Words and images by Tony Prower
What the technique is
My first ever magic cloth image.
The magic cloth technique simply involves holding a cloth, sock, hat or anything over some of the
scene with the aim of shortening the exposure for that part of the image. It basically does what a graduated filter does to a shot except that you are manipulating time rather than the opacity.
This technique aims to increase the dynamic range of a scene within a single exposure which means you don't have to take a series of bracketed shots.
Will it work for you?
The magic cloth technique is not for everyone and not for every scene. But this technique can compliment any combination of filters and more and more notable photographers are using this technique and they are getting good results.
When to use it
The technique is prefect for low-light and night photography where exposures are going to be long.
For daytime scenes, you'll need a Neutral Density filter
to slow the exposure time. I use an 8 stop and a polariser. For example, I will give the sky a third of the exposure that I give the foreground.
Graduated filters come as soft grads and hard grads and this can be emulated with the magic cloth. For example, more movement produces the same results as using a soft grad. Grad filters come in different strengths such as 1 stop, 2 stop etc. This can be emulated by counting with the cloth, i.e. exposing the sky for 1 second out of four is roughly a 2 stop grad.
The numbers on the side correspond with the time of allowed exposure. So the immediate foreground was allowed the full 30 seconds, the top of the sky was allowed around 10 seconds and
the brightest part of the glacier was only allowed around 2 seconds before I covered it over with the cloth. For this image I exposed for 2 seconds before applying the cloth.
- Cost – All you need is a piece of cloth and an ND (or grey) filter.
- Dynamic - It is possible to change the strength of the effect as I am taking the picture.
- If there's movement in your picture you can cover the scene until it stops.
- Waterproof – In wet situations, I can use the cloth to clean the lens as I am shooting.
- Control – It is possible to control very extreme scenes.
- Night Photography – There are situations where you may want to expose the foreground longer and using a grad filter would mean getting star trails. Milky way shots shouldn't have trails. In cases like this, the magic cloth is the only filter that can do this.
- Reliability – It is difficult to get the exact same result from shot to shot.
- Time – A long exposure (at least 2 seconds) is needed.
- Error – The technique requires practice.
This shot would have been impossible with regular filters. Using the cloth and a long exposure I simply wiped the mist from the lens as I was exposing. I also allowed a longer exposure on the foreground for a more balanced picture.
With the extreme low-light in this scene, I had to use this straight forward technique with an extreme level of control.
The magic cloth is the only filter that lets you capture the milky way and some extra detail in the foreground.
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