What is the blue hour? When does it occur? And how can you use it to improve your images?
Photographers love the blue hour, not least because it provides velvety, delicious, ethereal light. But learning to take advantage of the blue hour for gorgeous portraits and landscapes isn’t always easy. It requires special settings, special gear, and careful consideration of artificial lighting.
Below, I share everything you need to know for stunning blue hour photography – from basic definitions to tips and tricks I use all the time in my own photos. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to shoot in blue hour like a pro.
Let’s get started.
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.
Technically, blue “hour” is a misnomer. Depending on the weather and your geographical location, blue hour lasts between 20 and 40 minutes.
So while blue hour provides wonderfully soft light, if you want to take advantage, you must act fast. I highly recommend you download an app like PhotoPills or at least look up sunrise/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!
Here are a few examples of the beautiful light you’ll find during blue hour:
Of course, 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.
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 do blue hour portraits by combining flash and natural light.
That said, blue hour is especially suited to landscape photography. It combines colors, clouds, long exposures, and flattering light – pretty much everything from the serious landscape photographer’s playbook. (And if you can incorporate some human-made structures or running water into your landscape shots, even better!) Blue hour landscape photos do take some patience and a bit of extra gear, but with the right approach, you can capture photos that really shine.
5 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. Shoot in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode
During blue hour, the sky becomes relatively dark and you need a long shutter speed to get a good exposure. You also (generally) want a narrow aperture, which will render an entire landscape 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.
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 your camera’s base ISO. Then let your camera determine the proper shutter speed for a nice exposure.
If you decide you want a longer shutter speed (to create beautiful streaks out of moving clouds or moving water), you can narrow the aperture; this will 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.
Manual mode is another great option; simply dial in your camera’s base ISO and a nice aperture (same as when using Aperture Priority). Then set the shutter speed so that the viewfinder exposure bar 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).
2. Use a tripod
In my experience, the average blue hour shutter speed sits somewhere between one and six seconds. And if you dial in such a lengthy shutter speed then try to shoot handheld, you’ll end up with blur, blur, and more blur.
Unfortunately, cameras – even the latest cameras with outstanding image stabilization technology – simply cannot deal with handheld shutter speeds longer than 1/5s or so, at least not consistently. Which means that, for the best results, you must use a 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.
3. Use a remote or your camera’s self timer
Once you have a tripod, your sharpness worries are over….right?
Wrong. Even with a sturdy base, pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, which will create blurry photos (assuming you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed, of course).
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).
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 are wildly convenient – phone connections are often unreliable while self-timers throw off split-second timing – but they’ll work in a pinch.
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 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. Include electric lights
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 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 I’d also recommend you learn HDR techniques. That way, you can capture one exposure for the lights and one exposure for the surrounding scene, then blend the two together for a stunning final result!
Blue hour photography: final words
Blue hour is a great time to take photos – and you should now feel ready to head out with your camera, work your settings, and get some stunning shots.
Just remember: A tripod and a remote shutter release are absolutely 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!