Blue Hour Landscape Photography Advice
Whilst I love photographing at sunrise and sunset, I find blue hour photography magical. In this article I want to explain what the blue hour is and share my experience and advice of photographing the landscape in the blue hour.
What is Blue Hour Photography
The blue hour isn’t a specific time of day and it certainly doesn’t last an hour (although it can in some locations). It happens at both ends of the day; before sunrise and after sunset. It can also happen at any time of the year although this, together with the weather conditions and the direction of the light can affect it.
Blue hour happens when the sun is below the horizon but at such an angle that it’s starting to light the sky. At the same time, the sun shouldn’t be so near to the horizon that it will cause the light to turn orange rather than produce the intense blue that we want. Once the light turns orange, we are into the Golden Hour which is also fantastic for photography.
This means if you want to photograph the landscape in the blue hour you need to be well prepared. This means having the right equipment and doing some advanced planning.
Blue Hour Photography Equipment
Whilst equipment won’t make you a better photographer, not having the right equipment will limit your success. This is even more true of blue hour landscape photography than at many other times.
When photographing the blue hour, the most obvious point is that your exposures will be much longer than during the day. Typically, they will be much longer than you can handhold, even with today’s high ISO cameras. This makes a good tripod essential to support the camera, allowing for long shutter speeds.
Having a sturdy tripod is only part of the equation for blue hour success. It’s no use having the camera on the tripod if you then need to press the shutter button to take your shot. Pressing the shutter button introduces visible camera shake into the photo; although you may get lucky from time to time most shots will be soft. It’s much better to use a remote or cable release that allows you to fire the camera shutter without touching it.
Some photographers claim that you don’t need a remote or cable release and can use the camera shutter timer. Most cameras have this feature which usually allows for the shutter to fire 2 or 10 seconds after pressing the shutter button. This allows time for any vibration caused by pressing the shutter to die down. Whilst this is true and this approach provides a fallback, it can be hard to time the shot in some situations. Given the low price of a simple remote release, it’s much better to have and use one.
Another essential piece of equipment to consider for blue hour landscape photography is a head torch. To photograph the landscape in the blue hour before dawn, you will need to arrive and set up before it happens. This means you are arriving on location in the dark, often in areas where there is no street lighting. Trying to find your way without some form of lighting is likely to be difficult. Equally at the other end of the day trying to find your way back to your car in the dark can be tricky, especially where the ground is uneven.
Invest in a good head torch and carry spare batteries. Ideally get a head torch that has both white and red light. Using a red light won’t affect your night vision like white light does. This can make setting up and shooting the blue hour much easier.
Finally, warm clothing is essential much of the time. Rural landscape locations tend to be colder than urban settings and you also find yourself more exposed to the elements. When the sun is below the horizon, as it is during blue hour, it’s easy to become cold as you stand around and wait. Be sure to dress for colder conditions than you expect. You can easily take something off if you become too warm.
I photographed this Peak District landscape during the evening blue hour in summer. It may look like a warm summer evening, but it quickly became quite cold. There was also a bitter wind which you can see blowing the heather around. If I hadn’t been wearing warm clothing, I would have probably left the scene much earlier, missing the best light.
Camera Settings for Blue Hour
Photographing the landscape during blue hour can be quite demanding on your camera. Be sure you have plenty of spare batteries as the long exposures, often in cold conditions, can run them down quickly. But equipment isn’t everything. The settings you use are also important to successfully blue hour photography.
Camera ISO Setting
The ISO setting has quite an effect on the image quality you capture as well as the shutter speed. Generally, I have found the best blue hour photos come from keeping the ISO low and as close to the base ISO of the camera as possible. As you move away from the base ISO the dynamic range the camera can capture will reduce. If you find this causing you a problem be sure to use good lens filters to help reduce the contrast range. Techniques like exposure blending may not be possible during the blue hour because of the length of the exposures required.
I’ve also found that keeping the ISO setting low seems to help the colour. For reasons that I can’t explain my camera appears to capture the blue light better when the ISO is low. Despite this you may find you need to raise the ISO at times to achieve a reasonable shutter speed.
In this blue hour photograph of a river in Scotland I had to set the camera to ISO800. Even then the shutter speed was 20 seconds with an aperture of f/7.1. Understanding and controlling the exposure and trading off depth of field becomes critical as shutter speeds lengthen.
Photograph Using RAW Format
When shooting in low light conditions like the blue hour, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to shoot JPEG. Even when photographing at or near to the base ISO setting of your camera, the conversion to JPEG is likely to damage the image quality much more than in good light. Because of this (and a few other points), shooting in RAW format is the best option. In addition to proving better image quality, photographing the blue hour using RAW format will give you improved colour control in post processing.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Long exposure noise reduction is another feature you should consider using. Many cameras will have a setting for this in the menu where you can turn it on, off or to auto. Whilst turning this off for night photography may be a good idea, I like to leave it set to auto for blue hour landscape photography.
When exposures lengthen to the degree the camera detects noise could be a problem, the long exposure noise reduction kicks in. The camera then takes a second image with identical settings to the first except the shutter doesn’t open. It then analyses this dark image for noise which it uses to apply noise reduction to the first image. I have found this type of noise reduction to be quite beneficial for cleaning up the RAW file and it doesn’t noticeably degrade image quality.
Use Manual Focus
The final point to mention is about focussing. The auto focus systems of most cameras are likely to struggle when photographing the landscape during blue hour. If, or should I say when this happens to you, you should switch to manual focussing. If you don’t use manual focussing much, you will find it much more difficult in low light conditions. It’s well worth practicing your technique before heading out to photograph the blue hour.
Planning and Direction the of Light
Planning is particularly important to ensure the success of blue hour photography, but it’s also a lengthy topic. If you want to learn about planning for landscape photography and how it can improve your work, I recommend reading my Landscape Photography book. You can also find some ideas to help your landscape photography planning in this article.
The other point to consider besides planning to be in the right location at the right time of day and with the right equipment, is the direction of the light. Light will play a major role in how the blue hour appears in your photographs.
Many photographers point their cameras towards the sun at sunset. But once the sun has set and the blue hour starts, this probably won’t give the best results. Most of the time, facing away from the point of sunset by 90 degrees or more will produce better results. Often the light is a nicer blue, and the landscape will take on an appealing blue and pink tint.
So, my final tip is to look in all directions using the live view display on your camera. Our eyes don’t often detect the blue of the light, but when you view it with a digital device like a camera, you see the colour.
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Summary of Blue Hour Landscape Photography
In this article I’ve tried to share advice that I have learned when trying to photograph landscapes during the blue hour. Whilst there is a lot to remember, in the end it comes down to the following points:
- Get yourself into location before blue hour starts.
- Use the right camera equipment and settings to capture the best quality images.
- Have a head torch and warm clothing to remain safe when out in the landscape.
- Look around in all directions to find the best light.
When you combine these points with good planning you will significantly increase your changes of taking memorable blue hour landscape photos.
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