Kategorie-Archiv: Advice

10 Reasons for Shooting the Blue Hour!

 

Originally released in the February 2016 issue of the famous Landscape Photography Magazine. I am now able to bring you this article also on my personal blog. However I highly recommend checking out the magazine since it contains great articles and stunning photographs on a monthly basis. Now without any further ado here are „10 Reasons for Shooting the Blue Hour!“

Taken on a magical morning, the atmosphere was captivating, almost complete silence only seldom broken by the sound of cracking twigs or animal noises down in the forest below.

Taken on a magical morning, the atmosphere was captivating, almost complete silence only seldom broken by the sound of cracking twigs or animal noises down in the forest below.

 


 

Over the recent years I’ve more and more grown to prefer shooting the blue rather than the golden hour. It’s the time after the sun has set and the sky becomes colored in intensive blue light and oftentimes,  depending on the cloud coverage, the landscape as well. Most photographers prefer the warm light of the golden hour just before the sun dips beneath the horizon, but here for your consideration I’ve gathered some reasons, why you should also consider shooting during the blue hour instead of picking up your camera and leave!

 1. It’s Less Busy:

Of course this is the first thing that comes to mind for many photographers; but I can’t stretch this enough. Often times I find myself – especially in the evening – at a spot I’ve been aching to shoot during a sunset, and there are still people around and tend to walk by, distracting me from my composition, walking through my composition or, depending on the size of the spot I might be standing in, even bump into me – this has indeed happened. Suddenly after the sun has vanished most people tend to lose interest in the landscape though and in a brief amount of time I find myself alone and can enjoy the serenity of engaging in photography without human distraction. This sense of having the spot to myself often translates into my image and makes it all the more valuable on a personal level.

 2. Mercury Falling:

The second reason you should wait until the sun has set is that the light quality might still increase. Let’s say you have a hazy sunset. Often times due to the mercury falling the weather conditions can change swiftly after the sun has dipped behind the horizon and the clouds may dissipate and give way to a gentle and nice blue hue over the course of time before transitioning to black.

 3. Foggy Conditions

The opposite may be said about the blue hour in the morning before the sun has risen. This is the best time of day to get foggy conditions especially with high humidity resulting from showers the night before. It is very rewarding shooting in early morning fog for it helps to isolate certain areas or objects within your composition, rendering scenes that would otherwise be loaded with distracting elements nice and orderly.

Four minutes condensed into a single frame. Shortly before sunrise, the world slowly awakening around the Hintersee, the Hochkalter is dissembled in morning mist like a giant treading in the distance.

In this case the foggy conditions offered me a unique opportunity to capture the clear foreground with the mountains partly dissembled in the fog, enabling me to shoot a really dreamy image.

4. High Quality of Light

I know many people prefer blistering sunsets and scarlet clouds for their graphic impact but often times sunsets are dull and colorless, or they simply not breathtaking enough to keep up with what you may have seen on social media the day before. Even though this may have been the thing motivating you in the first place to finally get your camera out and go to that spot you figure you should’ve visited that day in spring, when the sky seemed to be on fire it’s often time preferable to simply wait for the blue hour after the sunset or start shooting before sunrise. The blue hour offers gentle blue hues that make for a dreamy look and also the air, due to the low temperatures, might be clearer from haze as mentioned before. Blue is after all the color of yearning and it helps to paint some usually even mundane landscape very interesting!

 

Germany's highest mountain in the late blue hour at dusk. The half-moon rising behind the massif, giving the scenery a stunning light condition. The perfect stillness of the waters beneath contrasted to the dramatic cloud movement shows how unique the conditions turned out to be.

These two shots were separated by a time frame of about half an hour. The upper one was taken shortly after the sunset and the latter in the late blue hour with the moon rising behind the mountain ridge. I had planned a sunset and glow on the ridge which wasn’t coming but just as well I knew the moon was about to ascend behind the mountain massif so I waited and hoped for a break in the clouds which fortunately came exactly when needed.

 5. Moody Atmosphere:

I guess this was the reason why I tend more and more towards shooting during the blue hour no matter if in the morning or in the evening. With the advent of day there is a sense of getting to witness something that other people may not even appreciate or notice. The gentle lighting that appears long before the sun throws it’s light at you can be breathtaking, seeing how everything around you slowly comes to life – the first twitter of the birds, the first cow mooing, or even in the city meeting the guy who brings the newspaper at 4am in the morning and wishing him a good day. Getting up earlier than most can be rewarding in itself.

 6. A Surreal Touch

I’ve always been someone, from the very beginning of my photography adventures actually, who was looking for something that the eye might not even be able to perceive, and with modern cameras (actually also almost just as good back in the film days) able to catch sights that we might not even be able to see there are a lot of possibilities to get otherworldly imagery. During the early or late phase – depending on the time of day – of the blue hour the camera can reveal little details that we cannot see. Often this is achieved by simply using a slower shutter speed unveiling for example the movement in the clouds, or the fog rolling in, the orange hues of light pollution against the sky or the first stars of the eve blinking in the sky already. I love seeing what my sensor picks up, adding a sense of surreal wonder to my work.

In a twenty minute exposure, capturing the time span some people spend watching a sitcom episode or to make a frozen pizza, my camera reduced the coming dawn into a single frame, resulting in the quintessence of the tranquility of the night. A time when silence is to be beheld even in settled areas with only little to no man out in the open, most still in their beds.

The image above was taken with the first light of day being reflected by the atmosphere and exposed for about 20 minutes. The patch of light pollution in the sky is able to balance out the little house in the foreground and the wavy mist makes for a gentle transition to the sky.

The shot below was taken about an hour later and neither the length of the exposure, nor the fog or the blue hues are anywhere near the conditions before.

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7. Shooting on Weekdays:

I guess this reason is something for the pragmatist. Most of photographers also have to get a regular day job or have shift work. As an ardent photographer it hurts to miss the sunset or sunrise because of something as tedious as having to work to pay your bills. Still, if you make it past a spot on your way to home or work during the blue hour, why not simply get out of the car and capture the last photons the atmosphere reflects onto your chip? Often, when I drove to university, I had my camera with me and decided to stop by a small pond on the way to the highway and shot herons in the early dawn likewise I have often missed the sunset on a road trip due to unforeseeable time constraints or simply because I didn’t make it up the mountain fast enough. In the end I always had an image I was content with, nowadays even more so, because I’ve grown to prefer the blue hour.

 8. Setting up Night Shots:

This leads me to the next point. You often see breathtaking stellar scapes all over the internet. And while most of them are taken at night, most of the compositions are set up during the evening. One of the ways to make sure that your night shots have sharp foreground is to shoot in the late blue hour, when you are still able to focus, and then simply let the camera sit for a while (you might want to look out for the lens fogging over though) until darkness falls and then shoot the same composition again with a wide aperture to get all the stars in – you can either add them in post-processing later, which has a common technique over the last years or even do all that with a double exposure in camera.

The milkyway rising over the Vallée du Clarée with the light pollution of the cities in the south glowing over the mountains. This is a composite of two images taken before and after I set up my tent without moving the camera in between - an easy way to shoot the twilight without having to edit the image to an unrealistic extend.

Here I set up the camera and shot the foreground during the blue hour with sufficient light to get a foreground that was sharp and in focus, then after the milky way was clearly visible in the sky I shot the 2nd exposure for the sky and merged them in post-processing.

 9. No Need for Filters:

As mentioned before with decreasing light, not light that has not arrived just yet, you have the chance to take long exposures – or rather there is the necessity to do so unless you want really noisy images which I doubt you do. Now I’m bringing this up because with daylight you usually need filters to achieve longer shutter speeds. Filters may cost money, you have to take them along and some lenses, especially ultra wide lenses sometimes don’t even take filters without expensive custom made holder systems. So to avoid this you simply use the absence of light to your advantage, and while it might be only a brief period of time to take longer exposures depending on altitude, longitude and time of the year, it can be sufficient to get in some great shots without having to invest in filters. Same goes for getting an even exposure, at daytime the sky oftentimes is way brighter than the foreground you’re shooting and during the blue hour the light is more balanced between sky and the earth so you won’t need multiple exposures or GND Filters to get an even exposure either.

Rain, wind and the relentless tides are the elements that forged these characteristic rock formations at Praia da Adraga in an endless flow of time. With this long exposure I tried to capture this sense of fortitude.

Rain, wind and the relentless tides are the elements that forged these characteristic rock formations at Praia da Adraga in an endless flow of time. With this long exposure I tried to capture this sense of fortitude.

 10. Time Efficiency

Coming back to my earlier argument about being able to shoot on weekdays. Another related though thought is that after you have gotten up at 5am in the morning and shooting past 7am before the sun rises, or even an hour longer to get in the nice golden light of the nascent day. It’s 8am and the whole day is still there for you to tinker with. It might be a minor aspect for some but I love having the day to drive to the next location – or even being able to climb down a mountain drive to the next one and walk up again to be in time for the next sunset or blue hour shot I may want to take. And when you’re at the ocean you may even make it onto the surfboard before the tourist swell rolls in.

Long after the sunset the light pollution renders the skies over Cap Frehel almost as colorful as a sunset, even the reflection of the ocean waves crushing against the cliffs is remnant of a vibrant skyfire.

Long after the sunset with the remaining light coming in from the ocean tinting the water and the cliffs still gently blue the light pollution was already bursting out into flames. Shortly after this was taken the blue was completely gone, and everything had the ominous glow of the city and the scenery was only half as interesting as pictured here.

 Bonus: Dedicated Photographers:

Another point I have to share is that, in the unlikely case that you’re not sitting alone  at 4am on top of a mountain there is a reason for it, being that you’re not the only one dedicated enough to get up that early to enjoy the blue hour. Chances are that the guy next to you is just as much of a passionate photographer as you are, which is a good thing. This may sound like a antithetical argument to the way I started the article, but I have met several interesting peoples over the years and had some great conversations with them, getting some insider information about the spot or other spots in the vicinity, about certain techniques or maybe just about how we know the same people from the online realm and that we like the same photographers.

 


 

I hope this shot summary will motivate some people to stay the extra hour or get up earlier to reap the benefits the blue hour has to offer for us landscapers. Just don’t forget to bring warmer clothing – a lens warmer might be helpful too,  as well as some gummy bears or a themos jug of hot beverage. And if you’re in for longer captures way into the night, better bring something to sit on, the ground may get cold deepening on the time of year.

The classic jetty view of Derwent Water, one of the most photographed locations in the UK. But you rarely see it pictured during a rainy blue hour even though the Lake District is one of the most humid areas of the island.

The classic jetty view of Derwent Water, one of the most photographed locations in the UK. But you rarely see it pictured during a rainy blue hour even though the Lake District is one of the most humid areas of the island.

After the full moon drifts past the horizon, for a brief moment before the sun rises, the scenery around the lighthouse Phare du Petit Minou is painted in bluish, scarlet light and the flare glimmers on the stone pavement leading up the the building.

After the full moon drifts past the horizon, for a brief moment before the sun rises, the scenery around the lighthouse Phare du Petit Minou is painted in bluish, scarlet light and the flare glimmers on the stone pavement leading up the the building.

New gear does make you a better photographer?!

 

Often you read professional photographer’s blogs that go on about how new and better gear does not make you a better photographer, but it is a rather all in the skills one possesses and develops over time. This blog entry is somewhat of a combatant against this stereotype briefly addressing three major arguments why that simply is not true. But just as a reminder, good gear does not make a good photographer either, one needs both in order to succeed.

1. Blame Shifting

This is the most straight forward argument for getting new gear especially with young photographers starting out. Many feel that they just can’t achieve what they imagined starting out because their gear is holding them back. Back in the day I looked at the EXIF of so many great photos and thought, damn how did he or she do that with these settings? I bet it’s the camera, I thought to myself, because I had a measly Pentax istDL which, even back in the day, was already outdated and a kit lens which did not boast any image fidelity. In my mind, compared to the cameras and lenses all the images I was looking at online and in magazines were taken with, I just didn’t have the tools I thought. Even when I had the basics down and knew what to do in which situation (a least I thought I did) my shots looked nothing similar to what I had expected when I came home and worked on the raw files.

 

The milkyway rising over the Vallée du Clarée with the light pollution of the cities in the south glowing over the mountains. This is a composite of two images taken before and after I set up my tent without moving the camera in between - an easy way to shoot the twilight without having to edit the image to an unrealistic extend.
This shot involved some extensive camera skills I was not aware off. Merging several, different points in time over the duration of two hours without moving the camera. Merging them in post-processing. Getting such a noise free foreground does not have anything to do with the camera but rather with the point it time it was taken. In the late blue hour, the night sky was shot later and merged with the foreground in post as a measure to get a noise free foreground – a technique many professionals use. Not being aware of it I often wondered about how other landscapers got shots like this.

 

It was always easy for me to simply blame my camera, instead of my inefficient skills and lack of knowledge about the subject I was engaged with. Once I moved up the technical ranks with my Pentax K20D and the exquisite Pentax K5, later switching to my Nikon D800, it became harder for me evading the reality that it was not the camera but me who was just not able to capture things how I pre-visualized them. I started thinking that I do have a camera with which others achieved great results, so it can’t be the camera, it has to be me. And the more I realized that the more I dug into how to do things the proper way, investing much more time into the hobby and slowly but surely getting the results I wanted. And in case the outcome did not I look as expected, I confronted myself with the fact I had done something wrong, subsequently occupying myself with quite a lot of trial and error, reading and socializing with other photographers to get things right. I had not done any of those to such a productive extent before because I just gave up, saying it were the technical limitations of the gear that kept me from reaching further.

2. Technical Limitations

Now this is the part nobody wants to read: even though I argued that technical limitations are not always the problem, sometimes they are. I would hope that someday professional photographers would stop telling people that technical limitations are not evident or denying that are they effectively limiting the possibilities of the individual photographer; it’s just not true. In my case I did my fare share of night photography and long exposures over the years and with my first cameras it was not technically possible to achieve comparable results, which really did de-motivate me. I drove south into the Alps, going for some overnight hikes, only to realize that a milky way shot at f/4.0 with a my crop sensor  just didn’t look anything comparable to what might be attainable with a full frame camera and f/2.8 (which was what my fellow traveler at the time was working with). Of course because neither was I able to get the same amount of light due to the larger aperture value nor as „little“ noise as my friend. Being all but content with the outcome I just had to abandon night photography I thought, otherwise I’d always be bummed that I wasn’t able to produce anything as breathtaking as what I had in mind. I tried to work more in the seascape area and did mostly sunsets and sunrise shots. But by heart I’ve always been drawn to the twilight, so this made me very unhappy to say the least. But as a student working part time to finance me upgrading gear was always a tough choice in the end I decided to invest.

 

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Looking at the left border you will see a purple color banding as well as next to it a color alteration tending towards green. This can happen when your sensor is heating up after several long exposures. Doing mainly long exposures even back in 2009 this was a harrowing issue for me, I felt definitely technically limited, because after a few shots this issue forced me to wait for the chip to cool down.

 

(Note though, that this is now 5 years in the past, and cameras are constantly improving in terms of night photography the Pentax K5 and the K3 were already vast improvements and thoroughly suitable for night photography.)

 

During a 20 minute exposure the light adds up to intricate star trails and the gentle orange becomes visible as the dawn is only an hour out over this valley in the Saxony Switzerland.
During a 20 minute exposure the light adds up to intricate star trails and the gentle orange becomes visible as the dawn is only an hour out over this valley in the Saxony Switzerland. Due to the low temperature the shot resulted in extremely low noise.

 

The same scenario can also be applied to other types of photography. Shooting wildlife with my 24-85mm lens is nearly impossible, same can basically be said for all standard focal lengths. Depending on what animal you’re after spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on tele-lenses and extenders seems like the only possibility to catch a bald eagle in mid flight or shot a moose in the morning mist or maybe a cheetah chasing its prey. Same goes for other specialized areas of nature photography such as astro, macro or underwater photography. You have to have the gear to get adequate results. Underwater shooting without a water-housing, doing macros without a macro lens or extenders? Other areas of photography feature other but ultimately similar limitations.

 

Even with my 70-200 on a crop sensor I had to get fairly close to this stag in order to get the shot. Without the tele lens it would have been nearly impossible to take this photo.
Even with my 70-200 on a crop sensor , resulting in a total of 300mm, I had to sneak fairly close to this stag in order to get the shot. Without the tele lens it would have been nearly impossible to take this photo though.

3. Motivation and Experience

Now this is the positive side that many who claim that new equipment doesn’t make you a better photographer always tend to forget. A new toy is always motivating to actually go out and try new things, after all you didn’t buy a expensive near piece of gear not to use it. Most recently I bought a 14mm 2.8 prime lens to capture the night sky in Iceland, but since my last alpine trip, which was supposed to be a test run, was cut short due to vehicular problems I didn’t get to use it for what I had in mind. Instead I was stuck at home not using it? No, I just drove out to some nearby locations only to toy with it, seeing what I could do with the lens composition-wise and how it differs from my other lenses when it comes to night photography, getting a feeling for my newly gained technical possibilities the lens brought to the table for me. I did this in order to be prepared for next time I’m in the field so I know what my options are and can decide and act accordingly.

Getting any kind of gear usually leads to a lot of experimenting and trying new things,  gaining new insights into one’s own routines and sometimes even breaking them thereby extending the virtual toolset. I never tried star trails or time-lapse until I had a remote shutter for example. I never thought about trying macro until I had a Tamron 90mm macro lens to actually try it, even though I did buy it for portrait work. Ultimately I ended up selling it because I decided that macro was not for me but I gained new experiences working with the lens, for example learning much about the proper use negative space and bokeh in nature photography.

 

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Here I lit up the band from the front with three flashes to combat the sun. A shot like this is not possible with a reflector alone. Here the gear clearly increased the possibilities for the uses of light and composition not possible without.

 

One might consider this, as many photographers are learning by doing, a new toy means a new game. And much like children play to learn and develop their cognitive skills, the same can be said about photographers and their skills. Sadly this often comes down to a trade of money against experience which ultimately comes down to the classic modern dualism of time vs. money.

My advice to many photographers has been start to work with a camera or a lens until you have done everything you can, technically, before thinking of buying something new. Only that way you really know if it’s you or the gear that prevents you from achieving the desired results. For me it took fairly long until I decided to move to full frame because with my Pentax K5 I felt it delivered good results and the switch wasn’t necessary. But with my focus shifting more and more towards the night and getting to print bigger and bigger prints I reckoned that investing in a new camera  would also make every buck spent on upcoming trips more worth it because (at least potentially) I was able to get better quality images on all of them.

The question however remains, what it the problem, the photographer or camera? This question has to be asked because against popular opinion I state that it’s not always only the photographer, it can in fact also be the camera (or other parts of the gear) hindering progress. Ultimately getting better gear is of course no shortcut to being a good photographer but it can play a vital role provided that one actually knows what the reason tampering with the results is.

 

The moon lit up by the sun slowly drifts upward behind the Aiguille d'Avres. It's light being refracted by the earth atmosphere becomes akin to that of a sunset when exposed for a longer amount of time. Without even a haze of wind the picturesque Lac Guichard reflects the moons beams in between the plants which slowly overgrow the lakeside each year.
The moon lit up by the sun slowly drifts upward behind the Aiguille d’Avres. It’s light being refracted by the earth atmosphere becomes akin to that of a sunset when exposed for a longer amount of time. Without even a haze of wind the picturesque Lac Guichard reflects the moons beams in between the plants which slowly overgrow the lakeside each year. This shot is merge of several high ISO shots to clean out the noise in the mid-ground again overcoming technical limitations by knowledge in the field and in post work.