The Bewitching Hours of Photography: The Blue Hour

Christmas Duck Hunt

Through ‘bending of light’, an artist is able to create unique, emotional and stunning photographs. Unfortunately, light also is the most destructive force as well, as I have an endless supply of photographs with blown-out highlights or underexposed noise (aways sad news after a shoot, but good to learn from those mistakes).  I have learned that while the scene may look beautiful, if the lighting is flat and harsh, it is more difficult (if not impossible) for the camera to capture all the beauty we see.

Light is the piece of magic that fuels photography, and there is no better time to ‘bend the light’ to your imagination than the bewitching hours of photography:

  • The golden hour (roughly the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset)
  • The blue hour (the hour before dawn and after sunset).

During these hours, the creativity of the artist is allowed to flourish as the lighting provides a window of opportunities…the artist is allowed to dream, and if everything flows together the results can be spectacular.

Cormorant Fisherman of Ancient Folklore - Li River, Guangxi 丽江广西

Cormorant Fisherman of Ancient Folklore – Li River, Guangxi 丽江广西

The blue hour is the topic today, mainly because I found out that historically the ‘blue hour’ meant the time between 3:00pm and 6:00pm where the pubs in England, Wales and Scotland by law had to close their doors.  Very sad for photographers, as in the summer those are the hours when light is often at its worst (harsh and flat), and to enjoy some spirits during that time would help the creative process prior to the magical shooting hours…

Why I am attracted to ‘dawn and dusk’ is simple: great blue hour lighting is rarer than great golden hour lighting.  The photographer needs to pay more attention to both exposure and the subject at this time, more than at any other time during the day.  A great sunset alone is worth a photo without regard for any specific subject other than the light.  However, once you get into the blue hour, having a nice subject to help accentuate the wonderful light is needed.

MaWan, Hong Kong near the ending of dusk

MaWan, Hong Kong near the ending of dusk

The above shot at MaWan is perhaps 15 minutes after the official ‘Blue Hour’ but the glow of dusk to the right made this an interesting shot, so sometimes it is worth while shooting deeper into twilight.

Twilight begins in Dongchuan, Yunnan 云南红土地

Twilight begins in Dongchuan, Yunnan 云南红土地

Another reason I enjoy the blue hour so much, is from an explanation I received about the electricity of dawn from a photographer in Hokkaido, Japan.  She poetically said: “Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of all our dreams we had during the night are there for us to see, like frost resting on the trees along the Setsari River (Tsurui, Hokkaido).  And it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside.  This makes the moment before dawn so special.”

Red-Crowned Cranes at Daybreak on the Setsari River

Crystalized Dreams and Red-Crowned Cranes at Daybreak on the Setsari River

As a photographer, we have the opportunity to shoot and record such scenes…to keep the dreams alive.  I also really liked her description, kind of a reminder that each day is a time to start anew, to look beyond at what the day can and will be.  The above shot was taken in the fleeting moments of dawn with the sun ready to breakout in the bitterly cold, grey morning on the Setsari River with red-crowned cranes.

The blue “hour” is a bit of a myth, as the length of time varies greatly, but on average there is about 30+ minutes of great shooting.  The website: http://www.bluehoursite.com is an excellent tool to use for planning your shoot.  Once you have your time worked out, then choose an area that has interesting subjects: landscapes and cityscapes work well and also think creatively with some soft light for portraits shots; a bit more difficult due to slower shutter speeds but results can be interesting.

Li River Cormorant Fisherman at Dusk

Li River Cormorant Fisherman at Dusk

The fisherman shot above was f/4, and hand-held.  Jacked up the ISO a bit and shot wide-open, but overall the results turned out OK.

Probably a good idea to also think ahead about “How to Shoot Blue Hour”, a worthwhile topic and I have been fortunate to shoot with other photographers who like to pass their wisdom on to others.  The piece of advice I have always received: checkout the landscape, the time of year and weather because each day the available light will be different and so your exposures and shooting plans may change.

With limited lighting, it is important to determine how the slower shutter speed is going to affect the shot.  Camera shake is the first issue, so a tripod is needed.  If there is any motion in the scene, then take into account that there will be blurring and then try to make that an interesting part of the shot.

For the Blue Hour, generally I shoot at f/11 or higher as I want that great depth of field and detail, and by stopping down I am better able to achieve that ‘starburst’ quality with distant lights that can create just a little more intrigue within the shot.  However, it can also be fun to shoot wide open, especially with great foreground activity, and being wide-open gives greater stability and allows you better opportunities to hand-hold your shots.

Seattle at Twilight

Seattle at Twilight

Blue Hour on a Village in Yunnan - 云南东川红土地

Blue Hour on a Village in Yunnan – 云南东川红土地

Getting the exposure correct during Blue Hour is a bit more complicated as well, so fire some quick shots and check your histogram.  For Blue Hour, I use both spot and center-weight metering, depending on the shot, and will meter off the darkest point of my composition that I want to bring out.  Checking the histogram (even if you bracket, which I often do), should result in technically better photos.

If I am shooting any landscape, I bracketed my shots (3-7 depending on lighting conditions), so I have the option of layering my photos in Adobe or run my files through the HDR program Photomatix, which captures the details of the shadows without blowing out those bright points of lights that make the scene so attractive.

Washington State Ferry Bremerton to Seattle

Washington State Ferry Bremerton to Seattle

For choice of lens, it is a personal preference but a fast wide-angle lens is one I use predominately, both to capture the “total essence and ambiance” of the scene…and when the camera is off my tripod, a quicker lens allows me to shoot crisper shots during the light-deprived Blue Hour, such as the above shot of a ferry, on a ferry heading to Hood Canal.

Blue Hour shooting is fantastic, as it also serves as a good warm up to shooting a sunrise and a warm down from shooting a sunset.  Either way, you are going to learn a lot more about both photography and the area around you.  Creative lighting situation always can be little challenging (I have walked away from many shoots with nothing to show), but there is always something new and interesting to gain.

Sunny Bay Blues - Hong Kong

Sunny Bay Blues – Hong Kong

23 Comments on “The Bewitching Hours of Photography: The Blue Hour

  1. Wow. Fantastic photos. They look unreal they are so good… Especially the ones of Hong Kong. But I *love* the picture of the Cormorant Fisherman of Ancient Folklore in Li River, Guangxi.

    • Thanks, it is great to get out and shoot at this hour…and hopefully tonight I will write up a post about the Golden Hour shooting. Shooting in Guangxi was really fun and I am planning a return trip this fall…if you are interested, let me know. Will be a small group from HK.

  2. can’t find any words but breathless to express my feeling for your photos,Dalo! #2 and #5 are my favorite ^ ^ !

    Ah ,I have read abt those birdies of the fisherman, they will dive into the water and catch fish,since there are rings on their necks, they can’t nom but bring the fish back to the fisherman, when the hunting time ends, the fisherman will take those rings off and treat them some big meal !

    • Thank you very much Yinyin, such nice words! The fisherman and birds are pretty special friends with each other, and this place is nice. Happy you liked the photos.

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  5. All insanely beautiful shots. I love the second photo the most. Reminds me a bit of some of the ghost stories my Grandmother used to tell me. Romantic yet sad at the same time.

    • Very nice words, thank you. The blue hour is really a great time to get great light, gives a very different mood than the rest of the day. I like how you describe the photo: romantic, yet sad at the same time. Very well said.

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  7. I didn’t know about the blue hour, and the photos you make of them are absolutely stunning and magical, I love them, especially the 2nd, 4th and 9th. As from now I’m going to be on the look out for “blue” hours and see if I can capture some moment.

    • Funny to read this now…as it is almost the blue-hour in Hong Kong (an early rise today). Happy you like the 9th shot, it is a ferry coming into Seattle ~ I take this ferry to visit Hood Canal and the Skokomish wilderness outside of Seattle, a beautiful area of nature. Look forward to seeing some of your blue hour shots 🙂

      • You must have got up extra early then to be in the blue hour, what 5:30 am?? I was hoping to be within the blue hour today when I was leaving work, but unfortunately with the time change that took place this weekend, we’re now one hour forward and I miss out completely and directly leave the office into total night darkness. Hopefully I can can get some blue shots in the weekends or later on in the mornings! I have no idea how to capture this blueness so I’ll be reading every single word in your post again just in case I learn something useful 🙂

      • Yes, it was early…around 5am and like you, it was totally dark, but able to sit and wait for the sunrise 🙂 With wintertime, it is always strange to go off to work in darkness and then sometimes return in darkness as well…

        There is something about the peacefulness of the mornings that I really like, so when I do wake up in time to see & witness this part of the day it is pretty cool. I haven’t shot in the morning since I was back in the States, so I hope to find time too then we can share our experiences and photos 🙂 Cheers to a good day (or evening in your case).

  8. Another excellent and inspiring post. I think the blue hour is a magical hour of the day (why do you think my partner and I call our joint workshop business for Blue Hour Photo Workshops…). But rarely have I seen such magical images captured at twilight as these you present her. Simply awesome. One thing I disagree with you, though, not even a sunset is good enough in and of itself. The photographer still need to have a subject more than light itself…

    • Thanks Otto, I should have known you’d like the post title 🙂 You are correct about sunsets ~ while an empty shot of just colors a sunset can produce in the sky is wonderful (a snapshot type of sunset shot), making it work with a subject is where you create a photograph. So true. Hope all is well!

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  10. Beautiful photos Randall and very helpful insights for taking full advantage of the soft early light. Too bad I’m so lazy I almost never see a sunrise, but I do love sunsets and appreciate the soft light and bewitching feel of both times. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos and gift. 🙂

    • Once you get into the swing of early morning, it is hard to miss them! However, catching a great sunset is a piece of magic unlike any other. Cheers!

  11. the Blue Hour is magickal and sensuous…a calmness that feels like anything is possible, you have captured that and more in your
    stunning photos…Thank you for sharing them
    Take Care…You Matter…
    )0(
    maryrose

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