I recently spent a few days in Long Beach, CA for work. Long Beach is a beautiful city known for its massive port and as the permanent home of the storied British cruise liner the RMS Queen Mary.
I knew going in that this location would provide some great opportunities to shoot during blue hour. Blue hour is one of my favorite times to shoot. There's a critical window where man-made lights perfectly balance with the sky. Subjects lit by warm man-made lights make great subjects outlined against the cooler surroundings. However, this is a relatively difficult look to achieve. The perfect window is only 5-10 minutes. If you miss the window, it may be possible to reproduce the look using an HDR-merge. However, these types of shots typically involve long exposures and merging images with flexible subjects (e.g. trees) may result in ghosting issues. Regardless, I really like getting it in one shot and seeing the often-surprising result on my LCD.
I particularly love when blue-hour shots feature a significant expanse of water. Shooting the Shoreline Village area seemed like a great option. Shoreline Village is one of those places filled with quirky shops and restaurants that appeal to tourists. More importantly to me is that this area also features an abundance of man-made lights.
However, actually finding a great shot of this type at Shoreline Village proved more challenging than I expected. In order to capture images during the "sweet spot" time it's necessary to be in the right place at the right time. I like to be set up at least 30 minutes in advance. However, it is sometimes difficult to find the best spot this far in advance because it's hard to visualize where the lights will be before they actually turn on. Blue-hour compositions are defined by the structures that man-made light falls on and the way the light is reflected on other surfaces. For this reason it's very helpful to be able to scout locations beforehand at night. On this trip I had the luxury of being able to visit the area on three different nights. It took me all three nights to finally get the shots I had envisioned.
The first night I went out with a friend. I wasn't carrying much gear — this outing was just to hang out and do some scouting. The second night I returned and set up to capture a blue hour shot. However, I wasn't happy with my shot. There was a yaht docked next to one of the illuminated buildings which I found very distracting. After the best light ended, I packed up my gear and walked around the area to see if there were better locations. A few hundred feet away I found a location that I liked better. I planned to come back one more night to shoot from this improved location.
I was much happier with this second attempt. Shooting from the different angle allowed me to capture the illuminated "village" without the distracting yacht. It also put the Queen Mary in view.
Before heading back to my hotel I was able to capture one more interesting shot: this one of Rainbow Harbor Lighthouse. At f/11 the surrounding lights turn into a sea of stars. It's necessary to shoot at small apertures to get the stars. Wider apertures render lights as mere pinpricks. However, shooting smaller apertures also starts introducing significant image softness due to diffraction. I typically use f/11 as a compromise on this lens.
Overall, Long Beach is a great place for finding images at all hours of the day. I'm sure there are many more great images waiting to be taken. Check out my complementary video post for more images and analysis of the images in this blog post.