Blue Hour Photography: Tips and Tricks

The "blue hour" of the day is a beautiful time for shooting cityscapes. The sky has a deep blue shade and the lights in the city are just coming on. It brings out an amazing contrast of colours in an image. This is an image of the Alberta Legislature building that I shot in the summer of 2014, during the evening blue hour.

The Alberta Legislature building in Edmonton

Here are some tips for shooting photographs at the blue hour.

1. Finding the blue hour time: Technically there are two blue hours, one before sunrise and one after sunset. There are websites and mobile apps which can give you the time and duration of each blue hour. I use either the Blue Hour Site or the Golden Hour mobile app to obtain the blue hour times. Remember, both blue hours are important because each one allows you to shoot in different directions as you shall see below.

2. Scouting for locations: Blue hour photography tends to be long exposure photography. Hence, the best things that can be shot are city buildings, city traffic, waterfronts with illuminated buildings in the background. The direction in which your camera points to shoot the particular image, will determine when to best shoot it. Early scouting for a location and deciding on the possible image compositions is important because the blue hour does not last for more than 40 minutes.

3. When to shoot: In the blue hour, of course! But which one, before sunrise or after sunset? This depends on the direction in which you will be pointing your camera. Remember, the deepest shades of blue occur in the direction opposite to the sun. See the direction towards which your camera is facing. Then, check whether it lies in the direction of sunrise or sunset. If it is pointing towards the east, then you have to shoot after sunset and vice versa. Shooting in the direction of the sun will give you good results, but the best are obtained when shooting in the opposite direction.

4. Equipment: Finally, the equipment. Blue hour photography is mostly long exposure photography. Hence, you will need a camera that has the ability to keep the shutter open for long time intervals. A sturdy tripod, to prevent any camera shakes, a cable release or wireless release to click the shutter, without touching the button on the camera. This prevents the possibility of camera shake due to the pressure applied on the click button.

5. Settings: Blue hour images are best shot in manual mode. Use a lower ISO like 100 or 200 to avoid noise in the images. However, you may go higher if the shutter speed goes above 15-20 seconds because that is when the possibility of hot pixel noise appearing the images increases. Use a small aperture, between f/6.3-f/8. This will increase the depth of field. Set the white balance to Auto (doesn't matter if your are shooting RAW). Before clicking the image, try to pre-focus correctly. Once the lens is pre-focussed correctly, it rotates very less, thus further reducing the chances of a shake or blur.

6. Optional: Finally, and completely optional, a 2 stop graduated neutral density filter. This filter needs to be put on in the reverse way, i.e. the dark side towards the ground and the bright side towards the sky. Since the sky is dark and the earth is bright, this can help in limiting the contrast between the two and prevent the highlights of the objects from being blown out.

I hope you like these tips and they are useful in helping your blue hour photography.

Photo credits: Vinay Bavdekar.
Vinay Bavdekar
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January 26, 2015

Gmargittati: What you say is correct. However, towards the higher northern latitudes, the blue hour lasts longer. But the exposure still shouldn't go beyond 4 seconds at ISO 200. But, if you add a neutral density filter, you can go up to 8 seconds if you want silky water.


January 26, 2015

Great blog,
I also like the blue hour. I subscribe to all you said. It all makes sense. My only comment would be that in my experience the exposure time should not exceed 1-2 seconds (at 200 ISO). If it does, in my opinion you passed the best time for a photo. I got my best results when the exposure is around 1/8 1/4. At that time there is enough natural light to see the buildings streets etc. The artificial lights have about the same strength as the natural light, maybe this is pre blue hour?
 Dinner party at the beach 

Or this:
 High rises in Honolulu Hawaii