The Wild Photographer

Capturing Magical Moments During the Blue Hour

June 09, 2023 Court Whelan Season 3 Episode 8
The Wild Photographer
Capturing Magical Moments During the Blue Hour
Show Notes Transcript

The blue hour is a fantastic time of day for creating unique scenes out of the ordinary.  That time just after sunset and prior to pure darkness has a special hue to the sky.  Not only is it great to photograph during this time of day, but it's a logical "transition" from sunset photography.

Listen for a full digest on how to set up and capture brilliant photography during the blue hour.

My Full Camera Kit:
Canon R5 Body
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
Canon 24-105mm f/4
Canon 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1
Canon 100mm f/2.8
Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod
Manfrotto Pistol Grip Ballhead

Court Whelan:

Ah, the blue hour, one of my favorite times of day. It's this time that is just after sunset, and maybe I shouldn't say it's my absolute favorite time of day, but it is this time of day that you might as well go out and photograph it because you're not doing anything else. It's after sunset. It's, after all, the normal daytime wildlife or landscape photography. It's after the golden hour. It's this time within 10 to 30, maybe even 40 minutes after the sun goes below the horizon, where you get this really lovely blue color of the sky And sometimes you even get a little bit of that remaining sunset color just on the horizon. So, yeah, it's a great time of day. It is a time of day that let's just say. The most important lesson here is you should be photographing it because there's no reason not to. You have no other thing going on for photography, maybe dinner, but you can skip that. But yeah, the blue hour, this is great. So where in the world to photograph the blue hour Where? well, quite literally, it's everywhere. It's not like Northern Lights, that has a very specific area. You can do blue hour photography in cities, in natural landscapes. The main thing that I recommend is avoiding a lot of really bright lights, like, for instance, i've been on my college campus in the past photographing big clock towers and beautiful buildings And it's pretty cool blue hour. It's particularly good when the blue hour is still kind of young. There's a lot of light left in the sky. The darker it gets when you have those big unnatural lights, the big mercury vapor lamps or whatever is around campus. They just tend to get blown out. They tend to be way, way too bright. So urban areas are fine, but the stronger the light, the earlier you really need to be photographing them at the blue hour. So really, when I'm talking about that time, it's just after the sun goes down. So still get that blue in the sky. It's going to be more of a light blue versus a real rich blue, but nevertheless you can do so in urban environments. That's the point of that little lesson. There is that you don't just have to do so in natural settings. But I do particularly like it in natural settings. I do particularly like it at small, remote jungle lodges and safari camps, where there might be some light from the camp or from the jungle lodge, but it's usually really low level light. It might be like yellow or orange light. It might be the candle flickering on the dinner table. So very, very low level light actually makes a really beautiful blue hour photograph. So a lot of this is going to come down to your own experimentation. You know at what time of this small window of, say, 30 minutes will you find the ideal shot I recommend. When you do go out for blue hour photography, it's usually that you're staying out after a sunset opportunity and you just happen to be able to, or want to, stay out a little bit longer. So that's kind of the brilliance of it is that you have this perfect pairing with something you're already doing. So when and where the best photographs, that's really going to be up to you. But how to photograph them is a whole different ball of wax. For those of you that have experience with slow shutter or long exposure photography, this is going to feel real, real natural to you. For those that have not yet dabbled in long exposure photography, this is a great breaking endpoint. It's a really rewarding way to take slow shutter photography or long exposure photography Those things are the same, but you also don't have some of the real big challenges of extraordinarily long shutters, like with astrophotography. You're not photographing moving water, like in my silky water effects tutorials, where you really have to time it perfectly to the specific flow of the water. For the blue hour you can just kind of find a great scene, get a great composition, and I don't want to say wing it, but you can really just It's a great learning exercise. So step one, of course, is to find that great setting. I do recommend having a little bit of man-made light in the environment at first. I think it helps you with a few things. One is it helps you with composition and the storytelling. Like photographing a beautiful dinner table set up al fresco under the starlight or, you know, in this case, under the blue hour light, just after sunset. Maybe there's a few candles, maybe there's a couple lanterns, maybe your house or the safari tent and camp is in the background, with a little bit of muted light as well. But having that light in the setting helps you compose your shot, because that's going to be part of your main subject. And then, using a wide angle or an ultra wide angle lens, mainly to get as much sky as you can, you're really showcasing the sky. You're showcasing that gradient of light from the table or from the horizon all the way into the upper atmosphere, because you'll see in your photos, when you expose it properly, which we'll get to in a second it is this lovely, lovely gradient of light which starts at kind of a light clear blue and it gets darker and darker and darker all the way to where it almost gets kind of like this, this dark, purplish blue as you get into the real cosmos part of the scene. So ultra wide angle, meaning like a 16 to 35 in a full frame or a 10 to 22 on a crop frame, normal wide angles like an 18 to 55 in a crop frame, 24 to 105 in a full frame these are great lenses. If you have an ultra wide, great, use it. But your kit lens, your 24 to 105 or 18 to 55, is just fine. So when you're setting up for the shot, you know composition is of course going to be key. You want to focus on part of the scene that is closest to you. So if you're photographing a beautiful dinner table setting underneath the sky, you know you want to have that at one of the intersecting points of the rule thirds, or at least start off that way and then break the rules later. You want to focus on that area and then recompose the shot so that it is indeed at that intersecting point. So here's a really key part of the whole blue hour photography and it takes a page from general long exposure photography, but especially astrophotography or northern lights photography as well is that when you focus on the scene, you're going to want to find something in the scene that is lit up. If your scene is rather dark and you're trying to focus on the table, that's just all dark wood or the chairs, or your photographing and focusing on the Safari canvas tent and there's no real contrast I mean there's no sharp discord between light and darks You're going to have a problem. That camera is going to go in and out of focusing. It's not going to really lock focus. So having this is why I'm saying having that light in your scene is a great way to start off with this sort of semi long exposure blue hour photography. So let's just imagine a scene nice dinner table outside in front of a Safari camp. You have a couple lanterns on the table Great, those are your not your focal point of the resulting photo, necessarily, because you're going to want to showcase more stuff through depth of field, but it's going to be the thing you use to lock focus. So what you do is you use your center point, autofocus or however you're autofocusing and make sure that autofocus is on that light. Now it's probably going to meter on that light as well, unless you're on absolutely full manual mode, but that's fine, we'll get to this in a second. You want to autofocus? you're clearly going to be on a tripod, because we're talking about something like between one, two, three, maybe even four seconds of exposure. So what you do is you use that ball head or that trigger grip or that pan tilt whatever you need to do focus on that light, hold the shutter halfway down and then recompose your shot. Now, between all that or just after you've recomposed, making sure that you have not touched that focusing ring, you want to set your lens from autofocus to manual focus, and this is a really brilliant, very instrumental move because that locks in focus. So then you can take all the shots you want, with different compositions, different angles, with a relatively similar scene, and not have to redo that focus each and every time, not have to refocus on that light. So you've locked in focus, boom, and now, of course, you're composing. Go back to the rule of thirds idea that I was talking about. So then you're going to take the shot and this is absolutely a test shot Because we're gonna play with the exposure here. So you know if you, if you're doing the math in your head or thinking about this logistically in your head If you focus in meter on a bright light, it is going to Really get the exposure out of whack. You know it's going to either make it too dark or too light, depending on exactly where you focus. If you focus on a bright light, it's probably gonna artificially darken the scene. Now, this is a good technique and a really good starting point for blue hour photography, because you do not want a super bright exposure, you don't want an even exposure. In fact, if you have exposure compensation on your camera, you do not want it to be at zero. So what you're gonna do is, again, that test shot is a really good way to figure out Are you going to underexpose, over expose? be it even, and the resulting shot? Most likely you're going to be underexposing your shot. But let's give, let's give a try. So first test shot boom. Are you getting the colors? This is what you're thinking about as you're looking the back of your camera. Are you getting the colors of that blue? if not and it's mostly just a very, very light blue across the sky One of two things is happening. Most likely you are over exposing your shot too much, you know you're. You're towards that zero end of the Not end of the spectrum, but zero part of the exposure compensation, like you're shooting at even when you really should be at the negative numbers. You know, darkening your shot. Now the other possibility Which is a real possibility, especially as you're just starting with blue hour photography If you haven't done a lot is you might just be too early. You know you might. You might be patiently waiting for that sun to set and as soon as that sun goes down You start clicking away and it might just be too bright in the sky. So waiting a little bit longer will help bring those colors out. But at the same time, a way that you can not only buy yourself some time or Afford to be a little bit more impatient is to underexpose your shot. So again, usually I'm at negative one negative, two negative, three full stops on my exposure. I can't give you the perfect playbook because it's very Circumstantial with you know. Are there clouds in the sky? What are the ambient light sources? What are the artificial light sources? So? so you definitely need to think about it. But again, your, your spectrum is probably me in the negatives, somewhere between negative three and negative one, or minus three minus one full stops, and that's again all the. The entire intention is to bring out that color. Okay, so great. So you've taken a test shot and you're looking for color and let's just say You know you need to underexpose it more. Boom, that's your second shot. So take your second test shot. And maybe that's not your second test shot, it's your first real product. You know, if you nailed it, let's go with that and then keep that exposure. And then what? what are you gonna do to vary things? Well, the first thing you're gonna do is start looking at your shutter speed, right, so your shutter speed is something that you're gonna be playing around with very much, and I should probably back up a little bit and start. You know we took our test shot. But really, you know, let's talk about the different camera modes that you might be on to take this, this photo. So automatic is gonna be very, very difficult. P for program is gonna be okay. I really like to be on either a time value mode or shutter speed mode depending on your camera It's gonna be called different things or a full manual mode with an auto ISO. Either way, i think one of the best ways to use your camera in this scenario is to take advantage of that exposure compensation. So that's why I don't advocate for going full, full manual and having control over ISO Aperture and shutter speed is because you want to quickly be able to lighten and darken your next photo, and that's your exposure compensation. If you're on full manual, it's up to you to change one of those three things. But generally, what your camera is gonna give you, or what you tell your camera, is something between one, two, three, maybe even four seconds of your exposure. And again, this is going to depend very, very much on A the type of photo you want to take. B how much light is going on both man-made and natural light And then also what are your aperture settings and your ISO settings. So again, i like to shoot on auto ISO personally. But what you choose for your aperture is absolutely going to dictate how much light you need to let in through your shutter, through that shutter speed. So for me it's going to depend on the scene. If I have a very deep scene where I need to get a lot in focus and there's a lot of distance between that foreground element that I want in focus, like the table or the chairs or the safari tent or what have you, and there's some background elements that I also want in focus, so maybe there's there's distant trees or maybe the tent is just really, really large or it's it's oriented in a elongated way And it's going to look bad if I have my foreground element in focus, my background out of focus. If that's the case, i'm going to be shooting it F8, f11, something pretty hefty, and that's probably going to give me a very, very long shutter speed. I'm going to do my absolute best to keep ISO low, so like around 200, 400, maybe 800. One of the risks if you see your camera either giving you an ISO because you have it on auto or you program your ISO if you have a higher ISO, like 800, 16, 3200, 6400. The thing with blue hour photography and higher ISO is that a good bit of your scene is going to be this palette of like blue to dark blue And mainly it's going to be quite uniform And you'll see this a lot with classic night photography and astrophotography is that although you need high ISOs to deal with the low light, that uniform color starts to make the noise and grain that is produced from the high ISOs all the more noticeable, which is kind of it's hard to have your cake and eat it too. So you have to shoot with a high ISO because you are talking about slow shutters, you are talking about low light, but you don't want to be too high, otherwise you're dealing with really rough noise and grain. So that's why you know, with blue hour photography you do get to have your cake and eat it too a little bit, because you don't need those really really long exposures. You still get a little bit of light. So keeping your ISO at 400 is usually pretty darn doable. So you know, if I do not need that really deep depth of field, i'm going to photograph probably F4, f5.6. I'm not going to deliberately have a shallow depth of field unless I'm trying to do something really artistic. Usually with blue hour photos you do want most of the scene in focus. There are very few times you want to intentionally blur it to get that effect, but usually an F5.6 is going to be just fine. When I'm taking long exposure photography. I really do like to have a lower F number, or what you would term a bigger aperture, mainly because I myself am a little bit impatient. I want to get those photos quicker. I want to have a faster shutter speed. So if you think about it, let's say I'm using an ISO 200 or 400 and I'm shooting at three or four seconds If I'm at F5.6, if I instead need to get, or want to get, to F8, the problem is all ofa sudden three, four, five seconds turns into six, seven, eight, nine, 10 seconds because of that bigger depth of field. Remember, you're going from F5.6 to F8. You lose half as much light. Therefore, you need to double your shutter speed for the longer end of the spectrum. So that's a bit of a challenge. But those are indeed the settings. They're not as extreme as astrophotography. They're pretty doable. They're a great way to get practice in terms of branching into the idea of astrophotography or night photography. I like it because, especially when you're in places like Borneo, when you're in places like Botswana, areas where you have really interesting natural light and man-made light juxtaposing in these scenes like camps, like lodges, it's a really, really fun way to do something before dinner, after sunset and get a really, really dramatic new type of photo. So blue hour photography it's really fun. Get out there and try it. We'll summarize the main tenets here. You're talking about something around 10 to 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. You're throwing in your ultra-wide angle or your wide-angle lens. You're shooting at something around 1 to 4 second shutter speed, something between F5.6 and F8 is a really great starting point. And then ISO is low as you possibly can go, usually ISO 400 to start off with, if you find you can get 200. Or you need 800, that's fine. But once you start getting into the 1600s start to be where you probably don't need those. Or you can get the same shot by a bit longer exposure. Even though I am impatient with these, i'd rather have a doubly long exposure, you know, 10 seconds or 15 seconds, and shooting at ISO 400 versus 800, because grain and noise in dark photos, in blue hour photos are. It's really gonna come out. It's really gonna. I don't know. I think it's not gonna ruin your shot, but it threatens to ruin your photo. If you're finding that the shot is too blown out, remember you wanna manually darken it by decreasing exposure compensation or just waiting a little bit longer, waiting a little bit later into that blue hour time period Remember, it is after the sun has set and by minutes, not hours, but by minutes. So being in position for sunset, snapping some great sunset photos and then merging right into blue hour photography is a really, really fun way to get out there and take some awesome landscape photos wherever in the world you might be.