21 May 2012

Celebrating Champions League Win with Chelsea Fans

I've never been that into football, but living less than a mile away from Stamford Bridge it is hard to ignore the Chelsea fans that pour into the area every week or so for nine months of the year. Over the years I've watched the hoards of Smurfs (as we affectionately call them) traipsing along the road in packs, heading towards the club. Generally they are not the most prepossessing of people - usually sporting shaven heads and bright blue shirts stretched tight over their wobbly bellies (and that's just the kids!). When it's freezing cold and pissing down with rain I vaguely admire their commitment to supporting the team, as I put on the kettle and turn up the heating. But onwards they march! I rarely watch a match, but vaguely follow the team's progress and secretly hope that they win.

And this is partly because I'm a local and you have to support your local team, but mainly because of the parades. They are just so much fun to witness. Normally I open my first floor window and watch from the comfort of my own flat, taking the odd snap or two, but this time was different. Chelsea had won the Champions League for the first time ever; and in fact they are the first London team to do so. They also won the FA cup a fortnight earlier (something they do quite often), so there was quite a lot to celebrate. I even watched the whole of the match, convinced that they wouldn't win, resulting in the poor organisers having to take down the platforms and screens that they'd already set up before the match. Talk about tempting fate! It was a tense match to watch, and it was great that it went right down to the final kick of the ball. Good old Drogba!

The parade was planned for 4pm, but the crowds started to arrive much earlier. Security guards were brought down in coaches from far afield. We went out at about 1pm and chatted to a couple of them. They'd found out that they would be needed after Drogba's final goal, having to leave home at 4am - with 347 of them coming down from Leeds alone. Many more were there, lining the route along the Fulham Road, Hortensia Road and the New King's Road, from the ground to Parsons Green. Despite supporting Leeds, and certainly not Chelsea, they were in good spirits (at least it wasn't Man United, they told us). They stood at 10-20 metre intervals from each other, in roughly the same spots for about 5 or 6 hours, occasionally opening barriers to let people across the road, but otherwise with nothing to do but stand, wait and hope nothing kicked off.

People were out and about selling cup-shaped balloons, t-shirts, horns, and flags, some with dogs dressed for the occasion.

I certainly wasn't the only one out with a camera; the official press photographers were already mingling around, and a big stage was set up for the news teams. They definitely had the best views. The press photographers were allowed to wander in the streets when the rest of us were stuck behind the barriers.

We went back home for a spot of lunch and went back to the front line at about 3pm, wrapped up warm, hoping to secure a good spot and view of the parade and crowds. I took my 70-200mm lens and spent the time before the bus finally arrived snapping away at all the fans that lined the streets.

What amazed me was the variety of types of people. They were the normal architypal Smurfs (the shaven-headed, beer-gutted ones with matching sons) but so many others from different races, ages and types of backgrounds. A big happy melting pot all celebrating Chelsea's historic win.

Across the road was a group of teenage girls who sat on top of a railing, all sporting matching white polo shirts (the Ralph Lauren ones with the BIG logo), and all looking as if it had taken them about 3 hours to put on the nails, the foundation, the fake eyelashes, flatten the hair and choose which enormous handbag to take. I couldn't take my eyes off them!

News helicopters buzzed around in the skies above us. Residents came out onto balconies, roofs and stretched out of windows. People threw celery across the road at each other (apparently a tradition going back to the 1980s, although I'd never heard about it before). People threw celery at the teenage girls. Some fans began to looked a bit bored.

The bus finally arrived just after 5pm and parked about a hundred metres down the road near the press stand on Eel Brook Common; we weren't in the best place. We could still enjoy the atmosphere, though, with all the cheers and flag-waving and horns (it was quite noisy!). I could just see the team buses in the distance.

The team stayed at that spot for a while, making various speeches and cheering, in front of the thousands of fans packed onto Eel Brook Common and down Wandsworth Bridge Road. Eventually the bus set off again, towards us, and I struggled to get my camera over the arms, heads and flags of other supporters. One guy with a Brazilian flag had his arms up obscuring the view,  recording the view for his friends on three separate mobile phones.

I probably blocked the view for more people behind me as I struggled on my tiptoes, waving my camera in the bus's direction. Such is life. Eventually the bus reached us, and I was able to capture a very contented-looking Roman Abramovich sitting at the front of the bus. He even looked a little bemused, as did a few of the other team-members, most of whom I didn't recognise! The smiles never left Ashley Cole's and John Terry's faces.

Their view must have been incredible - a wash of blue (and orange security guards) winding down the New King's Road ahead of them, led by mounted policemen, everyone cheering their achievement (apart from the police and the Leeds-supporting security teams!). A second bus ferried what must have been the wives, girlfriends and other family members.

Once the buses had passed, a wall of security people and policemen came down the middle of the road towards us, with the fans packed behind them, pouring from the common. They followed the buses towards Parsons Green, where luxury buses waited to take the team away for more private celebrations.

A few guys standing near us pushed to the front in order to climb over. A woman and her small children next to us began to panic that they'd get crushed so we helped usher them away; no harm done in the end, but I don't think young Maddie had really enjoyed her day out.

We wandered back to the flat, a minute away, stopping to chat to some neighbours who leaned out of their first floor windows, watching the parade from home. It probably won't be repeated for a while - I can't imagine they'll put on another parade next year if they only win the FA cup, but who knows. The supporters will be there in their tens of thousands if they do, without a doubt.

In the evening we went out to see a friend, and the road was empty but for a few security guards taking down the barriers, and endless empty plastic bags blowing around in the wind. We walked down the middle of Wandsworth Bridge Road - probably the only time it'll be closed to traffic. In the morning everything was back to normal, the litter cleared, the roads opened as if nothing had happened.

More photos of the day can be seen on my website.

14 May 2012

13 Tips to Improve Your Photography

There are lots and lots of articles published on how to improve your photography, and everyone has their own ideas.

So I thought that I'd add my own list of things that I think have improved my photography over the years. There's quite a lot of detail, so you may just want to skip to the relevant bits. Oh, I’m a Canon girl, so any reference to equipment here is Canon!

Here’s the basic list:

1)               Understand Exposure
2)               Shoot in RAW
3)               Shoot in aperture priority (AV)
4)               Check your settings
5)               Compose slowly
6)               Get your focus right
7)               Get one good lens
8)               Use filters
9)               Use a tripod
10)           Make sure your sensor is clean
11)           Post-process
12)           Read photography magazines, blogs, Flickr
13)           Practise!

1) Understand exposure

This is a big one. Photography is all about light and photos aren’t possible unless enough light can reach the sensor. If there’s too much light, then the photo will be over-exposed (often with “clipped” highlights, where parts are white, lacking in any detail, and look blown out) and if there's too little light then the photo will be under-exposed (often with “clipped” shadows, where parts are black and therefore lacking in any detail). Most DSLRs are pretty good at measuring the exposure needed for some shots, but there is a massive range of circumstances in photography where the camera just can’t get it right. For this reason, often we need to compensate by over- or under-exposing a shot, making manual adjustments to the exposure that the camera suggests. All cameras allow you to do this, and it’s definitely worth learning where the dials are on your camera to let you do this.

But back to the basics first. There are four variables involved in exposing an image – the amount of light available (which you may or may not be able to control - by using a flash, using a reflector, moving to a different spot, waiting for the light to change, etc.), the aperture (see section 3 – this is the hole which controls the amount of light getting through the lens to the sensor, and you can adjust this, within the capacity of the lens), the shutter speed (which determines how long the shutter is open for, and you can adjust this) and the ISO (or the equivalent of the sensitivity of the film, which you can also adjust – broadly, the lower the light, the higher the ISO needed, and the higher the noise in the final image).

Different settings of one of the variables will impact the others, and the camera will automatically try to determine these if you shoot in either the AV (aperture priority) or TV (shutter speed priority) modes (it’ll calculate the appropriate value of the other to use). Different combinations of aperture and shutter speed settings will lead to the same amount of light being allowed in, but there will be differences to the overall appearance of the image because the depth of field will vary (see section 3). The exposure that the camera meters may also not be correct. The metering depends on where the camera’s taken the reading from (there are various settings you can choose – spot metering (where it meters the light available based on one point), or evaluative, partial, or centre-average metering (where it meters the light available at various points)).

You may then need to over- or under-expose if the photo looks wrong. You could change the area where you have focused on as this might have given a wacky light reading (eg. if there’s white sky or snow, the camera will try to compensate and under-expose). I had a photography teacher when I was first trying to understand how to use an SLR (back in the film days) who suggested that to get the right exposure find something grey to focus on (or carry a grey card and use that) and then fix that exposure (there should be a button on the camera so you can do that!) and use that exposure to take the shot.

Once you’ve taken a shot, you still may find that the range of light in the scene is just too great for the camera to cope with - that the dark bits are too dark and the light bits are too light (this is called the high dynamic range, and has led to the method of combining shots with different exposure levels to try to get lighter dark bits and darker light bits, so it represents what the human eye sees. Sometimes it can work well, other times it’s horrid!). The camera is not as clever as the eye, so sometimes it just isn’t possible to capture or expose correctly. Some filters can help with this (see section 8 for some help on how to eradicate over-blown skies).

Getting to know and understand a histogram is very useful as a way of learning whether you are exposing correctly or not (other than just reviewing a photo to see if there are white and black patches). The ideal histogram should be a fairly standard bell curve, but often your photos won’t come out like that. If the shot’s been overexposed a little, the curve will be skewed slightly to the right of centre, under-exposed it’ll be on the left. Clipped highlights or shadows will show as peaks hitting the top of the histogram and should be avoided. There are sliders on post-processing software at the edge of the histogram, so you can move these over to the edge of the curve, which sometimes helps with exposure errors (it might be useful to use the “auto-levels” function to see how it impacts the histogram before trying it yourself at first). Some photographers actually recommend "exposing to the right", ie. over-exposing a little, to ensure that you get the detail in the shadows, but no so much as to clip the highlights, before reducing the exposure in post-production, but this comes down to personal preference.

The other tips below should all help with the endless task of exposing the shot correctly! Oh, but remember that whole books have been written about this subject, so it's not something you'll understand or be able to do overnight. An awareness of the pitfalls is useful though! And practice helps too (see section 13).

2) Shoot in RAW

What is RAW? Simply, it’s the uncompressed version of the image (jpegs are a compressed version). Why use it? Because you can make various adjustments to the images that are not possible in a jpeg, namely change the white balance, picture style and the exposure. If you’ve under-exposed a shot, then just bump the exposure up a bit! Taken a photo and the colours look wrong - change the colour temperature (white balance). It works much more effectively than trying to make these adjustments to jpegs. You can also adjust contrast, brightness, lighten shadows, saturation, adjust sharpness, etc. that you can also do in jpeg. Downsides? It takes up a lot more memory, and you have to convert it to jpeg in order to share it (usually). I very much regret not taking my early DSLR photos in RAW format - I would have been able to correct a few early mistakes. Any camera that has RAW capability (including the higher-end compacts) will also provide software for processing RAW images – eg. Digital Photo Professional is Canon’s version.

There's a great, more detailed description of RAW and comparison with jpeg here.

3) Shoot in Aperture Priority (AV)

What is aperture? As already mentioned, it is the hole through which light passes before it reaches the sensor. The wider an aperture is open, the more light the camera receives. In photography there is a numbering system, with the lower the f-number, the wider the aperture, eg. f/1.2 is very wide open, giving lots of light. A high f-number (e.g f/16) will only have a tiny opening, allowing very little light to reach the sensor (also know as "stopped down"). The aperture will therefore affect the shutter speed needed, the depth of field in the scene and the ISO needed (like the old film speed).

Why shoot in AV? Because the camera automatically finds the correct speed needed to correctly expose the image (within reason, discussed above), using aperture priority gives you a lot of control over how the image will look, eg. if you want to isolate an image and have the background all blurry (shallow depth of field) then you’d use a wide aperture. If you want to take a nice sharp shot of a landscape with the whole scene in focus (as far as possible) then you’d use a narrower aperture, with an f-number of f/11+. The exact number required will depend on the camera, the lens, the subject and the light conditions – if you have a low to mid-range DSLR (with a cropped frame) then f/11 will probably allow you to get the whole of an image in focus. If you have a high-end DSLR (full-frame) then you’ll need to push the f-number higher, eg. f/16. Going higher than that might be intuitive, but then light refraction gets in the way and the distant area becomes a bit blurry. Plus, the higher f-number/narrower aperture you have the more any dust spots you have on your sensor will show up (very time-consuming to clone out - see section 10 on cleaning your sensor to avoid needing to do this!).

The only time I ever shoot in shutter speed priority mode (TV) is if I'm doing a slow or long exposure shot, with the purpose of getting movement blur, milky water, smooth waterfalls, light trails, etc.. (and even then, I will make sure that the AV is still appropriate for the shot, which usually means that I need filters – see section 7), or if I want a moving image captured or frozen, then I'd use a very high shutter speed (and a corresponding wide aperture would be automatically applied by the camera to expose correctly).

4) Always check your settings before you shoot, eg. ISO

Ever taken a photo at night and pushed the ISO right up so you didn't have to use the flash and then forgotten about it and taken photos the following day and wondered why they are so grainy? Or climbed a mountain to see sunrise and forgotten to push the ISO back down once it's light? I have - very annoying, and avoidable.

You don’t want to be shooting in bright sunlight with an ISO of 1600. So, always check the ISO before you start shooting (I never use automatic ISO, but if you do, then this won’t matter so much). Always check that you have the right aperture and shutter speed that are appropriate for the type of shot that you’re trying to achieve too. Same with White Balance: if you've been using it the night before on a tungsten setting, things will look pretty nasty and blue (you can adjust it if you've shot in RAW, thankfully). I guess these all come down to making sure that you've got the exposure right (see section 1!)

5) Compose slowly - check for clutter in the background, rule of thirds, etc. 

Taking time to check all your settings leads me nicely on to my next piece of advice – try to compose carefully, so as to ensure that you don’t have bits of limbs cut off, trees sticking out of people’s heads, massive amounts of empty pointless sky, etc. One well-known rule for composition is the Rule of Thirds – to ensure that you have the focus of attention at the intersection of these imaginary third lines going across and down the shot. On some cameras you can show these on your screen to help with this.

There are obviously exceptions to this – eg. reflections, where it can often work to have the horizon line in the middle of the shot with the reflection and the thing being reflected in the thirds below and above, like this. If I’m taking landscape shots and the sky is incredible but there’s nothing much in the foreground I sometimes have the horizon right near the bottom of the shot (not at the third line) and if the sky’s boring I might only show a touch of it (or none!), like this. If you take photos of people, animals or vehicles moving, it’s nice to have somewhere for them to move into, so make sure that they’re on one side of the shot with some space for this “future movement.”

Avoid clutter. Make use of patterns and leading lines. Focus in on interesting details. Stop to think "what would I call this photo?" and if you can't think of anything interesting, then maybe it's not a very interesting shot! Re-compose and try again, perhaps. Just an idea.

6) Get your focus right.

This might sound extremely obvious, but getting focus right is extremely important and isn't always as easy or intuitive as you might think.

For landscape photography it is important that the whole of the image is sharp (unless there's some creative alternative desired). There is a point called the hyper-focal point, where everything behind that point (towards infinity) and half of the subject-matter in front of that point, is in focus (assuming you're using the correct f-number, as above). Here’s an example of what would happen if you didn’t do this. You have a field with a few bits and pieces in it, and in the distance is a line of beautiful trees on the horizon. It might be natural to focus on the trees on the horizon, as they are the most interesting thing in the shot, but then too much of the foreground is going to be out of focus, making the whole shot look slightly off. If you focus about a third of a way into the scene (a very rough way of estimating the hyper-focal distance) then you should get far more of the scene in focus, including the trees and most of the foreground. If the auto focus doesn't work (sometimes happens if the scene is too uniform, such as grass), then switch onto manual focus and try to get that point yourself. Obviously if there's something in the foreground that you specifically want to capture, then focus on this (but then you may want a shallow depth of field anyway).

For portraits of people and animals by far the most important spot to focus on is the eyes. Blurred eyes ruin portraits (again, unless it’s a creative shot with the focus on something else on purpose, eg. a close-up of a dog’s nose with a shallow depth of field where you want the rest of the head to be out-of-focus). The shallower the depth of field, the more noticeable this becomes and therefore more crucial that you focus on the eye.

I never use the automatic focus points option on the camera, but choose one focus point which is most appropriate for the subject. For landscapes I’ll usually use the bottom, middle focus point, as this will be closest to the hyper-focal point. For portraits, the top-left and top-right often work well if the subject’s eyes are in the upper part of the shot, off-centre. You can also recompose the shot once you've pressed the shutter half way down and focused (if you're using the One Shot focus option). Review your photos at a good zoomed-in level to inspect for focus issues!

7) Get one good lens

People often discuss which is more important, the camera or the lens. Well, you can take great shots with a low-end camera and low-end lens and poor shots with high-end equipment. But one thing that's probably true is that kit lenses don't result in as great, sharp pictures as better quality ones, especially in poor light. Those lenses are cheap (and light) for a reason – they don’t have a great amount of quality glass in them (plus they’re not very sturdy or weather-proof – which is not helpful if you’re out and about in the elements!).

So my advice would be to get at least one decent lens. There are a couple of good-value but highly-recommended lenses on the market – namely the Canon 50mm f/1.8 (about £90) or 50mm f/1.4 (if you can push up to about £290). Using a fixed-length (or prime) lens takes a bit of getting used to – you have to move yourself in and out of the shot, rather than zooming in and out with a telephoto lens.

If you’ve got lots of money to spend, there are some incredible lenses available (the Canon L series is their high-end series). The quality of the pictures is usually far superior to the cheaper lenses (you get what you pay for, except perhaps with the 50mm f/1.8 (I don't have one, so I don't know, but all accounts of it are good)). The L lenses are usually much heavier and bigger, so less practical to carry around and to use (I get aches in my fingers after a day with the L lenses, unless I'm using a tripod the whole time).

Bear in mind when you invest in lenses that some are only suitable for the cropped-frame cameras (eg. Canon 600D, 1000D, 60D and 7D), so if you ever upgrade to a full-frame camera (eg. Canon 5D and 1D ranges) then those lenses will no longer work. These lenses in the Canon range are called EF-S. Lenses that you can use on any camera are called EF (all L lenses are EF). There’s a good second-hand market for decent lenses, but less so for cheaper ones.

A piece of advice from my own experience - if you’re going on safari, don’t automatically rush out and buy the first zoom you see that goes up to 300mm. I had a lens like that and the quality was very poor (unless in extremely bright conditions, which animals don’t usually hang out in!). It was a cheap 90-300mm f/4.5-5.6 which I bought years back when I was going on safari). I now use a 70-200mm f/4 IS USM (I haven’t moved up to the f/2.8 version yet as it’s over £1,800!) and the quality of the photos is far superior to the 90-300mm one. Better to have less zoom but better quality – you can always crop the photo when you’re home if it's decent quality and sharp.

8) Use filters to change light and allow creativity

I have always used UV and polarising filters, although more recently I’ve read that UV filters don’t really do a great deal on DSLRs – they do protect your lens, though. Circular polarisers are a must if you take landscape photos – they allow you to capture bluer skies and better reflections, as well as bringing out the colours in foliage and rainbows, for example.

My photography really changed, however, when I bought my first neutral density (ND) filter. There are two types of filter system available. The one I use (which is not necessarily the best) is the screw-in filter type. The other type involves having an adaptor on the outside of your lens and then you slot in square filters in front of the lens. With both systems it’s possible to stack multiple filters, although with wider-angle lenses you run the risk of vignetting (dark corners around the edge of the shot). If you run into problems getting either the filters stuck together or a filter stuck on a lens, try rubber gloves to get them off!

My first ND filter was a graduated one and I recommend that everyone who is interested in landscape photography gets one. Simply, it darkens the top half of the screen by a couple of stops, so I can expose the whole shot a bit lighter without having a white sky. If the sky is white and dull it brings a bit of contrast to it. If the clouds are dark and moody it makes them look darker and moodier. If the sky is bright blue, then I won’t generally use it. The one I have is on a ring that you can move around to adjust the line of the dark bit – so you can move it when you’re taking portrait shots or if the horizon is a bit wonky! Don't forget to line it up again when you return to taking landscape format shots, otherwise one side of your photo will be darker than the other - not a good look. The benefit of the slot-in system is that you can place the dark portion anywhere in the shot, rather than having it bang in the middle as is the case with the screw-in ones. This is helpful if you don't have the horizon in the middle of the shot (most of the time!), but even with the screw-in ones it seems to work okay (I don't usually get a noticeable line across the middle!).

The other ND filters I have are not for everyday use, but I absolutely love them! Ever tried to take a photo of a waterfall, hoping to get the water look smooth – like in the professional pictures?! Well, if you try it without a filter (unless you’re in a really dark place), the whole shot will be over-exposed, as you have to slow the shutter speed down, which will let too much light in. Screw in an ND filter on the lens and suddenly you can leave that shutter open a little longer (depending on the type of filter) and voila! – you have a perfectly exposed shot with lovely smooth water. Well, it takes a lot of practise. Focusing can be tricky (use Liveview if you have it, or focus prior to putting on the filter). I am now up to three of these things – one which blocks 10 stops of light (serious “black glass”), one which blocks 6 stops and one which blocks only 2. The reason for this is that light conditions will always be different and sometimes you want a ½ second exposure and sometimes you want 30 seconds. Obviously, the darker the glass the longer youu can leave the shutter open, so the 10-stop one isn't for short long exposures, it's for long ones! Sometimes you want more or less time for your exposure, so you stack a couple until you get the right combination. In order to get the appropriate aperture you might not find that just one will do the trick.

These things are not cheap, but for the extra fun and wonder that you’ll get from the results, I would definitely invest! (Beware: they can become very addicitve and they can also be quite antisocial if you’re out taking photos with someone else – “just one more long exposure shot, honey” and you’ll be there another half and hour and your companion will be cold, bored and grumpy! In fact, I got mild hypothermia the first time I used them in Scotland - remember to keep warm!). For inspiration, read this article; the best and most comprehensive article I've found about filters: how to use them, all the brands and types available, etc.. Thanks Peter Hill!

If you’re taking long exposure shots, then the camera has to be steady, so you’ll need either to prop it on a wall or the ground (a piece of clothing will help to get the right angle), but basically you’ll need a tripod. If you're shooting for longer than 30 seconds you'll also need to use the Bulb setting with a remote shutter release.

Oh, and if it's getting dark, or it is dark already, then you probably don't need the filters for a long exposure shot (at least not the 10-stop one), as the light will become more limited. Night-time is a perfect time to play around with long exposure shots including light trails (and star trails, although living in the middle of London doesn't lend itself to this).

9) Use a tripod! 

Except for quick shutter speeds, a tripod is usually very helpful. The general rule is that you should never have a shutter speed less than 1/focal length - eg. if your focal length is 50mm, then make sure your photo is at a speed of 1/60th second or faster (here's a good article on this). Otherwise use of a tripod is necessary to prevent camera shake. Many different types exist and some can be so flimsy as to be useless in a light breeze. I have a variety – a lightweight one which is good unless there’s wind, a heavy-weight one (very heavy and bulky, so not ideal for travelling!) and a Gorillapod (this is a small device that can be used as a very low tripod or its legs can be wrapped around something like a fence post). If you’re into hiking (like me!) and don’t want to lug a bulky tripod, but still want to have something with you to help you capture sharper shots (or long exposures – you never know where you’ll come across a picturesque waterfall) then these are really handy. My Gorillapod is pretty heavy-duty – but you need it to be sturdy enough to hold your camera and lens (and the weight they say they hold on their website is BS – halve the weight they suggest and you’re closer to what it’ll comfortably hold). Oh, always shop around for these things - two good sites are Amazon (for everything!) and Camera Price Buster for comparison of camera and lens prices.

As well as having a sturdy platform, another method of getting sharper shots is the use of a remote-control shutter release, or just using a self-timer delay of 2 seconds, which gives the camera enough time to settle down after you’ve pressed the shutter down before it captures the shot. Others suggest using the mirror lock-up function too, but I haven’t yet tried it.

At the other end of the spectrum from steady photography using a tripod is panning. I wrote a blog about this earlier this year.

10) Make sure your sensor is clean

I recently returned from a trip to Iceland and had to spend an awful lot of time touching up photos to get rid of dust-spots. These come from tiny specks of dust on your sensor (or possibly lenses and filters too). Cleaning lenses and filters is pretty straight-forward (use a photo-specific, lint-free cloth or tissue), but trying to clean the sensor is another story. A lot of cameras have an automatic sensor-cleaning function when the camera is swtiched on and off, but this doesn't really seem to work. I change lenses a lot, and sometimes dust just gets in.

The first method for cleaning is to use a rocket blower - this can be used to blast air onto the sensor in the hope of dislodging dust specks (with the camera facing downwards so the dust can get out!). If you've ever used one of these to clean the dust from lenses or filters you can see that it's not always that efficient, as you watch that dust dance across the filter from one spot to another. Sometimes the blower cannot dislodge the dust from a lens, and this is particularly the case if you try to clean your sensor with one. Some people suggest that you might even blow more dust in using this method.

The next option is to take it to a photo store to be cleaned. This is not ideal, as it involves finding a place that does it, taking it in to them, trusting them, being without the camera for a while, paying them, and collecting it. It should be the safest way of doing it, though, as you'd hope that if you're paying for it the people have been trained to do it properly and efficiently without damaging your sensor.

The other methods involve trying to clean it yourself with one of the products available on the market. I'm not going to go into all of them here, but from what I have read, the only one that really works is to use specially-made wands or swabs covered in lint-free cloth (PEC-Pads) dabbed with a special solution (Eclipse) and then brush it across the sensor while the camera is in cleaning mode. I'm not going to go into detail, as it's covered in lots of detail by this article. Having read this a few times I ordered the bits and pieces on Amazon and set to cleaning the sensor myself. It worked pretty well, and I used two swabs before settling for a couple of dust specks at the side (compared with about 20 usually visible in all my shots before processing). The equipment is not cheap for what it is, but great value for what it does! Bear in mind that the fluid (Eclipse) shouldn't be taken on aeroplanes as it's flammable, but I'm sure a tiny bottle in your hand luggage is unlikely to cause too much problem - perhaps clean your sensor before you leave home! There used to be two versions of it, with a different one (E2) for different, tin oxide-based sensors, but now there is only one, so don't let that throw you if you see a mention of two varieties. One fluid works on all.Oh, and there are two sizes of the swabs - for APS-C sensors and full-frame.

11) Post-process 

Photoshopping photos has a bad name – mainly due to dreadful overdone HDR (high dynamic range) shots, where the foreground colours look so unrealistic that it looks like an ‘80s Athena poster and the skies are so burned they just look freaky (just Google "overdone HDR" and you'll see a selection of the finest (worst) examples). I am a firm believer, however, that a little bit of post-processing can go a long way. Firstly, you may need to tweak a few things in RAW, like adjusting the exposure, the levels and curves, straightening the horizon, changing the white balance, etc. but there are also some other things that you might need to do, for which you’ll need a bit more advanced software. I use Serif PhotoPlus x4, which is a cheaper version of Photoshop. It's not great for working with RAW photos, so I always play around with these first in the Canon software and only occasionally make changes using PhotoPlus.

Some photos need sharpening up, but you don’t want to over-do it. The best way is to use the Unsharp mask. Again, you need to play around with the settings to see what works best. Try amount = 50%, radius = 0.1 pixels, threshold = 0 to start with and see how that looks - it'll be quite sharp if the threshold is low; you might want to try something different for portraits where you want a softer look.

As discussed in section 1, you may need to play around with the histogram - adjusting levels and curves - basically correcting exposure errors.

Some photos look pretty ordinary in colour, so try desaturating, or turning into black and white (or maybe sepia, or another colour-tint). In more advanced software you can play around with the colour channels - this affects the appearance of the monochrome conversion considerably – eg. a red filter gives darker skies and paler faces. PhotoPlus is good for this, giving you lots of control over the black and white conversion. Often shots with dull skies can be rescued by making them moody black and white shots.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of correcting levels and contrast, adjusting saturation (don’t over saturate!!), then move on to some more interesting and complex adjustments, if you have the software – eg. dodging and burning (lightening and darkening) of specific parts of a photo (again, overdoing the burning can ruin photos by making them look unrealistic and "photoshopped").

Cloning is very useful for getting rid of those dust spots (that you haven't cleared with cleaning!) and other annoying bits and pieces that may ruin an otherwise great shot. When I take long exposures I get a few “defective pixels” – these show up as either tiny white spots (dead pixels) or brightly coloured ones (hot pixels). These are quite common and definitely need to be cloned out. With cloning, make sure you pick something to clone that is the identical colour and tone and it shouldn’t be visible once it’s adjusted. Some programmes produce better results than others.

Another common adjustment is to add grain/noise and vignetting around the edges to produce a more vintage-style shot. This is definitely a personal preference thing and I think works best on black and white or sepia shots.

12) Read photography magazines or blogs, use Flickr, enter competitions, etc.

You can learn an awful lot from reviewing your own photos critically, but it’s not always that easy to do. I suggest having a look through some photography magazines (hard copy or online versions); they usually have a readers' section where people send in their work for critique. These critiques are useful to learn where people are going wrong.  There are tons of these magazines (and magbooks) on the market – have a look at what the features are on in a particular issue and choose something that you want to improve on. There may be photography clubs near you - I guess a Google search will help to find them.

These magazines have competitions too, as do various newspapers and organisations (eg. Travel Photographer of the Year). It can be a good way to see what's doing well, as well as giving you the chance to win equipment, prints or holidays. A word of warning with some photography competitions, though, is that they sometimes take ridiculous rights over your photos even if you just enter. Read the Terms & Conditions carefully, to ensure that they can't sell your photos on. You will always retain the copyright, but some list all sorts of things that they can do with the photos without you getting a penny (or even any recognition). The better competitions will only ever use your photo in connection with the promotion of the competition, and usually only if you're a winner or runner-up. Some also have stipulations about not entering if the entry's been "published" before - how they define that, who knows, but I had a photo removed from one (it was a runner-up) because it won a different competition (I'd entered them both at the same time).

Another good place to learn from others is via blogs (if you want advice on anything in photography then Google it – there will be a whole host of articles, blogs, and sometimes videos to help you out). I also spend a lot of time not only adding my own images to Flickr but also looking at other people's photos. You can add photos to particular groups depending on the location or subject matter. People’s comments are never particularly useful from a critical point of view, but it’s nice when people give you good feedback. I do find it really helpful, though, looking at the EXIF info of photos that I like; you can see what camera the shot was taken on, what lens they used, focal length, ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Not everyone allows this information to be public, but most do. Become inspired by people and try to copy their techniques (eg. getting that nice smooth water), but please don’t steal people’s work from Flickr (bane of my life!).

13) Practise! 

Always have a camera with you. You’ll never improve if you don’t take photos. You'll never get decent photos on your DSLR if you don’t have it with you! I started carrying a compact with me (Canon S90) about two years ago, and now I never go anywhere without one of the cameras. I carry my DSLR and lenses with me more and more, even if I’m just popping out to meet people – you never know what you might see. Taking a camera with you and having the option to snap at all times is a great way to get your confidence up and get used to taking photos in public. Try to fit photography into your daily routine - some of the best shots I’ve taken in London were taken when I was walking along the River Thames on the way to an old job. Beautiful time of day (around 7-8am) and changing seasons and light, coupled with the movements of the river. Sometimes I was rather later for work...

That's all folks...

So, my most important piece of advice of the lot is this: practise. The only way to really improve at photography, like with everything else, is by practising. Snap, snap and snap some more! Take photos all the time. Come home, download them, have a look at them, adjust them. Be critical with yourself. Blow them up to at least the size of the screen. If they’re not sharp (at least in one place) try to work out why – are you having problems focusing on the right spot? Did you move the camera (or was the shutter speed too slow)? Did you not get the effect you were looking for? Did you over-expose? Why? What do you like about the good ones? Eventually the technical side of it will become more intuitive and almost second-nature. The creative possibilities are endless, though, and you'll find there's new stuff to learn about photography forever! Beware, though, as it can become very addictive...

Please comment on and/or share this article if you found it interesting or useful. Any suggestions to add useful tips?

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