What’s my favourite photo? It involves the magic of photography’s “Blue Hour”

Blue Hour, Hotel Photography

What is my favourite photo?

I often get asked if I have a favourite photo of my own. To talk about that is also to define the Blue Hour technique . . . and how to shoot these difficult but rewarding shots!
So, yes, I do have a favourite shot. Of course, I love everything I do — from interiors to exteriors and even awkward little spaces, they all make me feel very blessed that this is how I make my living.
Yet I have to say I have a certain fondness for a really good exterior night shot. Why? It can give any photograph a dramatic feel, or make even a boring-looking building appear striking!
What techniques does it take to capture the perfect blue light shot? And what are a few of my favourite examples? Follow along on a journey…

What is the Blue Hour?

The first question is how can we define the blue hour and how it is different from the infamous golden hour in photography?

Blue hour, or blue light photography, is that short-but-perfect time of day about an hour after sunset when the sky is the colour of sapphires and the lights from the windows have a warm inviting glow.
This is markedly different from the golden hour of photography, which happens just prior to this when the light is fire red and the sky is aglow. This creates a wonderful sense of action, but easily can overwhelm objects in the photograph you might want the attention to be on.
By comparison, the blue hour invites the viewer to observe every detail of a subject up against a colourful background. It really allows us to bring out highlights and energy, while calmly inviting a viewer to linger a little bit longer.

The blue hour looks like an easy shot, but there is a bit more to it than it appears! Let’s see a few techniques useful in capturing this moment:

When is the best time to catch blue hour lighting?

If you are lucky and your building or subject faces due west you ‘simply’ need to be there at the right time in the evening as the sun starts hiding below the horizon. Alternately, depending on the orientation of your photo shoot, sometimes it’s better to photograph the blue hour before dawn while the sun is just about to break the plane of the horizon, which might be about 3 am in the summertime. This can make for a long night / early

Morning for a photographer (but worth it)

Importantly, you need to make sure the sun isn’t settling down or rising directly behind the building you want to photograph. This causes the sky to become too bright while the building will be too dark to make out any details. If you are going to get up at ridiculous o’clock, first be sure to find out if artificial lights in the area stay on all night, such as the building’s flood lights or even street lighting from where you’ll be positioned. I have been caught out by that …it was just a little disappointing, to say the least!

Location photographs featuring long exposure light trails can stand out in the blue hour

Best camera settings for blue hour photos

Remember that the blue hour is really the ‘dark hour’. Shooting in the dark might require a long exposure, so you will definitely need a tripod. With some location photography, you might find it looks great to have the trails of lights from traffic. To achieve this effect you use a low ISO value, an aperture right in the sweet spot of your lens, and a significantly long shutter speed to soak up all that light over time.
Or you could raise the ISO to enable a faster shutter speed to freeze the subject; although be careful, as this setting can result in a noisy image of your subjects unless used judiciously.

Take time for a little experiment to see what exposure works – be playful and you might be amazed at some of the results!

Lounge room in a hotel overlooking the sea

Hotel photography during the blue hour

Personally, I think hotels look gorgeous lit up at night. Let’s face it — hotels welcome people most often in the evening, so they put a lot of effort into making their properties stand out at night with clever lighting. Lucky for us, that also makes it a pleasure to photograph at night.
This shot is of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Antwerp, and it took more than one exposure to get this alongside a bit of retouching in Photoshop.
So, in actuality, this one image is the result of a collection of different exposures. Keep this tip in mind: you don’t always need that one perfect shot … sometimes you need multiple perfect shots!
Especially as – like mentioned above – blue hour is essentially night photography, you can use many of the same tricks as you do with night shots, such as combining different exposures to get that perfect balance of details and colors in the final result.

Mastering tricky timing on location-based shoots

I recall being commissioned to shoot London’s Tower Bridge. Yes, that iconic landmark. It was all a bit nerve-racking as there are a zillion pictures already of that bridge, I had a very tight deadline and the weather wasn’t very good on top of it.
What did I do? Honestly, I kind of panicked when, just as the light was falling into that blue light hot spot, bells went off, the bridge raised and a big cruise ship came meandering through my scene!
While this sounds cool, the problem was that a raised drawbridge and cruise ship clearly were outside the project brief. (It was quite exciting though; all the tourists on the river bank were thrilled to see the bridge go up, while all the people on the ship were equally enthused to be going under the famous Tower Bridge.) “Honestly, I kind of panicked…”
Luckily for me, the bridge came back down just in the nick of time for me to get this shot you see here for my client …plus I got a bonus shot of the bridge up with a ship going through just for me! Water reflections can be used creatively in blue hour light

A lesser-known tip when shooting outdoors

There have been times when it’s not so much fun outside in the dark in the winter (surprise, surprise). But as Billy Connolly said, there’s no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothes.

For example, I have been forced to shoot exteriors at night in the rain because there was no way of going back another day. Imagine my delight to find, in that instance, the reflections of the lights on a wet road looked stunning!

But I think the worst shooting I ever experienced (and as you can tell from this story, I think I might deserve a medal after this) was at the Westin Hotel in Detroit in one frigid January. With the arctic winds coming down off the Great Lakes of Michigan, I remember asking someone about the temperature outside. When they let me know it was -5 degrees outside I thought “that’s OK, not great, but I’ve got my thermals on.”
…It didn’t take long before I realised they were talking -5° Fahrenheit. …Which meant it was -20° degrees Celsius. I turned instantly into an icicle.

But here comes a tip for you to be found inside my story of woe:
You see, one trouble with working at such low temperatures is that you’ll find your batteries failing. The cold cuts short the capacity of camera batteries, so you’ll actually want to keep a spare battery somewhere warm.
This usually means tucked up under your coat, which is all very well and good until it’s time to unzip and retrieve that spare …but that’s a small price to pay for the ideal photograph under difficult situations. Using all your techniques to get that perfect blue-hour photo.

So do I have a single favourite photo? It’s probably impossible to pick only one, but I do have a favourite time for a shot — one which is both challenging and rewarding when pulled off just right!

It’s funny the small techniques a photographer picks up over the years to get these types of photographs. It’s not always via the most glamourous tips or even ones you’ll spot in mast online guides; sometimes it’s the tiny things (like keeping your battery warm!) that end up helping you get lucky in the right place at the right time.

In this case, the ‘right time’ is during the amazing blue hour for photos!

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Art Deco Hotel Bar, Palm Court, South Devon