Blue Hour Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Curated Article from Coles Class Room.

Photographers like to talk about golden hour photography and the beautiful, glowy light they find right before sunset or after sunrise.  Golden hour is amazing.  But for my money, you can’t beat blue hour photography for some peaceful, serene images.  Don’t be so hasty packing up your gear after the sun has set.  Stay a little while to enjoy the blue hour!  

Exactly what is blue hour photography and how do you shoot it?  Follow along below for our beginner’s guide on when, what and how to shoot to take advantage of this really cool period of day!

What is Blue Hour?

Blue hour is the period of morning or night when the sun is below the horizon but still casting light into the sky.  The result is a beautiful, cool sky that makes a stunning backdrop for your photography.  Blue hour skies are crisp, cool and full of gauzy shades from indigo to navy with hints of red and pink.

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When is Blue Hour?

The general rule of thumb for blue hour is up to one hour after sunset or one hour before sunrise.  Your blue hour might not last a full hour, though.  Sometimes we only get 20-40 minutes of photography of beautiful blue before the skies turn completely black at night or the sun clears the horizon in the morning.

How long the blue hour lasts and what it looks like depends on your location, season, and the weather.  The best blue hours, in my opinion, occur on nights with few clouds.

Why Should You Shoot Blue Hour?  

Shooting during blue hour has several advantages.  First, blue hour can add more visual interest to your images.  The blue hue of the sky is a more appealing backdrop than a completely black sky, and is a great contrast to electric lights.

Also, blue hour photography helps add creativity to your photo by allowing you to convey motion.  Because there is less ambient light, you can use a lower shutter speed like 1/60, 1/10, 5, or even 30 seconds.  A slow shutter speed lets you convey motion by smoothing out water, creating light trails, or blurring clouds.  Also, you aren’t fighting mid-day or late evening sun.  So blue hour gives you more flexibility when it comes to adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in dim light.

What to Photograph During Blue Hour Photography

Blue hour is a popular time to photograph lots of different types of images, from portraits to carnivals.  Try shooting any of these images as blue hour photography subjects:

  • Cityscapes
  • Travel images like busy, winding roads or freeways
  • Landscapes like beaches, bridges, wharves, or marinas
  • Fairs, circuses, or carnivals
  • Portraits with suitable ambient light or off-camera flash
  • Moon photography

Want to take scenic landscape and cityscape photography shots like a pro? Check out our landscape photography course!

What Equipment Do You Need for Blue Hour Photos?

To capture your own blue hour photo, make sure you’re ready with the following gear:

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera that shoots in manual mode and RAW.  Your camera should also be capable of shooting in bulb mode to create long exposures.
  • Lenses that matches your intended composition.  A wide-angle lens, such as an 18mm or 24mm, is a great choice for cityscapes and landscapes.
  • Tripod (to stabilize your camera)
  • Flashlight (to adjust settings in the dark)
  • Stopwatch or intervalometer (for a time-lapse photo)
  • Remote shutter release (cable or wireless)
  • Extra batteries and warm clothes if you’re shooting in cold temperatures

How to Capture the Blue Hour

Blue hour photography isn’t a hard concept to master, but it does take some planning and forethought to get it right.  Here are my best tips!

  1. Plan your blue hour photography shoot ahead of time.  Scout out possible locations in the day and know when blue hour will occur for your location.  An app such as PhotoTime or Photopills can help!  Look for locations that have artificial light for interest but aren’t overwhelmed with light pollution.  Too much light in the background dilutes your skies.  You’ll get a sky that’s orange or pink instead of that tranquil deep, dark blue.
  2. Pack your gear ahead of time.  Make sure you have everything you need for a blue hour shoot before you leave the house. You don’t want to find the perfect location and have beautiful weather only to realize you’ve left your tripod at home.
  3. Arrive early to set up your equipment.  Allow plenty of time to set up your tripod, frame your shot, and dial in focus and settings.  I always plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to sunset or 90 minutes before sunrise.  The best blue hues can fade quickly, so you want to be ready to make the most of your opportunity.
  4. Choose your settings based on your goals for the photo.  Slower shutter speeds help create light trails or smooth out water or clouds.  Wider apertures such as f/2.8 or f/1.8 can create beautiful bokeh orbs.  Narrower apertures turn points of light into sun stars.  Prioritize your settings based on what’s most important in your image.
  5. Be patient!  Don’t get in a hurry to start snapping pictures too early!  You want to wait for the moment when the sun has sunk below the horizon at night.  For morning blue hour, you’ll want to wait for the moment when the light turns from black to dark blue.  
  6. If light trails or buttery water/clouds are your goals, shoot in shutter priority mode.  That way the camera will choose ISO and aperture for you, allowing you to focus solely on shutter speed, composition, and timing.
  7. Turn off auto white balance.  The camera gets fooled by the blues and tries to neutralize them, which kind of defeats the point of shooting gorgeous blue skies!  I prefer to use Kelvin instead.  Start in the 6500K range and adjust as needed.
  8. Use a shutter release cable or remote to fire the shutter.  This will make sure you aren’t jiggling the camera and creating blur in your images when you manually press the trigger. If you don’t have a remote or cable, you can also use the timer function of your camera. This lets the camera settle first before firing.
  9. If you’re still getting blur even if using a tripod and remote, try shooting in live view or locking up your mirror.  Occasionally the minor act of your mirror flipping up to expose your sensor is enough to introduce blur into your image.  But if you shoot in live view or adjust your setting to lock the mirror in the up position, the mirror stays in place and helps eliminate shake.  
  10. Remember your other composition rules!  Use the rule-of-thirds where appropriate.  Look for leading lines to accentuate your subject.  Shoot from different angles and perspectives.
  11. Don’t be afraid to experiment!  Try different combinations of settings to give your images a slightly different look and find what YOU like best.  For example, I usually keep my ISO between 200 and 400.  But you might find you really prefer the added grain of ISO 1000 better.  Take multiple exposures with different settings and pick your favorites.  Soon you’ll find your perfect blue hour setting combo!

Post-Processing and Editing Blue Hour Images

How you process your images will vary according to your personal style.  I always shoot in RAW so I have the most flexibility in post-production.  My style is bold and colorful, so I usually add some vibrance, saturation, and contrast to my images from the hour blue.  Split toning helps enhance the color of the sky while keeping natural skin tones. Split toning also ensures you don’t wind up with all blue photos…remember it’s the contrast between blue and the other colors in the scene that add visual interest.  Finally, adjusting the luminosity may give your photo the pop it needs!  Try editing in your typical style first, then tweaking your blue hour images to find a style you best!

Conclusion

Don’t be such a slave to the golden hour that you miss photographing in the blue hour.  It really can be every bit as magical as golden hour and lends a certain tranquil and calm spirit to your photo.  You’ll love the tones and ethereal quality for landscapes, cityscapes and more!

Article written and copied from Coles Classroom.

How to Shoot Tack Sharp Stars

By David Johnston

The dawn of the age of technology has given way to a ton of new types of photographs that weren’t necessarily able to be shot before. The leading companies in camera sensors have developed the tools necessary to shoot unbelievable images in some of the most difficult situations. My guess is that if Ansel Adams had the capability to photograph with the current cameras we possess today, he’d take some of the most incredible photographs ever seen. In his place, however, are a sleuth of experienced photographers that do their best to fill his void… respectfully of course! 

There is a flip-side to technology, though. 

The more detail that these amazing camera sensors produce, the more apparent photography errors can be. 

So, due to the difficult photography conditions such as night photography, it’s important to know how to shoot sharply so your mistakes don’t stand out. You want to be able to shoot your stars tack sharp!

The Importance of Tack Sharp Stars

I want you to think through a scenario with me to understand just how important tack sharp stars in your night photography are. Believe me, they are of the utmost importance! 

Let’s say that you’ve come a long way in your ability to photograph the beauty of the night sky and you’re renowned enough to be offered several employment opportunities to do so. You are hired by a very well-to-do gentleman who would like to grace his huge living room wall with a large print of the night sky. 

You are beyond excited to have the opportunity to accept this project and you immediately plan for a clear night to provide your client with the work he desires. 

The sky is clear and you drive to a remote location to work. You set everything up and take multiple exposures during different points in the night to ensure that you have captured the most compelling image possible. 

Next, you spend hours editing and manipulating the select image to create a jaw dropping piece of artwork that will be sure to please your client. You finish, print the enormous copy of the image, and deliver it to your client. 

All is well until he hangs it up only to notice that the stars in the image are out of focus. You’ve now lost the job, the time, the money, and your career as a photographer is over. Surely you’ll never work again! 

Alright, it’s very dramatic. But, I needed to drive home the importance of getting your stars tack sharp and perfectly in focus.

Razor Thin Decisions

When you are setting up and thinking about how to photograph stars for perfect focus, you need to remember that when you’re shooting stars you’re shooting moving objects. Now, it can be difficult to think of stars as moving objects when you first get into night sky photography, but the distant balls of burning gas actually move a lot faster than you think. 

Photographers need to select an exposure that will compliment both sharp stars, and movement best. 

You’d be surprised at how razor thin that decision can be. 

I’ve read countless articles about settings to use to shoot the night sky that tell aspiring astrophotographers to use an exposure of 30 seconds. 

Let me tell you from my experience that if you’re shooting an exposure of 30 seconds, you might as well shoot multiple images and make it a star trail photograph because a 30 second exposure will absolutely show the star paths on large prints. Star paths are different than images with tack sharp star points. 

It’s imperative in my experience to keep your exposure at a maximum of 20 seconds. The 10 second difference may not seem like much, but if makes a world of difference if you want pin point stars in your night sky photograph.

How to Execute it in the Field

There is no other option than to get your sharp stars correct in the field. Many times there can be alternatives or tricks you can use in post-processing to overcome mistakes that occur in the camera, but when it comes to focus issues you MUST get it right in the camera. There is not fix-all for focus in post-processing. 

So, the natural question is, “How do I shoot tack sharp stars in the field?” 

I’m glad you asked! 

The assumption that throwing your lens on focus to infinity to create tack sharp star points is inaccurate. In fact, all lenses have different exact infinity points. It’s not always directly on the infinity icon on your lens barrel. 

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To be sure that you’re moving your focal ring to the correct infinity point in manual focus (you should always shoot the night sky in manual focus) go out to any location during the day and focus on a very small object that is far away. When it comes to setting up your focus, remember the saying, “Aim small, miss small.” The smaller the object you’re setting your infinity point to, the more accurate it will be on star points. Once you lock onto your target, zoom in on it in live view and fine tune your focus for 100% accuracy. 

After you’ve dialed in on your small target, remove your hands from your focal ring and look at your infinity point. It may or may not be directly on the infinity icon on the lens.

The next natural question is, “So, how do I find this point again in the dark?” 

There are a couple of different ways to do that. One solution is to tape your focal ring in place. This will keep everything right where you left it so you know that your focus is on your focus to infinity point at night. 

The other solution is to mark your focal ring with a grease pencil at your infinity point. If your focal ring gets knocked around, your pencil mark will be the indicator of where your focus to infinity point is so you don’t have to do this whole process again. 

Once you’re sure that you know where your focus to infinity point is located on your lens, you can be sure that your stars, which are very far away, will be within perfect, pin-point focus. 

Now, I also want to put this section in because I don’t want anyone to assume that the very first time you try this you’ll shoot the best night images ever. Just like with other photography techniques there will be room for error and the more you practice, the less margin of error there will be. 

A great way to practice is to perform the focusing process over and over until you know exactly where your lens is going to focus to infinity. 

If you want to practice focusing for tack sharp stars in the field at night, you can do the exact same process. It doesn’t even need to be a clear night. Simply perform the same steps, except focus on a distant light instead of a distant object like you would during the day. Using a distant and small light on earth will simulate a small star in the sky when you’re ready to photograph the real thing.

Hopefully I’ve poured out the importance of photographing tack sharp stars into your mind so much that you never shoot a photo of the night sky out of focus again. Just remember that as technology gets better and the quality of images increases, photographers must take the seriousness of image quality to another level.

About the author: When David Johnston isn’t leading photography workshops and tutorials or hosting his popular photography podcast, Photography Roundtable, he can be found traveling the world taking photos to awe and inspire his viewers. David has a passion for sharing his knowledge of photography and has many educational offerings designed to help photographers improve their work. Visit his website at www.photographyroundtable.com.