How do outdoor photographers utilize the beauty of natural light? Uncover tips for mastering the magic of the blue hour with advice from these five photographers.

You know and understand the rules of the golden hour, but what about her more mysterious sister, the blue hour? This strange and fickle time arrives shortly before sunrise and after sunset; as the sun rises or sinks to about four to eight degrees below the horizon, its rays turn the sky into a blazing expanse of sapphire, indigo, and iris. The blue hour affects different corners of the world differently; while remote locales boast the purest of all twilight skies, the artificial light of bustling metropolises harmonize to create a surreal symphony with nature.

Photographers have long been enchanted with the blue hour, but the name itself is deceptive. Depending on your location, the blue tint might last for only fifteen minutes; if you’re lucky, you might get half an hour. Because the blue hour is so fleeting, we reached out to six expert photographers to see how they contend with this enchanting but brief window of time. Below, they share stories from blue hours around the globe and offer their best tips for capturing some of your own.

1. “Visiting the same place more than once often helps you to be more aware of good shot opportunities.”

Andrew Balcombe

Image by Andrew Balcombe. Gear: Canon 60D camera, Sigma 17-50mm lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/60 sec; f5.6; ISO 125.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was up early in the Dutch countryside to take photos for a rural magazine. By chance, I saw this scene present itself and was in the right place at the right time. Often just getting up before sunrise will give you the opportunity to experience great light. I like this shot for its symmetry and simple, minimal look. I broke the rule of thirds to emphasize the sky and also to provide extra copy space for any advertiser who wanted to buy the image.

Image by Andrew Balcombe. Gear: Canon 60D camera, Sigma 17-50mm lens. Settings: Focal length 17mm; exposure 1/80 sec; f6.3; ISO 500.

Pro Tip:

When shooting the blue hour, I set up on my tripod with the image stabilization of my lens turned off. For proper landscape photography, the tripod is essential. I bought a second-hand aluminum tripod from a thrift shop (no lie); it’s about 25 years old! I don’t even know the brand. The tripod slows me down enough so that I become more selective with the shot I’m choosing. Once I have found my composition, I always check my histogram for correct exposure and zoom into 100% magnification of the shot to make sure it’s sharp.

Don’t forget to look behind you. I’ve often found spectacular shots in the opposite direction from what I expected. Atmospheric conditions change quickly, so be aware of the scenery and how it changes. Visiting the same place more than once often helps you to be more aware of good shot opportunities. The number one rule for blue hour shooting, however, is to be at your location early for pre-sunrise shots and to stay longer for post-sunset shots. I always stay until I’m absolutely sure I cannot squeeze anything further from the scene.

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2. “I like to use as low an ISO as possible, around 100-200, to get the best possible quality and to keep as much color detail in the image.”

Palle Christensen

Image by Palle Christensen. Gear: Canon 5D camera, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 105mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f.4; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken near the city of Viborg in Denmark. I have walked to this lake near my home many times to capture both the blue hour and the sunrise. I was looking for a clear sky to get the maximum effect of the color range from orange to blue, and I was also looking for quiet water so the reflection would bring the colors to life. So, I went out very early to make the composition. When I saw two birds getting ready to fly, I framed the shot so that they created a line in the water and a point of interest. Here in Viborg, it is very quiet in the morning, and I love to hear nature waking up. The birds started to sing as they flew by, and the light changed from darkness to blue and orange. It was a special moment.

Palle Christensen.
Palle Christensen.

Pictured: [1] Palle Christensen. [2] Palle Christensen.

Pro Tip:

To get a shot like this with both the sky and the water, you have to be patient and visit the same place many times before the conditions are right. On a blue hour shoot, I always bring my tripod with me. I like to use as low an ISO as possible, around 100-200, to get the best possible quality and to keep as much color detail in the image. I always like to position the horizon a bit off from the middle to create more focus on either the top or bottom; this technique gives the image a better visual balance.

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3. “The optimum time to create these stunning long-exposure photos is 30-45 minutes past sunset and 30-45 minutes before sunrise, depending on the country.”

Arlo Magicman

Image by Arlo Magicman. Gear: SONY a7R II camera, G Master 24-70mm lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 2 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

These are the Kuwait Towers, one of the landmarks in Kuwait. It was winter time, and it was freezing. I had to wait approximately fifteen minutes after the sunset for the blue hour to arrive. It was a bit windy, so I used a heavy tripod to avoid any shaky movement.

Image by Arlo Magicman.

Pro Tip:

I consider the blue hour to be a magical hour, but the sad part is we only get to experience it for a very short period of time. For this reason, we always need to plan for our shot. The optimum time to create these stunning long-exposure photos is 30-45 minutes past sunset and 30-45 minutes before sunrise, depending on the country. I personally would go to my location at least one or two hours before the blue hour. Most of the time, I end up following “the rule of thirds” by getting my horizontal bottom grid line aligned with the horizon with the subject on the bottom left or right of the horizontal grid line. Finally, I focus on the subject and wait for the blue hour to come.

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4. “It’s important to wait for that perfect moment when the artificial light and the natural light reach a balance.”

plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs)

Image by plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs). Gear: Lumix GH5 camera, Leica 12mm f1.4 lens. Settings: Focal length 12mm; exposure 5 sec; f1.4; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

We were exploring the Lofoten Islands in February 2018 with the goal of seeing the Northern Lights. Although we were very lucky to see them almost every night, we always had to wait until midnight. But this evening was different. We scouted the location during the daytime and chose the position and framing for the shoot. As the sun set, we kept exploring this beautiful fishing village called Reine. We were working on a light trails shot in the village when my friend pointed up at the sky, telling me to look. The sky was glowing with the coolest Auroras, and the blue hour had just begun. We walked to the place we had scouted earlier and started shooting. The good thing about visiting Norway in winter is that the sunset and the blue hour last forever, so it’s much easier to get a good shot. For this image, I did a panorama of five pictures so I was able to capture the village and the surrounding mountains as well.

plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs)
plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs)

Pictured: [1] plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs) [2] plpictures.com (Paedii Luchs)

Pro Tip:

First of all, make sure you’re using a tripod and a camera that allows for shutter speeds up to 15 to 30 seconds. That’s probably the only requirement on gear you need. It will help you if you use a fast lens, but you’ll get beautiful images with standard lenses too. I also use a simple $10 cable remote to avoid shaking my camera too much.

For me, cities and places that are artificially lit seem to work well as compositional elements. It’s important to wait for that perfect moment when the artificial light and the natural light reach a balance. Make sure you find your composition before the blue hour starts, and then take pictures throughout the blue hour. You’ll notice how the lights change.

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5. “To maximize the reflections, I placed my camera and minipod on the edge of the quay to get as close to the water level as possible.”

Frans Blok

Image by Frans Blok. Gear: Nikon d5100 camera, Nikkor 18-105mm lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; exposure 2, 8 and 30 sec; f14; ISO 100. This is an HDR blend of three images

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is one of my favorite blue hour photos. It shows that you don’t always have to travel far for great images; I made this one just 200 meters from my apartment in Rotterdam. I love it because of the combination of city and nature; the plane tree on its little peninsula in the canal dates back to the 19th century. I also like the mixture of old and new architecture: the canal houses on the right survived the May 1940 bombing, and the high-rise further in the background marks the post-war reconstruction area. To maximize the reflections, I placed my camera and minipod on the edge of the quay to get as close to the water level as possible. At moments like this, I’m very happy with the fold-out screen on my camera so I don’t have to lie down on the cold ground.

Frans Blok.
Frans Blok.
Frans. Blok

Pictured: [1] Frans Blok. [2] Frans Blok. [3] Frans. Blok

Pro Tip:

I find that winter is the best time for blue hour photography because of the late sunrises and the early sunsets. The latest sunrise is in early January, about ten days after the shortest day. The earliest sunset is ten days before the shortest day. Where I live, the sun rises at 8:45 in those first days of the year, which makes the hour between 8 and 9 AM perfect for blue hour photography. What makes it even better is that this means the blue hours coincide with the morning and evening rush hour, making it easier to catch some light trails. There are more lights on in buildings as well: shops are still open, and people are still at work. And I haven’t even mentioned Christmas and other seasonal decorations.

You definitely need a tripod during the blue hour, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. For twenty euros, I bought an 18 centimeter high Manfrotto mini-tripod, which because of its size is extremely stable. It makes me much more flexible when walking through the city, looking for the best reflections, cloud formations, neon lights, and other goodies. You have to be a little creative sometimes, but there are plenty of mailboxes, trash cans, walls, benches, and other objects to put that camera and minipod on. And if there isn’t anything there, I just put them on the pavement; an unusual angle can only make a photo more interesting.

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6. “To capture all the lights, coming from both the environment and the architecture, stay in the same place for about an hour, shooting a series of photos.”

Jacek Pilarski

Image by Jacek Pilarski. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 4 sec; f14; ISO 160.

What’s the story behind this photo?

To shoot this photo, I prepared everything a couple of days beforehand. It’s not easy to find a good spot on your first try, even if you are using Google Maps. You have to keep in mind that there are also other photographers who are trying to find the best spot as well, and you have to hurry. After climbing a hill, I had finally arrived at the spot I had found the day before. Setting up the tripod takes time, and it all depends on the terrain. In this case, it was stone brick, and I had to level up my horizon to be ready to shoot a straight panorama. My “revolver head” allows me to change my camera position from horizontal to vertical in no time. I was lucky with the weather, but a cloudy sky is not forgiving. The blue hour lasts for about 15-30 minutes before the sky gets pink and purple and loses all the nice details.

Image by Jacek Pilarski.

Pro Tip:

Be prepared to change the exposure and shutter speed in a short amount of time. You might even have to sacrifice dynamic range to catch all the details while shooting long exposure and brackets. To capture all the lights, coming from both the environment and the architecture, stay in the same place for about an hour, shooting a series of photos. In post-processing, combine all the layers on “lighten” mode. As a last step, I might desaturate the yellows and even darken some areas due to the long exposure time.

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Top Image by Jacek Pilarski.