The Magic Cloth Technique – DIY Graduated Neutral Density Filter

I came across the magic cloth technique a few years ago when researching graduated neutral density filters but never actually got around to trying it. Recently a friend linked me to the stunning work that Tony Brackley-Prower had achieved by using this technique and was itching to try. The technique is a DIY neutral density filter that costs you nothing to try.

What are Neutral Density Filters?

Most photographers (myself included) use neutral density filters when shooting seascapes. These filters normally come in a rectangle size with black/dark at the top and clear at the bottom. Photographers use these filters when there is different levels of brightness in a scene. This is common when photographing seascapes on sunset where the sky can appear slightly brighter than the surrounding foreground. If photographed without filters this can result in the sky being over exposed as the camera attempts to compensate the darker foreground. We use neutral density filters to avoid this problem by placing the darker part of the filter at the top of the frame to capture a more even and natural exposure. Most neutral density filters are expensive with a Cokin set costing roughly $150-300 and a Lee kit around $300. I was curious to how the magic cloth technique would compare to these more expensive neutral density filters.

Fast forward to December this year when I was visiting family and friends in my home town of Hobart, I gave the technique a try at Park Beach with some long exposures.

Magic Cloth Technique

The technique is appealing as it’s so simple and costs nothing. No surprises that the technique is based on using a cloth or even as Tony suggests, you can also use a sock, wallet, or cap. Really the possibilities are endless but the most important thing is finding an object which you can easily hold over the front over the camera to cover a certain part of the image. Once you’ve found a suitable object to use for the magic cloth technique, you’re now ready. The technique is best used for long exposures as this gives you greater control and flexibility over the image.

It is suggested to meter the image in your camera around 2 stops over exposed when using the technique to get the best possible exposure. Begin by starting the exposure and covering the lens with the object. Over time, gradually move the object up (towards the sky or the top of the frame). The slower you raise the cloth results in a darker grad. In simple terms this means your sky will receive less exposure and be considerably darker. If instead you raise the magic cloth faster, this will result in a less darker grad and brighter sky.

And really that’s all there is to the magic cloth technique. Experiment with the technique and you will slowly get a feel for how it works and how it might be beneficial for certain scenes. Now that I’ve tried the technique with seascapes I’d love to try with photographing waterfalls up close to avoid sea spray going all over my lens and to capture greater detail of the surrounding foliage areas.

You might also be interested in my waterfall photography guide. A thorough guide that covers waterfall photography, the ideal weather, equipment you’ll need, visual examples of how shutter speed works and other bits.

If you’re new to long exposures, my guide on daytime long exposures might also be of interest.

Hopefully this was helpful! :)

 

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11 Responses to The Magic Cloth Technique – DIY Graduated Neutral Density Filter

  1. Martin February 2, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    I’ll definitely have to give this a try next time I’m shooting long exposures. It looks like a lot less hassle than using ND grad filters ;-)

    • Alex February 4, 2012 at 9:03 am #

      Definitely! I’m looking forward to seeing the results you get Martin :)

  2. Mark February 7, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    I am just getting back into using ND filter (Cokin) when out “in the filed” and am sometimes very frustrated with the results. This technique looks simple (some of the best things are aren’t they), and I cannot wait to give it a try the next time I am out (which will hopefully be either later on today or tomorrow at sunrise). Thanks for the tip!!

    • Alex February 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I can feel your frustration about the Cokin filters as they’re not always practical especially when shooting wild seascapes with sea spray going everywhere. For this reason I find the magic cloth technique a great alternative and worth a play. Be sure to let me know how you get on :)

      - Alex

    • Sef February 21, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

      - I like the way the light is retlecfing off the rocks and their arrangement within the composition. I even like the slow shutter speed effect on the water -a technique that I find to be a little over-used these days but it contributes to a nice ambience that works well for this shot.

    • Alex February 22, 2012 at 10:36 am #

      Thanks for the kind words Sef :)

  3. Mark February 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    I will be sure to do that Alex, and thank you for the reply!

  4. Eloise Claire February 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Wow great idea! I think that’s worth a try! I have some cheap grad filters and they are pretty good but I struggle to get my exposure right, and to decide which one to use.

    I love your photos by the way! You’ve got the long exposures down pat!

    A lot of people move from Hobart to Melbs hey. I guess there’s more culture and things to do. I would def live in Hobart instead of Brisbane if it wasn’t so cold. Such a pretty place!

    • Alex February 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

      You should definitely give it a try! Nothing to lose especially when it’s free to try. My only suggestion would be to hold off for long (30 second+) exposures. It might not be as useful for shorter exposures.

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Hobart is a beautiful place but sometimes it’s nice to experience something bigger. It’s not too cold there though once you get used to it. The winter months are actually quite beautiful and the cold weather is almost bearable ;) fafae

      Thanks for stopping by Eloise :)

  5. Neayshia February 22, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    It’s funny how stmmoiees the camera can capture something different from what you remembered or had intended in your minds eye. Glad to see it can happen to the best and not just me. :)Steven

    • Alex February 22, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      Thanks for stopping by Steven. It can be frustrating that the camera does capture an image slightly different to how we saw it first hand but hopefully as cameras evolve, they will become more accurate.

      - Alex