The blue hour is is one of the best times to shoot travel stock photographs. It is also one of the most written about subjects on travel photography websites. Today rather than give you a generic low down on how to create blue hour images, we are going to take a look at a specific shot and reverse engineer how it was taken and post processed.
The blue hour shot in question was taken in the beautiful Belgium city of Ghent as part of a preplanned travel stock photography shoot in early September 2014.
The Blue Hour Is Often Not An Hour
As most of you will know, the blue hour occurs for a short period of time after the sun has set. This period of time will vary depending on the time of year and your latitude but in most cases, the useable light is significantly less than an hour. My location for these travel stock images was the Graslei, a beautiful canal side street with a stunning panorama of the old medieval city.
This was a location that I had planned to shoot well in advance of arriving in Ghent but I had also paid a daylight recce shot there earlier in the day to work out the best angles for the shot. Because the blue hour can be a rapid transition, I arrived on site one hour before sunset. This gave me time to finalise the very best angle for the shot and then set up the tripod and camera ready to shoot.
The other advantage of this of course is that you can incorporate the golden hour into the shoot expanding the possibilities of getting a “keeper”
Shooting The Fuji X-Pro1
My equipment consisted of a Fuji X-Pro1 mounted with a 14mm f2.8 wide angle lens. This gave me the equivalent field of view of a 21mm on a full frame camera. The camera was mounted on a Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod using a ball and socket head. This allowed for quick, fluid adjustments of the position.
On the front of the camera I mounted a Formatt-Hitech square filter holder, giving me the option to shoot with graduated NDs or my 6 stop ND filter. In my kit bag, I also had a Fuji X100s with a quick release tripod plate so that I could quickly swap cameras on the tripod. The X100s has a fixed 23mm f2.0 lens, equivalent to 35mm on full frame.
Both Fuji’s use a good old fashion mechanical cable release for remote control, however, mine had broken, so I set both cameras to a 2 second self timer to eliminate any shake when pressing the shutter.
Decent Light Is Always A Good Thing
The light was reasonably good, it had been a sunny clear day with a few white clouds in the sky, these had cleared by the time I had started shooting. I shot multiple images through the golden hour, experimenting with graduated filters and the 6 stop neutral density. My shooting mode was set to aperture priority with the aperture set to f11 to maximise depth of field. In order to get the best exposure, each shot was bracketed, from -2 stops to +2 stops, giving 5 images in total. I used the Fuji’s exposure compensation dial to achieve this.
The Sun Goes Down
As the sunset, the blue hour began to take hold. I continued to shoot a bracket of shots every two or so minutes as the light faded. The under exposed shots revealing more of the blueness of the blue hour but less detail in the shadows whilst the over exposed shots looked light but would be more workable in post production. At one stage a speed boat cruised up the canal. Sensing that this may make a great shot, I removed the 6 stop ND that I was using at the time and moved the exposure to slightly over exposed, known as shooting to the right. The shutter speed of 1.5 secs gave the boat a feeling of motion whilst still allowing the city lights to come through the image. This was the image I was most happy with during the shoot.
Working In Post Production
The post production of this image was done in Lightroom CC Classic. Because the shot was slightly over exposed, the aim of the post production was the darken the image overall, bring some of the color back into the sky regions and to punch out the city lights. All images were shot both RAW and jpeg but post production was done on the RAW version
In the Lightroom Develop module, I warmed the image up a little using the Color Temperature controls. Then I reduced the exposure a touch, making sure to keep within the tolerances of the histogram.
At the shadow end, the blacks were clipping so I used the Blacks slider to bring them back inside the histogram adding some more detail to the darker areas of the shot. To counter this lightening of the image, I reduced the Shadows slider a little, boosting the contrast. Because the sky was washed out I then moved the Whites and Highlights sliders to the left to bring some definition in.
The sky region revealed two distinct colors, the blues of the upper sky and the purple orange of the lower areas. To enhance these, I used the Lightroom HSL tool.
First I reduced the luminance in both areas of the sky, then I increased the saturation for both regions. Rather than use the sliders for this, I used the select tool, found on the top left of the HSL section. This allows you to pick an area of the image and by dragging the curser up or down you can increase or decrease the luminance and saturation.
Lastly I added some clarity and vibrance to the image as well as a small boost to the overall contrast. With careful manipulation, this slightly over exposed image was transformed into a colourful blue hour shot.
Taking a stock photograph requires planning, patience and a little luck. Shooting the blue hour, with a little planning can be a great way to build up a collection of great royalty free photos for stock agencies.