, and I’ve developed plenty of tips and tricks that’ll help you achieve amazing results. Below, I share everything you need to know, including:
- What blue hour is
- When blue hour occurs
- The best settings for blue hour photography
- Essential blue hour gear
- Much more!
By the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to capture gorgeous blue hour shots like a pro, so let’s dive right in!
What is the blue hour in photography?
The blue hour is the time just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sun is below the horizon and the sky (generally) turns a beautiful shade of blue. Blue-hour skies can also take on orange, yellow, purple, and pink hues.
Photographers love blue hour lighting thanks to its softness and lack of directionality; as a result, during the blue hour, subjects take on a sort of timeless quality. Blue hour light also coincides with yellow street lighting – in cities and suburbs, at least – which makes for a beautiful warm-cool contrast.
Here are a few examples of the beautiful light you’ll find during blue hour:
Of course, blue hour light does come with a tradeoff: while it’s wonderfully soft, it’s also very weak, so working during this time of day can be tough. Photographers generally bring tripods and remote releases (discussed in detail below), and for the best shots, you’ll often need to use extremely lengthy shutter speeds.
Note: The times before and after blue hour can also be great for photography. Golden hour offers soft, warm light, while the pre-dawn and post-dusk light can make for stunning nightscapes, so you certainly shouldn’t feel like the blue hour is the only time you can capture outstanding images.
When does the blue hour occur?
Technically, blue “hour” is a misnomer. Depending on the weather and your geographical location, blue hour lasts from just a handful of minutes to around 45 minutes.
Therefore, if you want to take advantage of the beautiful light, you must act fast! I highly recommend you download an app like PhotoPills, which will give you specific blue hour times for your location and time of year. (PhotoPills also indicates when the golden hours start and end, which is also highly useful for most forms of photography!)
At the very least, you should research sunrise and sunset times the night before your photoshoot, then arrive on location early and set up in advance. If possible, find a nice composition or two. And once the magic begins, shoot away!
Note that, if you’re looking to capture blue hour shots before sunrise, it’s generally a good idea to scout the location the day prior. Trying to find compositions in the darkness can be tough, so if you can get this done in advance, you’ll dramatically improve your chances of capturing great shots. Conversely, if you’re aiming to capture blue hour shots after sunset, make sure you know exactly how to get back to your car, and don’t forget to bring a flashlight; you don’t want to get stranded with 8+ hours of darkness on the way!
The best blue hour photography settings
During blue hour, the sky becomes relatively dark, so you’ll need a long shutter speed or a high ISO to get a good exposure, both of which come with significant tradeoffs. You also (generally) want a narrow aperture, which will render an entire scene sharp and in focus. So you need a camera mode that offers extensive control over your exposure variables.
Aperture Priority mode allows you to set the ISO and the aperture, while your camera sets the shutter speed for a well-exposed result. Manual mode lets you select the ISO, the shutter speed, and the aperture. Either of these can work, though Aperture Priority is generally the better choice for beginners, while Manual mode is more suited to a professional workflow.
If you go the Aperture Priority route, you should set an aperture that will keep the entire shot sharp (f/8 is a good starting point), and set your ISO to around 100 (to prevent unwanted high-ISO noise). Then let your camera determine the proper shutter speed for a nice exposure.
If you decide you want a longer shutter speed than your camera selects – to create beautiful streaks out of moving clouds or moving water – you can narrow the aperture, which will consequently cause your camera to lengthen the shutter speed. If you decide you want a shorter shutter speed (to freeze motion), you can widen the aperture or raise the ISO, though bear in mind that a wider aperture will reduce the depth of field, while a higher ISO will introduce noise into the image.
If you go the Manual mode route, simply dial in your camera’s base ISO and a nice aperture (just as if you’re using Aperture Priority). Then set the shutter speed so that your camera’s exposure meter is roughly balanced. If you need to increase or decrease the shutter speed, then make sure you also increase or decrease another exposure variable (i.e., the aperture or ISO) to keep the exposure meter balanced.
One thing to keep in mind: Because blue hour tends to look relatively dark, your camera may try to overexpose the scene, which will ultimately create an unnatural-looking result (and may cause blown-out highlights). If you’re using Aperture Priority mode, you’ll need to add some negative exposure compensation to counteract this tendency, and if you’re using Manual mode, you’ll need to deliberately underexpose by a stop or two.
The best advice I can give is to always check the LCD preview and histogram after each image, and if you find that the photos are looking too bright (or too dark), take steps to correct the issue. Make sense?
The best gear for blue hour photography
Because the blue hour offers such limited light, you need specialized gear to ensure your photos stay sharp and noise-free. Here are my recommendations:
A full-frame camera
While you can absolutely capture beautiful blue hour shots using any camera – including a smartphone – a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera offers one huge advantage: It’ll let you ramp up the ISO as needed without overwhelming your images with noise.
As I mentioned above, it’s best to keep your ISO as low as possible, but if you’re photographing moving subjects, working handheld, or doing astrophotography, keeping the ISO at 100 isn’t always an option. Plus, the higher you can raise your ISO, the more flexibility you’ll have and the faster you can shoot (waiting around for your camera to finish a five-minute exposure isn’t always a ton of fun!).
That’s when a full-frame camera will come in handy. The newest mirrorless models – such as the Sony a7 IV, the Canon EOS R5, and the Nikon Z6 II – tend to perform best at high ISOs, but older and/or cheaper models can work great, too.
A fast lens
Most blue hour landscape and cityscape photography is done at narrow apertures, so a lens with an f/1.8 maximum aperture isn’t necessary – but if you want to do blue hour street photography, portraiture, or astrophotography, a lens with a wide maximum aperture will make a huge difference. You’ll be able to use handholdable shutter speeds without boosting your ISO to 12800, and you’ll be able to freeze moving subjects, too.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend grabbing a prime lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8, and an f/1.8 maximum aperture is even better. You can pick up one of these models for cheap (such as a 50mm f/1.8), so you won’t need to worry about breaking the bank.
In my experience, the average blue hour shutter speed sits somewhere between one and six seconds. If you dial in such a lengthy shutter speed and then try to shoot handheld, you’ll end up with frustratingly blurry shots.
Of course, you can always boost your camera’s ISO to compensate for a shorter shutter speed, but the noise is often unbearable. And while you can widen your lens’s aperture to f/2.8 and beyond, you’ll lose the deep depth of field effect that is so prized by landscape, architecture, and cityscape shooters.
So for the best results, you really must use a good tripod.
A tripod will hold your camera in place while you shoot a 1-second, 6-second, or even 30-second exposure. Make sure you invest in a sturdy model; while there are plenty of cheap options out there, most of them will struggle to handle your setup, especially in wind.
If you’re the type of photographer who walks long distances or travels frequently, I’d recommend a carbon fiber tripod, which combines sturdiness with portability. Otherwise, an aluminum model is fine (they tend to be on the cheaper side, but they’re also a lot heavier). Whatever you do, however, do not buy plastic. It’s just too flimsy.
A remote release
Even once your camera is mounted on a tripod, pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, which will create blurry photos.
That’s where a remote shutter release can help. It’s a little handheld device that’ll let you trigger your shutter from a distance. And this, in turn, will prevent any extra camera vibrations.
Happily, remote shutter releases are pretty cheap. You can get basic models – which generally consist of a single button and nothing else – for around $20. If you want to do serious long-exposure photography or time-lapse photography, you might consider grabbing a slightly more sophisticated remote (some options feature LCD screens with timers, interval-shooting functions, and more).
That said, if you want to get started with blue hour photography right away or you really don’t like the idea of a remote release, you do have a few other options. You might be able to connect your camera to your phone and trigger it with an app. Alternatively, you can use the two-second self-timer function (the delay will give shutter-button vibrations time to die off). Neither of these options is wildly convenient – phone connections are often unreliable while self-timers throw off split-second timing – but they’ll work in a pinch.
A neutral density filter
The blue hour is an incredible time for capturing breathtaking long-exposure shots. However, despite the lower light conditions during this period, you may still face challenges when trying to shoot at ultra-slow shutter speeds, such as 10 seconds or longer, without causing overexposure.
To overcome this hurdle, a crucial piece of gear comes into play: the neutral density filter. This handy accessory easily attaches to your lens and effectively blocks out excess light, allowing you to extend your shutter speed without any issues. With a high-quality neutral density filter, you can achieve impressive long-exposure blue hour shots with shutter speeds ranging from 10 seconds to even an hour.
It’s important to invest in a reliable filter – there are some low-cost options available that result in unpleasantly soft photos. Make sure to choose a reasonably high-quality neutral density filter to ensure your images turn out sharp!
When you venture into the enchanting world of blue hour photography, there’s one more item you simply can’t leave behind: a flashlight. This trusty tool serves multiple purposes and ensures that you’re fully equipped for a blue hour adventure!
First and foremost, a flashlight is indispensable for finding your way in the dark. Whether you’re setting up your gear before sunrise or wrapping up your shoot after sunset, a reliable light source helps you navigate safely through the shadows.
A flashlight also unlocks the potential for creative exploration. By using light painting techniques, you can add a touch of magic to your blue hour shots. With a bit of flashlight movement, you can selectively illuminate your subject or even create captivating light trails, adding an artistic flair to your images.
Finally, when shooting in low-light conditions, it can be challenging for your camera to find focus. This is where a flashlight comes to the rescue. By directing its beam towards your subject, you provide a clear point of reference, making it easier for your camera’s autofocus to lock onto the desired focal point.
What types of photos should you take during the blue hour?
Blue hour is all-around wonderful, so don’t let your genre of choice restrict you from heading out for some ethereal blue light. You can shoot moody street scenes or long-exposure architectural images. You can even capture gorgeous blue hour portraits by combining flash and natural light (more on this below!).
That said, blue hour is most suited to landscape and cityscape photography. It combines colors, clouds, long exposures, and flattering light – pretty much everything from the serious landscape and cityscape photographer’s playbook. Scenes that are generally motionless but include a few moving elements – such as a beach with waves lapping at the shore – make for especially gorgeous blue hour shots. These types of images do take some patience and a bit of extra gear, but with the right approach, you can capture photos that really shine.
The only types of images you should avoid during the blue hour are those that highlight action subjects, such as wildlife photography, bird photography, and sports photography. The low light makes it tough to capture sharp files, so it’s best to tackle these photos during the day.
Of course, it’s sometimes necessary to shoot action during this time period, but you’ll need to take an approach that’s different to the one I recommended above; instead of using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, you’ll need to boost your ISO and widen your lens aperture until your shutter speed is at least 1/100s (and ideally much faster). You’ll also want to use a lens with a wide maximum aperture (f/2.8 at minimum). That way, you can freeze your subjects in motion!
16 tips for beautiful blue hour photography
Yes, blue hour is a great time to take photos. But you can’t just head out in the evening, find an interesting subject, and start pressing that shutter button. Instead, you need to combine lovely blue hour light with technical know-how, which is where these tips come in handy:
1. Photograph both in the morning and the evening
While most photographers head out to shoot in the evening, the blue hour isn’t just limited to the period after sunset. Similar light can be achieved in the morning, too! And depending on when you photograph, you can find very different subjects and conditions.
During the blue hour in cities, buildings are lit and streetlights come on, making it an ideal time for urban and cityscape photography with a perfect blend of natural and artificial light. The sky takes on a deep blue hue with cold tones and warmer colors from the illuminated buildings. A gradient of colors from blue to orange tinges the sky in place of the sunrise and sunset.
But while the colors and quality of light are often the same, shooting in the morning will give you much quieter, empty scenes, while shooting at night will give you much more chaotic shots (often with lots of cars and passersby).
2. Use a wide-angle lens for expansive shots
When capturing those mesmerizing blue hour photos, reach for a wide-angle lens! These lenses are perfect for capturing expansive scenes that make your viewers go “wow.” With a wide-angle lens, you can take in breathtaking vistas, city skylines, and much more.
Why go wide? Well, these lenses offer a generous field of view, allowing you to include more in your frame. The wide-angle effect adds an extra punch to your shots, especially when you include interesting foreground elements (see the next tip!).
Not only that, but wide-angle lenses are great for reducing blur caused by camera shake. So, even if your tripod isn’t the sturdiest or you’re dealing with less-than-ideal weather conditions, your images will come out sharper with a wide-angle lens.
You don’t need an ultra-wide focal length either; even a 24mm or 35mm lens can work wonders for capturing the magic of the blue hour.
3. Incorporate foreground and background elements to add depth
Looking to level up your blue hour compositional skills? One effective technique is to incorporate interesting elements in both the foreground and the background of your shot.
Imagine you’re photographing a stunning cityscape during the blue hour. Look for a striking skyline that catches your eye as your background element. It could be a cluster of towering buildings or a unique architectural structure. Then, find a compelling foreground element to complete the composition. It could be a stone pathway, a reflective puddle, or a line of trees.
By combining these elements, you give your photo a sense of three-dimensionality. It’s like inviting the viewer to step into the frame and explore the scene. The foreground and background work together to create a visually engaging image that grabs attention.
Pro tip: Be sure to use a relatively narrow aperture to keep both the foreground and background elements sharp. And if your foreground subject is very close to the lens, you might want to try a focus-stacking technique to ensure everything remains in focus!
4. Shoot in RAW (and post-process your photos)
It’s basic advice, but shooting in RAW over JPEG makes a big difference, especially when photographing blue hour scenes.
Why? RAW files provide outstanding post-processing flexibility. You can easily adjust the exposure and colors of a RAW file, and these adjustments are often the difference between a stunning shot and a mediocre one.
For instance, you can bring up the shadows in a RAW photo to reveal all sorts of lovely details. You can also bring out the blues and pinks in the sky, enhance the warmth of artificial lighting, and even darken the edges of the frame, which will push the viewer’s eye toward your main subject.
And while you can make some adjustments to JPEGs, the effects are much more limited. Plus, if you adjust a JPEG too much, you may start to see unpleasant artifacts, such as banding.
RAW files do come with a drawback: They need editing. (A RAW file literally cannot be displayed in its original form; you must edit and convert it to a viewable format, first.)
But as I explained above, editing is a key part of every blue hour image. Without editing, you’ll fail to bring out all the key details and colors in your shot.
So shoot in RAW and embrace the editing process. It’s the fastest way to elevate your photos!
5. Consider manual focus for sharper blue-hour shots
If your camera’s autofocus is struggling to find the right focus in the low light conditions of the blue hour, don’t worry! You can switch to manual focus and take control.
Manual focus might sound intimidating, but it’s actually quite simple. Just turn the focus ring on your lens until your subject appears sharp in the viewfinder or on your camera’s screen. It also comes in handy when you’re dealing with scenes featuring lots of depth; that way, you can set the focus exactly where you want it, ensuring maximum depth of field.
Bottom line: Thanks to manual focusing, you won’t waste time waiting for the autofocus to catch up, and you’ll have more control over the sharpness of your images. I encourage you to give it a try when you have some time to practice, and you’ll see how easy it can be to get the perfect focus for your blue-hour shots.
6. Think about your subject and viewpoint
When preparing to take pictures during the blue hour, it is important to take on board a few considerations. What are you going to photograph and how will you frame your image?
My suggestion is to decide on your subject, and then consider what you want to include in your image. You may want to frame your subject with an attractive background or foreground to make the image look more visually pleasing.
I chose to photograph this night scene of Tokyo with the Rainbow Bridge as my main subject with the neon-lit cityscape and towering skyscrapers beyond:
7. Include electric lights in your images
Don’t get me wrong: You can take amazing blue-hour photos of unaltered, naturally lit landscapes.
But in my experience, electric lights offer two benefits:
- They decrease exposure times. As the blue hour wears on, the sky will rapidly darken – and you may find your shutter speeds increasing to 10 seconds, 20 seconds, and beyond. However, an electric light or two will add extra illumination to the scene, thereby shortening your exposures and creating time for a few extra shots.
- They add drama and interest to your photos. If you use a narrow aperture (i.e., f/8), electric lights will appear as beautiful starbursts, which can create a focal point or simply complement your main subject.
For instance, check out the image below, which relies on star-shaped lights to captivate the viewer:
Electric lights do come with some challenges, however. If you stand too close to a light source, you may get lens flare across your entire frame. And if you’re not careful, electric lights can create major spots of overexposure in an otherwise well-exposed scene.
So don’t get too close to the lights – the smaller the lights, the less problematic the flare and overexposure areas – and if you’re struggling with exposure issues, check out my next tip:
8. Use HDR techniques to recover highlights
As I mentioned in the previous tip, photographing blue hour skies combined with electric lights can look amazing. Unfortunately, they can also result in all sorts of exposure problems, because electric lights are significantly brighter than their surroundings.
One approach is to expose for the electric lights and let the rest of the scene go dark. The idea is that you can then recover the shadows in post-processing – but this will introduce lots of noise, so it’s really not ideal.
Another approach is to ignore the highlights. Expose for the rest of the scene, let the lights blow out, and embrace the resulting shot. This can work, but there’s a better option that combines both of the approaches I’ve shared.
You see, the best way to handle bright electric lights and dark skies is to capture two shots. First, expose for the lights and let the rest of the scene go dark; second, expose for the other portions of the scene and let the lights blow out. Then you can merge the two images together in your favorite post-processing program – both Lightroom and Photoshop have this capability – and you’ll end up with a well-exposed, fully detailed result!
9. Look for reflections
The blue hour sky looks amazing, but while direct sky shots can be breathtaking, incorporating sky reflections can add an extra layer of depth and creativity to your images.
Fortunately, reflections can be found almost anywhere if you take the time to look for them. For landscape photographers, bodies of water like lakes and ponds offer a mirror-like surface that can reflect the beauty of the sky (especially in the early morning when the air is still and the water is calm!).
City photographers, too, have plenty of opportunities to capture reflections. The glass windows of skyscrapers, the polished surfaces of cars, and even the sleek metal facades of modern buildings can all show off the sky’s changing colors!
One more quick tip: By positioning your camera to capture both the sky and its reflection, you can create images that are both grounded and ethereal – but you can also experiment with capturing only reflections for a different type of shot.
10. Experiment with different shutter speeds
As the light fades, you may find that you want to increase your shutter speed to maintain a well-exposed shot. I would start at around a second and increase the exposure accordingly when darkness falls.
You can also use shutter speeds to creative effect. For example, capturing moving traffic trails during the blue hour can give pleasing results. Try anything over five seconds of exposure time to allow for some movement.
Long exposures are another great way to create amazing photographs. For example, they can be used to exaggerate cloud movement or traffic trails even further. Try to push your exposure time over 30 seconds and see what you can produce!
11. Photograph through shop windows
Street and architectural photographers have enjoyed photographing through windows for over a century, but if you’ve ever tried taking photos through glass, you know reflections can be a huge problem.
Fortunately, blue hour changes all that. As the light dims, the bright interior lights will overpower the ambient outdoor light, and reflections become far less distracting. This opens up so many possibilities.
For instance, you can create long exposures that capture the hustle and bustle of a shop, with a mix of blurry people and sharp objects. Or, if you’re after even more artsy vibes, use a wide aperture to intentionally throw foreground objects out-of-focus, or use the dark outlines of the building itself to frame your shot.
Note that you don’t have to stick to stores; cozy cafes and bustling restaurants work great for this kind of photography, too. For instance, you can capture Hopperesque shots that combine intimate diner moments with dreamy blue tones filtering through from the street outside!
12. Try converting to black and white
Blue hour photography is known for its captivating cool hues, which can certainly make for stunning color shots. But don’t overlook the power of black-and-white conversions! By transforming your blue hour images into black and white, you can unlock a whole new level of artistic expression.
Converting to black and white can bring out the mesmerizing effects of long exposures, such as the ethereal streaks of water and clouds. It also enhances the timeless feel of your images, adding a touch of nostalgia.
Plus, black and white allows you to emphasize the interplay of artificial lights in your shots, and it can even create a wonderfully moody atmosphere. It’s a great way to infuse your blue hour photos with a unique sense of drama.
The best part is that you don’t have to commit to black and white from the start. You can shoot in color and experiment later during post-processing. With basic photo editing software, you can easily convert your images to black and white and fine-tune the tonal range for the desired impact.
13. Incorporate water into your shots
Water is a fantastic element to include in your blue-hour photography; in my experience, it creates stunning effects when combined with longer exposures. When you extend the shutter speed to a few seconds or more, the water transforms into a mesmerizing blur, adding a touch of magic to your images.
So look for opportunities to incorporate water into your images! Streams and rivers can serve as captivating foreground elements, while crashing waves on a shoreline can create dynamic and powerful compositions. Even cities near bodies of water offer intriguing possibilities. Experiment with shooting across the water to capture the city lights reflecting on its surface.
Another interesting approach is to focus on close-ups of moving water. By using a longer exposure, you can capture patterns and textures that make for amazing abstract shots.
Remember, water can add an extra layer of visual interest to your blue hour shots, enhancing their overall impact. So explore different water sources and experiment with various exposure settings whenever you get the chance!
14. Add flash for beautiful blue hour portraits
Portraits taken during the blue hour can be absolutely breathtaking, and with a little flash magic, you can create stunning results. Here’s how to do it:
First, find a beautiful backdrop for your portrait and compose your shot. Make sure to include the sky in the background.
Next, position an off-camera flash at about a 45-degree angle from your subject. This will add a pop of light and bring out their features.
Take a test shot and check it on your camera’s LCD screen. You want to strike a balance between the light on your subject and the enchanting hues of the sky in the background. If your subject appears too dark or too bright, adjust the flash power accordingly. Similarly, if the sky looks too dark or too bright, tweak your camera settings to find the perfect exposure.
With a little experimentation and perseverance, you’ll discover the ideal settings for capturing amazing shots!
15. Shoot cityscapes through an elevated window
Shooting blue-hour cityscape photos from inside a building (such as an observation deck of a tower, hotel room, etc.) poses a different set of challenges, but the results can be breathtaking.
Here are three blue-hour examples to show you what I mean:
The shots featured above – of the Fukuoka skyline (top), the Shanghai skyline (center), and the Ho Chi Minh City skyline (bottom) – were shot through glass windows, but you’ll notice that they’re free of reflections and are relatively sharp, too. Here’s how you can capture images like mine:
First, some observation decks don’t allow tripods because they are seen as a hindrance for other visitors. In that case, you may try to bring in a mini-tripod, as it’s unlikely to disturb other non-photography visitors.
Next, wipe the class with a cloth. Glass windows of an observation deck aren’t always clean. Make sure to keep a cloth in your camera bag so that you can wipe an area to shoot through if it’s dirty. Obviously, you can’t wipe the other side of the window, though, so choose an area that has no stains, etc.
Third, to eliminate reflections, get in close and shoot so your lens is parallel to the glass. Also consider using a polarizing filter, which helps cut down on reflections to some extent. Unfortunately, as you can see in the example below, that’s not always enough:
So what do you do? One option is to create a DIY blackout curtain; I recently came across a photographer doing this on the observation deck of Shanghai World Financial Center. However, you do run the risk of blocking the view for other visitors and being asked to leave by staff, especially if the curtain is large.
If you like the curtain idea but don’t want to be so conspicuous, you can always try draping a black jacket over your rig, or you can surround your camera with a black neck gaiter (i.e., a neck warmer or scarf). I used to use both of those methods, but I’ve recently found something even better: a lenskirt.
A lenskirt is a tool specifically created to cut out reflections. It’s what I’ve been using for the past few years with great success – because by attaching a lenskirt to the front of your lens and pushing suction cups onto the window, you can shade the front element of the lens. This helps prevent reflections in the window, leaving no room for stray light to get in.
16. Stay safe
Blue hour photography is incredibly rewarding, but it’s easy to forget about basic safety when trying to get that amazing shot. Therefore, I’d like to cover a few essentials to bear in mind when you’re out and about with your camera.
First, shooting landscapes at blue hour can mean navigating rough or unfamiliar terrain in low light. This makes it easy to stumble, get lost, or even encounter dangerous wildlife. Stick to well-marked trails, use a flashlight or headlamp for visibility, and let someone know your plans and where you’ll be before you set off.
In the city, being aware of your surroundings is key. Always keep an eye on your gear, avoid isolated areas, and trust your instincts – if a situation feels unsafe, it’s best to move on. Finally, the blue hour can be cold, even when daytime temperatures are comfortable! Dress appropriately, and remember that temperatures can drop fast after the sun goes down.
Additional resources for shooting at blue hour
Looking for more? To help you out with blue hour photography, here are several videos and additional tips:
How to shoot blue hour light trails
Light trails are a favorite of blue hour photographers and look especially gorgeous in cityscape shots. They feature streaks of light caused by moving cars, and they’re surprisingly easy to capture when the blue hour appears. Here’s how:
1. Find a location with a great city view with plenty of traffic going by
This is a prerequisite for any great light trail photography. It might sound obvious, but it’s not always easy to find a perfect location, as there is more to it than meets the eye (more on this in a moment!).
2. Shoot from slightly higher than ground level (e.g., a footbridge)
Rather than staying on the same level as moving cars, get up high! An elevated vantage point allows you to shoot more dynamic images.
3. Photograph curvy roads when you can
Light trails shot on curvy roads look more pleasing (to me, at least!), as seen in the photo below shot at Connaught Rd Central (Hong Kong):
4. Think about the type of light (head vs tail)
Depending on the road you’re photographing (one-way street or two-way street), there may be headlights, taillights, or both.
Personally, I prefer headlights, as they are more visually striking. As seen below, one-way traffic with only taillights lacks some impact.
5. Capture light trails of tall vehicles
The majority of light trails are created by low-height vehicles such as private cars and taxis. However, when tall vehicles (e.g. buses, trucks) move through the frame, light trails appear at a much higher point, adding more interest to your photos.
I shot the photos below from a sideway of a busy street in Seoul, Korea. Seeing public buses frequently passing through, I timed my blue-hour exposure to capture their lights. I love how they came out!
By the way, I have one funny story to share.
When I shot the photos above, I spent a full hour photographing during Seoul’s winter. Since I didn’t have gloves, my hands went completely numb with cold. By the end of the photoshoot, I couldn’t even hold my lens cap properly. Trying to put it back on the lens with trembling hands, I dropped it so many times. It sounds like a joke, but this simple task took me so long to complete!
How to shoot cityscape bokeh at blue hour
You’ve probably seen out-of-focus cityscape bokeh photos with pleasing lights, like this shot:
For this type of image, the goal is to throw everything out of focus. It makes colorful light orbs feature prominently and creates uniquely artistic shots. If you haven’t tried to capture blue-hour bokeh before, follow the four steps below. It’s super easy!
Step 1: Find a location with enough lights
Shooting at popular cityscape photography spots works great, but any place (such as a road in front of your house) might be suitable as long as there are enough lights. The choice of location isn’t very critical, as everything is blurred out.
My favorite spot to shoot from is an overhead bridge. It always gives pleasing results with many different light sources available (buildings, cars headlights and taillights, street lamps, traffic lights, etc.).
Step 2: Start shooting 10-20 minutes before the end of dusk
Cityscape bokeh images won’t work if the sky is still bright. It’s around this time (10-20 minutes before the end of dusk) that city lights have been turned on, and the deep blue color of the dusk sky creates a beautiful backdrop for glittering bokeh lights.
Shooting after dusk with the pitch black sky as a backdrop also works fine, but I personally prefer shooting during the blue hour.
Step 3: Use Aperture Priority mode and a wide aperture
Start with your lens’s widest aperture and adjust to your liking. A wider aperture (smaller f-stop number) results in larger bokeh orbs, as seen in the photos below; both were shot at the exact same location but with different aperture settings (the top was shot at f/1.8, while the bottom was shot at f/4).
Step 4: Switch to manual focus
Switch your lens to manual focus and turn the focus ring until the lights are completely out of focus. This is easy as pie, but if the word “manual” turns you off, you can remain in autofocus and do the following:
- Set your camera to AF-S.
- Hold up a lens cap (or a small item) in front of you, as seen in the photo below.
- Focus on the lens cap and press the shutter button halfway down to lock the focus.
- Move the camera to reframe the shot and press the shutter down the rest of the way.
How to use a neutral density filter to photograph the blue hour
Neutral density filters (ND filters) are highly effective tools when it comes to shooting in the blue hour. Without an ND filter, you can push your shutter speed to a couple of seconds when the light falls toward the end of dusk.
But an ND filter lets you capture even longer exposure photos (minutes, not just seconds!) so you can create beautiful effects such as light trails, silky smooth water, rushing clouds, etc.
ND filters come in different strengths, and some popular ones are 3-stop, 6-stop, and 10-stop. The bigger the number, the darker the filter (i.e., the less light that is let through) and the more you can lengthen your shutter speed.
Let’s take a closer look at your different options:
3-Stop ND filter
I don’t use a 3-stop ND filter when taking images with water or interesting clouds, as the strength is too mild to create a silky-smooth effect. So my use of a 3-stop ND filter is limited to scenes that have no water or clouds to be smoothed out, such as the photo below with light trails of moving cars.
This mild-strength ND filter isn’t all bad, though. It allows you to take lots of photos during blue hour, unlike more dense filters; a 6-stop ND filter, for instance, will only let you capture a few photos before the blue hour is over.
6-Stop ND filter
I almost exclusively use a 6-stop ND filter when shooting cityscapes with water at blue hour. To create silky-smooth water, slowing down the shutter speed by 3 stops isn’t quite enough, while a 10-stop drop is way too strong.
For example, a base shutter speed of 2 seconds (with no filter attached) gets extended to 15 seconds (with 3-stop ND filter), 128 seconds (with a 6-stop ND filter), and a whopping 34 minutes and 8 seconds (with a 10-stop ND filter).
I typically aim to shoot with a base shutter speed of 2-3 seconds when using a 6-stop ND filter, which extends the exposure to 128-192 seconds. In order to create a silky smooth water effect, 2-3 minutes of exposure is just right.
By the way, if you’re planning to buy only one filter for blue hour photography, I’d recommend a 6-stop ND filter. I’ve probably photographed 90% of my blue hour cityscapes using a 6-stop ND filter. It’s a game-changer if you’re interested in doing this kind of work!
10-Stop ND filter
A 10-stop ND filter is a special filter that lets you use extremely long shutter speeds (longer than necessary in most cases!). Personally, I don’t really find a 10-stop ND filter useful for shooting cityscapes at blue hour, as the exposure goes too long (a base shutter speed of 1/2s gets extended to 8 and a half minutes), and the digital noise caused by the long exposure becomes unbearable (even with in-camera long-exposure noise reduction turned on).
So this filter is better used before blue hour in the evening (or after blue hour in the morning). In fact, one big advantage of a 10-stop ND filter is that it lets you take long exposure photos while the sky is still bright, which is something 3- and 6-stop ND filters aren’t up to the task of doing.
How to shoot at blue hour with filters
Ray Salisbury takes you on location at blue hour and demonstrates how he scouts a location for the best spot, finds a good composition, and works with filters.
How to time the blue hour correctly
In this next video, photography-education guru Brian Peterson offers tips for getting the timing just right when shooting at blue hour (he’s on location in Las Vegas, Nevada):
Blue hour photography examples
Finally, this video offers some amazing example blue hour images, as Brendan Van Son shoots after the sun sets in Leiden, Netherlands. You’ll also see how the length of the blue hour varies greatly depending on your geographic location!
Remember: The farther away from the equator you are, the longer blue hour will last. Where I live, it’s usually about an hour, so I do get a bit frustrated when shooting in more tropical locations! If you’re photographing close to the equator, you really have to plan ahead and be prepared.
Blue hour photography: final words
Blue hour is a great time to take photos – and now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to head out with your camera, adjust your settings, and get some stunning shots!
Just remember: Unless you plan to work with an ultra-wide aperture, a tripod and a remote shutter release are key. They’ll keep your photos sharp, and that’s what counts!
Now over to you:
What do you plan to shoot at blue hour? Which of these tips will you implement? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Blue hour photography FAQ
The blue hour is a period of time before sunrise or after sunset when the sky takes on a beautiful blue hue. It’s a magical time for photography!
The blue hour occurs right before sunrise or after sunset when the sky is predominantly blue. Golden hour refers to the period just after sunrise or before sunset when the sun casts a warm golden light.
The ideal shutter speed for blue hour photos depends on the effect you want to achieve. Generally, using a slower shutter speed of a few seconds or more can capture the serene and dreamy atmosphere.
No, blue hour and magic hour are different. Blue hour occurs before sunrise or after sunset with a blue-toned sky, while magic hour refers to the time just after sunrise or before sunset when the light is soft and golden.
Shooting portraits during the blue hour can be challenging due to low light. However, you can use off-camera flash to illuminate your subject and create a balance between the subject and the background sky.