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The Black Card Technique | An Inexpensive Gradual ND Filter Alternative

Gracetown Castle Rocks
Long exposure photography is a fairly easy and efficient way to make your images stand out from the masses and to create something special. Unfortunately, good filters are still quite expensive and how many of us have bought a set of filters, only to use them once or twice? I know – I’m guilty of the same.

But things changed when the black card technique was introduced to me. The black card technique is a cheap and dirty trick that mimics the effect of a gradual neutral density filter with – well you probably already guessed it – nothing but a black piece of card!

Anyone who has ever developed film and used the traditional dodge and burn method in the darkroom should feel familiar with this technique. However, while in the darkroom, the “burning” is being applied to an image that has already been captured; we’re going to use this technique on-site and in-camera.

When and Why Do I Need To Use the Black Card Technique?

While sensor technology is ever improving, most cameras are still unable to process and record the entire dynamic range of a landscape scene into one single image. Your foreground may need more than three times longer than the sky to become properly exposed, and we often end up with a washed-out sky or an underexposed foreground.
Yes, many cameras offer in-camera HDR’s, or they allow you to shoot bracketed images. Unfortunately though, most cameras only record HDR’s in the jpeg format and bracketed images still need to be processed on the computer. This takes time, and I’d rather spend my time outside taking more photos, than sitting in front of the PC. The black card technique, with a bit of practice, allows you to capture evenly exposed images that require much less processing afterward.

What Do I Need?

  • a camera with manual controls
  • a sturdy tripod
  • a neutral density filter (I use a 10-stop B+W ND filter in the video)
  • a matte black piece of card (big enough to wholly cover the front of your lens)

black-card-equipment

How does the Black Card Technique Work?

We’re using the black card to cover the sky for most of the long exposure, thus preventing the sky from becoming overexposed and blown out. If you cover the sky for too long, it will end up being too dark. If you take the card away too early, your sky is going to be overexposed.

As an example, let’s just assume that you’re using a 10-stop neutral density filter and that your desired foreground needs 30 seconds to expose, but the sky only 5 seconds. Now set your shutter speed to 30 seconds, use the black card to cover the sky and press the shutter button. While the camera is taking the image, gently shake the black card over the sky part of the image for 25 seconds while being careful not to cover too much of the foreground (or you risk underexposing it). After 25 seconds, take the black card away and let the sky expose for the remaining 5 seconds. The result is an even exposure throughout the image.

Bear in mind that you will need to shake the card gently during the exposure. Otherwise, you will end up with a harsh black border across the image – much like a hard-edge ND filter. This might take a little practice, but it’s essential to get it right for best results. This method works best on flat, straight horizons, but with a little bit of practice, can also be used on curved horizons.

black-card-technique-comparison

Left: SOOC without black card/Right: SOOC with black card

How Long Do I Use the Black Card?

I generally use Aperture Priority mode to determine my shutter speed and exposure times. Turn on live view, switch on auto-focus, select spot metering and move the focus point over the brightest part of the scene – the sky. Now half-press the shutter button and take a reading – your camera will tell you how long it needs to expose the sky properly. Repeat this procedure on the darkest part of the image – your foreground – now you have your shutter speed figured out. The difference between the foreground exposure time and the sky exposure time is how long you need to cover the sky with the black card to achieve an even exposure.

[REWIND: SIMPLE TRICK FOR LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY WITHOUT USING A FILTER]

I have used this technique for a few years now and find it a great and easy way to correct for a broad dynamic range. Plus, the card doesn’t cost much and weighs next to nothing in your camera bag, so why not give it a try?!

Below are a few more sample images in which I used the black card technique:

Standing Strong rlp_black_card_technique_sample_images-0003 rlp_black_card_technique_sample_images-0004 Gracetown Castle Rocks rlp_black_card_technique_sample_images-0008

About the Guest Contributor

Hannes Nitzsche is a German-born photographer and blogger currently based in the surf and wine region of Margaret River, Western Australia. Mainly shooting landscapes and astro, he’s equally happy to experiment with new techniques and styles.

You can find more of Hannes’ work on his blog or follow him on Facebook or 500px

If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor, contact us!

Comments [15]

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  1. Ken Hattie

    Eight Cokin P filters (4 ND + 4 GND) + holder can be bought for $20 Canadian and up on Ebay so this technique is moot.

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  2. Branko Sreckovic

    Great great great tip from KISS principle.
    Thank you.

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  3. Brad Harberts

    I love any kind of cheap idea that I can try before I blow a lot of money on a filter I can only use on one or two lenses!

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  4. Steven Brener

    Great! Looks like with a bit of practice this can be a great technique.

    I noticed that you did not cover the viewfinder. Do you usually leave it uncovered with long exposure photography?

    Thanks!

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    • Hannes Nitzsche

      Hi Steven, yes during the day I usually don’t cover the viewfinder, but I do at night since I’m working with higher ISO’s and light leaks become more apparent. Not everyone may agree with that but I find during the day it doesn’t make much difference – unless, of course, I have direct sunlight hitting the viewfinder.

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  6. Ralph Hightower

    I used sort-of the same technique in 1984. Now, I didn’t use it prevent the sky from being blown out. I used it for fireworks photography. I set my camera on 30 seconds, lens wide open, and 2 second delay. Between bursts of fireworks, I’d cover the lens with my cap.

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  7. Jim Johnson

    For everyone who is a serious photographer, but has never heard of this technique— do yourself a favor and pick up some old fashioned photo books. Ansel Adams’ “The Camera” and “The Print” are really good places to start. Some of the stuff in those books will not be useful to most digital photographers, but it covers the techniques that all photography is based on.

    I’m not being hostile to anyone— if I hadn’t started in film, I would probably be in the same boat— but it is shocking to me that this is a new technique to anyone.

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  8. Jay Trotter

    What an awesome tip. I’m hoping you just saved me some money. I can’t wait to try it and, frankly, wonder why I never thought of it. Here’s how I got around the vast difference between the foreground and the bright sky. I’d meter the entire scene. I’d set the camera to RAW and photograph it with (-1) or (-.7) underexposure. This would render the sky closer to where it needed to be why the foreground was underexposed. The sliders in RAW would allow me to lighten the shadows and bring the foreground to proper exposure without the addition of noise. I’d then darken up the highlight slider to “burn in” the sky a little bit more. I’d increase the WHITES slider to make the clouds pop and add contrast in the sky. Works nicely with the camera bodies I use. Some camera bodies could add noise to the foreground.

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  9. Brandon Dewey

    that is awesome!!!

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  10. John Sheehan

    That’s cool, it’s like using darkroom film techniques with a digital camera. I really want to start experimenting with this.

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  11. William Emmett

    I can’t imagine holding a card in front of my lens, shaking it so as not to cover the area below the horizon line. I think it would take a real steady hand to get it right. I think I’ll give it a try, and see how it works out. I’ll have to use “live view” to watch where the card moves above the horizon line, and amount of shake.

    WE

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    • Hannes Nitzsche

      Hi William, I usually do as you suggested: I turn on live-view and place the black card in the right position to cover the sky. Then I look over the lens and try to remember how much of the lens I roughly cover with the card. Next, while the image is being recorded, you’re shaking the card(up and down by about 5-10mm) – thus creating a gradual effect which blends the darker sky and the brighter foreground together. Yes this does take a little bit of practice but you certainly don’t need a steady hand – in fact, since the goal is to shake the card – the less steady your hand – the better :) Try it out and please let us know how you get on with it :)

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  12. John Cavan

    That’s one of the more clever tips I’ve read in a long time! Thanks, I’ll have to give a go and practice it.

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  13. Tom Johnson

    Now thats pretty cool.

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