The Magic Cloth Technique involves controlling the amount of exposure to different parts of a scene during a long exposure.
The magic cloth technique was born out of the need to get the image right in the camera but to still increase the dynamic range of a scene.
Under normal circumstances, the top part of a landscape is brighter than the lower half. Even with a mirror lake the difference can be a couple of stops. In order to get the best exposure of both the land and the sky, photographers have traditionally used filters which are darker at the top and clear at the bottom. These are called Graduated Filters (grad) and although they come in different colours, the most popular are Neutral Density (ND – Grad). Neutral density adds no colour to the scene. Aside from different colours, Grad filters come in different strengths – measures in stops. They also come as soft or hard grads. So if you wanted to have graduated filters to cover every eventuality, you would have a set of around 8 filters plus a holder and adapter. Then there are reverse grads to consider – the top half is darker, but gets slightly lighter towards the top.
If you want the quality Grad filters, you are talking about the same price as a used car. I couldn’t afford them! But while I was looking I decide to buy a decent ND filter. This allows me to get a long exposure in daylight. This is where the idea was born (at least for me), because during a 30 second exposure, I wondered what would happen if I covered the sky half way through the exposure. I used my lens cloth (Hence “Magic Cloth”) This image can be seen below. The Magic Cloth technique has a similar effect to a soft grad filter and can also act as a Reverse Grad.
The result was good, so I have spent the last few years perfecting the technique.
Magic Cloth – Basics
Long Exposure – around 10 sec for regular use, no less than 2 sec. (to achieve this you have to shoot when it gets dark or use a dark filter.)
Sturdy Tripod – essential for long exposure work.
Digital Camera – DSLR or Bridge camera – able to take a long exposure and change lenses – live view is a bonus.
Lenses – around 17-35mm is the best focal length, choose a lens with a large front element, room to move the cloth.
A 6 stop – ND filter – Like this: B+W 77mm 1.8 ND MRC 106M Filter For daytime work.
Dark Cloth or card (larger than the front of lens and with a straight edge)
AV (aperture) mode. 2 stops over compensation (live view) or 3 stops over (without live view), 2 second delay
Divide total exposure by 10 for the sky exposure. For example, a 10 second exposure would be a 1 second sky. Press the shutter to activate the 2 sec timer, during this time get your cloth ready. When the shutter is open, allow 1 sec for the sky exposure. Karate chop the cloth to cover the whole lens, then carefully lift the cloth to the level of the horizon (x 2 – keep it moving – keep the cloth level). The more slowly you raise the cloth, the higher the strength of the Grad. For example; if you expose the foreground for 30 seconds and raise the cloth very slowly to allow only 3 second on the sky, you will have a 10:1 ratio which is just over 3 stops. Move the cloth around the bottom of the lens until the end of the exposure (now you can put some angles in). The more you move the cloth, the softer the grad. Do not allow the cloth to become still during the exposure.
ND (Neutral Density) Filters
The ND filter is just to lengthen the exposure. You can get silky waterfalls or nice wave action without having to wait for it to get dark. Like Grads, they come in different strengths. I bought one of these… B+W 77mm 1.8 ND MRC 106M Filter
My advice is to buy a filter for your largest lens and use Sensei 72-77mm Step-Up Ring so you can use the same filter on all your lenses.
Use your camera light meter and set the exposure compensation about 2 stops over. This should give you a really nice exposure on the immediate foreground.
The magic cloth technique isn’t for everyone or for every scene, but it is certainly cheaper than carrying around a set of expensive glass filters. It is probably best thought of as being a night photography technique, which I have adapted for day photography with the use of a strong ND filter.
The downside is that you need a long exposure for this to work. The longer the exposure, the more control you will have. For day-time shots, you will need a way of slowing your exposure use a combination of ND filter, small aperture f/16 – f/22, and slow iso 50-100. I have had acceptable results with 2 second exposures. The other downside is that is can involve a lot of trial and error, this can be frustrating if you are taking a very long exposure. It is not really suitable for extremely long exposures as your arms and shoulders will ache.
The upside is that is is a very cheap method and can give excellent results. Also it is dynamic, you can expose all the sky in one go to give detail to the clouds, or you can use short bursts to give the clouds extra movement. It is possible to change the exposure if the sky suddenly changes. It is possible to use a mixture of angles if one side of a scene is too bright. It is also possible to clean your lens half way through an exposure. Very useful for waterfall shots.
Using your cloth, give the sky a short exposure, give your foreground a long exposure.
This shot of Skógafoss would have been very difficult because the spray was constantly soaking the lens. I was able to use the cloth to keep it dry during the exposure.
Most students of the Magic Cloth Technique found the concept easier to understand after watching these videos:
Magic Cloth Group on Flickr
Very long exposures
Cloud movement and extreme colours are the result of special long exposure work.
This was an extreme condition as the sky was a lot brighter than the cliffs. I gave the foreground around 5 minutes and the sky around 10 seconds in total. I exposed the sky for about 1 second every minute to give the clouds a sense of movement.
Coming soon, how to create a reverse grad effect…
Join me for some Magic Cloth Photography here in Iceland…
Magic Cloth Workshops in Iceland
Running regularly between October and March.