You’ve seen them in photographs and videos, often hours after a photo shoot when your fresh images are full screen on a large monitor. They appear as circular dark blobs, unnatural discs in an otherwise perfect blue horizon. They are called dust bunnies (or dust mice) and they are the bane of all DSLR owners. At some point during the life cycle of your camera, you’ll have to combat them if you change lenses.
The easy route is to ship your camera back to the manufacturer and have them do a full cleaning. This is often time consuming as it can take weeks to get your camera back from the service center. Provided you have a local camera shop with knowledgeable people, they may provide this service for a nominal fee and turn it around within a few days, if not hours.
If you travel for your photography and often find yourself shooting in locations that may not provide access to this type of service, you may need to service your camera in the field. It’s not terribly difficult provided you have patience, average dexterity and one of the cleaning tools mentioned below. The one critical caveat is that a careless application of any of these tools could potentially damage the protective optical glass that often sits above the photoreceptors on your sensor. So, proceed with caution.
Most digital cameras now have a sensor-cleaning mode programmed into a menu setting and you can customize it to perform the small microvibrations that shake dust from a sensor. This can be set for when you turn the camera on/off or when you manually engage it. While this may make a difference with dust management some of the time, it will inevitably fall short at an inopportune moment in the life of your camera.
To truly determine if you really need to give a deep clean, it is best to make a few test images with your lens stopped all the way down to f/22. If you find yourself typically shooting at wider apertures than f/5.6, your lens may not resolve the dust bunnies so the highest apertures are essential. Choose a white wall or a clear sky and slightly overexpose the photograph. Once back at the computer, you will be able to see the dust or lint as small, circular splotches. Whatever technique you employ to clean the sensor, you will need to continue test shooting to confirm that the culprits have been removed.
To clean the digital sensor, make sure you have a full battery or AC adapter plugged into a wall outlet as most manufacturers advise against initiating a cleaning with a low charge. The reason is that the camera could power down while you have a cleaning device inside the cavity and this can damage the mirror or jab the actual sensor.
A good tool for making an initial assessment is the camera light and Visible Dust, a company that specializes in sensor cleaning technology, manufactures the Quasar Sensor Loupe. Coming in around the size of the camera’s lens opening, this lithium-powered, circular six-LED light fits perfectly over that opening to highlight any obvious dust, lint or other microfibers that can impact image quality. The newer Plus version of the light is threaded to 52mm so you can attach filters for improved magnification when assessing sensor hygiene. They are available at many online and local retailers for $79.
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