In photography, people talk a lot about the golden hour. The soft and warm tones of this time of day make for excellent photo opportunities.
But how about the Blue Hour? What does it mean? How can you capture amazing shots? And when should you go out to take advantage of this mystical time of day?
You will find out in this ultimate guide to blue hour photography for your smartphone because you do not need a fancy DSLR to take stunning photographs during this time of day.
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What is the Blue Hour of photography?
The blue hour is a period in which the sky turns a bright blue color during the shading. It happens during the transition between night and daylight, or vice versa. In the morning it is the period before sunrise and in the evening the period after sunset. After sunset, the sky often turns bright blue just before it gets dark (black).
This bright blue color is only visible during a very short time before sunrise or after sunset. The photos you take with your smartphone will enhance the blue in the sky, and it will get very bright with the right settings.
Taking blue hour photographs is very popular because of this bright blue color, but also because of the balanced light between the environment and your subject. You have to be in the right place, at the right time, to take these exciting pictures.
When is the blue hour at its best?
There are many different websites and apps you can use to find the right time of the blue hour in your area. You will see that the blue hour isn’t exactly an hour, as the name might suggest. It does happen in the hour before sunrise and after sunset. Depending on the time of year and your place on the planet, this will vary greatly.
How fast the sky turns blue during the blue hour before or after sunset depends on the direction you are shooting in. The air will remain blue the longest in the direction of the sun. On the opposite side, the sky turns dark the fastest.
Sunset: the blue hour starts getting good about 15 minutes after sunset. Make sure you arrive early so you won’t miss it.
Sunrise: the blue hour starts about an hour before sunrise and gets pretty amazing 15 minutes later. This optimal time will only last very shortly, so make sure you have your smartphone ready.
The farther away from the equator you are, the longer blue hour lasts.
Step by step guide to photographing blue hour with your phone
Here are a eleven essential steps for taking photographs during the blue hour with your smartphone. Applying these tips results in atmospheric and mystical cellphone pictures.
- Scout your location
- Download a blue hour app
- Bring a tripod
- Use a remote shutter
- Pack a torch or headlight
- Shoot in RAW format
- Try manual or pro mode
- Use the right settings
- Try HDR or multiple exposures
- Editing your images
- Be patient
1. Scout your location
Find an exciting composition that can hold the viewer’s attention. Your background and subject have to work together to create a breathtaking image. Urban areas are great to start your blue hour photography adventure. You can combine the very blue and dim sky with warm and ambient light from streetlights and light bulbs. The contrast in these colors will create a moody scene. You can visit the desired location during the day. Visualize a darker setting and try to find the best spot to set up your tripod and smartphone during the blue hour.
2. Download a blue hour app
A blue hour app is helpful by determining the best time and location to plan a photoshoot. Which blue hour app should you use? Here are a few of our favorites free and paid apps for Android and iOS. Rating and prices are based on one particular moment (during time of writing).
Phototime Blue and Golden Hour, Moon Phase Android app
The Phototime app tells you when the best lighting opportunities are during blue and golden hour. It also gives you insight into the moon phases. The size and brightness of the moon will affect the outcome of your blue hour images.
Features: A golden and blue hour calculator, day length, solar noon, twilight, dusk and dawn, customizable time and location.
Price: You can download the app for free in the Google Play store.
Rating: 4.9 out of 5 stars with over 4500 reviews
Phototime is the best free app for blue hour information for Android smartphones.
Blue Hour Solar Photography Calculator Android app
The Blue Hour app has been developed to assist photographers in searching for the best time and place to shoot blue hour images. You can also see sunrise and sunset with blue hour, golden hour, and twilight times as well as data about moonrise, moonset, and moon phases.
Features: A calculation of sunrise, sunset, solar noon, moonrise, moonset, blue hour, twilight, and golden hour. It features a 5-day weather prediction as well.
Price: You can download the app for $1.99 in the Google Play store.
Rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars with over 500 reviews
Lumy Track Photographic Times iOS app
The Lumy app for iPhone is a clean and helpful app to take beautiful images by keeping track of the magical hours. You can easily anticipate the best lighting conditions and take advantage of realtime and dynamic notifications. You won’t need an active internet connection to use this application.
Features: A today’s widget, weather information, sunrise, sunset, magic hours, twilight, dynamic notifications with live countdown, support for Apple Watch, and Apple TV.
Price: You can download the app in the Apple Store for $2.99
Rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars with 13 reviews
B&G blue hour, golden hour iOS app
The B&G app for iPhone helps you find the best lighting conditions for your blue hour photographs. It works smoothly and intuitively with GPS location and date. Following the suggestion of their users, the use of GPS is no longer mandatory. You can manage multiple places at once and customize notifications.
Features: Easy user interface, multiple locations management, event reminders, no data connection required (weather forecast excluded), iOS 13+ dark mode support, weather forecast, golden hour, blue hour, and moon phases.
Price: You can download the B&G app from the Apple Store for $0.99
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars with over 180 reviews.
Golden Hour One iOS app
The Golden Hour One app helps you to find the best time, place, and weather, to take your blue hour pictures. You will find it easy to use the interface. Don’t be afraid of all the possibilities like the sky, light, and moon indexes, weather descriptions, and azimuth and altitude of the sun or moon. You can use it for golden hour and super moon photography as well as blue hour photography.
Features: Easy to use interface, golden and blue hour, moon phases, sky, light, and moon index, 5-day weather forecast, unique weather description, map compass, time and direction of the sun and moonrise/set, civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight, and much more.
Price: You can find the Golden Hour One app in the Apple Store for $3.99 (its worth it).
Rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars with over 550 reviews.
3. Bring a tripod
When you are shooting during the blue hour with longer shutter speed, you can enhance the blue in the sky. It would help if you had a tripod to shoot with slower shutter speed. It will ensure that your smartphone camera is stable and moves as little as possible during the photoshoot.
A strong and sturdy tripod that can hold your phone’s weight is an essential piece of gear. Keep in mind that you will be taking pictures during low-light conditions. The use of a tripod will prevent noisy and unsharp images; therefore, it is your best friend.
Having a tripod in your gear pack will also enable you to get creative with multiple exposures and HDR photographs.
There are many tripods on the market these days, and with a universal smartphone mount, you will be able to use them with your mobile phone. We have put together a list of our favorite tripods for smartphone photography. The tripods in our top 3 are lightweight, flexible, yet sturdy and reliable. And you do not have to break the bank to buy them.
4. Use a remote shutter
Another critical piece of equipment that works wonders in combination with a tripod is a wireless remote shutter. It will help you avoid smartphone movement in your shots. When shooting on a tripod, even the slightest vibrations can end up being visible in your photographs. Touching your smartphone screen will create movement and vibrations.
If you don’t have a wireless shutter, you can find our top 3 here. Or you can even use the headphones provided with your phone to release the shutter. Most headphones can do this by pressing the volume up or down button after you attached it to the headphone jack of your smartphone.
5. Pack a torch or headlight
It is probably not your go-to gear item for smartphone photography, but it can come in very handy during the blue hour. Whether you decide to do a photoshoot before sunrise or after sunset, it will be dark. A good light will help you with setting your tripod.
A torch will do the job, although a headlight might even be more convenient. You can keep your hands free to set up your shoot. You can also use one of these light sources to photograph light trails during the blue hour.
6. Shoot in RAW format
Yes! We know, we tell you time and time again, but it does help your photography. If you plan on doing any post-production editing, you should shoot in RAW. Blue hour photographs generally need a good amount of editing.
These kinds of images will have uncompressed, unprocessed, and very detailed information embedded in the RAW file. It will allow you to adjust the shadows and highlights properly without making the final result artificial-looking. Furthermore, you can change things like exposure compensation and white balance.
Many newer smartphones will have a RAW image option in the stock camera app that comes with the phone. Typically you can find it in the camera settings under image size. You might have to activate the pro or manual mode first.
If you want to know more about taking RAW images with your smartphone, please take a look at this article. It describes how to take RAW photos with your phone and which apps are suitable for taking RAW images and post-production.
7. Try Manual or Pro mode
Most smartphone cameras use automatic settings for taking pictures. But we strongly recommend you to use manual or pro mode to set the desired settings yourself. You can find the manual mode under settings or by swiping up on the camera screen. If your mobile phone does not have a pro mode, you can download a third-party app that can do it for you. You can read more about using manual and pro mode here. With pro mode, you can set ISO, white balance, and shutter speed yourself. Some Samsung phones even allow you to set the aperture.
8. Use the right settings
What are the correct settings for taking blue hour photographs? It all depends on the kind of image you want to make and your location of preference.
If you want to freeze motion and don’t have a tripod in your gear bag, you should set a high ISO value and low aperture. Your shutter speed should range between 1/30 to 1/60 or faster. If your smartphone has image stabilization, use it.
If you have a tripod and you want to show motion in your photos, use a long exposure (under 30 seconds). The ISO will need to be higher as it gets darker. Try to stay under 400, or the result will be grainy. It might prove challenging to get enough light into the sensor of your smartphone. Just try different settings and see what kind of results you get.
Low light can fool your smartphone camera. Therefore, it is a good idea to use manual focus so your camera won’t adjust your focus point. Go to the manual mode and look for the MF icon. You can read more about manually focussing your smartphone camera in this article.
9. Try HDR or multiple exposures
You will come across a lot of highlights in the sky while shooting in the blue hour when the suns sets or rises. At the same time, you have to deal with very dark shadows. A solution to deal with these significant differences in light is HDR or multiple exposure photography.
You can find an HDR (High Dynamic Range) option in the settings of your camera app. It enables multiple shots with different exposures, starting from the brightest to the darkest image. The images are combined into one photograph with the built-in software of your mobile phone. The result is a dramatic image with amazing shadows and highlights. It depends on the kind of phone whether or not the outcome is successful. Some smartphones do an excellent job, but others won’t. Try it, and see for yourself.
10. Editing your blue hour images
You don’t want to overdo it if you’re going to edit your blue hour RAW images to create amazing results. Let the bright blue sky speak for itself. Overpowering the image with filters will take away from its authenticity. Here are a few settings you can change:
- Straighten the horizon
- Crop the image (if necessary)
- Adjust exposure, clarity, and contrast
- Play with shadows and blacks
- Choose matching highlights
- Find a natural color profile with HSL tab and color temperature
- Use gradient masks to adjust certain parts of the image
- Consider a vignette. You can also use the radial mask to create the same result. It will focus the viewer’s eye to the essential part of the image.
Keep in mind that lights, like city lanterns, will create a warm contrast with the deep blue sky. You might want to warm them up. You can even sharpen the buildings in a cityscape to create a crips result.
11. Be patient
By now, you have learned that dramatic blue hour light means beautiful photographs. Good results take time. You will have to wait patiently for the best light before taking your pictures. Practice and come back to the same spot multiple times to improve your shots. After a while, you will get the hang of it.
Blue Hour Photo ideas for Smartphone photographers
Here are a few of our favorite ideas to help you on your way during the next blue hour.
- Long exposure images
- Nature landscapes
- Foggy morning
- Moon rising
- Light painting
What causes blue hour?
The blue in blue hour stands for a deep color with cold color temperature and quite a bit of saturation. At the blue hour time, the sun’s geometric center is between -4° and -6° of elevation in the evening. And vice versa in the morning. The indirect sunlight from the setting or rising sun creates a predominantly blue shade caused by Chappuis absorption caused by ozone.
This effect is much weaker during the daylight hours. When the sky is clear of clouds, the blue hour can be a colorful spectacle with the indirect sunlight painting the sky yellow, orange, red, and blue. During blue hour, red light passes through space, and blue light is scattered in the atmosphere, reaching the earth’s surface. That’s when it is visible to the human eye and our smartphone cameras.