Enjoy the cool tones of civil twilight to expand the potential of your landscape and cityscape shoots
If you’re a keen landscape or cityscape photographer, you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with a wide range of terms that refer to times of day, types of light, weather conditions and even clouds. Blue hour is just one of these terms, and while it’s not the most dramatic time of day in terms of light, it can be one of the most rewarding to capture.
During blue hour, light is incredibly soft creating a sense of calm thanks to the cool blue tones that bathe the landscape and make the sky glow. It’s a magical time for shooting landscapes and cityscapes, not to mention it’s the perfect opportunity to extend your shooting time beyond the more popular, colourful and dramatic golden hour.
Blue hour is simply another name for twilight when the sun is between 6° and 18° below the horizon. During this time, either at dawn or dusk, warmer-looking wavelengths of light are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere leaving only the blue wavelengths able to reach the Earth, which results in the cool blue light we experience. There are three phases of twilight: civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight. The first of these is the brightest, with the end of astronomical twilight signalling night when the sky is at its darkest.
1 Plan your shoot
Planning your outdoor shoots is a great way to increase your chances of success. And when it comes to golden hour shoots, most photographers wouldn’t dream of heading out before at least checking the time of sunrise or sunset. Even better, knowing exactly where the sun will rise or fall will help you to plan viewpoints and what time of year it’s best to visit desired locations.
Blue hour isn’t any different, and while it’s easy to be on location before sunrise and after sunset when out shooting anyway, knowing exactly when blue hour will start and end is still useful. PhotoPills (pictured below) is the best photography planning app available for both Android and iOS, and with your location, you can check the start and finish times of the three twilight phases. Including, of course, civil twilight/blue hour.
2 Avoid blurred images
When you’re shooting at civil twilight where the sun is below the horizon, light levels are typically low so you’ll need to shoot with your camera attached to a tripod. Release the shutter with either a shutter remote or using the camera self-timer set to a 5-10 second delay to avoid camera shake. Camera shake is movement of the camera during exposures that can be created simply by pressing the shutter button.
Another way to avoid blur when shooting with your camera attached to a tripod is to make sure that image stabilisation is turned off. If you leave image stabilisation turned on, it can cause blur because the optical stabilisation in lenses or sensor-based stabilisation in cameras sometimes moves lens elements or the sensor in anticipation of needing to compensate for movement, even though the camera is securely supported, and this itself can cause blur.
3 Weather doesn’t matter
One of the great aspects of blue hour is that it occurs whatever the weather – it doesn’t matter if the sky is clear, there are scattered clouds or it’s completely overcast and even raining. So, while the success of sunrise and sunset shoots are governed by several variables, blue hour is pretty much always a sure bet.
If you’re shooting at sunrise or sunset, it’s always worth arriving on location around an hour before sunrise and up to an hour after sunset. The advantage here is that not only will you have more time to find compositions and be able to capture the changing light, but you’ll also be able to capture blue hour, too.
4 Shoot cityscapes during blue hour
One of the best times of the day to shoot cityscapes is during blue hour when the street and lights inside buildings have come on. The warm yellow glow complements the cool blue natural light perfectly, making the city appear to glow. This window doesn’t last long, so you have to be on location and ready to shoot before twilight sets in.
Cityscape images taken when there’s still a blue glow in the sky always look better than those when the sky has turned black. Shooting during autumn, winter and early spring will mean that blue hour is later in the day at dawn and earlier in the day at dusk. You can, of course, shoot during blue hour during the summer months, but you’ll have to wait much longer and stay out later to capture it.
5 Work with white balance
Just like shooting during golden hour, it’s best to keep white balance set to Daylight when shooting blue hour. The simple reason for this is that Auto white balance will compensate for coloured light and neutralise the effects of both golden hour and blue hour. So, shooting in Daylight white balance will produce the most faithful results.
If you shoot in Raw, you could of course adjust white balance during post-processing. But it’s always better to see a realistic image on the camera LCD. Then, once you get home and process your Raw files, you can export your blue hour images with white balance as shot, slightly warmed up or you could neutralise the blue tunes if you wish.
6 Enjoy naturally long exposures
Exposures during blue hour are typically long because light levels are extremely low due to the sun being below the horizon. During civil twilight – the brightest of the three phases – exposures will often be as long as 30 seconds. But during the darker phases, exposures can be much longer.
During the darker phases of twilight, exposures can reach minutes in duration. And while you may not be able to clearly see the landscape because it’s almost night, you can capture extreme long exposures without the need to use a Big Stopper/10-stop ND filter. You’ll just need to shoot in Bulb mode, lock the shutter open, and manually time exposures with a stopwatch.
7 There’s more to blue hour
The name blue hour suggests that the landscape is bathed purely in blue light, which can be the case in some situations such as when the sky is clear or completely overcast. If the sky has scattered clouds or there’s a break in the cloud on the horizon, which are ideal conditions for great sunrises or sunsets, there can be additional colours in the sky.
When the sun is closest to the horizon it’s most likely that the clouds could pick up yellow and orange light. But when the sun is lower below the horizon, you can experience vivid pinks and reds in the sky that contrast beautifully with the glowing blue sky.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles