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New Photographer’s Guide to Blue Hour

Among the many tips and tricks new photographers get with regards to lighting, the time of day is an essential concept, which for getting some shots of landscapes and some dynamic shots of natural light and artificial light, is the time at dusk or dawn. This time is just before the appearance of the sun or just after it, when the light is soft enough to emphasize most of the dark of the scene, and yet not so dark that it necessitates the use of additional light source. This is a guide to Blue Hour, that natural time frame which is so poplar among photographers.

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What is Blue Hour?

Blue Hour can be defined as the period of the day when the colour of the sky ranges from blue to dark blue, followed by black sky or vice versa depending upon the time of day it is being considered (i.e. for sunrise or sunset). It is termed as BLUE HOUR based on the consideration that the blue hue in the sky lasts for about an hour. In reality it lasts between 30 to 40 minutes approximately. Its duration also depends upon the geographical location and the season.

Rule of Thumb for Blue Hour times

The rule of thumb for Blue Hour is when exactly it starts and ends:

  • Sunrise: during this part of the day the Blue Hour starts around 30 minutes prior to sunrise. The peak of it can be 10 minutes before the sunrise. During sunrise, the blue hour diminishes very fast towards the sun rising on the horizon.
  • Sunset: during the sunset the Blue Hour roughly starts 10 to 15 minutes after the sun has set. I personally prefer to capture Blue Hour during the sunset as it gives me added time to setup my equipment, or change my location before the actual Blue Hour starts.
  • There are websites available where one can find out the approximate blue hour duration at any location so that you can plan your trip accordingly.
  • If the sky is overcast then the duration of Blue Hour will shorten and in some instances the clouds can be too dense soas to wash out the complete Blue Hour.

What to capture during Blue Hour

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Blue Hour is best to capture cityscapes, landscapes and scenic beaches. The shots require long exposure or slow shutter speed thus making it difficult for taking pictures of people or moving bodies, as a slight movement can make the picture blurry but yet the light is optimum to bring out the vibrance of the landscapes.

Why to capture Blue Hour pictures

#1 Creativity in capturing motion

Since, Blue Hour photography requires long exposures or fairly slow shutter speed, depending upon the scenario the long exposure can be creatively used to capture motion. The best part about Blue Hour is to capture light trails of vehicles while also capturing cityscapes, and if it is partially cloudy then the movements of the clouds can be used to create a drag effect. When capturing scenic beaches the movement of water appears to be dreamy. All of these effects add to the dynamics of the photograph.

#2 Easy control of parameters in dim light

I personally find capturing shots during Blue Hour fairly easy and interesting as compared to bright light conditions. With the availability of the right gear (e.g. tripod, remote trigger or shutter release) it’s easy to control various parameters to compose your shots. In comparison to this during a bright sunny day there are chances of getting overexposed images or burnt spots if there is no proper control of the light source with regards to the subject. However, every photography technique has its own pros and cons.

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List of Equipment for Blue Hour

The following are the essentials which can be considered as a must for Blue Hour photography:

  • DLSR – a must for taking any pictures. The better the DSLR, the better will be the noise performance for long exposures.
  • A rigid tripod – this as a must and the reason being long exposure/slow shutter speed during blue hour. So handheld shots maximize the chances of blurry images.
  • A cable or wireless remote shutter release – this is also one of the essential items which can help you in avoiding camera shake. An alternative to this is self-timer mode but at times you may need to use Bulb (exposures longer than 30 seconds) mode to capture the surroundings (for multiple layer blending) when shooting Blue Hour.
  • A handy flash light – to look around the surrounding areas when setting up your tripod in case the place is a bit dark.
  • A stop watch – this is now available in most of mobile phones, and comes very handy when you need to monitor the duration of shutter release in case your DSLR or remote doesn’t do that.
  • A wide angle zoom lens or lens suitable for composition – not a must but a wide angle zoom lens will help you in composing your frame properly as you can zoom in and out depending upon what you need to see in your picture.
  • Lens cleaning cloth and blower – this is one of the essentials to keep the lens clean in case of fingerprints or dirt. Although this isn’t specifically a Blue hour essential, it is a photography essential nevertheless.
  • Miscellaneous bits – these things can be handy and will make your photography comfortable. If you are setting up your camera around grass then a bug repellent will be useful and also if the weather is hot don’t forget to carry a small towel to wipe off the sweat rather than dripping onto your DSLR or lens.

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How to capture Blue Hour

Step one: Setting up your equipment

The first and foremost is to setup your camera on a tripod, on firm ground, to avoid any camera shake. Place the tripod on the ground and give a firm press against it, to make sure it is set in position. Place your camera on the tripod and make sure it is properly locked on. Take a look from the viewfinder and compose your frame, and also make sure that the camera is properly aligned using a bubble level or electronic level (if available in your camera). Do make sure that you are not directly under a source of bright light, which can make lens flare.

Connect the remote to the DSLR if it’s a wired one, or keep a wireless remote ready to be used. Looking into the viewfinder, try and use the autofocus to lock focus on any of the bright objects in your frame. Once the focus has been locked put the focusing switch on your lens to Manual Focus in order to avoid any re-focusing and lost focus.

Try capturing picture in RAW format, rather than JPEG, as it gives us more flexibility and details when post-processing the image. Double check that your focus is covering the complete frame properly by taking a couple of test shots. I always try and make sure that I am there well before Blue Hour so that I can take my sweet time to setup my equipment and be ready to take pictures.

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Step two: Taking multiple exposures

Once your equipment has been setup, and the lens has been focused properly, set the aperture between f/8 and f/16 to make sure you have a good depth of field. My personal preference is that I keep a balance of ISO and shutter speed to control the noise in the picture. The preferred setting for ISO is between 100-200, and the rest I leave to the shutter speed which ranges from five seconds to over a minute, depending upon the foreground details or any light show I need to capture. I prefer shooting in full manual mode so that I can control all the parameters.

If you have set a frame of the shot which contains trees and grass, try and capture couple of exposure in well lit condition so that you may use those during the post-processing. This will also give you an idea of what shutter speed you will need to capture the sky.

Keep taking shots at different intervals during the Blue Hour in order to use the best exposure during the post-processing of the image. If your composition contains any light shows or any other architecture which has a lot of light, you can adjust the shutter speed to suit, and prevent it from being overexposed. At the same time you should keep reviewing your shots to make sure they are correctly exposed for post-processing.

Post-processing of exposures

This can be a separate article on “Multiple Layer Blending in Adobe Photoshop” but I will give a brief description about it here.

I use Adobe Photoshop for multiple layer blending of my photographs of Blue Hour. If the picture is a RAW file format then you can change the basic parameters like Exposure, Clarity, Vibrance, Temperature, etc., when you open the file. Once you have done that, the actual image opens up in Adobe Photoshop. Select and open multiple images on the basis of exposure of sky, foreground, etc. Select one image that has the best Blue Hour exposure and create a blank “New Layer” to copy the other image which has good exposure of the foreground.

Layer blending

Arrange the different layers as per the priority of coverage in the example image the layer having a major section of the sky to be set as top layer followed by the foreground layer. Use the Erase tool to remove the underexposed areas from the top layer to reveal the correctly exposed layer for the foreground (you can also use a layer mask). Adjust the parameters like Selective Colour, Shadow/Highlights, Contrast, etc., of every layer to have an even colour effect. Merge these layers to form a single layer upon completion and you have got your final image ready.

I personally don’t merge the layers which gives me the flexibility to alter any of the layers if required in future.

Feel free to drop your suggestions and comments, if you have any, as I am always eager to learn more and more.

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Ausaaf Ahmad
Ausaaf Ahmad

, an Engineer by profession, his passion for photography bloomed in 2008. An avid admirer of nature and its beauty, he wishes to capture different moments of life through the eyes of his lens! As a self taught photographer, the sky is the limit when it comes to his thirst of going beyond the conventional wisdom of philosophy and making his own road. You can find his work on 500px.com.

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