Learning to See Light: Exploring Blue Hour

We often think about pushing flash into the post-sunset sky. But just behind us, there is a cool mix of light happening from the east as night encroaches. Paying attention to that mix can serve you well when you are learning to create interesting light on your own.

As photographers, we are always translating the way our eye sees light into the way a camera sees it. Cameras are more sensitive to both contrast and color than we are, which is something that probably hurts us more often than helps.

Noonday sun looks fine to the eye, looks like crap to the camera. That kelvin-mashup of light sources in an interior? Interesting to us, death to the sensor.

Cameras see color and contrast in a tighter range than we see it. So as compared to our eye, the camera essentially dials up the contrast and the saturation knobs.

During blue hour (when light is flat with muted colors) amping color and contrast is exactly what we would want our camera to do. It's a marriage made in heaven. Which is why blue hour photos tend to look so mysterious, vibrant and beautiful.

And it is not just the blue light at work, either. Take the photo above, shot on a rainy spring evening at our local soft serve. There is a mix of blue hour light, fluorescent, tungsten, brake lights — pretty much the whole nine yards are going on in that frame.

I'd wager there's not a daylight-balanced light source in the entire frame. That interplay is beautiful, and it is real. It is the way we see a natural mix of light sources in a rainy evening scene.

If you were going to light that scene, would you be creatively willing to make all of those colors with gels? You could easily do it. You'd want to shoot on tungsten to get the blue, put double CTOs on what would the "tungsten" sources, and a CTO plus a window green on the sources you would want to designate as fluorescents.

Photographers who understand color (much better than I do, but I am trying to learn) understand that there is almost never a "white" light in the wild. Noonday sun in Washington DC is actually the Kelvin standard daylight. But beyond that, it's all over the map.

I tend to be happiest with my light when I throw together a mashup of different color sources, as in the c.2008 puppeteer photo just above. This was one of the first times I had experimented with throwing what I saw as a "dissonant" light almost randomly into the frame—it was 1/2CTO+green. (More on that image here.)

Fast forward to 2012. At Gulf Photo Plus this year I was pretending to teach but in reality was sneaking into Greg Heisler's class as often as possible. (Oh, and screw teaching at GPP. I am gonna take Heisler's class there one day…)

He understands light and color better than anyone, IMO. Not just observationally, but in being able to seemingly effortlessly recreate it. And while I was sitting in on one of his classes, he mentioned something that has stuck with me ever since:

He rarely uses an un-gelled light source.

Think about that, as opposed to the way you light. If you are like me, the default is white (or near it) and you are looking for a reason to gel. Heisler, on the other hand, is looking for the rare reason not to gel. (I.e.—true example—"This was shot in a studio, but it was lit to look like a street scene at noon.")

So for most of his images, which to me are at once beautiful, magical and real, he shoots with a motley crew of colored lights. Mostly in the CTO/CTB/PlusGreen family. And again, almost nothing is white.

He even said he usually likes to throw a little green (1/2 strength, say) on his fill light "to dirty up the light."

Green fill? Talk about counter-intuitive. To me, at least.

But this kind of intuition is exactly the muscle I am trying to strengthen, with both observation and experimentation. In the example of green fill, Heisler noted that fill light just tended to look too magenta to him, owing to the way skin reacts to fill light that has been pushed into the shadows.

From a color theory, this makes perfect sense. But I would not have been able to visually articulate the magenta cast in the fill, and thus, neither the green solution. But he sees the nuance of color in a way that is obvious to him and magical to me.

So, mixed in with my flash-lit assignments, I have been taking a moment to photograph people immersed in real and interesting available light.

I photographed a dancer recently and wanted to use the shoot as an opportunity to experiment in a couple of ways. Both would require a very small, opaque black background. So I made a headshot flat. Nothing fancy, just a piece of masonite that was sanded, primed and painted.

I actually made the flat for a very specific (flash) lighting experiment, which will be a later post. But a second experiment on the same shoot would end up showing me more about light and color than I have learned (outside of Heisler's class) in quite a while.

That experiment was a simple as taking the black flat outside after sunset and using it as a backdrop for a head shot. I had not even planned for it to be during blue hour (I'm not that smart) but our shoot ran long and this was the last item on the agenda.

As such, we were pushing it when it came to exposure. It was slow handhold range, ISO 1600, wide open, yada-yada.

Here is the picture. Frontally lit by post sunset afterglow, with my assistant Ross holding up a black board behind him. It was hard to see the color variation when I was shooting. Remember, our eye sees it as very subtle because we adjust autoimatically. It is not until I saw how my camera interpreted it that I realized that this was where I wanted to be with my created light, too.

He's lit by post-sunset light. The blue hour light is fast encroaching behind him. Because the black background is small, it is allowing in all of that enveloping blue side/back light to make the rims much cooler. And that blue is wrapping around his face from behind, defining with light and color his head outline and jawline.

As soon as I pulled this picture up on the monitor, I absolutely loved the light in the photo. And then it struck me why. Because it looks like the kind of light Heisler might create.

Sadly, it has come to this: as much as I have studied the guy's light and color and genius, the closest I have ever gotten to understanding it is to stick a black board behind someone in the evening and make an available light snapshot.


I have a lot to learn. But I am excited in that I feel like I am beginning to see and understand the spectrum of available light a little better.

Which, along with the knowledge that Heisler gels damn-near everything, should give me reason to start taking some chances I would not have otherwise taken.


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Blogger Olesku.pl said...

Wow, man, I was just reading about lighting front with warm light, back with cool light etc, mixing it to gain different effects (to gain the 'Wow!' effect), wondering of using gels to spice up the blue clouds at sunsets (again, to hear 'Wow!' from audience) aaaand here's your post about guy that never uses lights without gels. Wow! It means I have to buy more gels to cover all my strobes ;)

PS: sorry for all the wows, I'm trying to be cool, according to commenting guidelines ;)

May 29, 2012 4:50 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Your comment about Heisler and green/magenta is really interesting.

I feel confident in using CTO/CTB gels as well as tweaking the temperature slides for white balance in Lightroom.

The slider that I hate, on the other side, is that pesky green/magenta one.
I surely don't want my portraits to look magenta, but I don't want them to look green either. It often happens that I'm unhappy with every possible setting, while the temperature slider can give cool/interesting results over a wide range.

I should learn to light with green/magenta gels, but they almost never get out of my strobist pack.

May 29, 2012 4:52 AM  
Blogger bronney said...


I almost died waiting for your posts and bam, nice one!

Just want to tell you I had a hard time calibrating my monitors yesterday and decided to select the factory profile AFTER calibrating them with spyder. That gave me the most average look both in lightroom and firefox, which is how most people view their screens. If I stuck with spyder, everything looks wonky yellow (not what my clients have).

Which is related to your post because after I did that and shot a few of myself, I saw the magenta! Which was the reason why I bought spyder a few years back btw cause I thought something's wonky but now it all makes sense.

If you jack up the "shadow" slider, you'll see that magenta better on the shadows of a fill too :)

Let's go take chances!!!

May 29, 2012 6:09 AM  
Blogger Jonh Hernández said...

Hi David,

Interesting post,

light color is definetly one of the most complicated things to understand for me, but i gotta say i don't like the light on the shoot.

Obviusly it looks blueish to me, and i guess thats what you trying to achieve, but that blueish cast only makes me feel " Dang i did not adjust WB properly!"

I guess is the force of routine seeing white images all the time, i think it would be interesting to keep that blueish cast in a mess of other lights, but by itself its just too cold for me.

just wondering, your WB was set at 5600?

btw, i guess you will read that one as is the first coment, so i want to take the chance to thank you for making my life better by improving my photography so much, i born as a photographer by the time you started strobist, so its kind of been my school, and im proud to say im from David Hobby school. ( and im absolutly sure this will be a known term in 50 years.. )

May 29, 2012 7:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Interesting thought on jacking the sliders to see the shift. Ideally, what I am looking for (and trying to create) should be visible without that. But that might be a good way to ease into being able to judge them better.


Thanks for the thought, but I am quite sure that will not be a known term in 50 years... :)

To the white balance, I am not really thinking of it that way. It's more about the exploration of the ways different colors of light react internally in the frame rather than the overall cast. I want to learn how to see and understand those kinds of mixed sources and how they interact within a 3-D scene.

What I am specifically interested in is getting everything white and "correct."


May 29, 2012 10:28 AM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

Having had Heisler as an instructor for a year at Hallmark, I'll always remember one of the major points he drove home to us... "you'll only learn to see it when you DO it." Photography is a skill mastered in the field. Your post is a reminder of what he told me in my portfolio review... "stop playing it safe". Great post.

May 29, 2012 10:29 AM  
Blogger thewiss said...

I know exactly what you are talking regarding a magenta cast in shadows on skin. When I process a photo that has underexposed skin using lightroom I throw some very desaturated green on skin shadow areas so that the underexposed skin doesn't end up so magenta looking.

I hadn't thought to use a green balanced fill light in a portrait. That's a cool idea. The cool thing about using green fill, if I'm understanding this correctly, is that the fill could be more than two stops beneath the key (pretty dark!) and still give good skin tones.

The headshot you took reminds me a bit of Dustin Diaz's stuff. I believe you profiled him at one point. As far as I'm concerned he is the master of mixing CTO and CTB in portraits. He does an especially great job of mixing his CTO keys with the ambient color temperature of the city lights in San Francisco where he shoots.

Also, I've been to that Rita's. My parents live around the corner from there.

May 29, 2012 11:02 AM  
Blogger Brian Bray said...

Your humility and self-effacement are truly charming David, but the reality is you are changing photography as much as Heisler.

Thanks to him there are a lot of beautiful images in the world, and thanks to you there are a lot fewer crappy ones in the world. The net result is pretty close, no?

Passion is passion, no matter how it gets expressed. We all have a role to play, and passion changes everything.

May 29, 2012 11:45 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

Noonday sun in Washington DC is actually the Kelvin standard daylight.

Seriously? Would that be through the smog... or on a clear day?

Nice writeup and interesting followup comments.

May 29, 2012 3:28 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Noonday sun in Washington DC is actually the Kelvin standard daylight.

Seriously? Would that be through the smog... or on a clear day?

Nice writeup and interesting followup comments.

May 29, 2012 3:29 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

look at "A kind of Rapture" by Robert Bergman for a tutorial on available light portraiture and how colour affects an image.

May 29, 2012 3:35 PM  
Blogger Dusey said...

@Brian B
" and thanks to you there are a lot fewer crappy ones in the world. The net result is pretty close, no?"

Ha! Awesome, and I couldn't agree more. A lot of fields need to "bring up the bottom" and Hobby is doing it for photography, more than anyone in photography.

May 29, 2012 5:54 PM  
Blogger John said...

Most of my favorite portraits have something in common, interesting color. I tend to lean towards liking color more along the warm scale, but other interesting colors too. I also like portraits that don't look "unnaturally lit".

I set down one day, went through my inspiration folder and picked out my favorites, they all had color as a reoccurring theme. I'm always thinking now in the back of my head, I really like these shots for this reason so why I am I not shooting portraits like these myself.

Thanks for rattling my cage and sharing your humble experiences!

May 29, 2012 9:01 PM  
Blogger Tago Fabic said...

Wow. Another interesting post.
I would have to say I'm making your blog my all-out reference on lighting techniques. Your lighting 101 series of posts are fun to read and practice! This post will be no different. Amazing! :D


May 30, 2012 12:57 AM  
Blogger Myron said...

some people see more colors than others; that's just the way God planned it. That's why he or she can see thing differently.

May 30, 2012 1:09 AM  
Blogger jgphoto said...

Interesting article. Makes me want to experiment...

But I really just wanted to whine about how much I miss Ritas. We don't have them in California.

May 30, 2012 2:36 AM  
Blogger bronney said...

Yo David it's me again. I was just over at numnuts and noticed he has way more female leaving comments.

We need that here! :D Is it the shorts? ;)

May 30, 2012 3:44 AM  
Blogger DD Journal said...

Recently I've been thinking about cloudless-day "daylight" as a mix of direct sunlight (K about 6,000) and a humongous blue softbox (K about 10,000?). And so, consistent with David's post about mixed-color lighting, we can think about altering the mix in various ways -- by "flagging" some of the sunlight (open shade, or wide-brimmed hat, diffuser, etc.), or by waiting for the sun to go down (blue hour), etc. Or we can use fill flash or reflectors to add sunlight or other-colored light to the mix (gold reflector; green leaves or other naturally-occurring reflectors, buildings, etc.).

May 30, 2012 1:10 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Geiger said...

The joy of living in Florida: thanks to our proximity to the equator, our "blue hour" is closer to "blue minute". And that's not even counting the evil mosquitoes.

May 30, 2012 1:52 PM  
Blogger Alfred said...

Absolutely brilliant Dave!
I always wondered how I could get rid of my color balance issues in the shadows and you gave me the solution.
I gelled the fill light with a Rosco 3315 and voila, no more dark red blotches, they are gone.
It actually makes a lot of sense if I look around in nature, but I never ever thought of mixing a bit of green in to it!
And for anyone who likes to suggest the ColorChecker, it's great for product, but it sucks for skin colors!

May 30, 2012 3:34 PM  
Blogger Ernesto Gonzalez said...

Long time ago a good art teacher taught me to see the shades of blue in a shadow and that true light is pure white that is only modified by the environment.

I just browsed Greg's portfolio and is excellent. I noticed as well that he uses very often blue filters in the main light source to soften the white. I even asked my 11 year old son "what do you see here?" and he said: white.

It is very difficult to train the eye to see those colors that most of the time we simply don't pay attention to it, however they are all over.

Greg's approach to use gels most of the time is an art to master and to understand.

Great article. Keep up the amazing work!

May 30, 2012 6:10 PM  
Blogger Michael LoBiondo said...

What if you aren't shooting at this "blue" time of day, or not even outside. The next challenge is to be able to re-create this blue look anywhere, anytime even in the studio. I think I will use this as my next personal project/experiment. As always, thanks for the great post.

May 30, 2012 7:32 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

David....great post....my choice would have been to give the young man a warmer wrap of light given his wonderful skin colour....for me the blue light does not enhance the portrait but other than that the post is quite informative....cheers from Canada

June 02, 2012 10:24 PM  
Blogger Ernesto Gonzalez said...

Almost a month or so ago I wrote a post about this and started to play with different combinations of color filters. I must say that once you find the correct combination of color filters the skin tones take a mystical very light bluish color.

Kind of very weird, not so used to that, but works very nice on pale skin color as it soften so much white.

June 26, 2012 7:45 PM  

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