The Blue Hour: A Photographer’s Second Favorite Time Of Day

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"30th Street Station - Detail" by D. Travis North

"30th Street Station - Detail" by D. Travis North

We all know the time of day o shoot outdoors when the light quality is at its best. It has been drilled into our minds since the very first time we got serious about photography. That time of day is referred to as the Golden Hour, and it refers to the time just after sunrise or just before sunset. The sun is low, the colors are rich and warm and the directionality of the light leads to some captivating shots. This is especially true in the landscape photography corner, but it’s great for portraits and the like as well. We’ve all heard and read about it so much that it’s no wonder its little brother gets overlooked. The Blue Hour, the little brother of the Golden Hour, takes place just before sunrise and just after sunset. Like it’s big brother, it is equally as compelling to photographers but in different ways. We’re going to explore the Blue Hour and hopefully convince you to hang around a little longer after sunset to create some interesting shots.

The Appeal Of The Blue Hour

Twilight is that time of day just after sunset or just before sunrise when the light from the sun still reflects off of the atmosphere. It is neither bright enough to be called daylight, nor is it dark enough to be considered night. Aside from a narrow band of the orange and pinkish hues just near the horizon, the sky becomes a gradient from a middle blue to a navy blue. On a clear day, it may be possible to see the moon or even a few stars. And in an urban environment, streetlights and architectural lighting tends to be illuminated. This time of day is commonly referred to the Blue Hour and it offers a unique and appealing situation for photographers.

From the landscape and architectural corner, the appeal is obvious. A more interesting sky is always favorable and it serves well as a distraction free backdrop to whatever subject you’re capturing. It also offers an opportunity to fake some nighttime shots within an urban environment without the need for unnecessarily long exposures. The bluish hue can be left alone for the sake of effect, or it can be modified in post-processing to make it look like the shot was taken at midnight, if that’s what the shot calls for. As of late, the Blue Hour has become one of my favorite times of day to simply be in the city with my camera, and I make a point to take advantage whenever possible. But the Blue Hour isn’t just limited to those of us capturing landscapes and structures. In the portraiture corner, the Blue Hour – with the help of some creative supplemental lighting – offers a way to subdue or dramatize the background without distracting the viewer from the subject. One can really make their subjects pop against such a background to get that dramatic and artistic lighting that is often desired.

We’re focusing a bit on the color afforded by the Blue Hour, but I don’t want to overlook black & white either. The natural light during the Blue Hour is perhaps the most dramatic that can be found throughout the day, and a black & white photographer can take full advantage of this fact. On a partly cloudy evening, the clouds will have a gradient unmatched by any other type of lighting, except perhaps during sunset itself, but a sunset sky is so much brighter and potentially more difficult to work with. The dynamic range, in general, is greatly expanded during the Blue Hour, affording some of the most interesting contrasts in materials of a building or a natural feature. And the same dramatic lighting I mentioned for portraiture can add a whole new depth in black & white.

As you can see, there are a great number of reasons to experiment with and explore the Blue Hour. It just may become your favorite time of day to shoot. At the very least, I expect that you’ll now keep your camera at the ready for just a little bit longer after the sun sets,.

Making The Best Of The Blue Hour

"30th Street Station Fights Modern Influences" by D. Travis North

"30th Street Station Fights Modern Influences" by D. Travis North

The Blue Hour is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. Truth is that the Blue Hour is only about 20-40 minutes (depending on the time of year) before sunrise and after sunset, and the light and colors change quickly. You need to adapt quickly, be flexible and plan ahead in order to take full advantage of the Blue Hour. Here’s a quick tip list for your benefit:

  • Know The Time Of Sunset / Sunrise – You need to know when the Blue Hour starts. To do that, you need to know the time of sunrise or sunset. It changes daily, so you’ll want to look it up at TimeAndDate.com or some other similar site. If you have a smart phone, there are a number of great apps available to help you as well. My favorite tool is Sundroid, which is a free app for Android Phones which we spoke about before.
  • Have a Plan (Conduct A Dry Run) – This is especially important for portrait photographers and paid (commissioned) shoots: You need to do a practice run so that not one second of the Blue Hour gets wasted during the actual photo session. Get out there a night or two before (don’t forget about the ever-changing time) and make sure any supplemental lighting is exactly as you want it. Keep track of the time relative to sunset or sunrise and make notes accordingly. For example, if the light conditions for one such shot is ideal at 13 minutes past sunset, write it down so that you can duplicate it on the night of the shoot.
  • Know The Difference Between Morning And Evening – In theory, the natural lighting should be the same (or at least inverted with respect to time) during the morning and evening twilight. But many aspects of a shot aren’t influenced by nature. Shooting in a city, for example, you may want for the streetlights, building lights and even the interior lights to be illuminated in just the right way. You will find that the evening Blue Hour is best for this as many cities have ordinances as to when certain lights would be extinguished and they won’t be on in the early morning. You may also want to include the bustling masses – pedestrians, vehicles and the like – in your shot, and you’ll find far more people out and about in the evening hours. For this reason, I tend to love the evening Blue Hour more than the morning.
  • Beware of Long Exposures – Even though it’s not the dark of night, the readily available light will still be greatly limited: You’re going to be using some relatively long shutter speeds. Without a tripod or some other sort of stabilization, the available shooting time is going to be greatly shortened. To make the best of it, take your tripod.
  • Protect Yourself – Twilight is also quite dim for the human eye. Generally, visibility is still quite good to the human eye, but not as good as during daylight. Truth is most people have not yet gotten into their nighttime mentality and they aren’t moving or thinking like a nighttime pedestrian or driver. Case and point: A large portion of drivers won’t have their headlights on for another hour. As a result, there is an increased risk for you and your equipment. Or at the very least, you don’t want anyone wasting valuable seconds by entering your shot, getting in your way or messing up your setup. Since you’ll be looking up, around and everywhere except looking out for someone to potentially bump into you, you may want to wear bright colors or even a reflective vest. Depending on your needs, you may even want to physically mark out an area with rope, cones or some off-duty nightclub bouncers (we call them “assistants”).
  • Waste a Lot of Shots – Time is short, efficiency and speed are king, but there’s always room for a few extra shots. If you’re finger isn’t clicking like Austin Powers on a fashion set, then you’re not shooting enough. On any given night during the Blue Hour, I may capture as many as 200 shots or about as many as 10 shots per minute. A lot of them will go to waste, many will appear as duplicates, but the redundancy is worth it if you get the shot you were looking for. I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have time to think every single shot through as thoroughly as you would like. So keep shooting and worry about the potential waste in post.
  • On Vacation? Make A Deal With Your Companion – Exotic locations scream out for Blue Hour shooting. The catch is that this is usually the time when the night life starts to pick up. When traveling with a companion, this can become a point of debate, especially if they are not themselves photographers. So talk about the Blue Hour ahead of time and make plans accordingly – or even negotiate a deal – so that you can be shooting during this precious time of day. Maybe you have dinner early or late one night, or maybe you can plan on doing your own thing on one or two nights. The key is communication.

Final Thoughts

I promise that the Blue Hour will quickly become your second (or even your first) favorite time of day. Many photographers – professional or otherwise – will plan their sessions to carry over into the Blue Hour so that they can take advantage of this dynamic time. Maybe the shots turn out, maybe they don’t. But it would be a sin to miss it entirely. So get out there and try it on for size, and be sure to share your works within our Flickr Group.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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