Exploring the Blue Hour

EOS 1ds mark II, EF 24-70/2.8L @ 24mm, 8 sec., f/22, ISO 100
Mark Zanzig/zettpress (Archive Photo)

1ds mk II, EF 100-400/4.5-5.6 L @ 100 mm, 15 sec., f/32, ISO 100
Mark Zanzig/zettpress (Archive Photo)

As the outlook for the economy (and especially for newspapers and journalists) is rather gloomy, I thought I would explain how to achieve stunning shots during the “Blue Hour”, despite of darkness setting in.

The term “Blue Hour” describes the period between sunset and complete darkness in the early evening, and the time between darkness and sunrise in the morning. It’s called “Blue Hour” because during this time you can capture a beautiful dark blue sky while still maintaining the darkness of your surroundings.

Here are a few tips for you to help you getting the most out of this period.

1. Get a solid tripod

This is the first requirement. While you can work without tripod, e.g. by putting the camera in a place where it sits solidly, you have virtually no control over the exact look of the photo. This means that you will later have to crop and turn the image, reducing its actual size, sometimes dramatically.

The tripod helps you to take exactly the picture you want, and where you want it.

2. Get a remote control

You can put your camera to self-exposure mode and use the exposure times up to 30 seconds, but this is awkward and leaves you with too few options, because you can only select exposure times in large steps for the long exposure times (e.g. just 25 or 30 seconds, but not 27 seconds).

I am using Canon’s TC80N, a tiny little plastic box with a cable that costs about $135 right now. It’s a lot of money for the limited functionality it offers, but that’s the way Canon tries to milk us. Well, so be it. There are cheaper knock-offs available with a smaller feature set. You will have to take a look around and read some reviews if you want to use such a cheaper device. Having said that, I have to admit that I am quite happy with the TC80N.

2.1 TC80N Settings

I use a combination of “Self-timer” and “Long exposure”. The “Self-timer” is set to 3 seconds and allows the camera to rest calmly prior to the shutter release. The “Long exposure” is set to whatever exposure time you need or want (more about that later). Once you press the START/STOP button, the timer counts down and then opens the shutter for the pre-determined time.

3. Camera settings

Connect the remote control to the camera. Put the camera to ISO 100, and f/16 (or f/22). This ensures little noise and tack-sharp images. The drawback is that we’re talking about very long exposure times. That’s why you need a solid tripod.

Next you set the camera to “M” if you are using the cameras “Self-timer”, or to “bulb” if you are using the remote control. Finally, make sure that you shoot in RAW format.

4. Test shots

Now you can start the fun. I’d start with an exposure time of 4 to 5 seconds and check the results. The important part are the brighter areas in the picture. There should be at least some pixels that are bright, otherwise I’d consider the image “underexposed”. If shooting RAW you can correct a slight underexposure in Photoshop or Lightroom. That’s why I recommend to shoot in RAW.

Anyway, if the test images turn out too dark, you prolong the exposure time. If you do not use the remote control, you select the new exposure time at the camera; if you use the remote control, you select the new exposure time at the remote control. A good idea is to add another five seconds and then do another test photo.

5. Production shots

Eventually you will come to the desired result. Then take a couple of shots. There is always the risk of tiny vibrations that ruin the photo (unless you have a very solid tripod). You will probably see this once you are back from the shooting, when you look at the 100% view in Photoshop.

Always keep in mind that as the time progresses in the evening, you will have to prolong the exposure time if you want to capture the dark blue sky. If you don’t do this, you will only have a few good shots before the low light prevents any further photos.

Here are two photos that may help you. I took them today, the first one at 4.53 pm, and the second one 17 minutes later. The remaining sunlight had gone so fast that I had to increase the exposure time from 25 seconds to 44 seconds!

Long exposure shots usually look best where you have no or very few street lights. With their warm light, street lights can destroy the effect of the “Blue Hour” to the degree of making a photo completely useless.

All this takes a little experience, but once you know how to do it, you can fully focus on your views.

EOS 1ds mark III, EF 24-70/2.8L @ 70mm, 25 sec., f/16, ISO 100
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

EOS 1ds mark III, EF 16-35/2.8L @ 16mm, 44 sec., f/16, ISO 100
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

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