Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique – Long Exposure Photography

Categorized as Long exposure photography, Magic Cloth Technique
Magic cloth photography technique

Magic Cloth Technique

Innovative Photography
Part one – dynamic range

The Magic Cloth Technique involves controlling the amount of exposure to different parts of a scene during a slow shutter. The technique involves dodging and burning during a long exposure.

Using a dark cloth (or card) you can reduce the exposure to the sky (or highlights) by covering the front of the lens for part of the exposure time. By using this technique, you can also extend the exposure time to give extra exposure to the foreground. The results are similar to using a graduated neutral density filter, with a bit more flexibility.

Because it requires a long exposure, it is well suited to night photography, or coastal landscape photography. Many natural landscapes will benefit from a long exposure to soften the clouds and render moving water as silky.

The Magic Cloth Technique is an in-camera Dodging and Burning technique. The Burning (over-expose) is achieved with positive exposure compensation. The Dodging (under-exposure) is achieved with a cloth or card.

Tours Around Iceland

Video Demo

Using your cloth, give the sky a short exposure, give your foreground a long exposure.

The following video clip from the Diamond Beach at Jokulsarlon, shows how simple the idea is.


The Magic Cloth Technique was born from the need to get the image right in the camera with a single shot but to still increase the dynamic range of a scene. Before the Magic Cloth, I was using HDR technique for landscapes. HDR uses a couple of exposures combined to balance the exposure of the sky and the land.

A HDR photo of Kolufoss waterfall, North Iceland
A HDR photo of Kolufoss waterfall, North Iceland.

I was excited about HDR because it seemed to have such a lot of control. HDR taught me a lot about photo editing because I used to blend several original layers into my HDR. However, it was a struggle to make an HDR look like a real photo. Also, it taught me nothing about exposure because the technique always includes heavy exposure bracketing. I wanted to learn to expose a landscape scene in a single photo.


Alternative to Graduated Filters

In ordinary landscape photographs, the top part of the scene is brighter than the lower half. Even with a mirror reflection, such as a 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 – measured 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 6 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.

Neutral Density Filter

If you want a set of quality Grad filters, you are paying about the same price as a used car. I couldn’t afford them! But while I was looking I decided to buy a decent Neutral Density or ND filter. This allows me to get a long exposure in daylight, but without any graduation. The ND filter darkens the whole scene and is much cheaper than a set of Graduated filters.

Long exposure

This is where the idea was born (at least for me), because during a 30 second long 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.

Special Applications

Below: This photograph uses a special application of the Magic Cloth. The exposure time was 3 minutes, but the sky was only exposed for 6 seconds and the sand was only exposed when it was wet from the waves. In other words, for most of the 3 minutes, there was no exposure going on. None of the white surf appears in this scene and I was incredibly lucky that a big wave didn’t disturb that little ice pop.

Long exposure photo on Diamond Beach

Read more about this image here.

Basic Procedure

Find a scene with an interesting sky. The interest could be the textures or colours of the clouds. Include some foreground with interesting textures.

Long Exposure

Mount your camera on a good tripod and set a long exposure. My recommendations are 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.) A longer exposure gives you more control and less cloth artifacts.

Camera Settings

AV (aperture) mode. 2 stops over compensation (live view) or 3 stops over (without live view), 2 second delay. For metering, I used Center weighted average most of the time. If it is getting dark or you are using a heavy filter, then you will have issues with Auto-Focus. Switch your lens to manual focus and use a manual focus technique.


Using a self timer is recommended. Two seconds is enough time to prepare your Magic Cloth. The automation frees both your hands.

Cloth or Card

You can use a cloth or card for this technique. I recommend a dark colour like ‘Black’, just avoid any bright colours. A straight edge is important, so if you are using cloth, you need two hands to pull it tight.

I ended up using the sleeve of my fleece most of the time. It was always there and it had a straight edge if I pulled it tight.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Summer Evening at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – click to buy a print!

My first attempt The image above was taken just after the idea came to me on a Jokulsarlon Glacier lagoon tour. I was shooting a 30 second exposure (with a 6-stop filter) and dodged the sky after 15 seconds with my lens-cloth. The result was good, so I have spent the last several years perfecting the technique.


Keep in mind the total exposure time. Divide the total exposure by 10 for the sky exposure. For example, a 10 second overall exposure would be a 1 second sky exposure.

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. this first movement needs to be fast. 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.

If you have extra time, move the cloth around the bottom of the lens until the end of the exposure (now you can put some angles in to burn the bottom corners). The more you move the cloth, the softer the grad. Do not allow the cloth to become still during the exposure.

For shorter exposures (5 sec), I tended to do the Karate chop followed by a slow, single raise. For longer exposures I would use a karate chop followed by several raises, just to keep the cloth moving.

Camera Equipment

Recommended camera gear.

Canon 5D mark IV

perfect for Magic cloth photography!

  • Simple features
  • Great live view

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM

Landscape Lens

Focal length – 17mm – 35mm is the best focal length, super wide has a distortion that makes the straight edge of your cloth wonky. Choose a lens with a large front element with room to move the cloth around.

Choose the right equipment for Magic Cloth photography. Your camera must be able to take a long exposure and live view is a bonus. A lens that can take filters is also important if you want to take Magic Cloth Photos in the daylight hours.

  • Sturdy Tripod – essential for long exposure work. I recommend Really Right Stuff or GITZO
  • Dark Cloth or card (larger than the front of lens and with a straight edge).  A black mouse mat is ideal!!
  • A 6 stop – ND filter – For daytime long exposures.

ND Filters

B&W 6-stop Neutral Density (ND) filter[/caption]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 a Step-Up Ring so you can use the same filter on all your lenses.

My Camera Gear

Available on BHPhotoVideo.

Canon 5D - full frame

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 l

Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod

B+W 77mm SC 106 ND


Other advantages

On a longer exposure, it is possible to clean your lens half way through an exposure, so it is very useful for waterfall shots.

The above photo of Skógafoss Waterfall 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.

The technique is to double the exposure time so you can spend half the exposure cleaning the lens. This only works while your cloth is clean and dry.

Northern Lights

Red Panorama

The Magic Cloth Technique works beautifully for capturing the foreground or reflections in a night scene. Night photography can sometimes demand short star exposures, but with details in the landscape. If star trails are undesirable, using a Neutral Density filter would be a bad way of balancing the Heavens and the Earth. The Magic Cloth is a much better choice.

Northern lights Iceland
Northern Lights photographed with the magic cloth technique.

Magic Cloth Group on Flickr

I no longer belong to Flickr, but the group is still going.

Magic Cloth group on flickr
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.

Magic cloth landscape
Vattarnes Peninsula – East Iceland.


Most students of the Magic Cloth Technique found the concept easier to understand after watching these videos:


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 Cons

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 Pros

The upside is that is is a very cheap method and can give excellent results. Also the technique 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.

The following photo was taken at Skutafoss Waterfall in East Iceland. I was able to burn the underside of the cave on the right hand side with a sideways magic cloth action.

Skutafoss Waterfall Vertical
Skutafoss waterfall

By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.


  1. Tony hi. so I understand that u have to take several exposers of the same landscape in order to get the effect u want right?thx iris

    1. Hi Iris
      it really depends how good you are with the technique. If you have a simple scene and you calculate it correctly there is no reason why you wouldn’t get it right first time.

  2. Hi Tony,
    This is a great idea! So I guess what you do is to meter for the sky and then the foreground, set the cameras exposure settings for the foreground and keep the sky part covered, only exposing the sky for the metered sky reading.

    Can I ask why not use hdr tecniques for high dynamic scenes?

    I willl certainly try your method.

    1. Hi Trevor, you certainly could meter for both sky and foreground. What I tend to do is use average meter and over expose by two stops. I experiment from there, but it usually takes just a few goes before I start getting the right result.

      HDR… I found that it was difficult to achieve an image that looked like a photograph.

  3. Excellent – and as you say, once you think of it, the technique is so obvious! Must give it a try sometime. Congrats on POTW on ePz BTW

  4. I had read about something like this in connection with shooting fire-works, in order to collect a bunch of them in the same shot. The lens would be disclosed only when they’re firing, keeping the exposure on bulb setting.
    I also knew you can use a cloth to cover a light intrussion into a long exposure… BUT this thing that you explain here had never come to my mind, and I don’t recall reading about it before! Well, THANK YOU very much – this will be put to the test !! 🙂

  5. Just back from Iceland, where is Church mountain which I have seen in the title of some of your shots. Regarding grads, which I use, you don’t need that many. Soft grads are no use on 35mm or your Canon 5D and certainly no use on DX size digitals. The gradation is larger that the sensor size and are basically for large format cameras. I use just 2 grads, often in combination, and you can see the effect before you take the photo. Having said that, I certainly very much admire your results without spending money. Well done. Back hopefully for more aurora in Jan 2011. Ken

    1. Thanks Ken, I appreciate your comments!

      Church mountain is near to Grundarfjörður. The mountain is called Kirkjufell in Icelandic.

      I am not sure what you mean about the graduated part of a soft rad being larger than the sensor… surely you are supposed to put it at the other end of your lens?

  6. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for sharing this fantastic technique.
    I had a go at it about 2 weeks ago as the night was falling and I’m quite happy about the results for a first time. I wrote post on my blog about the experience.
    Looking forward to improving!
    Your pics are incredible.


  7. Thanks for sharing this really simple technique. One I’ll definitely be trying when I get a chance. Really like your shots in the article, very good work.

  8. Hi Tony,

    In Taiwan, they call it the Black-Card Technique since people would use a non-reflective black card or cloth to shake it up and down in front of the lens to control the amount of light. 😀

    1. Hi Bill
      yes this is true and I am not sure if the ‘Black card technique’ is a night or day technique, but the principle is the same.

  9. Hi tony… though got all the necessary GND filters, but sometimes the dynamic range of the light are too much for the filters to balance… what i did before was take 2 exposure shots and blend it in CS… but after reading this tutorial, i believe this would work better because it’s more gradual… my only concern is would there be any traces of the clothes movement? do i need to use any particular cloth color? thanks…

  10. Sorry Tony only just got round to reading your reply. What I meant that putting a soft grad on the front of the lens, say using a Lee filter holder, it is impossible to position the filter so that you are using at least some o the clear part as well as the darkest part. You can easily do this on a 5X4 large format but not on 35mm or smaller sensors as the graduation from dark to clear is actually bigger than the sensor. Hard grads seem to be the only one that will work. I do have both versions because I did use 5×4 but the soft do not work full on my D3. Looking forward to Jan for aurora but the latest forecast from space weather is not looking good. I did manage to get one in Sept from Myvatn. Really enjoy looking at your works of art. With results like that who needs grads! Ken

  11. Hello!

    This seems very exciting and interesting.
    But I have some questions about the technique.

    Is it correct that you are using that ND-filter as a “cloth”? But what if the landscape is irregular – let’s say with a dark mountain that peaks up into the sky. How do you deal with that, because you don’t want to cover that part?

    I found really cheap ND-filters on the web ($4) but I guess you are using higher quality filters. What brand are you using?

    1. Hello Paul.
      No, I am not using the cloth as an ND filter. I am using the cloth with an ND filter. Think of this as a night photography technique which you adapt to daytime with a dark (ND) filter.

      Mountain peaks are a problem for this method and for regular NDG (grads) filters. More movement in the cloth will give you a softer graduation. Shoot in RAW and use lightroom to bring out some of the shadow detail.

      I use a very slim B&W filter. and I stick a very slim Sigma polariser on the front.

  12. Hi Tony,

    Very interesting technique. I have two questions though : Do you move the cloth constantly ? do you put the cloth right in front of the lens or in a small distance to allow less hard edge effect ?



    1. Interesting question, Seb. I do move the cloth constantly to give a more even effect and I hold the cloth right up against the lens. Some people think I am polishing my polariser. I do this to limit any stray light that might enter the lens. Any hard edge effect is eliminated by the constant moving of the cloth.

  13. Tony, this is such a great trick that has obviously been very effective for you. I have been doing long expsoure photography (particularly light painting) for a little over a year now and feel that this technique could be utilized quite often. Time to find some dark cloths and put them in the gear bag. =)


  14. Thanks for the article Tony, but I have one question do you use Circular filters or the square ones?
    Best regards Sigurbjörn Árnason

  15. Thanks for the idea! I had this in mind ages ago but I’ve never really gotten around to actually try it. In the meantime I missed some great opportunities to use this technique and tried HDRs instead. But the HDR programmes give very unsatisfying results and images that don’t look real at all.

  16. wonderful! i can’t wait to try it out. thank you for sharing your techniques and tips! your photos are fantastic; i enjoy them on flickr too.

  17. Hi there

    I’m interest by this technique as I am a user of ND Grads.

    Do you cover the whole lens and move the cloth up slowly? Just the sky?

    Can you give more detail on it? Better still, could you create a video?

    1. Hi Jools
      it really depends on the conditions and what I am trying to achieve. Generally I allow exposure to the whole lens for a few seconds, then cover the whole lens and slowly reveal the foreground. A video would be a great idea.

  18. Thanks for tha Tony.

    Curiosity, how are you metering for your exposures? I presume that you are doing your work before sunset otherwise it becomes guesswork.

  19. Tony. Ignore that last comment. I figured it out:)

    Just seen a nice sunset out of the appartment window and got it first time.

    It would have been a VERY long shutter speed but I’d left it on 6400ISO at roughly 30 seconds.

    Having done this a couple of times, I understand why you overexposure the foreground but a stop or two.

    Cool stuff, and I’ll be trying it out on Britain’s coast this coming April.

  20. Great technique , I was set aback by the quality of your pictures , amazing work !!! , I had a thought reading all these comments and all your replies , maybe you should video tape how you do it and post that for all of us thick headed types to see … Cheers.

    I have to figure out how to get to Iceland now !


    1. yes, it very much like the black card technique but using a cloth is more flexible, in advanced techniques you can make different shapes during the exposure. The difference is like that between cutting and sculpting.

  21. OK, cool! Magic cloth is more widely use. but should I shake the cloth while it makes the different exposure? Or just move away the cloth?

  22. WOW Tony, these are really amazing photos on your website. It just goes to show that i have a long way to go still.

  23. Holy smoke Tony ! This is incredible ! I’m going to have to try this. Are you planning to get a YouTube instruction video of this technique ??? Great work !!!

  24. Tony thanks for sharing your magic cloth techique on the web. I have played with the techique a few times now. I think I finally got a good example at the Bass Harbor Lighthouse in Bass Harbor, Maine USA this summer. One of the shots (not the best) can be seen on my shutterpoint account and on my flickr account. Your images are among the best I have seen on the web and keep me trying to improve my skills.

  25. Hi Tony,
    great technique and great photos,but I have a question,
    to use this usefull technique the shot must last more than a second obviously..
    if I’m shooting in daylight how can I solve sky exposure?

    sorry for my english I’m italian

  26. Hi Tony, this technique is pure brilliance! I was just debating on whether to buy some ND grad filters but this method seems to be a lot more flexible and better value for money. Coupled with the fact that I can use bracketing, layers and masks to also produce a grad ND digitally, I see little reason to buy them. Time to play with some black cloth! Thanks!

  27. great idea. I often use a ND grad filter hand held in a similar way over a ten stop. I can’t remember the American photographers name who did something similar in the late 1800’s.He invented a gismo like a profile gauge (for wooden moldings) that he put inside his big box full format camera. He moved the teeth of the gauge to match the mountain profiles. Opened the lense and then flicked up the profile gauge to expose the sky at the last minute. Loving your work Tony. I will be in Iceland in September and hope to get images half as good as yours!!!

  28. Hi Tony!
    Is it possible to use this technique of the magic cloth with round lens like my nikon 14-24? there are NO filters for my lens, this is amazing lens but I can never use polarizers, nd grad filters or anything. Would it still work for photographing the sky or winter landscapes in iceland with the technique of the magic cloth?

  29. Thanks for your comments everyone!
    Ana, it is possible, but you have to wait for it to get dark 😉

    The 14-124 is a problem concerning filters. Lee have invented a filter holder, but this is a huge devise and a lot of bother. If I had this lens, I would get a professional glass cutter to cut an ND filter to fit in the back between the lens and body. Not even sure if this is possible though?

  30. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for a great workshop this past February. You have inspired me to get to the next level in my own photography. Your Magic Cloth technique has proven useful already…I got a few puzzled looks when I started moving my hand in front of my lens during one shoot! 🙂


    1. Thanks for your kind words John. One morning on the beach at Jökulsarlon, there were so many photographers using the Magic Cloths, that one guy started waving his hand in front of his lens because he felt left out. It’s a great story because it’s true!!

  31. I laughed out loud when I watched these two videos at how brilliant this technique is and the fact that it costs nothing! Utterly fantastic. I can’t wait to try it.

  32. You just saved my around 400bucks from a lee filter kit. I will go with a ND lens filter and your magic technique. Great!

  33. This technique is exactly the same as dodging in a darkroom (remember them?) where you block the light hitting the photo paper. When working on a negative everything is in reverse of course. Here more light gives a blacker image. & less light a lighter image.

    Still need a grad filter, if want to use sub 2 second exposures, where you want grasses or trees to be still, but for water a benefit in that one less optical piece in the image path.

    Will the next step in this technique be to start adding a wash of colour gel to get effects that cannot be replicated by Lightroom subtly?

    Thanks for reminding us that photography is still about thinking the final result when taking the image and not about being a session in Post production maxxing the image.

    1. Hi Russel, I used to play with coloured jells for light painting, I am sure you could get some interesting effects. The next step for me is working out have I can different aperture settings in the same scene, i.e. close focus sharp f/8 for the foreground and then switch to f/16 for the sky exposure (which would slow it down and the softness would be an advantage). I am sure this is possible with the Magic Cloth and I am looking forward to publishing the results.

  34. Tony,

    I really enjoyed watching your videos and I am preparing and practicing for my upcoming trip to Iceland with my wife in March. I am very excited as this is my first time taking an international trip, let alone a place as amazing as Iceland.

    Do you have any suggestions of places that we can get to with relative ease? We are staying in Reykjavik and are actually on a pretty short stay of only 4 days so time is very critical for us. Any suggestions you have would be amazing!

    Thank you,


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