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Step by Step: How to Blur Clouds to Obtain a  Surreal-looking Shot of Buildings

When photographing buildings, try to include the clouds too if they appear in the sky. Using a slow shutter speed to blur the clouds helps to bring out their movement in your shot. In the following article, I will provide a step-by-step explanation, from composing such a shot, up to the finishing stage. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)


Step 1: Stand in the direction of the light and include both the building and background objects

When photographing buildings on a sunny day, you can make use of direct lighting to produce clear shots of the subject as well as the background. In my first trial shot, I tried to include both the tower and the dome in the composition, but unwanted elements such as the crowd were also captured as a result as I was standing at a distance away from the subject. In the second shot, therefore, I switched to a vertical orientation instead and raised the camera slightly for a low-angle shot.


Step 2: Determine the composition and blur the movement of the clouds with a slow shutter speed

In this shot, I chose a position for an even view of the dome and the tower, and tried to create a defocused effect in the clouds with a slow shutter speed. However, the slow shutter speed in the day caused the sky to appear blown out as a result.
The settings I used were: ISO 100, aperture: f/22, shutter speed: 10 seconds.


Step 3: Use an ND filter to blur the clouds at the optimal exposure

I used an ND filter (ND400) to reduce the amount of light for this shot. The settings I used were ISO 100, aperture: f/20, shutter speed: 60 seconds. They allowed me to create a dramatic effect on the movement of the clouds.


Step 4: Adjust white balance to emphasise both the buildings and the clouds

Bulb (f/22, 60 sec.)/ FL: 20mm /ISO 100/ WB: Auto/ WB (colour temperature): 6000K/ ND filter: ND400. Accessories used: tripod, remote controller
To finish up, I decreased the exposure level slightly and increased the yellow tone to add impact to the buildings and the clouds. You can adjust the shutter speed to suit the speed at which the clouds are moving.


Turn the movement of the clouds into visual accents

When it comes to taking shots of buildings, you can change how you present the subject by making adjustments such as changing your position. At the same time, including other elements in the composition can further help to widen the scope of your photographic expression. A common technique is to direct the viewer’s attention to the clouds in the sky.

To do so, start by composing a shot with a tripod, followed by shooting at a slow shutter speed. A shutter speed of longer than 30 seconds would be ideal. Creating a defocused effect on the clouds helps to add a surreal feel to the buildings. You can also use an ND filter to photograph at a slow shutter speed of your preference. 

Another important consideration is the ratio of the sky. You can create a sense of openness in your image by using a low angle to occupy a large portion of the composition with the sky.



Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.