Skies, how to make them special – Part 2 – With the use of a ND filter

Joel Tjintjelaar

In part 1 of this series I explained how you can get spectacular black and white skies by using some specific techniques in Photoshop. Part 2 of this series is more about the in-camera possibilities and conditions than about Photoshop.

The setup

First of all, you’ll need the following:

  1. A camera that has the option “bulb”. Most DSLR’s have that option. This option is necessary to take shots with shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds.
  2. Tripod. Don’t cheapen out on your tripod. You’ll need one that can stand perfectly still for minutes under various weather conditions. I mostly shoot under windy circumstances in order to get the effect I want.
  3. Neutral Density filter (Preferable an ND filter that reduces the light with 10 stops)
  4. Remote Control that locks
  5. (Optional a Circular Polarizer filter, this reduces the light with another 1 or 2 stops and results in deeper colours.)

This is the setup I use:

  1. Canon EOS 400D/Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTI
  2. Tripod
  3. B+W 110 ND (10 stops)
  4. Canon RS-60E3 remote control
  5. (Sometimes I use a Hama CP filter to get even longer shutter speeds.)

f/22, ISO 100, 240s, 10 stops ND filter, CP filter

What to look for

There are different sorts of skies you can capture, each with a different result.
I like to keep it simple, so I’ll just divide it into two groups:

1. All clouds (stratus clouds)
Time Lapse II
Time Lapse II
This is how the sky looked, when I shot “Time Lapse II”.

2. Clouds and sky (cumulus or stratocumulus clouds)

Clouds and Sky Sky and Clouds

A sky like that, can turn into something like this when using a long shutter speed:

Before going out

There are a few things to keep in mind before you go on a shoot and try to capture some amazing skies. First of all, check the weather conditions. You’ll want a nice breeze, a h5 wind causes fast moving clouds. Fast moving clouds shot with a long exposure result in stripes.
Secondly, make sure there are clouds. This one is kind of obvious, but you might want to make sure before going on a 3 hour drive. Believe me, I know.
Finally, shoot at daylight. You could also shoot at night, but you’d have to use some really long exposures (I’m talking multiple hours) to get all the details. And besides, there’s just something magical about daytime long exposures. Maybe because it’s so out of the ordinary.

Stripy clouds

Stripy clouds as shown in “Time Lapse II” can be gorgeous, but how do you capture them? It’s all about timing, luck and patience. Let’s take a closer look at that sky.
Stripy Clouds

The sky in this image consists out of 2 parts.

  1. The blacks. This is the gap between the clouds: the sky. With the use of red filter in Photoshop this part turned black.
  2. The whites. This were the actual clouds moving by.

Stratus clouds are uniform clouds, they are like a big blanket in the sky blocking the sun. That type of clouds have little to no contrast and usually are gray to white. These are the kind of clouds you’ll want to capture. Before taking the shot, you’ll have to wait until there’s a gap in the clouds. That gap is the blue sky, which will be converted to black later on. Or you can add a blue gradient with Photoshop so if you convert it, that part will turn black.

Another important thing to take into account is the direction of the stripes and where the gap is. Placement of those two things are very important. If the clouds in the above image would follow the line of the bridge, the picture would have been somewhat less. The opposite directions between sky and bridge give more contrast. I also wanted the sky to come out of the bridge. This gives a sort of glow to the bridge and accentuates it. When all of these elements come together, you’re ready to take the shot.

Taking the shot

A few more things about taking the shot. In order to get the stripy effect, you’ll need to use a long shutter speed. Depending on how h5 the wind is, you’ll need to use a shutter speed starting at a least 30s. This is where you are going to use the ND filter and a remote control that can lock.

To get a long shutter speed, set your camera to manual and use the following settings:

  1. Lowest ISO possible. Usually 100.
  2. Small diaphragm, I recommend something like f/22 or smaller.
  3. Shutter speed set to “bulb”.
Final words

Clouds can add something special to your images, especially in your long exposures. I recommend a lot of experimenting. Try a shutter speed of 10 minutes, or maybe just 1 minute. Shoot when it’s storming outside. Try any weather condition. For great B&W images I often find that bad weather conditions result in far more interesting B&W images than bright and sunny weather conditions. Rain, snow, heavy winds and clouds and fog often add something really special to your B&W image. Shoot objects you normally wouldn’t care about. The results might surprise you.

CloudsStripy Clouds
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