Shooting buildings during the blue hour is a great way to capture exciting photos you’ll want to print and hang. When you shoot at other times during the day, the buildings may look flat and the sky will be too bright but when you shoot during the blue hour, you can capture more detail and create more dimension in the photo.
What is the blue hour?
It’s important to understand that the blue hour rarely lasts an hour! It’s the time just after the sun has set below the horizon in the evening or just before it has risen in the morning. Depending on your latitude and the time of year, it may only last a few minutes. Before you set out to take your photo, be sure to check when the blue hour will begin and end on that day. I’ll include a link to an app that I use to find this information at the end of the post.
Here’s a tip for extending the blue hour a bit. Lengthen your shutter speed. It’s amazing what light your camera sensor can gather if you use a longer shutter speed.
Shooting lit buildings during the blue hour
Many famous cities and landmarks are lit by floodlights at night and those floodlights bathe the buildings in a warm and golden glow. The best way to emphasize the buildings is to add a complementary color behind them. That’s exactly what you are doing when you add the deep blue of the sky during the blue hour. (Tip: Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel. I’ll include a link to an article about them later in this post.)
In this photo of Le Mont Saint Michel in France, most of the building light is coming from the floodlights. Since not all the buildings are lit, it’s easy to see the powerful effect that the lighting makes. Without it, the photo would be a silhouette and lack the pop that the complementary colors create.
Here’s another tip. Overcast or rainy skies during the day can ruin your photoshoot, but if you wait to shoot buildings until the blue hour, you’ll be rewarded. When I took this photo, I was huddled beneath an umbrella in a cold drizzle. I love the way the stormy clouds added an additional dimension to the sky.
Shooting Gwanghwamun Gate during the blue hour
Here is another example of shooting a lit building during the blue hour. All the light on the gate is coming from floodlights. The gate pops against the rich blue sky. Can you see the clouds? The sun below the horizon is reflecting off them and causing a pink glow.
I’ve written the story of shooting this photo in another post and will include a link at the bottom of this post. It took a lot of patience, due to traffic patterns.
Shooting buildings with multiple light sources during the blue hour
If you’ve visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, you’ve probably seen The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. I thought it would be a perfect building to shoot during the blue hour. Skip and I arrived early to scout out a good location and set up my tripod. Then we waited and waited for the lights to come on.
As you can see, most of the light is from floodlights. However, there are also lights hanging from lamp posts in front of the cathedral and some light coming from the large and small circular windows. What these lights have in common is a warm glow, so the building pops from the blue sky.
Remember how I said that we waited and waited? Some of the lights never came on. In the end, I was able to add the glow to those lamps in post-processing. Otherwise, they stood out and drew your attention as you looked at the photo. That was definitely not my intention!
Shooting the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai at dusk and dawn
I love adding additional elements to bring excitement to a photo. In this case, the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai had two sources of light. One source was the floodlights. The other was light coming from the windows. The surrounding buildings were primarily lit with window light.
The rushing traffic below added a third source of light and excitement. As you look around the photo, you’ll also notice the star pattern formed by a streetlight. Did you see the moon and stars in the sky? All this warm light pops off the cool blue sky. To get this shot, I set up my tripod on a bridge overpass.
Don’t forget, you can shoot buildings during the blue hour twice a day! There’s a blue hour just before the sun rises in the morning. I shot this photo of the Oriental Pearl Tower in the early morning by setting up my tripod across the Huangpu River in the Bund to capture a different angle. Tip: Many cities turn off the floodlights and building lights during the night. In that case, this photo would have been a silhouette. It’s a good idea to do research before you set your alarm to get up long before dawn. 😉
Can you shoot buildings during the blue hour without a tripod?
Generally, you need a tripod to shoot blue hour photography. So, what happens if you stumble across a beautiful scene at just the right moment and don’t have your tripod? The solution is to shoot at a faster shutter speed. Since a faster shutter speed will pick up less light, you may end up with an underexposed photo, but you can always try to increase the exposure in post-processing.
You’ll also need to steady your camera as much as possible. (See the link below to a post I wrote about shooting the photo of Château Frontenac in Québec City.) The good news is that newer cameras and lenses have much better stabilization at slower shutter speeds!
Now it’s your turn.
Here are the links I promised:
The app I use for finding the time of the blue hour is PhotoPills. You can find it on the App Store here.
Click on this link to read an article about complementary colors.
To read my post of the story of shooting the photo of Gwanghwamun Gate in Seoul, South Korea, click here.
You’ll find my post about night photography, by clicking here.
Click here, to read my post about how to hold your camera steady with a slower shutter speed,
Now, do a little research and find a building near you to shoot during the blue hour. Be sure to check when the blue hour will be. Then, grab your camera and tripod and head out to practice.
What’s your favorite thing to shoot during the blue hour?