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Sweeten Your Photos by Shooting During the Blue Hour

Montauk Point, NY. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 17-40 f/4L. 15 seconds at f/11, ISO 800.

Montauk Point, NY. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 17-40 f/4L. 15 seconds at f/11, ISO 800.

There is a period of time each day, just before sunrise and just after sunset, when the sun is below the horizon, when the light is known as “sweet light.” This period of time is known as “The Blue Hour.” This is a period of time each morning and evening when there is neither full daylight, nor full darkness. The light is almost ethereal, with a soft blue glow bathing the scene. The Blue Hour happens in tandem with the Golden Hour, making the beginning and end of the day exceptional for photography, providing two very different types of light within a single time span.

Equipment and settings

The Blue Hour is a prime time for landscape photography. Subjects that have their own lighting, such as city buildings or lighthouses, tend to look especially good, as the yellow glow of their lights cuts through the blue.  A tripod will be necessary to capture these scenes, unless you’re willing to raise your ISO to the point you can hand hold your exposures.  Setting a proper white balance is one of the keys to Blue Hour photography.  When set to AWB (auto white balance), the camera will try to correct for the blue tone the light has, which can result in flattening your image. If you shoot RAW, you can correct for this in pos- processing, to get just the right white balance for your taste. If you’re a JPEG shooter, you may want to try setting a custom white balance, or you can use your camera’s Live View setting to preview what different white balance settings will do to the scene.

Boston's Zakim Bridge. EOS-1D Mark III with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 30 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.

Boston’s Zakim Bridge. EOS-1D Mark III with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 30 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.

I prefer the time during the Blue Hour when the sun is close enough to the horizon that there is a soft orange glow along the horizon. This adds an extra quality to the image, especially when you consider that orange is blue’s complementary color.  You may want to bracket your exposures, as this will vary the intensity of any light in the image, be it the orange glow remaining from the sun, or artificial lighting on buildings.  Blending exposures for HDR images may not be necessary, but it will be possible if you use a tripod and decide to try some HDR.

Cannon Beach, Oregon. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. !20 seconds, f/11, ISO 640.

Cannon Beach, Oregon. EOS 5D Mark III with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. !20 seconds, f/11, ISO 640.

The window of opportunity for Blue Hour shooting is small, and probably much shorter than during the Golden Hour. You’ll want to be at your spot ready to go well in advance of the Blue Hour. To plan your time, you can visit The Blue Hour Site to find out when the Blue Hour starts and ends at your location.  If you don’t have access to the internet, a good rule of thumb is that the Blue Hour starts about 15 minutes after sunset, and ends around an hour after sunset.  For sunrise, it will start roughly an hour before sunrise and end 15 minutes before sunrise.  When I plan to shoot landscapes, be it at sunrise or sunset, I always plan to shoot both the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour.  I tend to get a lot of variety due to the change in light, and it makes the time spent that much more worthwhile.

Pemaquid Point, Maine. EOS 5D Mark II with TS-E 17mm f/4L. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 400.

Pemaquid Point, Maine. EOS 5D Mark II with TS-E 17mm f/4L. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 400.

Boston Skyline. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 1 second, f/11, ISO 100.

Boston Skyline. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS. 1 second, f/11, ISO 100.

Cape Neddick, Maine. EOS-1D Mark III with EF 17-40 f/4L. 0.4 seconds, f/8, ISO 400.

Cape Neddick, Maine. EOS-1D Mark III with EF 17-40 f/4L. 0.4 seconds, f/8, ISO 400.

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Please share your Blue Hour photos and comments below.

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Rick Berk
Rick Berk

is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.