Clear the streets with a 10-stop ND filter

Just like traditional landscape photography, shooting at golden hour (the hours around sunrise and sunset) will give you the best results. So for scenes where the sky is a large part of the shot you’ll need to shoot either early in the morning or early evening. If you’re also hoping for empty streets you’ll be limited to early morning. However, if your aim is to take an image like our shot of St Paul’s Cathedral, where the sky is a minimal part of the scene, you can shoot at almost any time. The main problem will be eliminating people from the busy streets, and that’s where the 10-stop ND, or Big Stopper, comes in.

How to get the shot

When you’re shooting exposures of 30sec or more, people walking into shot won’t be in the same position for long enough to be captured. This means a busy street will appear empty, even at the busiest times of the day – so long as they don’t stand still! 

To shoot your Big Stopper image, first compose the image with the camera on a tripod. Manually focus one third of the way into the scene and set the camera to manual mode with an aperture between f/11 and f/22. To reduce the sensitivity of the sensor, and to ensure noise-free images, set ISO to 100. Attach the viewfinder cover that came with your camera, and attach the filter to the lens. Electronic viewfinders don’t need to be covered. Set the shutter speed to 30sec and take a test shot. If the image is too light, reduce exposure in 5sec increments. If it’s too dark either increase ISO or set the camera to Bulb mode and manually time an exposure longer than 30sec. To do this you will need a cable release with a lockable shutter button.

When shooting with a 10-stop ND cover the viewfinder to stop light hitting the sensor.

When shooting with a 10-stop ND cover the viewfinder to stop light hitting the sensor.

Shoot low & long

A great alternative to the traditional tripod for urban photography is the Manfrotto Pixi mini tripod. It weighs just 190g and stands 13.5cm high with an adjustable head – perfect for getting low and dramatic compositions. It only costs £19.95 and can be invaluable.

To achieve streaky skies and, more importantly, to eliminate people from busy streets, you’re going to need a 10-stop ND. These are made by a number of manufacturers in a range of thread sizes, so you can attach them to practically any lens. A good option is the Hoya Pro ND 1000 Filter, which can be purchased for as little as £34.

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.