Interested in cleaning your camera sensor? The subject of much debate, sensor cleaning is a contentious topic, to say the least. Like many people, I have spent countless hours researching this matter. Furthermore, I have indeed gone through my share of various tools, swabs, and sensor cleaning solutions. Deciding whether to attempt this monumental task requires concrete reliable information. Take a moment and share my experience with sensor cleaning and discover if it’s for you.
Is it necessary to clean my camera sensor?
Although to answer this question, one must first define the word clean. After all of my research and experience, I have found that the answer to this question depends solely on the individual. Concerning all of the voluminous blogs and articles on sensor cleaning, I have concluded that the definition of clean depends entirely on the person looking through the viewfinder! Of course, given enough time and exposure to the elements, sensor dust will eventually become exceedingly visible in one’s images, regardless of how well you shield your camera and lenses. Although a potential source of migraine headaches, sensor dust is easily removed in post-processing with programs such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Bottom line, if your images meet your expectations, why bother cleaning the sensor at all; however, if sensor dust is still an issue for you, continue reading this article.
Why haven’t I noticed dust in my images?
Depending on one’s specialty and shooting preferences, it’s entirely possible that one may never see sensor dust in the first place. As a matter of fact, shooting at large apertures (smaller f/stop numbers) may mislead an unsuspecting photographer into believing they have a dust-free sensor. In reality, smaller apertures (larger f/stop numbers) provide a narrower path for light, which in turn will cast a much harsher dust shadow on your sensor; thus, dust and other artifacts become more pronounced in an image. Keep in mind, a dust spot is not actually on the sensor itself, but the optical low pass filter. Dissimilar to sensor dust, lens and mirror dust are visible through the viewfinder while sensor dust appears only on the image.
How can I determine if my sensor has dust?
Although sensor dust is undoubtedly a landscape photographer’s enemy, if it’s not causing noticeable spots at the apertures you’re shooting, don’t worry about it. Though, if significant dust is visible when viewing images in Lightroom at 100 percent magnification, especially at larger apertures such as f/5.6, one might want to consider opting for a more thorough inspection. In any case, to check for sensor dust, capture an image with the following setting:
- Set the camera to matrix/evaluative/average metering mode.
- Set ISO to 100.
- Select a small diameter aperture like f/22.
- Use a long focal length like 70-100mm if possible, this helps create a more defined image of the dust.
- Point at a clear blue sky, or use a white or gray card. The point is to use a clean background.
- Select manual focus and blur your image, make small circles while taking the picture; in turn, this will help eliminate everything in the background and isolate the dust on the sensor. Don’t worry about a long exposure while indoors, it helps blur out any background objects.
- Zoom in on the camera display or upload the image to a computer to view the sensor dust. I recommend viewing at 100 percent on a computer monitor.
After inspection, I noticed a lot of dust. What are my options?
Sensor dust isn’t the end of the world. As a matter of fact, immediately after purchasing your new camera and before snapping the first image, it’s highly likely that dust was already present on your camera sensor. In fact, even if manufactured, sold, shipped, and delivered to your front door dust-free, the instant a camera captures its first image, the dust war begins! Dust is simply the enemy of any DSLR owner. To combat this formidable adversary, one has two choices: eradicate the enemy with routine cleanings, or simply annihilate it in post-processing.
How often is sensor cleaning required?
Largely, this depends on the amount of usage. Environmental factors, as well as the frequency of swapping lenses, may also contribute to sensor dust. Additionally, this is also contingent on one’s preference and definition of clean. For example, a typical DSLR owner shooting an occasional family reunion may never notice the dust in their photographs; conversely, a landscape photographer shooting at f/22 will most likely see dust while viewing images in post-processing. In fact, dust may appear in one’s images just after a sensor cleaning. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate all sensor dust, as well as other contaminants.
To pay someone or do it myself, that is the question?
Answering this question is subjective. However, due to all of the hype found on the internet about this subject, I do not recommend attempting any sensor cleaning that requires physical contact with the sensor, unless you consider yourself tech-savvy. With that said, if you’re handy with a tool bag or enjoy tinkering around the house, performing a sensor cleaning will not present a huge problem.
How much does a sensor cleaning cost?
Depending on one’s location and availability of service options, prices will vary accordingly. However, I estimate a cost of approximately $150 to start out with some basic quality items such as wipes, cleaning solution, a sensor loupe, and a decent rocket blower, though, less expensive material is available. On the other hand, I paid Richmond Camera approximately $50 for a sensor cleaning, which they kindly returned in roughly one week. To my complete surprise, the Nikon Service Center only required $95 for a cleaning which included return shipping. As for shipping your camera to a service center, contingent on the shipping method as well as insurance options, one may expect to spend as much as an additional one or two hundred dollars; though, one can always economize and opt for regular mail without insurance!
I’m terrified I’ll damage my sensor!
Have you spent hours “Googling” how to perform a sensor cleaning? If so, you have undoubtedly discovered that most blogs and how-to guides have imparted a considerable amount of fear concerning contact with a sensor. Terrifying stories of sensor inhalation as well as professional photographers who recommend leaving the cleaning to the professionals, all leaving you in a state of shock. After reading some of these blogs, I don’t know why anyone would continue reading this article! Reading about sensor cleaning is equivalent to self-diagnosing a medical condition on Google! Save money and time, or leave to the professionals? In either case, I don’t believe for a second that damaging a sensor is that simple; provided one has a bit of common sense. Still, if you feel squeamish about it, don’t attempt it!
How well do the professionals perform sensor cleaning?
Is it reasonable to assume that a company such as Nikon or Canon will deliver a quality sensor cleaning? In fact, I’ve sent my camera to the Nikon Service Center as well as local camera shops. After a thorough inspection, Nikon clearly outperformed my local camera store. Additionally, at no extra cost, Nikon also performed firmware updates, focus adjustments, as well as a general check and cleaning. Furthermore, Nikon returned the camera with a spotless mirror and viewfinder. Professionally packaged and shipped by UPS, the camera arrived in pristine condition. However, despite my hopes and optimism, a small amount of sensor dust was still visible when viewed at 100 percent. Nevertheless, I humbly accepted the results because I do understand the difficulty of achieving an entirely dust-free sensor.
What about a sensor cleaning at my local camera shop?
Some local camera shops offer a choice between a local cleaning or shipping it to the manufacturer. Although one can do the same from home, the local shop is responsible for any damage or loss. As for my experience with the local camera shops, the results were sporadic. On one occasion, I had to return the camera due to large amounts of streaking, fibers, and dust spots; though, they did the rework at no charge. Unfortunately, the rework still left several streaks on the sensor. In my experience, a local shop may get the job done; however, one can expect to pay more for about the same results. In any case, if you have no desire to attempt a cleaning, your local camera shop may present the best option. Most importantly, don’t forget that while your precious image capturing apparatus is away at the shop, you’re not out capturing grand vistas.
How fragile is my camera sensor?
To the best of my knowledge, all DSLR manufactured today contain an optical low-pass filter, also known as an anti-aliasing filter, or at least an infrared filter (hot mirror). A sensor is constructed of many wafers of silicon (a hard yet brittle crystalline solid) and is susceptible to damage from moisture as well as trauma. Nevertheless, in reality, a sensor cleaning is not a sensor cleaning at all, but rather an optical low-pass filter or infrared filter cleaning. Contact with the sensor is not possible, not without first damaging the filter in front of it; however, it’s possible to over saturate the filters with liquid, thereby causing damage to the sensor. I’m speculating, but I feel that damaging a sensor requires an excessive amount of fluid. I don’t think a few drops applied to a swab will cut it. You may have guessed; I’m not a “Silicon Valley” certified engineer. I’m just a photographer looking to capture a few great images without the affliction of sensor dust. Based on empirical evidence, provided one follows the associated instructions, I imagine one would be hard-pressed to damage their camera sensor using any wet cleaning method.
What are the different methods of sensor cleaning?
Let me begin by stating that this list is not all-inclusive; actually, someone is probably creating a new method of sensor cleaning as I type this sentence. In any case, my primary objective is to inform the reader of the various options available on the market for removing sensor dust. Take a look at the list below for a brief explanation of the use:
- Built-in sensor cleaning. Designed to aid in decreasing dust on the low-pass filter, though not available on all camera models, this option aids in removing loose dust. Once the dust becomes welded to the sensor, this built-in option appears useless.
- Handheld air blower. I do not recommend using compressed or canned air due to contaminants typically found with compressed air bottles. Handheld blowers are very efficient in removing loose dust particles, though, not so much with welded dust. A conventional rocket blower equipped with a check valve to prevent backflow is a great tool in any cleaning kit. Invest in a blower with an attached HEPA filter for the best results.
- Sensor brush. The inundated markets of today contain a variety of available choices for brushes. Exercise caution when using a brush and follow the recommended procedures. Oils from the shutter mechanism can contaminate the brush and smear on the sensor; consequently, one may then be forced to perform a wet cleaning to remove any contaminants. Although effective at removing lightly attached dust, a brush performs poorly on welded dust. Additionally, the brush will likely leave a small trace of debris behind that will require a follow-up with a blower.
- Sensor pen. Although there are several types of dust removal pens on the market, I want to focus on one of the most commonly known: the Lenspen SensorKlear. The purpose of a sensor pen is to remove dust without the use of cleaning solvents; this option opens the door for the potential to eliminate a wet cleaning. In my experience, this pen is effective at removing most loose as well as moderately attached dust particles. Also, it’s excellent at removing smears left from using too much cleaning solution during wet cleaning. Although the SenorKlear appears to remove most welded dust, it does require more pressure than I’m comfortable applying; thus, in my opinion, the SensorKler does not eliminate the need for wet cleaning. However, for many photographers, this option may offer the best alternative to wet cleaning.
- Gel sticks. Although I have no personal experience with any of these products, there are seemingly endless options available on the market. Personally, after viewing many videos for several gel sticks, most appear to require a substantial amount of force when pulling away from the sensor. Conversely, Dust-Aid sells a product that uses a thin cured silicone gel to remove dust particles. Although I haven’t tried the product, it doesn’t appear to cling to the sensor like other gel sticks; therefore, the product doesn’t require a lot of force to pull away from the sensor. Following a bit more research, I may give the Dust-Air Platinum a chance.
- Wet wipes. The dreaded wet cleaning is the last option; although, wet cleaning is often the best decision for removing loose as well as welded dust particles. In addition to dust, wet cleaning will also remove any lubricant on the sensor from the shutter mechanism. Again, like other products, the market contains many options for sensor wet wipes. Additionally, sensor wipes require the use of cleaning solvents such as Eclipse from Photographic Solutions.
What do I need on hand for a sensor cleaning?
Deciding to attempt this monumental task for the first time may seem daunting. Planning and preparation are essential elements leading to a successful sensor cleaning. Plan your chosen method and gather all the materials in advance; also, familiarize yourself with the materials and read all of the instructions well before you begin. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly encourage you to visit YouTube and watch several videos on how to clean a sensor. Swab manufacturers often post video tutorials on their website or YouTube. Furthermore, read your camera’s manual and learn how to access the sensor for cleaning, i.e., how to lock the mirror up for cleaning. Listed below are several items to consider collecting before starting the sensor cleaning:
- Air blower
- Sensor brush
- Lenspen SensorKlear
- Quality sensor wipes
- Methanol based cleaning solution
- Loupe or magnification device
- Good lighting source
- Microfiber cloth and Pec Pads
- Sharp, clean scissors to cut open the sensor wipe packaging (to reduce contamination from the packing glue found with some wipes)
- All procedures for each product
- A clean environment with no air movement (shut off your air conditioning or close a vent)
- Uninterrupted time allotted
- A fully charged camera battery or two
What are the best materials to use?
The best materials are subjective and, of course, depend on one’s source of information as well as other factors. Like countless other photographers, I have researched the various materials fairly extensively. Nevertheless, I will only opine on the items I have encountered.
- VisableDust sensor swabs, the VSwab MXD-100 Green, appears very well manufactured and free of loose dust and debris. However, these are some of the more expensive swabs.
- VisableDust corner swabs MXD-100 Green, are fantastic small swabs that I highly recommend to aid in getting at those hard to reach spots on the corners and sides. Additionally, these allow for the removal of isolated specks of dust without cleaning the entire sensor. I recommend using only a tiny drop of cleaning solution with them. Although expensive for such a little swab, I love them and highly recommend having them in your cleaning kit.
- MQ-7X LED Sensor Loupe 7x Magnification. After reading numerous articles on sensor loupes, I decided to give it a shot. Although some suggest that a loupe is not a necessity, I would argue otherwise. A good loupe will allow one to examine the sensor and identify small particles without having to attach the lens and capture a test shot after every pass with a wipe, thus, saving a considerable amount of time going back and forth. A good loupe offers sharp focus and superior magnification; a worthy addition to any cleaning kit!
- A quality optical cleaning solution such as Dust Patrol Gamma or Eclipse. I have not used The Dust Patrol Beta (non-flammable version) solution. Methanol based solutions are the industry standard. Quality solutions evaporate well and usually leave little to no residue behind. I have found the solutions mentioned above to meet my expectations. Although, I must stress the need to use the fluid sparingly to prevent streaking. One to two drops on the tip of the swab is more than sufficient to achieve good results and minimize streaking.
- VisableDust Sensor Clean (green) liquid sensor cleaning solution, although not methanol-based, provides superior streak removal. After a wet cleaning using Eclipse or Dust Patrol, I often use Sensor Clear to clean up any streaks left by the rapid drying of methanol-based solutions.
- A quality air blower with a one-way valve. To minimize adding new dust to the sensor. I sincerely recommend using a blower with a HEPA filtered intake. The HEPA filtration performs well in filtering small particles from the air, keeping them away from the sensor. After attempting to remove a few dust spots with a typical blower, I noticed small new dust particles present on the sensor, when viewed at 100 or 200 percent. After a little research, I decided to try a HEPA filtered blower. The difference was undeniably measurable, especially when using Adobe Lightroom spot visualization tool to see the results. Realistically, the added dust from an unfiltered blower is very minute, and I strongly doubt anyone would notice it in an image.
What are the best practices to adopt?
- Before beginning, start with a reference image captured with a long lens at around f/22. A reference image will allow for a comparison to evaluate the effectiveness of the sensor cleaning.
- Decide on what your expectations are. If you’re shooting for perfection, you will most likely have to repeat the process many times to obtain a spotless sensor. For most photographers, a few specks of dust are no big deal.
- Wash your hands and select a clean dust-free environment.
- Above all else, do NOT go overboard with the cleaning solution; excessive amounts of fluid will leave streaking. Apply one or two drops to the “bottom” tip of the swab, NOT the sides.
- Watch YouTube tutorials on recommended techniques. Sacrifice a swab for practicing on an ND filter or a piece of glass. Useful in perfecting your technique, sacrificing a swab affords the opportunity to observe the amount of pressure necessary to prevent the swab from skipping and streaking on the sensor.
- If applicable, remove the swab from individual wrappers with a pair of sharp scissors to avoid contaminating the swab with adhesive from the wrapper.
- Before applying the cleaning solvent to the swab, blast it with a blower to remove any loose lint.
- Don’t be terrified! Anxiety will only make matters worse. Try to keep in mind; this is not brain surgery!
- Use a filtered blower and keep the tip outside the camera body.
What results should I expect?
Ideally, a spotless sensor is the end game; however, a spotless sensor may prove difficult to achieve. In my personal experience, it’s exceedingly difficult to attain a spotless sensor every time. Depending on how long I wish to continue as well as the number of resources I’m willing to exhaust, I find myself reaching a point of deciding whether or not to use another swab for one speck of dust. Centered around one’s definition of clean as well as budget, this is solely an individual decision. One must evaluate the cost versus benefit! In my humble opinion, for a first-time cleaning, expecting perfection is far from realistic.
What are your lessons learned?
- Overall, the sensor swabs I’ve used seem to perform similarly with comparable results. However, the Dust Patrol Alpha Premium Sensor Cleaning Swabs seem to leave more dust on the sensor, but they perform well at a lower price. Simply hit them with a rocket blower before use and they’re good to go. I plan to use them exclusively, along with the corner swabs by VisibleDust.
- Most instructions call for three to four drops of cleaning solution on the swabs first pass. Using one or two seemed to do the job for me.
- When using the wet wipe method, repeated attempts to remove every speck of dust seems to cause an oversaturation of the sensor, which appears to cause excessive streaking, although just a theory of mine. If you’re unsuccessful after four or five swabs, I recommend either removing the streaks with a sensor pen, such as SensorKlear or just give the camera a few weeks of regular use and try again. In my experience, it appears that after the sensor heats up a few times from normal use, streak removal is less cumbersome.
- In the beginning, fear of applying too much pressure to the sensor no doubt caused me to sacrifice many swabs and other resources. Simply follow the instructions provided by the swab manufacturers, and don’t let fear get the best of you. Relax, calm down, and you’ll achieve better results.
- Pre-moistened swabs tend to leave streaks across the sensor. Perhaps allowing some fluid to evaporate by waiting a few minutes after removing them from the bag may yield better results. Nevertheless, I had no luck using these wipes and do not recommend them.
- Using an unfiltered blower on the sensor will unnecessarily introduce small amounts of dust to the sensor; though, most photographers would probably not notice the difference between the blowers. Nevertheless, I plan to stick with the HEPA filtered blowers in the future.
Summary and recommendations.
Tech-savvy or not, I feel that an average person with a slight amount of dexterity and common sense is capable of tackling a sensor cleaning with quality results … without damage to the sensor. Though, if you’re a perfectionist, it’s easy to become overwhelmed attempting to remove every speck of dust. In my experience, expecting perfection from a camera shop or even from the manufacturer is unrealistic as well! Moreover, when shooting at apertures larger than f/8, dust is far less visible and may not present a huge problem for some photographers. Based on my research and personal experience, I’m convinced that an average person is capable of performing a far better sensor cleaning than any company. Additionally, cleaning your camera at home will save a substantial amount of money, especially when considering shipping and insurance costs. My recommendation is simple, spend your money on more important items, such as new lenses.