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Urban Exploration Photography: When to Shoot

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Light is the key to every photograph. Photography itself is technically just the art of capturing light. Within the genre of UrbEx photography, when you choose to capture light will directly correlate with the quality of your final photo. Whether you’re shooting at blue hour, at golden hour, in broad daylight, or under a full moon, the quality of light can make or break a great composition, as Todd Sipes explains in this chapter from Urban Exploration Photography: A Guide to Creating and Editing Images of Abandoned Places.
This chapter is from the book

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This shot would have been much less dramatic if it had been shot in the harsh midday sun. Thankfully, I got to this site early in the morning to catch the soft light while it was still available.

You don’t always have the luxury of shooting when you want to, because of security and permissions, work schedules, weather, and so on. When you obtain permission to shoot an abandoned location, most owners don’t want to wake up for blue hour, so you just have to make do with what you’re offered. As the saying goes, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” However, if I’m going somewhere without full credentials, I always find that blue hour makes it particularly difficult to be seen by other people. That’s a win-win in my book. Even if you’re not going to wake up early to shoot, there are specific phases of light you should be aware of to help plan your trip.

Here’s the schedule of the light phases according to the elevation of the sun:

  • Nighttime (below –18°)
  • Morning twilights (–18° to 0°)

    • Astronomical twilight (–18° to –12°)
    • Nautical twilight (–12° to –6°)
    • Civil twilight (–6° to 0°)
  • Morning magic hours

    • Blue hour (–6° to –4°)
    • Golden hour (–4° to 6°)
  • Daytime (6°)
  • Evening magic hours

    • Golden hour (6° to –4°)
    • Blue hour (–4° to –6°)
  • Evening twilights (0° to –18°)

    • Civil twilight (0° to –6°)
    • Nautical twilight (–6° to –12°)
    • Astronomical twilight (–12° to –18°)

You can see that the magic hours and twilights occur twice in one day, but it’s worth noting that they might not offer the same quality of light due to weather, pollution, and other variables.

We’re primarily interested in the twilights and magic hours, but nighttime can offer spectacular shots, as you learned in Chapter 2.


I consider nautical twilight to be the perfect time to get into a location. Depending on the difficulty of entering that location, you should be able to get in and set up for shooting by blue hour. During nautical twilight, you won’t be able to see objects around you clearly and you’ll most likely need a flashlight. You should be using a red light to preserve your eye’s sensitivity to light. Red light also doesn’t travel as far as white light, so it can’t be seen as well from a distance. Nautical twilight can offer great shots as well, but you’ll need to use long exposures and the light changes very quickly. If you’re set up for a five-minute exposure during nautical twilight, you may find yourself in civil twilight’s blue hour with an overexposed shot and not enough time to recompose or reshoot with the beautiful blue hour light.

I prefer to sacrifice nautical twilight to get set up for blue hour. As you transition from nautical to civil twilight, you’ll get enough natural light to start distinguishing objects around you, but you’ll probably still need to use long exposures to get decent shots.

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