Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hand-held Blue Hour Photography

Morning "Blue Hour" in Varenna, Italy - taken from a rocking boat on Lake Como ~ © Royce Bair
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 28mm, f/2.8, 1/60 second, ISO 3200 (click to enlarge)
The Blue Hour is a period when the sun is between 4º and 6º degrees below the horizon. This period rarely lasts more than about 20-40 minutes (not an hour), depending on where you are in the world and the time of the year. This special twilight period happens both in the morning, before the sun rises, and after the sun sets. There are several apps that can calculate this period for you. My favorite is the BlueHourSite, where you can get the info for free (they also have an app for your smartphone). The special quality of the BH allows you to get the look of a night photo, but still have enough ambient light to see some shadow detail, like in the above photo I took two weeks ago in Italy. If your exposure is done correctly, street and building lights glow warmly against the dark blue sky, without blowing out, like they do in a late night scene.

Regular Blue Hour Shooting Recipe: Most Blue Hour photograph is done using a tripod and a medium-length time exposure. A typical recipe is to set your ISO to 100, and your White Balance to "Daylight", or about 5000ºK to 5500ºK (this helps to accentuate the bluish color of the sky and give the artificial lights a warmer, contrasting color. Use the Aperture Priority shooting mode, and set your aperture to a medium f-stop, i.e. f/8. Use your exposure compensate wheel to underexpose your image at a -1/3 to -2/3 stop Exposure Value (remember, you're trying to achieve a "night-time" look, so you have to fool your in-camera exposure meter a little). Let your camera pick the shutter speed. A typical shutter speed will come in at 2 to 15 seconds, depending on whether you are at the beginning or at the end of the Blue Hour. This formula works well for most landscape type subjects like the one below, or this Eiffel Tower photo:

Notre Dame Cathedral during the evening Blue Hour (camera mounted to a tripod) ~ © Royce Bair
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 35mm, f/8, 10 seconds, ISO 100
But, what happens when you cannot use a tripod, like in the top photo, or when your subject is moving, like in this street scene I shot in Paris last month?

Rainy Night in Paris Street Scene (hand-held) ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 68mm, f/2.8, 1/160 second, ISO 3200
Here's my Hand Held Recipe for Blue Hour Photography:
  1. White Balance: If you're shooting landscapes or cityscapes, like the top photo, stick with Daylight White Balance. If you're shooting street scenes, like the one above, set to Auto White Balance. Various light sources can be pretty bizarre —auto will help to average things out.
  2. Use the Aperture Priority shooting mode (experienced shooters may want to use the Manual Mode listed below).
  3. Shoot at your fastest (widest) aperture, i.e. f/2.8.
  4. In street scenes, use a wide angle lens where possible, and move in close to your subjects. Although wide angle lenses can distort, they can also produce greater perspective drama when you move in close to your subjects, or to a secondary foreground subject that draws attention to your main subject. Wide angle lenses also have greater depth of focus than normal or telephoto lenses.
  5. Higher ISO's. Use an ISO that is high enough to give you a relatively fast shutter. Shutter speed is the key to sharpness.* Try to achieve a shutter speed that is at least twice the focal length of your lens. For instance, if you are using a 24mm lens, a shutter speed of two times 24 (48) is a minimum. The nearest shutter speed to 48 is 60, or 1/60 of a second. A shutter speed of 1/125 would be even better (I can easily hold my camera steady at 1/60 when I concentrate, but not when I'm excited). A shutter speed of 1/125 will also help to stop the action of your subjects. So, 2X the focal length of your lens is the minimum, 4X is the preference.
  6. Use a lens with image stabilization, where possible. IS will often allow you to get hand-held shots at speeds that are one to two shutter speeds below what you can shoot without IS. This is especially helpful with normal and medium telephoto lenses. Keep in mind that IS will minimize hand-held camera shake, but it will have no effect on your subject's movement. If you are shooting people in the Blue Hour, you'll often need a shutter speed of 1/125 second or above.
*High ISO's and wide-open apertures (the smallest f-stop numbers) allow you to produce the highest shutter speeds. You may have been told that high ISO's are too noisy (gritty), and that wide-open apertures are the poorest setting for optical sharpness and depth of focus. Both are partly true. However, a fast shutter speed will allow something in your photo to be sharp (wherever you have your focus set). If you stop down your aperture and use a slower shutter speed, more will be in focus, but it will probably be blurry due to camera shake or subject movement. Raise your ISO and use a wider aperture in order to get the faster shutter speeds. High ISO noise can be corrected with software. There is no software fix for blurred images due to camera or subject movement!

Manual Exposure Mode: All of the combinations below will give you the same exposure. Use them as a starting point. The exposures combinations given are for midway through the Blue Hour (adjust your shutter speed or ISO as the Blue Hour progresses):
  • 100 ISO - f/8 - 4 seconds
  • 100 ISO - f/5.6 - 2 seconds
  • 100 ISO - f/4 - 1 second
  • 100 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/2 second
  • 200 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/4 second
  • 400 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/8 second
  • 800 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/15 second
  • 1600 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/30 second
  • 3200 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/60 second
  • 6400 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/125 second
Don't be afraid to use the higher ISO's. ISO's of 1600 to 6400 can produce remarkably low noise images with today's modern, APS-C and full-frame digital sensors (used in almost all DSLR's), especially with the latest software, i.e. Adobe Camera Raw (the noise reduction engine within Lightroom and as a plug-in for Photoshop) combined with Google/NIK's Dfine 2 for additional noise reduction.

A wide aperture (f/2.2) and a high ISO (1600) allowed me to shoot this spontaneous street action
(without a tripod) during a "Two Nights in Paris" workshop with Drake Busath, where I was the
guest instructor. Although the Depth of Focus at f2.2 (even with a wide angle lens) is limited,
what is in focus is tack sharp due to the fast, 1/250 second shutter speed.
This Paris street scene was shot after the BH, but it shows the effective use of a fast wide angle lens
and a high ISO of 1600. Shooting at f/2.2 with this 24mm lens (Canon EF24mm f/1.4L II) gives me
much more Depth of Focus than I'd get with a normal or medium telephoto lens. © Royce Bair
ENLARGED from above image: Wide angle lenses have great DOF, and modern digital sensors,
coupled with good noise reduction software allow one to use much higher ISO's than
our old film cameras or earlier digital cameras (click to enlarge). © Royce Bair

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