Photographers know that magic happens during the blue hour–that special time between night and day when the skies—even if they were grey and featureless during the day—turn from bleak to beautiful brilliant blue.
Cool blue skies contrast oh so lovely against warm yellow tones, making subjects pop. So it’s the perfect time to photograph anything that is artificially lit, such as monuments, city streets or the tiny villages of the Cinque Terre perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the sea.
My daughter and I were staying in Vernazza, one of the five seaside villages on the Italian Riviera that could only be accessed by hiking trail, boat or train. I had planned out the blue hour times for each of the days during our stay in advance, using the PhotoPills app on my iphone.
Blue “hour” can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 40 minutes before the sun rises and after the sun sets, but varies based on geographical location and season. Specifically, it happens at the end of civil twilight when the sun is 4 to 6 degrees below the horizon and lasts until the beginning of the nautical twilight phase. Lots of people ooooh and aaaah over the sunset, then back up their stuff and scurry off thinking the show is over…completely missing the real magic.
I knew exactly when the blue hour would occur the night we’d planned on visiting Manarola. But we’d lingered a little too long on a beach further north in Sestri Levante (42 min train ride from our home base). There wasn’t time to stop in Vernazza for my tripod before the train immediately continued on another 7 minutes south to Manarola, and the next train to Manarola from Vernazza was an hour wait, meaning we’d miss the blue hour completely.
Which is how I ended up in Manarola to photograph the blue hour without my tripod.
A tripod is pretty essential for taking long exposures. But sometimes you just have to wing it. Sunset was 9:06pm, and blue hour lasted until 9:43pm on that particular night. We arrived at 8:30pm, and made our way from Manarola’s train station to the harbor.
Walking toward the harbor it was easy to see the favored spot to capture sunset and blue hour. A line of tripods were already set up along the long paved path that winds around to the right of the harbor. It’s an obvious choice, as the location provides the classic view of the crowded homes in the tiny village spilling down the hillside across the water.
Luckily the paved trail has a railing. So I found an empty spot without tourists leaning against the railing to take selfies, and braced my camera against the metal as my makeshift tripod. I found it steady enough to drop the ISO to 100, and expose for .5 seconds at f/10. You can see the skies still had a gradient of pink in them in this first shot.
But minutes later the skies became darker. And I adjusted my shutter speed to 4 seconds and increased the aperature to f/22. And the water became silky smooth. (See the opening pic)
Wanting a different vantage point than what everyone else was getting, I wandered down to the harbor to find a spot among the rocks. Trying to brace my camera against a rock was a little trickier–not easy to find the exact fit or desired eye level. Then I remembered I had a sarong in my bag. I took it out and wedged it under my camera to support it in the rocks. Perfect! Doing so, I could increase the quality of the picture by changing my ISO to 100, the f/stop to 16 for greater depth of field and lengthen my shutter speed to 8 seconds to smooth out the water. Then all I had to do was trigger the shot using the camera’s 2 sec timer.
Next, I wanted a higher viewpoint. So I walked up to the cemetery, a higher plot of land paralleling the paved path where the line of tripods and their operators were still hanging out. I found another metal railing. This one had purple flowers growing around it, so they appeared in the foreground of my shots. Slightly annoying. But I couldn’t get away from them since I needed that railing and was already zoomed out to 35mm on my 16-35mm lens. It was the end of the blue hour and quickly approaching the nautical twilight phase when the sky turns a dark rich blue, and colors become more saturated. My ISO was now 3200 to compensate for the darker and darker skies, the f/stop was 7.1 and SS was 1 sec.
In a perfect world, one has time to scout out locations and select shooting spots in advance. And time to grab a tripod. But thanks to metal railings, a sarong and rocks, and a lengthy 40 minute time span, I came home with a few shots of Manarola during that bewitching blue hour.
Tips for shooting destinations during blue hour:
- Look up the specific time of blue hour for your specific location and date (online or apps).
- Scout out locations for shooting in advance, trying to find varying angles and vantage points.
- Choose a subject that is illuminated to contrast with the blue skies.
- Shoot in RAW to change color balance as desired later, and manual mode to selectively choose a shutter speed (long to make water silky) and f/stop (f/16 creates a starburst in lights and allows you to capture a greater depth of field than f/4 or f/8).
- Bring your tripod 😉
- Bring a flashlight to illuminate something. If the subject is dark, light paint it! (See an earlier post about light painting a salt pump in Juneau here)
- And if you forget to plan for it, let street lights be your reminder…blue hour is happening around the time when you notice street lights coming on at dusk. So grab your camera and find a worthy subject!
And when destinations disappoint during the day (how often have you heard, “Hey! this looks nothing like the pics!!”) remember that it can look radically different at night.
Here is Manarola during the day. A so-so subject that’s fairly featureless… can turn spectacular in the right light… and special twilight.