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The blue hour: winter in the mountains

The blue hour is perhaps the moment of the day most colored with charm and magic. In the mountains, it is in winter with the snow, where it reaches its peak from an emotional and a photographic point of view. This is because the snow, like the water-mirrors and other reflecting surfaces, during the blue hour tends to take the color of the portion of the sky that is reflected, making the scenery particularly suggestive and photographically stimulating.

Snow dunes that reflect the indirect light of the sky which makes the landscape full of details of light-shadows
The “Cima Piazzi” and the surrounding peaks at the beginning of the morning blue hour, with still the last stars visible

What is the blue hour?

We could give different definitions of the blue hour: environmental, technical, and poetical definitions. From a descriptive and environmental point of view, the blue hour corresponds in part with what is scientifically called twilight. The blue hour is therefore a transition phase between day and night and occurs both in the morning, a little before dawn, and in the afternoon a little after sunset (indicatively 15′-20′ minutes later at our latitudes). During the blue hour, therefore, we no longer have direct lighting from the sun, but only a faint indirect diffused light that comes from the atmosphere and therefore allows us not to have a condition of total darkness. The sky assumes a typically blue color, with a difference of light between the area where the sun is rising or setting, which will be brighter and the opposite side which will be darker.

The blue hour over “Passo Gavia” photographed in a backlight

How long does the blue hour last?

It is difficult to determine precisely the duration of the blue hour, as it represents a gradual phase without a true beginning and end. At our latitudes we could talk of about 30 minutes, but as we will see later, often, for each shot the “perfect” moment lasts only a few minutes. The closer you get to the Arctic polar circle, the more this phase will last, like sunrise and sunset which are also longer at those latitudes. In some periods of the year it could coincide and, in fact, replace, the night.

The blue hour and artificial lighting

One of the main problems of night photography in the presence of artificial lights is the fact that they are often too much stronger than the environment lighting. During the blue hour, we have instead a gradual and progressive variation of the environment lights, which allows us photographers to find the right compromise between the two lights. It is therefore almost always the best time to take night photographs of cities, towns and other subjects with artificial lights.

Is it better to photograph the Blue hour in the morning or in the afternoon?

There is no real or actual difference in light between the two, so the choice is dictated by the landscape or subject that we want to photograph. That said let’s look at some of the main things and details that differentiate the two blue hours. Once we evaluate these we will probably be able to make our choice based on the photograph we have in mind.

  1. The direction of the shot. In the morning we will have during the blue hour the clearest area towards the east (south-east if we are near the winter solstice) and darker towards the west (south-west if we are near the winter solstice). At sunset, this condition will be the opposite.
    As for daytime photography (at sunrise and sunset), also in photographing the blue hour there is no strict rule that determines whether it is better to have the light source, although indirect, facing front, behind or to the side. However, we should keep in mind that if we photograph in “backlight” it will be better to shoot at the beginning of the blue hour at dawn, to not have a strong light, or vice versa postpone it if it is during sunset. This can also be useful to program the shots, starting from shots towards the side in favor of light, leaving last those pictures in backlighting.
  2. Artificial lights. If we photograph in the presence of artificial lights we must bear in mind that there are lights that can be considered fixed as street lamps, which basically do not vary between morning and afternoon, once they are on. Then we have the variable lights which are those of the houses, offices, shop windows, etc. Finally, we must consider the moving ones such as cars, buses, etc. Both of these could be different between morning and afternoon and basically depend on the day of the week and the hour when the blue hour occurs. On Sunday morning we will probably have a few lights on and a few cars around. On the other side, in the middle of the week, we will have many more lights and light trails. Also, in March, with the dawn very early we will probably have less lights than in December in the morning Blue Hour.
The villages of “Pedenosso” and “Isolaccia” in “Alta Valtellina” during the blue hour in the morning. You will notice the few lights turned on in the houses, but the presence, sought after, of light trails of cars along the streets.
The towns of “Oga and Bormio” in “Alta Valtellina” at the blue hour
Livigno during the Blue hour
The small town “Frontale” in “Alta Valtellina” during the Blue hour

3. The pure snow. In those environments where there is the presence of men, so both in the towns and in hiking areas, the secret is to be able to shoot before man leaves his traces. So often the Blue hour in the morning allows more easily to find still an immaculate landscape. Before the snow can be ruined in any way.

The church of “Santa Perpetua” in Tirano in Valtellina early in the morning with the immaculate snow along the road

4) The Sun effect. The sun is definitely an enemy for fresh snow, so especially in the presence of vegetation and at low altitudes after a sunny day, the landscape will not have the same candid appearance. It is easier then to find idyllic landscapes at the morning Blue Hour, than the afternoon one, after maybe a snowfall of the previous day or night.

A glimpse of the town of Sondalo in Alta Valtellina immediately after a snowfall
A glimpse of the town of Sondalo in Alta Valtellina immediately after a snowfall

Is it suitable to shot the blue hour also with bad weather?

When the sky is covered with clouds and bad weather conditions the peculiarities of the blue hour – to have a sky tending to blue with differences of light – are lost. With a muffled sky, tending to grey we will, therefore, have a sort of “grey hour” with a flat light typical of bad weather skies. However, sometimes it is possible to make interesting shots also in these situations. In case of bad weather, whether it is snowing, or when there is a situation of low clouds or fog, particular situations can be created, very soft and almost mystical.

Bormio – Alta Valtellina with the Stelvio slope lighted up during “the grey hour”.
Snowy glimpse of Bormio with the muffled atmosphere that often follows a snowfall
The Stelvio wrapped in mists during the blue hour.
Bormio and its lights – above the low clouds that cover the valley

Blue hour and the moon

The moon can be a precious ally for taking pictures during the blue hour. In fact, it can be an important source of additional light to make the landscape more interesting or be itself one of the subjects in the photo. In fact, during the blue hour the moon, like the artificial light sources, has a brightness that can be photographed together with the environment. Finally, it should not be forgotten that the moon, especially in winter with the snow that reflects it, allows you to move more easily in the mountains also in the dark.

The church of Val Federia in Livigno during the blue hour with the fresh snow crystals lighted by the moon
The moon appears behind the clouds from the ridge of Mount Cevedale in Alta Valtellina
The blue hour from the summit of the eastern peak of the “Forni” in Alta Valtellina. In the high mountains, the moon is a precious help to be able to move as well as an ally from a photographic point of view

Equipment

In my opinion, there is no specific equipment to photograph the winter blue hour in the mountains. However, suitable and functional equipment is required to move in a mountain environment. Especially if you want to make shots away from towns you need to have light equipment in order to be able to carry it while walking in the cold environment. Regarding the photographic gear instead, a good tripod is essential: light, quick to use and functional. I use only befree carbon as in my opinion the only one that combines these two characteristics.

 

 

 

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