Vibrant skies and moody soft light during blue hour make for serene and powerful photographs.
Shooting in the blue hours of the day is not as popular as everyone’s beloved golden hours, but it does deserve acclaim and attention. (The “hour” in the name is misleading; the time span is far shorter.) In the evening, blue hour, or twilight, is that short window of time when the sun has set completely below the horizon and the sky glows in a soft, beautiful blue gradient.
In the morning, blue hour is that first glow just before sunrise breaks above the horizon. At these fleeting times, the sunlight is reflected off the upper atmosphere of Earth, causing the available, yet indirect sunlight to take on a predominantly blue tone. The light then can create a picturesque blue sky and a gorgeous backdrop for photographs. You have to work quickly as the sky fades, but the results are stunning.
Factors that affect blue hour skies
The season, weather, location and air quality have an impact on the exact timing and outcome of blue hour. There are no more than 10 minutes of adequate available light. The light and appearance of the sky change rapidly. If the sky is ablaze in gorgeous colors, grab the shot immediately — a minute later those colors will have vanished.
You never know what light you’re going to get in any particular weather, and that’s part of the fun. I’ve had client sessions when the sky was completely clear with an all-blue gradient. Yet I’ve also seen clear skies that end with a colorful watercolor effect well past sunset, and there have been cloudy evenings that resulted in a pink cotton candy sky. One very overcast evening, once the sun dipped fully below the horizon, the sky glowed like a rosy neon sign. Then it faded to a pink and orange tie-dye effect, and finished with a purple jewel-toned horizon line. Mother Nature was putting on a fabulous show at that day’s blue hour!
The location largely determines the amount of available blue light. My favorites are the beach and the desert. The backdrops are vast and the light bounces off the pale sand, which serves as a reflector for my subjects. In an urban or woodsy area, the window of time to capture blue light is narrower. A city during blue hour may have a gorgeous post-sunset sky, especially when the sky-line itself is aglow with artificial lighting.
The area’s air quality is a factor in the tone and clarity of the setting sun. In the Los Angeles area, for example, smog and beach fog play a big role. Extreme wildfires, typically in the fall, give the blue hour sky various muted colors. I’ve found blue hour in the mountains to be deeper and clearer in the non-snowing months. Morning blue hour is often unpredictable because the fog causes lower visibility. For up-close captures, the fog during blue hour can create soft, beautiful filtered light, but distant landscapes tend to vanish into the fine mist.
“The location largely determines the amount of available blue light.”
Shooting at blue hour
I shoot at blue hour a bit differently than during golden hour. As the sun fades away, you must act quickly and adjust your ISO to compensate. I keep my ISO as low as I can for the available light, especially at blue hour, because the sky already has a grainy, moody feel, and I prefer to retain the highlights rather than overexposing and getting excessive grain from a higher ISO.
It would be too cumbersome to adjust my white balance during blue hour because it changes so quickly, plus I can easily fix it in post-processing. I find blue hour light creates naturally beautiful skin tones. This hour might not be suitable for a light and airy style, but it’s great for photographers who lean toward moody or vibrant edits.
The blue hour shots are the last few frames for my family sessions. At this point, I’ve got shots of the family together, having focused on those poses in the golden glow. As the session is winding down, I do nontraditional portraits of the kids, candid pullbacks of the family interacting, and photographs of the parents together. Adults take direction and can move quickly during this brief period. I start with positioning the parents with the sunset behind them to capture the colorful sky. Then I turn them toward the lightest part of the sky, so the soft and subtle light illuminates their faces. When blue hour has the all-blue look, your images will have naturally soft, moody tones and great clarity.
Don’t rush to put the camera away once the sun passes below the horizon. Even when I’m convinced a session has concluded, I’ll often whip off my lens cap and snap one last image in that gorgeous blue hour light. Those shots always end up being amongst our very favorites.