By Mark Bauer
All photographers are familiar with the famed ‘golden hours’ around sunrise and sunset and it’s probably fair to say that the majority of landscape images are shot in these periods. The low, warm light is extremely flattering to the landscape, so it’s easy to understand why. However, it would be a mistake to restrict your landscape photography to these times, as you would then miss the magic of the ‘blue hour’.
The blue hour is the period of twilight each morning and evening when the residual sunlight takes on a predominantly blue hue. During this time, the sun is below the horizon, but it illuminates the upper layers of the atmosphere – the longer, red wavelengths pass straight out into space, while the shorter, blue wavelengths are scattered in the atmosphere. his results in images with a blue colour cast and saturated colour. The cool, blue tones in this period can create an atmosphere of mystery and romance – so if you like your landscapes moody, this is the time to shoot.
The choice of subject is important for the success of blue hour shots. Cityscapes work really well – the deep blue of the sky (sometimes with a purple hue) provides a rich backdrop for the scene and artificial lighting sources contrast dramatically with the blue tones. Individual structures such as bridges, monuments and churches – especially if they are spot lit – often look their best at this time of day, and make excellent focal points around which to base a composition.
Rural landscapes are perhaps a less natural choice of subject; the countryside and rolling hills are perhaps more suited to the golden hours, which reveal their form and texture, but mountains can be an excellent blue hour subject, as the blue tones can enhance their brooding presence and the overlapping forms can suggest depth. If there is water in the landscape, this will transform the scene, as it reflects the blue tones and will add depth to a composition.
Timing is crucial with blue hour shots, because although it’s called the blue hour, it usually only lasts between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on the time of year and your geographical location and the peak may only be for a few minutes. The morning blue hour usually starts around 45 minutes before sunrise and the evening blue hour about 15 minutes after sunset.
The key to a successful blue hour shoot is planning and preparation. Check out your chosen location in advance and work out suitable compositions. Make sure you arrive on location a good half an hour before the blue hour begins. This way you won’t rush your shots and make mistakes in the few minutes when the light is at its best. If you’re shooting before sunset, the other advantage is that you’ll be setting up while there’s still enough light to focus accurately. Whether you use manual focus or autofocus is personal choice, but once you’ve achieved focus, set manual focus mode so that focus is locked and the camera doesn’t then ‘hunt’ when shooting in low light. Setting the camera up to use ‘back button focus’ is also something I’d recommend. This removes the focusing function from the shutter release and so the camera won’t try to refocus when you take the shot.
The main technical challenges involved in blue hour photography are exposure and colour balance. Blue hour scenes, especially cityscapes, can have very high contrast, with bright highlights form the artificial lighting, and deep shadows. As the light levels drop, exposure times can also become lengthy, unless you really push up the ISO, which can impact upon image quality. This could cause problems for some cameras, but I’ve found my FUJIFILM GFX 50S – and also my X-Pro2 – extremely well-suited to blue hour photography.
The wide dynamic range of the GFX means that it’s possible to capture the full range of tones in high contrast blue hour cityscapes with a single frame – something that I’ve not always found possible with all cameras. Long exposures are also handled with ease by the GFX. With most camera systems, you are limited to a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds. For anything longer, you have to switch to Bulb mode and lock the shutter open. This can often result in complicated exposure calculations, as well as having to keep an eye on your watch so you know when to close the shutter. In ’T’ mode with the GFX, however, it’s possible to set exposure times manually of up to an hour. In my experience, the GFX can meter accurately in extremely low light levels, so you can rely on the camera – guided by the live histogram – to get it right in most situations.
The GFX also does an excellent job of capturing the rich, blue tones in the scene, which should be no surprise, given Fujifilm’s excellent reputation for colour. For punchy results, you can try using the Velvia Film Simulation mode or Provia if you prefer a more subtle result – if shooting RAW I’ve found Adobe Lightroom’s profiles are a very good match and you can also apply Film Simulations to your RAW files using Fujifilm’s RAW Conversion Software. Auto white balance will generally do a good job, but you can also try using the daylight preset; the colour temperature of blue hour shots is around 10,000 Kelvin, so the daylight setting will really enhance the blue cast.
Finally, for successful twilight shots, you will need to make sure you have a sturdy tripod and head as well as a remote release, in order to avoid camera shake during long exposures. I’d recommend experimenting with aperture settings – in cityscapes, bright, point light sources such as street lamps can record as dramatic starbursts, and smaller apertures of around f/16 can enhance this effect.
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