Photographers love the blue hour, not least because it provides velvety, stunning, ethereal light. But learning to take advantage of the blue hour for gorgeous portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes isn’t always easy. It requires special settings, special gear, and careful consideration of artificial lighting.
Fortunately, I’m a veteran blue hour photographer, and I’ve developed plenty of tips and tricks that’ll help you achieve amazing results. Below, I share everything you need to know, including:
- What blue hour is
- When blue hour occurs
- The best gear for blue hour images
- Much more!
By the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to capture gorgeous blue hour shots like a pro, so let’s dive right in!
What is the blue hour in photography?
The blue hour is the time just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sun is below the horizon and the sky (generally) turns a beautiful shade of blue. Blue-hour skies can also take on orange, yellow, purple, and pink hues.
Photographers love blue hour lighting thanks to its softness and lack of directionality; as a result, during the blue hour, subjects take on a sort of timeless quality. Blue-hour light also coincides with yellow street lighting – in cities and suburbs, at least – which makes for a beautiful warm-cool contrast.
Here are a few examples of the beautiful light you’ll find during blue hour:
Of course, blue hour light does come with a tradeoff: while it’s wonderfully soft, it’s also very weak, so working during this time of day can be tough. Photographers generally bring tripods and remote releases (to be discussed in detail below), and for the best shots, you’ll often need to use extremely lengthy shutter speeds.
Note: The times before and after blue hour can also be great for photography. Golden hour offers soft, warm light, while the pre-dawn and post-dusk light can make for stunning nightscapes, so you certainly shouldn’t feel like the blue hour is the only time you can capture outstanding images.
When does the blue hour occur?
Technically, blue “hour” is a misnomer. Depending on the weather and your geographical location, blue hour lasts from just a handful of minutes to around 45 minutes.
Therefore, if you want to take advantage of the beautiful light, you must act fast! I highly recommend you download an app like PhotoPills, which will give you specific blue hour times for your location and time of year. (PhotoPills also indicates when the golden hours start and end, which is also highly useful for most forms of photography!)
At the very least, you should research sunrise and sunset times the night before your photoshoot, then arrive on location early and set up in advance. If possible, find a nice composition or two. And once the magic begins, shoot away!
Note that, if you’re looking to capture blue-hour shots before sunrise, it’s generally a good idea to scout the location the day prior. Trying to find compositions in the darkness can be tough, so if you can get this done in advance, you’ll dramatically improve your chances of capturing great shots. Conversely, if you’re aiming to capture blue-hour shots after sunset, make sure you know exactly how to get back to your car, and don’t forget to bring a flashlight; you don’t want to get stranded with 8+ hours of darkness on the way!
What types of photos should you take during the blue hour?
Blue hour is all-around wonderful, so don’t let your genre of choice restrict you from heading out for some ethereal blue light. You can shoot moody street scenes or long-exposure architectural images. You can even capture gorgeous blue-hour portraits by combining flash and natural light.
That said, blue hour is especially suited to landscape and cityscape photography. It combines colors, clouds, long exposures, and flattering light – pretty much everything from the serious landscape and cityscape photographer’s playbook. These types of blue-hour shots do take some patience and a bit of extra gear, but with the right approach, you can capture photos that really shine.
The best blue hour photography settings
During blue hour, the sky becomes relatively dark, so you’ll need a long shutter speed or a high ISO to get a good exposure, both of which come with significant tradeoffs. You also (generally) want a narrow aperture, which will render an entire scene sharp and in focus. So you need a camera mode that offers extensive control over your exposure variables.
Aperture Priority mode allows you to set the ISO and the aperture, while your camera sets the shutter speed for a well-exposed result. Manual mode lets you select the ISO, the shutter speed, and the aperture. Either of these can work, though Aperture Priority is generally the better choice for beginners, while Manual mode is more suited to a professional workflow.
If you go the Aperture Priority route, you should set an aperture that will keep the entire shot sharp (f/8 is a good starting point), and set your ISO to around 100 (to prevent unwanted high-ISO noise). Then let your camera determine the proper shutter speed for a nice exposure.
If you decide you want a longer shutter speed than your camera selects – to create beautiful streaks out of moving clouds or moving water – you can narrow the aperture, which will consequently cause your camera to lengthen the shutter speed. If you decide you want a shorter shutter speed (to freeze motion), you can widen the aperture or raise the ISO, though bear in mind that a wider aperture will reduce the depth of field, while a higher ISO will introduce noise into the image.
If you go the Manual mode route, simply dial in your camera’s base ISO and a nice aperture (just as if you’re using Aperture Priority). Then set the shutter speed so that your camera’s exposure meter is roughly balanced. If you need to increase or decrease the shutter speed, then make sure you also increase or decrease another exposure variable (i.e., the aperture or ISO) to keep the exposure meter balanced.
One thing to keep in mind: Because blue hour tends to look relatively dark, your camera may try to overexpose the scene, which will ultimately create an unnatural-looking result (and may cause blown-out highlights). If you’re using Aperture Priority mode, you’ll need to add some negative exposure compensation to counteract this tendency, and if you’re using Manual mode, you’ll need to deliberately underexpose by a stop or two.
The best advice I can give is to always check the LCD preview and histogram after each image, and if you find that the photos are looking too bright (or too dark), take steps to correct the issue. Make sense?
The best gear for blue-hour photography
Because the blue hour offers such limited light, you need specialized gear to ensure your photos stay sharp and noise-free. Here are my recommendations:
A full-frame camera
While you can absolutely capture beautiful blue hour shots using any camera – including a smartphone – a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera offers one huge advantage: It’ll let you ramp up the ISO as needed without overwhelming your images with noise.
As I mentioned above, it’s best to keep your ISO as low as possible, but if you’re photographing moving subjects, working handheld, or doing astrophotography, keeping the ISO at 100 isn’t always an option. Plus, the higher you can raise your ISO, the more flexibility you’ll have and the faster you can shoot (waiting around for your camera to finish a five-minute exposure isn’t always a ton of fun!).
That’s when a full-frame camera will come in handy. The newest mirrorless models – such as the Sony a7 IV, the Canon EOS R5, and the Nikon Z6 II – tend to perform best at high ISOs, but older and/or cheaper models can work great, too.
A fast lens
Most blue-hour landscape and cityscape photography is done at narrow apertures, so a lens with an f/1.8 maximum aperture isn’t necessary – but if you want to do blue-hour street photography, portraiture, or astrophotography, a lens with a wide maximum aperture will make a huge difference. You’ll be able to use handholdable shutter speeds without boosting your ISO to 12800, and you’ll be able to freeze moving subjects, too.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend grabbing a prime lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8, and an f/1.8 maximum aperture is even better. You can pick up one of these models for cheap (such as a 50mm f/1.8), so you won’t need to worry about breaking the bank.
(Note: If your goal is to capture blue-hour street photos or portraits, you can ignore this section; instead of using a tripod, you’ll need to rely on a high ISO and a wide aperture to keep your shutter speed handholdably fast.)
In my experience, the average blue hour shutter speed sits somewhere between one and six seconds. If you dial in such a lengthy shutter speed and then try to shoot handheld, you’ll end up with frustratingly blurry shots.
Of course, you can always boost your camera’s ISO to compensate for a shorter shutter speed, but the noise is often unbearable. And while you can widen your lens’s aperture to f/2.8 and beyond, you’ll lose the deep depth of field effect that is so prized by landscape, architecture, and cityscape shooters.
So for the best results, you really must use a good tripod.
A tripod will hold your camera in place while you shoot a 1-second, 6-second, or even 30-second exposure. Make sure you invest in a sturdy model; while there are plenty of cheap options out there, most of them will struggle to handle your setup, especially in wind.
If you’re the type of photographer who walks long distances or travels frequently, I’d recommend a carbon fiber tripod, which combines sturdiness with portability. Otherwise, an aluminum model is fine (they tend to be on the cheaper side, but they’re also a lot heavier). Whatever you do, however, do not buy plastic. It’s just too flimsy.
A remote release
Even once your camera is mounted on a tripod, pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, which will create blurry photos.
That’s where a remote shutter release can help. It’s a little handheld device that’ll let you trigger your shutter from a distance. And this, in turn, will prevent any extra camera vibrations.
Happily, remote shutter releases are pretty cheap. You can get basic models – which generally consist of a single button and nothing else – for around $20. If you want to do serious long-exposure photography or time-lapse photography, you might consider grabbing a slightly more sophisticated remote (some options feature LCD screens with timers, interval-shooting functions, and more).
That said, if you want to get started with blue hour photography right away or you really don’t like the idea of a remote release, you do have a few other options. You might be able to connect your camera to your phone and trigger it with an app. Alternatively, you can use the two-second self-timer function (the delay will give shutter-button vibrations time to die off). Neither of these options is wildly convenient – phone connections are often unreliable while self-timers throw off split-second timing – but they’ll work in a pinch.
3 tips for beautiful blue hour photography
Yes, blue hour is a great time to take photos. But you can’t just head out in the evening, find an interesting subject, and start pressing that shutter button. Instead, you need to combine lovely blue hour light with technical know-how, which is where these tips come in handy:
1. Shoot in RAW (and post-process your photos)
It’s basic advice, but shooting in RAW over JPEG makes a big difference, especially when photographing blue-hour scenes.
Why? RAW files provide outstanding post-processing flexibility. You can easily adjust the exposure and colors of a RAW file, and these adjustments are often the difference between a stunning shot and a mediocre one.
For instance, you can bring up the shadows in a RAW photo to reveal all sorts of lovely details. You can also bring out the blues and pinks in the sky, enhance the warmth of artificial lighting, and even darken the edges of the frame, which will push the viewer’s eye toward your main subject.
And while you can make some adjustments to JPEGs, the effects are much more limited. Plus, if you adjust a JPEG too much, you may start to see unpleasant artifacts, such as banding.
RAW files do come with a drawback: They need editing. (A RAW file literally cannot be displayed in its original form; you must edit and convert it to a viewable format, first.)
But as I explained above, editing is a key part of every blue hour image. Without editing, you’ll fail to bring out all the key details and colors in your shot.
So shoot in RAW and embrace the editing process. It’s the fastest way to elevate your photos!
2. Include electric lights in your shots
Don’t get me wrong: You can take amazing blue-hour photos of unaltered, naturally lit landscapes.
But in my experience, electric lights offer two benefits:
- They decrease exposure times. As the blue hour wears on, the sky will rapidly darken – and you may find your shutter speeds increasing to 10 seconds, 20 seconds, and beyond. However, an electric light or two will add extra illumination to the scene, thereby shortening your exposures and creating time for a few extra shots.
- They add drama and interest to your photos. If you use a narrow aperture (i.e., f/8), electric lights will appear as beautiful starbursts, which can create a focal point or simply complement your main subject.
For instance, check out the image below, which relies on star-shaped lights to captivate the viewer:
Electric lights do come with some challenges, however. If you stand too close to a light source, you may get lens flare across your entire frame. And if you’re not careful, electric lights can create major spots of overexposure in an otherwise well-exposed scene.
So don’t get too close to the lights – the smaller the lights, the less problematic the flare and overexposure areas – and if you’re struggling with exposure issues, check out my next tip:
3. Use HDR techniques to recover highlights
As I mentioned in the previous tip, photographing blue-hour skies combined with electric lights can look amazing. Unfortunately, they can also result in all sorts of exposure problems, because electric lights are significantly brighter than their surroundings.
One approach is to expose for the electric lights and let the rest of the scene go dark. The idea is that you can then recover the shadows in post-processing – but this will introduce lots of noise, so it’s really not ideal.
Another approach is to ignore the highlights. Expose for the rest of the scene, let the lights blow out, and embrace the resulting shot. This can work, but there’s a better option that combines both of the approaches I’ve shared.
You see, the best way to handle bright electric lights and dark skies is to capture two shots. First, expose for the lights and let the rest of the scene go dark; second, expose for the other portions of the scene and let the lights blow out. Then you can merge the two images together in your favorite post-processing program – both Lightroom and Photoshop have this capability – and you’ll end up with a well-exposed, fully detailed result!
Blue hour photography: final words
Blue hour is a great time to take photos – and now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to head out with your camera, adjust your settings, and get some stunning shots!
Just remember: Unless you’re planning to work with an ultra-wide aperture, a tripod and a remote shutter release are absolutely key. They’ll keep your photos sharp, and that’s what counts!
Now over to you:
What do you plan to shoot at blue hour? Which of these tips will you implement? Share your thoughts in the comments below!