Creative Field Technique - The Blue Hour

As day transitions to night or night to day, the colors in the sky change. This is due to the change in the sun’s angle relative to the horizon and the effect that the Earth’s atmosphere has on scattered light. For about 20 minutes before sunrise or 20 minutes after sunset, the sun is below the horizon and a clear sky will take on a deep blue color, often with a brilliant band of red and yellow just above the horizon, as you see in the photo above. In this shot, I pointed at the sky just to the right of where the sun was rising.

What a difference a few minutes can make because not long after that shot was taken, the brilliant colors gave way to a brighter and paler yellow and eventually a less brilliant blue. Now consider the image below, taken at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. The atmosphere is quite different in Utah than Florida, so the sky appears hazy, likely from dust particles. This was shot about 15 minutes past sunset. The sunset was directly behind me, and I was pointing in the direction with the least amount of sunlight (the sky remains brighter nearest the sun). Because of this, I had to overexpose the scene to bring out the detail of the rocks.

Below is another shot taken in Florida, on the Suwannee River. Similar to the Utah shot above, I had some strong interest with plenty of detail, namely the cypress trees in the foreground. I exposed for the trees and with some editing, brought out the beautiful pastel blue and pink hues in the sky.

As with the first image above, silhouetted objects work very well in the blue hour by adding an eeriness, especially when they reflect on water. This next image (before and after editing) was shot on Biscayne Bay about 30 minutes before sunrise. I used a long exposure to bring light into the image. With editing, I lightened the image and added vibrance.

One of my favorite things to photograph is the full moon at blue hour on a clear day, typically before sunrise. This is because the sky is still relatively dark to make the moon stand out, while providing enough light for a foreground interest. The moon in a clear sky adds interest and balance, as you see in this next image, shot in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Below is another one from Big Cypress National Preserve. On this morning, the low-lying fog was so thick I could barely make out the trees. The setting moon was above the thickest fog layer and shone through nicely. With just enough pre-sunrise light, the fog was illuminated with a blue tone. Not long after this was shot, I could no longer see the moon as it set into the thickest fog layer.

The colors during blue hour can be affected by many things, direction relative to the sun, the atmosphere (air quality), and time relative to sunrise or sunset. Sometimes the colors are subtle, other times brilliant. For those subtle colors, I find that moderate editing of color balance can enhance the colors and add a little pop to the image, as you see in the before and after image below.

Here is one more image, shot at Goblin Valley State Park. The sky appears more brilliant than in the other image from the same location because the sun had just set behind and to the left of me.

I have some additional blogs relating to this one that you may be interested in:

How to shoot the super moon

Using negative space

Adjusting color balance or white balance

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