How to Photograph the Blue Hour…

Tips and tricks from Cécile Domens, photographer and traveler
“The sun has gone down, yet the night has not fallen. It’s the suspended hour…. The hour when man finally finds himself in harmony with the world and light,” said Jacques Guerlain. Artists, painters, and of course photographers, many people remain fascinated by the blue hour. This very short moment that separates day from night, during which the sky is charged with an electric blue that adds strength and contrast to your photographs.

1 – Getting ready for blue hour

The blue hour, unlike what one might think, does not last a full hour, but rather between 15 and 20 minutes. It appears twice a day. Once just before dawn and again after twilight. If you have trouble getting up very early in the morning, use the blue hour at the end of the day. It simply follows the “golden hours”, when, in the late afternoon, the sun sets and the warm and soft lights also offer you great photographic opportunities. You can then plan a photo walk covering these two moments.

“[…] be on the field half an hour before the blue hour begins.”

2 – Do some location scouting

As we have seen, the blue hour only appears for a few minutes, so you have to be ready at the right time. Especially since the first moments are often the most interesting. If it already takes you several minutes to reach your point of view, then a few more minutes to prepare your material, it will probably be too late when you press the shutter button. The sky may then tend too strongly towards the blacks. To avoid any disappointment, go on a location scouting and be on the field half an hour before the blue hour begins.

“[…] landscapes are particularly well suited to the blue hour […]”

3 – The subjects

Although there are no rules about which subjects to photograph during the blue hour, keep in mind that light conditions are considered difficult during the blue hour. It will therefore take long enough exposure times to capture it. A long pose means a subject that is immobile. The practice of portraiture, for example, can be complicated during the blue hour because of blurred motion.

On the other hand, landscapes are particularly well suited to the blue hour, especially urban landscapes which, thanks to the lights of streets and buildings, will reveal an interesting contrast in your photo. Water bodies, rivers, lakes and seas are also very good subjects since a long break will create very aesthetic movement effects in your shots.

4 – The equipment

If you were attentive during our first advices, you probably guessed the essential tool to follow in the footsteps of the blue hour: the tripod! Without it, it is impossible to ensure a perfectly sharp picture during the long exposures required to photograph a scene under the colors of the blue hour. With it, if you have one, you can use your wired or infrared remote control to trigger your camera remotely and avoid any vibration that could result in slight blurs on your photos.

“Switch to manual.”

5 – The settings

First, raise the mirror of your camera (in the menu), which can also cause vibrations and blurred images during long exposures.

Avoid semi-automatic modes, which will be biased by the poor lighting environment and will tend to overexpose your shots. Switch to manual. Select an aperture wide enough to ensure a sharpness range over the entire subject and then choose a relatively long exposure time to capture enough light and ensure good exposure.

“[…] avoid autofocus […]”

Do a few tests and check the results on your screen to find the right opening and speed pair. Once you have found it, always continue to check your photos after taking them. Remember that the sky darkens minute by minute, so you will have to adjust your settings and extend your exposure time as you go along.

6 – How to set the focus?

We will avoid autofocus, which will immediately be in difficulty due to the lack of light. Move the cursor to “manual focus” and focus on your subject. For landscapes, you can focus on infinity for more convenience. Be careful not to turn the ring to the maximum and to stop at the “infinite” symbol, often placed a few millimeters before the stop. Finally, if your lens is equipped with optical stabilization, disable it.

“[…] all you need to do is use your photographer’s eye to compose your shots.”

7 – ISO sensitivity

In some cases, the optical qualities of your lens, or the expected rendering on your photo, do not allow you to find a sufficient aperture/speed to obtain a good picture. In these cases, you can use the ISO sensitivity of your camera. This way, you can increase it to obtain a better balance in the overall exposure of your shot. Be careful not to go too high in your ISO values, however, because remember that the more you increase, the greater the risk of digital noise appearing in your photo! If you do not know the performance of your device, it is better not to exceed 800ISO.

8 – The composition

Once you have made your settings, all you need to do is use your photographer’s eye to compose your shots. During the blue hour, the classic rules of composition apply, including those you are used to using for landscape and urban photography. We will keep in mind that the sky occupies an important place in the realization of your photos during blue hour. Finally, the lights, the lines, the architecture, the reflections are all elements to be manipulated without restraint.

“[…] there is a specific time during the day when no filter is required […]”

9 – To go further…

You have probably already seen some great pictures of the seaside, or of a river or waterfall on which the water flows and gives a spun effect. It is generally necessary to have neutral-gray filters to be able to take this type of shot in the middle of the day and even at dusk. However, there is a specific time during the day when no filter is required to obtain such results: and yes, it is the blue hour! Feel free to have fun with the textures of water on your photos of urban landscapes or in the middle of nature, the results will sometimes be very original!