Camera sensor cleaning
You say you love photography? Well, a sure way to kill your enthusiasm is to waste hour upon hour cloning out dust spots in photos. All because you haven’t cleaned your camera’s sensor in a while. Then when check your camera sensor with a sensor loupe, you’ll realize there are even more specks of dust than you thought! Therefore you need a thorough method of cleaning your camera’s sensor.
When you clean your camera’s sensor, you want to do better than just swirl crap around on your sensor with a swab. Here are the tools I use, and the method I use to clean my cameras’ sensors with a good measure of success and the minimum of frustration. Oh, for the pedantic photographers – I know we aren’t cleaning the sensor, but rather, the protective filter over it.
For those of you who can’t wait to hear how the story ends, here’s the plot twist – this device solved all my problems in removing dust specs. Where previously I felt like I was just moving crud around with the swab, this device – the Eyelead SCK-1 sensor gel stick (Amazon) – picked up every single spot that I could see with the magnifying loupe.
Cleaning your camera’s sensor
There’s a huge variety of tools and devices available on the market to clean your camera’s sensor. I’ve tried a few of them, but always come back to this thorough method, which I’ve adapted again.
- If your camera allows, you should first try and clean your sensor by activating the self-cleaning vibrating mode to dislodge dust particles.
- I’m not a big proponent of using a blower. I feel that you’re as likely to blow the particles deeper into the camera. However, it might be necessary or easier to remove larger bits of fluff and dust particles on the sensor (and in the mirror chamber), with a dust blower.
- I’m not a big fan of this either — using a swab with sensor cleaning liquid to remove stubborn particles.
I prefer this next step:
- Use a sensor gel stick to dab away any particles.
- Keep a sensor cleaning kit with me in my camera case for emergency fixes.
A puff of air to remove dust particles
If your camera allows, you should first try and clean your sensor by activating the self-cleaning vibrating mode to dislodge dust particles.
Even though you might have tried the vibrating sensor self-cleaning mode, it might still be necessary to add a few short, but soft blasts with a blower, such as the VisibleDust Zeeion Blower (B&H / Amazon). This will blow out most of the junk inside your camera. The manufacturer says this blower has anti-static capabilities – a good thing when you try to not attract more dust with unnecessary static.
Let’s take a closer look at our camera’s sensor
You may be able to see larger pieces of dust and lint with the naked eye, but the smaller the aperture you’re going to be shooting at, the more the smaller specks will be visible. So you need some way to have a magnified view of the dirt on your sensor. There are various options, but you will need something along this line – a sensor loupe.
Now we need to physically remove the obstinate dust particles
We have several methods of physically dislodging dust particles:
1. Use the sensor gel stick, or …
2. Use sensor swabs to (gently) sweep clean stubborn particles or smears.
I’m not a huge fan of using sensor swabs because I feel we are just swirling the muck around on the sensor, instead of removing it like we do with the sensor gel stick.
Sensor gel stick
I’m pretty enthusiastic about this piece of sensor-cleaning gear – the sensor gel stick (Amazon). It really helped me get as spotless a sensor as I think is possible for us.
It sounds scary – you dab it directly onto the sensor to pick up specks of crud. But it works!
Sensor swabs and cleaning fluid
Use sensor cleaning solution (B&H / Amazon), to very lightly moisten the swab with which you are going to clean your sensor. Just a drop of liquid on the swab and then with a wrist-flick get rid of any moisture droplets. You just want the swab to be barely wet.
There are several sizes of sensor swabs, depending on your camera’s sensor size, whether full-frame, 1.3x crop, or 1.5 / 1.6 crop sensor cameras.
It takes a bit of practice to use just the right amount of moisture, and the minimum of sweeps of the swab, to make sure you don’t leave drying marks. But this helps with obstinate particles.
Type 2 swabs for DX / APS-C cameras (B&H / Amazon)
Type 3 swabs for full-frame cameras (B&H / Amazon)
A carry-everywhere emergency kit
This is the kit that I keep in my camera bag when I am out on a shoot, just in case I notice some horrible dust particle when I play an image back. A quick-fix while on location.
VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly 724 (B&H / Amazon)
Spending a bit of time before important shoots to clean our cameras’ sensor, is just good practice. It cuts down tremendously on post-production work. This is especially true if you shoot video!
I don’t necessarily go strictly through this routine every time, but these are the tools and methods I use to keep my cameras clean. It makes my life easier, even if I sweat a bit while cleaning the sensor.
Let’s hear from you what techniques you’ve been using with success.
9 Comments, Add Your Own
1Johan Schmidt says
Agree 100% about the sensor gel stick Neil – easy to use and does an excellent job. Like you say a clean sensor can save so much post production work, especially when shooting at small apertures like f8 / f11 in studios.
Doesn’t affect sport that much though at f2.8, but like getting the exposure right in camera, saves so much editing time and hassle.
2Roy Barnes says
Yes, I used the fluid and swab method, accompanied by the Rocket Air Blaster, and will now give that gel stick a go that you recommend Neil. I have the Arctic Butterfly – an AUD$199 waste money. After a couple of spins the brush part flew off and then the shaft cracked when I was refitting it. It sits in my camera bag, a salutary reminder that not every bit of gear is a worthwhile investment. Maybe I just got a dud! :(
2.1Neil vN says
That’s a scary experience!
3Greg King says
How safe is it for amateurs to clean their sensors? I admit to being a bit paranoid and recognize that I would be very careful but is this something I should take to my favorite camera store and pay to have it done? Do others clean sensors on dead cameras for practice before taking on high-end gear? If so, is there a ready source of cameras I could practice on first?
4Frank Nazario says
this is what i have discovered so far… if you have any of the new cameras that are AAF removed you are ok to do the following if your camera has AA then you are very ok to do the following.
Fact with or without AA all sensor have a layer of very thin “glass” at least in Nikons that is made of a material that is practically scratch proof.
Grab a Qtip…dip it in 91% alcohol smother the sensor with it, making sure you “mop every single corner or border… now using a can of compressed air put the can vertically put the camera body vertically and blow air into the sensor until you see that the alcohol has completely dried check your sensor and voila it will be as clean as the day it was purchased… no drama no surgery tension and your sensor will be as clean. Nikon and Canon had made sure we believe we are doing open heart surgery when we talk about our camera sensor … believe me we are not.
I have 2 bodies wich i clean as suggested above before every single shoot and this method has not only proven 100% safe, but also fast and very very reliable (i had a D600 with the “oil issue” on a long term loan… so believe me when i say it removes everything) safe fast and very economical.
1) Just to nit pick, when one cleans their camera sensor, they are NOT actually touching the sensor; contact is made with the rather durable IR blocking filter.
2) Air blowers? No thank you. This has been proven time and again to be a poor idea as it often dislodges particles that were best left undisturbed.
Sensor swabs are still the best way to get rid of “welded” spots.
3) Minor spots can be mapped out with software.
6Neil vN says
1.) “Oh, for the pedantic photographers – I know we aren’t cleaning the sensor, but rather, the protective filter over it.”
3.) Mapping out dust spots doesn’t work so well for time-lapse or video. Then a pristine sensor is the best option.
Thanks Neil another great piece of information. I would like to gently nit pick the ‘nit pickers’ too. Read carefully before posting comments as it can save you some embarrassment.
Air Blowers leave me sitting on the fence a bit. Some people recommend them and some don’t and forced air from cans (despite being clean air) still leave me undecided as it forces air (and dust?) into places that might not have been accessible under normal air pressure. I suppose the swab should be the answer if in doubt but nothing much is said about the mirror itself and what to do with it if it is dirty?
I recently cleaned my 5D MkIII sensor with a swab (wrong size for the full frame sensor) and it worked thankfully. The black blob looked like a large drop of black road tar in the viewfinder – have no idea where it came from but it is no more.
Any comments on mirrors?
8Neil vN says
Oh maaaan, I have no answers about mirrors. I’m a little scared of touching them other than a short whiff of air. Maybe use a dry swab to dislodge any tough particles? I wouldn’t use cleaning fluid on the mirror – I’m too wary of what disaster might happen.