29 Jan 2015

Easy & Effective Way to Clean Your Sensor!

(Disclaimer - this is not professional or sponsored advice, just a product I've found effective - clean your sensor at your own risk!)

I'm not usually wowed by a product enough to write a blog about it, but I've just used something amazing, which I wish I'd discovered earlier. I have no link to the company or supplier, by the way, I just think this is a great product that every photographer with a DSLR will love (not to be used on Sony sensors though, so not quite everyone)!

I first started cleaning my own camera sensor a few years ago, using pre-made wands wrapped with Pec Pads, with a few drops of Eclipse fluid to do the cleaning. These things were pretty expensive (at least £1 a swab), I ended up needing to use a few, and even then there was always noticeable dust spots at the edges. The plastic wand inside the folded Pec Pad wasn't quite big enough to keep the swab taut, so some dust always escaped the cleaning. I never managed to get all the dust spots, and usually gave up in frustration and removed remaining spots in post-processing. Eclipse fluid is also banned on planes, so if you're going abroad this is easy (and legal) to take with you!

I was running out of sensor swabs recently and started Googling to see where to get replacements (supply and price always seems a bit haphazard). I came across a new product - well, new to me anyway - called the Eyelead Sensor Cleaning Kit, made by a German company that makes all sorts of camera-cleaning products (and sells internationally). I've also seen it called the Eyelead Sensor Dust Sticking Bar Kit. It is a simple piece of kit, a long plastic stick with a cube of solid blue gel at the end of it. The head is protected by a tiny easy-to-open plastic box. Also supplied are 10 pieces of sticky paper. It's not cheap either - I got mine for £31, but having used it now, I know that it'll last quite a while, and it is so much more effective than using the swabs. EDIT Jan 2018 - I bought an additional packet on the cleaning papers on Amazon - prolongs the life of the kit a bit!

It is very easy to use, although it did take me a few goes before I got my sensor clean as I was a little hesitant. Now I know what I'm doing, I can clean it at the first attempt. Make sure you do this is a clean room that hasn't got visible dust in the air!

1. The first step is to make sure the gel cube is clean by pressing it against a clean piece of the sticky paper, remembering to press the edges and corners against the paper too.

2. The next step is to put the camera into "clean manually" mode (that's what it's called on the Canon cameras, anyway). You'll need a full battery, and once you click "OK" the mirror opens up to show the sensor. Take off the lens and you're ready to go. You might want to try a lens blower first to remove any easily dislodged dust or hairs.

3. Using it is simple - just press the little blue cube onto the sensor, a little bit at a time, working your way across and then down and back, making sure you've covered the whole area. I then go around the edges again, making sure I'm getting the gel right at the sides. The corners are easier to get to with a full-frame, larger sensor (I haven't included any photos of me doing this stage, as I don't want to open the mirror again unnecessarily while I faff around trying to get a shot with my other camera!).

4. When you think you're done, turn off the camera and put the lens back on. Then press the dirty gel cube onto a clean piece of the paper (you can reuse the same piece if there's not much dust, as the paper is stickier than the cube). If the sensor was particularly dirty you'll notice quite a lot of dirt coming off (as you can see in the photo on the right below). Once done, replace the plastic protective top over the cube, cover the sticky paper up with its cover (so you can use the clean bits the next time) and put the stick and paper back into the nice little tin for the next time.

5. Before and after I clean my sensor I always take test shots - beforehand to see exactly where the dust is and how bad it is, and afterwards to ensure I've got it all. The settings I use are as follows: ISO 100, aperture mode and as high an f-stop number as the lens has (eg. f/22 on my 24-70mm), and then take an out-of-focus shot of a uniform white wall or ceiling (or the sky). Download and play around with the exposure and contrast to show off any dirt.

6. Also check that your lenses are clean! What might look like dust on a sensor could also be on the lens, either the front or back glass elements. A simple blast of the blower should get rid of most dust. If you're not sure, take a couple of different shots with different lenses and before and after cleaning them too.

EDIT Jan 2018
7. I've always struggled to work out exactly where a dust spot on a photo is on the sensor. I spent far too long trying to dab away at a corner a few months ago, only to realise that I'd misunderstood from someone else's blog where the dust was. Basically it's flipped horizontally. So, if you're looking at the photo and there's a dust spot in the top right hand corner then on the sensor as you look at it from the front of the camera as you're cleaning it, it will be in the bottom right hand corner.

Here are my before and after shots (top and bottom), taken on my Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm lens. The back of the lens was really dusty and produced the large soft splodges, whereas the dust on the sensor led to small darker dots, particularly visible along the right-hand edge. They might look small here, but there were loads, and very irritating to have to clone out in post-processing. As you can see, in the second image (after cleaning both lens with a blower and the sensor with the gel cube) there are almost no dust spots whatsoever. 

As I said, it took me a few goes to get the hang of it, finding the right amount of pressure needed and how to get the gel right to the edge, but once I mastered it it was easy; I did my Canon 60D in one go straight after this, removing stubborn dust spots that I'd never quite managed to get rid of with the fiddly Eclipse-moistened sensor swabs.

Before I did this I watched a couple of really useful videos of other people doing it, so much thanks to them!
Photography Life Video
F-Stoppers.com Video

I will continue to use Pec Pads with Eclipse for cleaning my lenses, but certainly won't be bother with the fiddly swabs again. And now I won't be so afraid to change lenses while away, as I'll be confident that I can clean any dust that creeps in away.

25 Jan 2015

A Grey Afternoon at the Sky Garden

Three weeks ago I read on Twitter that a new, free attraction was opening in London - the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie Talkie building (20 Fenchurch Street is its official name). I'm not a fan of the building at all - I think the design is ugly, and really doesn't fit the evolving London skyline, but I do like the views from high buildings, so was keen to visit to check out the view. I booked tickets to visit with my hubby today, a Sunday afternoon, an hour before sunset. Sadly the weather was grey and uninspiring.

In preparation for my visit I did a little research into what was allowed in terms of photography, and their rules stated that commercial photography was not allowed without permission, and neither was any "specialist" equipment, such as tripods. I emailed to see what I had to do to get a permit and got a reply ten days later telling me that it wasn't possible. I followed up to confirm whether I could pay for a permit, since it stated online that this was possible, but didn't get a response, so gave up on the idea of taking photos with a tripod. I also left my zoom lens at home, not wanting to risk them being a bit funny about it and not letting me in. Before I set off I also read some reviews of the Sky Garden - this one in the Guardian describing the building as "bloated, inelegant, thuggish" did not help my expectations...

On arrival our tickets and picture IDs were checked, bags put through security machines, and then we headed up in the lift to the 35th floor. We walked out into the large atrium, which has a bar/café in the middle, with chairs, tables and sofas dotted around towards the window to the south. The Shard dominates the skyline across the river to the south-east.

To the east and west sides of the building are staircases leading upwards, with shrubs and small trees on the banks beside them. In the middle of the building are two further floors containing restaurants, one of which faces out onto the Sky Garden bar/café area.

We walked around, starting on the west of the building. Through the windows that side St. Paul's Cathedral dominates the view, with a short stretch of the river also visible, and the bones of another skyscraper going up south of Blackfriars Bridge.

At the top of the stairs we reached another wide viewing area, looking north to Tower 42 (which I will always think of as the NatWest Tower), the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall Street) and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). The Heron Tower is hidden behind the Cheesegrater. On this side it isn't possible to get close to the window, so definitely no chance of putting the camera against the glass and getting reflection-free shots, which was just about doable on the side windows.

The distant towers of Canary Wharf, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge can be seen to the east, although the full view is annoyingly obscured by the structure of the building. It would have been stunning to see the moat filled with red poppies a few months ago from there.

When we got back to the atrium we had a brief glance at the cocktail menu (reasonably-priced for a London skyscraper), sat down for a while at the window with coffees and had a look around at the other visitors. The crowd was predominantly young, as I guess that's the age-group that read about the "garden" on social media sites. A woman showed off her TK Maxx purchases to her friends at the table next to us. No-one took off their coats, as it was a bit chilly and felt as if we were outside, even though the terrace doors are closed until March. People snapped away on their smartphones.

We wandered around again, and I took a few more photos, but the combination of the concave shape of the windows, reflections from the lights, and the shape and position of the building all conspired to make getting any decent shots tricky. In spite of being so high up I felt very disappointed with the views. If the building had been built with its footprint shifted round 45 degrees, then the views would have been massively improved! The three skyscrapers to the north just looked dull from this angle. St. Paul's was swamped by building sites surrounding it, the London Eye was at the south-west corner and pretty much hidden behind the corner structure, and only a small part of the meandering Thames could be seen east or west. Even when the terrace opens in March, there is eye-level-height glass, so no way to get a glass-free photo without holding your SLR up high and dangling it over the edge. The tripod, it turned out, wouldn't have helped much!

Having worked on the highest floors of one of the towers in Canary Wharf I'm used to great views from a skyscraper, but for some reason the views from this one don't really work, not for me, anyway. The design is bulbous and quite frankly a little dull, and I think it's been built in totally the wrong spot.

Oh well, there is one positive thing about the view - at least this building isn't in it!

24 Jan 2015

Winter in the Chess Valley

I grew up in Chorleywood, Herts, with its wonderful undulating wooded common and Philipshill Wood a short walk away. A little further away was the Chess Valley at Chenies and Sarratt Bottom. The views of the valley are stunning as you approach from the hills on either side; it's the beginning of the Chiltern Hills.

My parents recently moved a little further out, to Little Chalfont, so I've discovered a new bit of the valley, just next to Latimer House (where I once went for a training course back in my Coopers & Lybrand accountancy training days - many, many years ago!). Between their house and the valley are some wild woods, Lane Wood & West Wood. The fields nearby used to be open to walk across but are now fenced off and filled with sheep.

Having had almost no photography inspiration so far this year, I finally felt motivated to spend a couple of days out there as the weather-forecast was for frost and snow. My parents were away, so I looked after their house too. I arrived on Saturday evening to find the ground white with a light covering of snow, but by Sunday morning it had gone. I did a little photo trip out in the afternoon to catch the last light and sunset, leaving the dog at home (he's no help when I'm trying to take photos - very impatient little chap).


The following morning I got up early, leaving the house at 7.20am, traipsing through the woods, alone in the near darkness (this is one of the reasons, I think, that there are very few female landscape photographers - we just feel nervous and vulnerable). I was heading down to the Chess Valley, about 1.5 miles away, via Lane Wood and West Wood. I walked along the edge of a field where snow still sat on furrowed mud.

The sun came up as I reached the river. Unfortunately, just below Latimer House the riverside is private fishing land, so I had to walk along the path set back from the river with barbed-wire fences blocking off the river. I would love to have been at the water's edge to catch the reflections of the winter trees. I chatted to a man on the first bridge who pointed out a kingfisher in a nearby branch overhanging the river.

In the distance were some dead plants, perhaps nettles, backlit by the sun behind them. I became a bit obsessed with them, taking endless photos from different angles and focal points.

Eventually I had to head back - the dog's breakfast time had long gone past, so I rushed back up the hill, through the woods, arriving back to a very hungry dog. I headed out again in the afternoon, this time taking Henry to the woods with me. As expected he got very impatient if I stopped to take photos, and he also got very muddy.

He did have a lot of fun rolling around in the mucky leaves though...

On the way home I tried a few panning shots of the bare tree trunks, but I didn't have my tripod or polariser filter, so they were a bit shaky, and the colours not quite right. Will try again one day...

The following morning both frost and fog were forecast, and I was quite excited about that! I couldn't quite work out where the best spot to go would be. From the top of the woods there was a view over the distant hills, which would look nice in fog, I thought, but also the river valley would look stunning. Unfortunately I don't have a car, so wherever I chose required walking. I hadn't brought my 70-200mm lens with me, so any landscape shots were a little too wide to get the fog on the hills in the way I wanted. Lesson learnt!

I headed out at 7.30, this time having fed the dog first, so I didn't have to rush back. A light fog hung over the trees behind my parents' house.

I wandered down through Lane Wood and along a different footpath to the west, which gave me a nice view over the Chilterns. The zoom would have been nice, but I was limited to 70mm. A light layer of fog hung over the hills, and the sky was a vague pink from the last of the earth's shadow before the sun rose. A little red fox was standing in the frosty field as I arrived but scuttled off when it saw me.

By the time I walked down back into the woods the fog was beginning to thin and the sun was coming through the trees. I'd hoped for one of those ethereal shots of light rays coming through the fog between trees, but the wood was fog-free!

As I left the woods I got a glorious view of Latimer House lit up by the golden light, the ground surrounding it covered in a thick frost.

I wanted to get to the river as quickly as possible, but the route there was full of temptation - the hoar frost on the plants and fences was exquisite. Shame about the pilons and electricity wires.

Finally I reached the river, which was picture-postcard pretty. In the fog, an hour earlier, it would have been even better, but I'd just got side-tracked on the walk by all the other lovely frostiness and fogginess.

I could have spent all day there, if only my toes weren't frozen and a warm welcoming dog wasn't beckoning. I revisited the dead nettles, startled a massive rabbit that quickly hopped away to safety,  and went on one field across, where a flock of sheep came to investigate me.

The sheep were a little menacing to start with, all coming down to a small stream, on the other side of which I was standing. One then came around the edge of the stream and towards me. Not knowing much about sheep I did feel a little anxious, although they didn't look like the type to ambush and trample me! After a few minutes a farmer appeared at the other end of the field with a couple of buckets and off they trotted for their lunch. They eventually wandered back towards me after the farmer had reassured me that they were just been friendly (and hungry).

I investigated some great frozen puddles and the sheep came with me. I left feeling quiet endeared with them!

I had to break myself away, as it was already midday, and some of my toes were definitely in need of some warmth. As I climbed over the fence to leave the field a tiny muntjac deer darted out of the undergrowth and hopped away. A van pulled up alongside me as I wandered up the road and the driver asked me about my camera. Again I felt a little nervous being a female photographer out alone in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that he just wanted to share with me that his similar camera had broken, but I did feel a little uneasy (must be the suspicious Londoner in me). I hurried back through the woods, and home to an extremely happy dog and the luxury of warm feet!

It had been a great couple of days, and when I returned to London I was welcomed by a package containing some new Tiffen ND filters for me to play with, so hopefully the motivation to go out and shoot won't end there!