5 ways to improve your blue hour photography

Article by Jimmy McIntyre

I love shooting during blue hour. A scene at this wonderful time, as long as it is well lit, can create an intensely dynamic mood in your images. Even if sunset is a washout, you may still have a chance of capturing something special during blue hour. For example, I shot the HDR above in Valencia. It was a clear day until around 4pm. The clouds came and the rain joined them not long after.

Reserving my optimism for a potentially photogenic blue hour, I hung around. Even as I was taking this shot, my wife was kind enough to shelter me and the camera with an umbrella from the light rain we were experiencing. Yet, despite the wet weather and non-existant sunset, I was very happy to leave this spot with what I’d captured. Blue hour can be your saving grace if you know how to take advantage of it.

For more blue hour images see my HDR blog.

In case you’re unsure about what blue hour is exactly, it occurs directly before sunrise and after sunset when the sky turns an extremely deep blue. During heavy rain and thick clouds, however, it’s usually non-existent.

How can you improve your HDRs at blue hour?


1. Extend your brackets! Blue hour can be a highly contrasting scene, especially if there are street lights or building lights around, not to mention dark alleyways. Usually a range of -3 to +3 is sufficient. To avoid excessive noise, try to limit the ev spacing to around 1 or 1.5. So 5 to 7 brackets should be optimal.

2. Use manual focus! In a recent article I wrote about getting sharper images, I spoke about the importance of manual focus. As far as I’m concerned, it will be very difficult for anyone to reach a high standard of imagery relying completely on auto-focus. Don’t get me wrong, auto-focus is great in scenes with good light, but blue hour is often dimly lit so your lens will struggle to find fine edges. Instead, use Live View mode and zoom in as much as possible with the magnifying glass. Then slowly move the focus ring until you’re happy.

Bonus tip: Keep Live View on when you shoot your brackets. While Live View is enabled your mirror will be locked up which means there’ll be less camera shake when your brackets fire.

3. Create a deeper blue! Not all blue hours are the same, and shortly after sunset the sky usually doesn’t have that deeper blue which is sometimes more preferable. The quickest way to deepen the colour is by using the Magic Wand tool and isolating the blues image your image. To do this choose the Magic Wand tool, go over to your photo and right-click. You’ll see a number of options, click on Color Range.

Now you’ll see a box appear. Move Fuzziness to 200 and Range to 100%. Simply click on the blue sky in your image. You’ll see all but the blue colours turn red. Now click Okay and you’ll see some marching ants that mark your selection. Press CTRL + H to hide the ants and now choose the Curves adjustment layer. Now go to the Blend Mode of that layer and change it to Soft Light. You’ll immediately see the color of the sky deepen. If the effect is too much, simply reduce the opacity.

Print Screen before colour change

Print Screen after colour change

If there are blues in other parts of your image, they will be affected too so make sure you mask out any unwanted changes.

4. Remove Noise beforehand. If you’re shooting at night, even at a low ISO, you’ll still have excessive noise after using certain HDR programs. Lots of people run their source files through a noise removal program before the HDR process. This is great but it can lead to a softening of pixels and loss of detail.

hdr courses

Instead, duplicate your background layer in Photoshop, run the the top layer through a noise removal program, then mask out the areas that don’t need noise removed. For the image below, I ran noise removal in the sky only on all three RAW files and saved them as Tiffs.

That way, I retained as much detail in the foreground but controlled noise in the sky during the HDR process.

5. Make use of long exposures! During the day, or at sunset, long exposures are not an option without an ND filter. The benefit of using long exposures, apart from capturing lovely movement in moving objects such as water and clouds, is that you can create images that are virtually free from tourists.

The first image in this article, the one in Valencia, was completely free of unwanted people. In reality, there were people bobbing in and out of the shots while my shutter was open. Because I used longer exposures (a lower ISO and aperture), they weren’t captured. The challenge here is that your higher exposures will need to go beyond the 30 second bulb limit, which you can get around by shooting manually with a remote. I used my Promote Control to capture my brackets.

One this to look out for, however, is that you are more likely to get chromatic aberration and dust sensor marks in your shots if you shoot with a lower (higher number) aperture. Make sure you clean the CA up before processing with HDR software.

I hope you’ve found this information useful. For more tips and HDR photos, feel free to join me on facebook or Google+.

And you can learn HDR with me through my Beginner’s HDR tutorial and Digital Blending HDR tutorial.

  • Shankar K

    Do you guys use Magic Lantern? What you think of it compare to Promote Control?

  • Nikon_bob

    I agree, if you have the right camera Magic lantern is amazing.