Seattle Washington skyline at twilight with Space Needle.

Photographing the Blue Hour

My favorite time of day to photograph cities is the blue hour. Now, the blue hour really isn’t an hour at all, but a much shorter span of time that occurs before sunrise or after sunset.

In the morning, it is the transition time where the sun is inching closer to the horizon and the sky turns from inky black to an electric blue; with the opposite occurring in the evening. Depending on cloud cover, this lighting scenario happens approximately twenty to thirty minutes before sunrise or after sunset.

During this window of time, the ambient light balances with the artificial lights of buildings and monuments in urban scenes and you can easily capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. No need to take multiple exposures and stitch together an HDR (high-dynamic range) shot!

Dinner party scene in the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town with Table Mountain in background.

When I was invited to a dinner at Side Street Studios, I arrived early to scout out an angle that would include Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. Shortly after sunset, the timing was right and I captured both the activity of guests mingling and the mountain silhouetted against a dark blue sky.

Tech Talk

To capture the electric blue sky, it is optimal to use a tripod which will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO such as 400 or 800 and a wider depth of field like f/11 while keeping steady at slow shutter speeds. Because slow shutter speeds can easily be achieved at this time of day, I also love to play with motion blur from vehicles and other moving objects to add interest to my compositions.

But if you are tripod averse, as I often am, the solution is simple: turn up your ISO, shoot at your shallowest aperture, and do your best to reduce camera shake by bracing yourself or your camera against something solid. You won’t get to play with motion blur, but you’ll capture this vibrant time of day nonetheless.

The Arc de Triomphe at dusk in the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, France.

The Arc de Triomphe already looks gorgeous with a stunning blue sky behind it, but by using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, the vehicle lights add another dynamic visual element and also fill the empty space of pavement surrounding the monument.

Be Prepared

I have to admit that I prefer photographing the blue hour after sunset rather than before sunrise. This is simply because I can easily scout out the scene I want to capture in the daylight instead of having to scout the day prior or finding myself fumbling around in the dark with a flashlight and hoping I’ve found a good position.

Once in position, take test shots and get ready for the light to change quickly. I like to take test shots and check my histogram as I go to not only adjust exposure but to also see when the scene is getting more similar in tone. I find that the optimal time for the best photograph is actually when the scene is looking a bit too dark to my eyes.

Examples of changing light at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar at dawn.

The light changes very quickly at dawn, as you can see from these shots which were taken at 6:31am, 6:39am, and 6:45am at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Woodstock on the Rise

Dramatic view from the top of the Old Biscuit Mill of the surrounding neighborhood of Woodstock and the mountains of Cape Town at sunset.

Dramatic view from the top of the Old Biscuit Mill of the surrounding neighborhood of Woodstock and the mountains of Cape Town at sunset.

One of the perks of working on assignment for a travel magazine is getting to explore such wonderful places. I recently had two of my images published in the latest National Geographic Traveler magazine for a small article about the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town, but there were many other images made that have yet to see the light of day. Take a peek at the gallery of outtakes below from my time exploring this neighborhood home to artists and innovators, great food, and fabulous design.

And if you’ve missed my ravings about how wonderful Cape Town is, check out my travel blog entries including a photo gallery here, more delicious food here, my obsession with the Cape Floral Kingdom, and the funky neighborhood that I briefly called home.

On Newsstands: Cape Town in National Geographic Traveler

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Artists Dani Le Roy (left) and Laura Summs (right) work on one of their signature crochet rugs in the studio of Moonbasket. They create pendant lights, stiffened bowls, jewelry, and motif carpets using crochet and they hire and empower women from the Khayalitsha township to produce the bulk of their materials.

Last November while I was visiting Cape Town, I was given a short assignment by my friend and former colleague Carol Enquist to photograph the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town for National Geographic Traveler magazine. With Cape Town being named World Design Capital for 2014, it was the perfect time to explore Woodstock, a neighborhood filled with designers, artists, and innovation tucked at the foot of Devils Peak. I roamed the colorful streets and popped into old warehouses turned new, looking for subjects for my lens, falling more in love with this South African city by the minute. Along the way I was also lucky enough to get to meet up with the writer of the piece, the talented Sarah Khan who is now living in Cape Town.

Go grab the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler off of newsstands and stay tuned here for a blog post of some outtakes from the shoot. Then be prepared to want to book a one-way ticket to the Mother City.

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The article on Woodstock ran in National Geographic Traveler‘s Best of the World section and a photo from the artist DALeast‘s studio at Side Street Studios ran on the contents pages of the April 2014 issue.