Okay, so that is my homage to Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest films of all time, out of the way. A couple of weeks ago we had our first league competition for digital projected images and we had a massive number of entries - certainly the largest number for a single competition I have seen since being a member. As usual the judge's comments caused a ripple of dissatisfaction amongst members but this time the ripple seemed to be more of a tsunami. With 93 entries to sort through the longer standing members probably expected a diverse range of scores, the not so long members expected some criticism and the new members did not know what the Devil to expect!

A few years back now, I rocked up to my first competition with the greatest picture ever taken. Apparently the judge did not agree with my synopsis of the situation and, given that I could not even remember what the picture was of now, he may have had a point - it might even have got 'a' point if I was lucky! Obviously I was distraught but it was a valuable lesson. I had spent far too many years listening to family and friends tell me how great my photography was and now, for once, somebody was being wholly objective about my work. I can't remember the score, I can't remember what the judge said - I can't remember what I did this morning - but what I am certain of was that whatever the judge said I listened to. If it was something that was wrong, and I agreed, I didn't do the same thing again! 

The last point is important, I had to agree. Since that first competition I have seen many judges say what they do and do not like about an image, what's right and wrong with my image, whether it should be cropped this way or that way, whether they understood my image or not, say they love it and give it a 15! I have had foxes on carpets, rivers instead of pathways, spoons that are apparently unrecognisable and many other laughable moments. Don't get me wrong, I have respect for all of the judges but I do not have to agree with them. I also have to accept they don't agree with me! What we all have to remember is that we are asking a judge to pick three best pictures out of 93 and the judge has to find a reason why 90 of them are not in the top three. It's very difficult. I have been asked to judge a couple of competitions for a friend involving a mere eight or nine images and I struggled with that. And all those things I complain about in other judges - I started doing them as well.

So, what is my advice for entering competitions? Well, the first thing is don't take pictures to win competitions, take pictures to enjoy your hobby. I take a lot of pictures of live bands. They very, very rarely do well in competitions, there are too many 'technical' things they can be marked down on, flashing lights causing blown out highlights, digital noise where I am running the camera flat out at 3200 ISO, blurred bits where I have hand held a shot at one twentieth of a second. The thing is, if I didn't take them I couldn't enjoy my other great hobby - drinking beer. 

Next, we all like to get a score of twenty, or even nineteen or eighteen to be honest, but even after the judge has said they like it, it gets a low score. Don't be disheartened by the score. Listen to their comments when they appraise your photo and decide whether you agree with them or not. If you do agree try to make sure you put what you have learnt into practice next time - or even re-enter the photo with the changes suggested. If the photo was not placed first, second or third, or given a twenty you are entitled to re-enter it. Also, keep in mind that sometimes they just plain and simply get it wrong and not always for the worst. I have seen many images that have been riddled with problems yet the judge does not seem to notice them - especially when I have helped put the competition together and had a good chance to look at the entries in close up.

Lastly, and really my main point, take away the judges excuse to mark an image down. Some of the things I am about to say may seem obvious, but if they are, then you have to ask why we see the same issues over and over again.

Make sure you image is in focus! Obvious? Not really, I have seen a lot of images where nothing is really in focus. If you are taking a portrait you should focus on the model's eyes unless you have a very good (and obvious) reason not to. For landscapes you really want everything in the scene in focus. Soft focus does not mean out of focus. Soft focus is an affect created either by the weather, for example mist, filters on the lens or filters applied with your editing software. Take away the filters or the mist and your subject should still be in focus.

Make sure the images are sharp if they need to be, judges will often refer to images as being 'a bit soft'. This is not just a case of being in focus but also making sure there is no camera shake or motion blur because a subject is moving too fast for the shutter speed you have used. Use a tripod for landscapes to ensure they are nice and sharp and there is no camera shake (it will also make you think about your composition more as well). A simple rule for minimising camera shake is to make sure your shutter speed is not less than the focal length you are shooting at. For example if you are shooting using a 200mm lens your shutter speed should not be less then 1/200 second. Don't forget to allow for the fact that most digital cameras have cropped sensors that create a magnification factor. Nikon for example has a crop factor of 1.5 so a 200mm lens actually equates to 300mm in real terms and your shutter speed hold be at least 1/300 of a second.

Related to focus and sharpness is depth of field. I mention this separately because macro photography is a popular subject in the club. If you want a good mark for your bug photo make sure the depth of field is deep enough to get the bug sharp from front to back as much as possible but shallow enough to throw any background out of focus so that it does not distract. You increase depth of field by increasing your f-stop but watch that your shutter speed does not drop too low, you will probably need to consider using flash. 

Your exposure should be correct. Ideally you should have it right when you take the picture but you can correct some exposure problems in your editing software afterwards. Shooting in raw will give you a lot more latitude for correction as well with sliders for adjusting blacks, shadows, whites and highlights. Highlights should not be burnt out i.e. pure white. Check your levels in your editing software to see if the graph goes off the right hand side. Likewise you should try to get some detail in your shadows and not be completely black. That is not to say blacks should not be black. Sometimes colours can be blocked out as well. This is often caused by bad or too much contrast in your picture. It is difficult to explain when highlights are blown out, or blacks and colours are blocked out, but you should be looking to see detail in the objects - leaves and petals have veins, clothes have texture, even snow has texture and is not just white, and the underside of a mushroom is not black.

Make sure horizons are level. Again, using a tripod can help you compose the image and get this right in camera. Some cameras these days have levels built in to assist you. Failing that, editing software will have a function to rotate the image and get the horizon straight (the ruler tool for example in Photoshop). Sometimes you need to look at buildings instead of the horizon. Generally speaking most walls go straight up. Notable exceptions include The Leaning Tower of Pisa! 

In a similar vein, look out for converging verticals - the effect of walls leaning inwards. The only way to really avoid this is to use a tilt-shift lens to correct it at the taking stage but these are very expensive and quite specialist lenses. You can correct converging verticals in editing software using the lens correction filters and transform tools. You can also minimise the effect by getting further back from the building when you take the picture, avoid using a very wide angle lens close to the building or structure.

With regards to composition make sure you have no distracting features sticking in from the side of the image like half an arm, a piece of twig, or half a car. Think about your cropping to minimise these types of distractions. Also, while you are composing your image in camera or cropping during editing, minimise blank areas that are not really contributing anything to the overall image. If you have a bland sky - cut it out. Is the foreground really adding anything to your picture? For pattern pictures try to find something for the eye to settle on, a focal point. If there are bright spots of light or colour they can detract from the focal point of the image. For example a brightly lit arm will draw attention away from the subject's face. With bright colours the only thing a judge will see in your serene beach-scape is a bright red life jacket hanging on a post (of course that may be your intention). Tone down bright spots using the burn tool in you editing software (conversely you can use the dodge tool to bring details out in shadows). Use the sponge tool to desaturate bright distracting areas of colour or clone them out completely if possible. Even better keep them out of the picture when you are composing it.

Make sure there are no technical faults in your final production. If you are entering a digital image or print ensure there are no dust spots from your digital sensor. It is an unfortunate fact of digital photography life that sensors attract dust and those dust spots can show up on your final image. Try to keep your sensor clean to start with (this is more an issue with SLR cameras where the lenses are being changed regularly). The dust removal setting on your camera might cope with some of it but not all. Use something like an Arctic Butterfly Brush to do some manual cleaning. Some more stubborn stains - like one I am contending with at the moment - may need wet sensor swabs and you may want to get a specialist to do this for you. If the worst comes to the worst and there are dust spots on your final digital image use your clone tool or spot healing tool in your editing software to remove them. Look for marks and blemishes on the image carefully at 100% magnification.

If possible invest in a screen calibration tool like a Spyder or Color Munki. This will ensure that you get true and consistent colours. Depending on your monitor's age, type and the ambient light around it, it can give off different colour casts. Suddenly, an image that looked great on your monitor, when displayed in all its glory on the big projector screen, looks too blue or too red. This is normally down to colour calibration. 

If you are printing images out, to mount yourself, make sure there is no banding caused by dirty or blocked printer heads. The printer will have a nozzle cleaning utility and head alignment utility. Make sure you run these regularly to keep your printing in top condition. As with screens, you can get colour profiles for different paper types. These tell the printer the optimum amount of ink to lay down to reproduce colours correctly. Paper companies, like Permajet for example, allow you to download profiles from their website. Make sure you select the correct settings on your printer to use them. Printer profiles are not essential but will help. Even if you are sending images away to be printed the company you use may provide colour profiles to try and ensure what you see is what they print.

For prints, the mount should not really count against you but some judges will take it into account regardless. Poor mount cuts or un-sympathetic mount colours can lead to lower scores.

If you are not checking the things above you will always give the judge a reason to mark down your image. If you have checked them all then you should be on for a good score but the only thing you have to worry about then is whether the picture really holds any interest and stands out. You need to try and make sure that if your picture goes up first, 93 pictures later the judge is still thinking, 'I really liked that first picture, I'll hold it back.' You are on your own there I am afraid and you have to allow for the fact that different judges like different styles. Whether you win or not comes down to your 'seeing eye' and the judges personal taste!

It's a lot to take in. If I tried to make sure I did all these things every time I took a photo I would never manage to take anything, or if I did, I would bin it afterwards; but I don't take photos for the pleasure of a judge, I take them for the pleasure of me. Sometimes I get lucky, think I have ticked all the boxes and hope for a good competition score. Other times I know there are problems and expect to be criticised. Don't let any of the things above be a reason for not entering, you probably like the image you are entering and hopefully other people will as well. If the judge does, so much the better. If they don't, accept you will not get a high score and work out if they are talking rubbish or not!