Golden hour, that time around sunrise and sunset that gives a warming orange glow, is often purported as the best time of the day for photography. But most of those people don't know the magic of the blue moment.
The saying goes that it's always darkest before the dawn. While that isn't strictly true because it entirely depends where you are on earth and at what time of year, dawn is actually what we're looking at for the blue moment. It's that special time of day where everything in the landscape seems to fade into itself. Everything is quiet, getting ready to either wind up or down, a moment of change between night and day. Asleep and awake. This special time (known as the sattvic hours in Sanskrit) is cherished by yogi practitioners who spend this time rebalancing their energy.
It's also a fantastic time to go out for a spot of photography. Only available twice a day if you're lucky, the blue moment comes just before sunrise and just after sunset. But the golden hour is known as the most important time of the daily photographic timetable, so why bother waiting around for anything else?
As the sun glides through the lower parts of the sky the light has to pass through a thicker slice of atmosphere. This extra-thick layer of gases cause the light to scatter more than in the middle of the day (known as Rayleigh scattering). Since the higher frequency light scatters first (blues and purples) we see more of the lower frequency visible spectrum, such as reds and oranges. But just before sunrise and just after sunset there's still a significant amount of bright light flying through the sky and bouncing across the land, it's in these moments that we're able to capture images that are very special indeed.
What Is the Blue Moment?
Essentially, the term "blue moment" is referring to a period of twilight. Twilight occurs before sunrise or after sunset where the environment is still quite light but everywhere has slipped into earth's shadow with no direct light from the sun. If you're interested in the specifics of twilight have a search online for the difference between "astronomical twilight", "nautical twilight", and "civil twilight".
As dawn or dusk approaches something unique happens. The exposure value of everything that the light touches sits much closer together. Everything is in shade because there's no direct light to strike it. There are no bright highlights, nor deep, dark shadows. It can make for some stunning shots with buttery soft shadows (if they appear at all). It's blue because of Rayleigh scattering, much like the sky is blue during the day. Think about how you set your white balance if you're shooting into open shade. The shade is naturally much bluer and as such we adjust the white balance to accommodate this and introduce warmer tones for accurate colors. I prefer to leave my camera in sunny or flash white balance preset though, as I love taking advantage of this stunning gamut of blues and purples.
How Do You Find the Blue Moment?
Of course, like any outdoor photography, the blue moment depends largely on the weather. Cloudy skies will make golden hour less impressive and short-lived and introduce a blue hue much earlier as it scatters light more readily than a sky without cloud. It's best to check out the weather before heading to a location, especially if it's some distance to travel. I use the Met Office here in the U.K. to study weather systems coming in across the isles.
But it's not just weather that impacts the ability to capture a blue moment. Location on the globe also makes a big difference. For example, if you're shooting in the Lofoten Islands in Northern Norway in the middle of winter you will find there's no day at all, but a lengthy twilight throughout the "day" that can last nearly 12 hours. Whereas, in the middle of summer, there's no twilight at all for over a month. However, take a look at somewhere nearer the equator like Nairobi, and you'll be greeted with a fairly similar length of twilight throughout the year, sitting at just over two hours per day.
You can calculate the amount of blue moment you'll get daily by taking a log each day and totting up how long twilight lasts for over a period of one year to get a pretty decent look at what you'll get the next year. But there's no need to do that because it's all logged already. I love to use TimeandDate.com because the simple website and incredibly useful graph and technical read-out below gives me all the information I need at a glance.
Of course, shooting in twilight when it's darker means that you'll need a longer shutter speed (or higher ISO/wider aperture) the further away from sunrise or sunset you get. While it's becoming increasingly more possible to shoot handheld in low light, I'd still recommend using a tripod. Any tripod with sturdy legs and a head that locks tightly enough to carry the payload of your camera should be good enough to hold the camera still even during high winds.
If you wait long enough towards night time you can even capture some stars in the sky as well. Brighter stars and planets will appear first.
So Why Bother Shooting Golden Hour?
Far from preferring the blue moment over the golden hour, I actually recommend heading out that little bit earlier in the morning, or staying past sunset if you're already out, and capturing these incredible changes in tone and color. So many photographers I see out on location seem to capture the sunset and then pack up and head home after the sun disappears below the horizon. It's such a shame because as long as you have a way of stabilizing your camera to keep things still and sharp you could capture a whole host of other amazing photos for the sake of just a few minutes. Stay longer still and you'll even capture some astrophotographs if you're lucky enough to be in a place with lower levels of light pollution and clear skies, but that's beyond the remit of this article.