Today I wanted to talk about one of the things I’ve been most passionate about this entire week (and also the past 1 ½ years): Blue hour! Or more so: Blue Hour Photography and Long Exposure Photography.
Ever since starting off with my old Canon Rebel, I’ve been drawn to fancy pictures taken at night and magical exposures that can only happen with a tripod. Up to quite recently, the creation of these images were quite a mystery to me. But in June of 2013 I took a workshop hosted by Gabriel Biderman at B&H – one of the largest camera stores in the US. He was discussing the magic happening at night and various techniques to make pictures stand out. I was absolutely drawn into his discussion and two days later, after buying a tripod and a remote control, I was standing at the intersections outside of the Barclay’s Center, ready to try my luck. Well, the first few images turned out better than thought. I proceeded to Grand Army Plaza, and captured one of my most cherished pictures to date.
Barclay’s Center mess
A cab waiting outside of Grand Army Plaza – what timing!
Up to this date, I have taken this passion to another level and am now aiming towards publishing my first calendar and perhaps book in the near future. I have been featured in a Gallery in Greenpoint last year with a diversity of night photographs. Even though my photographic vision has not always been crystal clear, I am now getting to a point where I can say that I am starting to feel pretty satisfied after a successful night shoot.
There is nothing really that can describe the magic happening at night. The lights, the shadows – it all becomes sharper than during the day hours. The way a long exposed sky looks like, how the clouds flow into each other. And of course the smoothness of water, which has been photographed for 30 seconds and longer. I could go on and on.
Photographing at night comes with plenty of caveats and pitfalls. Here are a few:
1) When aiming for cityscapes, the best time is not pitch darkness but blue hour. Blue hour happens 20-40minutes after sunset and roughly 30-15 minutes before sunrise, depending on time zone. To get a better overview, the Blue Hour Site can be very helpful as you can define city, date, and time.
The difference between blue hour and regular night time is perfectly illustrated in the image below. After the sky turns into blackness, lights become messy and exposure times are all over the place. Of course, some people prefer one style over another. I see more potential during blue hour.
A bit messy lights during off-blue-hour
Blue hour magic
2) When aiming for long exposures, a tripod is a must. I look back at some shaky images taken without a tripod, when I hoisted my camera on top of a stone/ rock/ whatever, and I would like to bang my head against the wall. If I had just spent the money on a cheap or halfway decent tripod back then, I would have been able to go for better images. Instead, I can only cross those off as missed opportunities and move on.
3) When aiming for perfect control, a remote control is essential. It can be either battery-powered or wired to your camera. To this date, I still prefer wired controls as I hate to be out of batteries when on a night shoot. Remotes don’t have to cost a whole lot (I started with a $5 one from Vello and it hasn’t failed me terribly). They give you more control over exposure time. Since you will want to put your camera setting onto “Bulb”, you will be able to go over the 30 seconds, which is what the semi-manual control gives you.
4) When aiming for uniqueness, getting up early is worth it. This, of course, can be true for anything, not only photography. This week I got to catch a perfect sunrise in Dumbo before anyone else was able to trek the grounds and walk all over my picture. Perhaps you know the dumb feeling of another photographer standing right next to or behind you, obstructing your view or simply annoying you. It can mess with your creative vibes and it can also just make you want to stop right then and there.
5) When aiming for perfection, go ahead and do it all over again. I’ve started replicating older photographs, which were taken with a different camera and a different lens. I’ve also gone two nights in a row if I happened to miss out a great opportunity the night before. Since blue hour only lasts 20 short minutes, I seldom get what I need the first time. I’ve gone to the Brooklyn Library up to 5 times throughout the past 1 ½ years. I’ve also gone back to the Gowanus Canal two months in a row because it was simply too cold the first time around. Dedication and timing is a crucial part of snapping the right photograph.
Coney Island has also become my favorite spot to do night photog
6) Have a project in mind. It will help you in getting what you want. I first started off with random images of buildings throughout New York and wherever I went. I am now more aimed towards architecture, landscapes, and whatever else is available to me. I try to only do certain aspects of a city at night, even though it’s hard to bring my tripod every time I travel. Researching a place and the images that have been taken by other tourists before helps in gaining understanding of how to make a spot pop or how to view it from a different, not-yet-explored angle.
Manhattan skyline as seen from a rather unusual point in Brooklyn
7) Be open to the unknown. Some of my best pictures involve unexpected light painting, which I will never be able to replicate. Have a creative heart in seeking out some new viewpoints. Venture out during cold weather, when no one else will get that shot. Be unique and you will have unique images.
BAM light painting by a truck
I hope this helps in gaining an initial understanding of blue hour magic. Perhaps you would even like to try yourself on some solid long exposure photography.