Black Card Photography
We all know that decent graduated filters are expensive, but there is another way that is very easy and incredibly effective when used in the right conditions.
Black Card photography is as you may have guessed it, just a piece of black card. You use it in the same way as a graduated filter by holding over the area of the image where you need to reduce the amount of exposure over a certain part of a scene. I must emphasise that a long exposure is needed for this to work properly, something in the region of 5 seconds or more, this is because you need the time to react. All that is required is a piece of black card that is enough to cover your lens.
Next, take an exposure reading of the foreground, as an example, this may be 5 seconds or more.
Then take an exposure reading of the sky. Again this may be around 1 second or more. It all depends on the situation. We need the last figure for the sky as the foreground exposure will be set in the camera.
All we then need to do is place the black card over the front of the lens and cover the brightest parts of the scene, namely the sky. If your camera has the ability to close the aperture, IE a depth of field preview button, normally found on the front of many DSLR cameras then it is easier to set the position of the card over the area that needs to be controlled.
Once in position all we need to do is start the exposure, It is necessary to "jiggle" the card up and down in a steady motion, Basically feathering the edge of the grad line just as in a gradient filter, The more you do it the softer the transition is in the final image. This feathering action will be required up until the exposure time for the sky remains, namely 1 second in this example, then the card is removed for the sky to be exposed correctly.
This technique takes a bit of practice and the use of an intervalometer is very useful so you can see the exposure time down, much easier than counting in your head. Some cameras will have the time displayed but I know my Canon 5d mk3 does not. It is also best used in lower light situations such as sunrise or sunset as your exposure times are going to be longer. To do this in brighter conditions a Neutral Density filter will be required to slow down the exposure time.
This idea can also be adapted to complicated situations too whereby the horizon is not straight due to buildings, mountains, trees, and another element which do not want to be underexposed. In this situation, your card can be shaped a little. There is nothing more satisfying than getting the exposure right in camera. This procedure is basically Dodging and Burning in the camera. A technique often used in the film post-production.
I hope you find this tip useful at some point. It's worth a go and for those who don't own a graduated filter then this is a brilliant alternative to help you on your creative path. I would love to hear how you get on and see your images on Flickr or Instagram.