Sensor Cleaning Made Simple
Joseph Gamble (JCGamble)
Keywords: sensor, maintenance, diy, cleaning
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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Michaela Perata (mikiSJ) on June 26, 2015
Previously, I was into astrophotography with professional equipment. Because of special coatings on lenses and sensors I seldom cleaned either. What I would do is take an image of the blank sky around dusk and save the image as a master 'flat'. If the dust bunnies were very noticeable in an image, I would take image i wanted to clean and subtract the flat in Photoshop or a dedicated astro image processing program. Has anyone here tried this approach?
Tom Thomson (tthomson53) on June 3, 2015
I've had great success with SensorSwabs, though it took 2-3 swabs to fully clean my D800's sensor - something was pretty firmly adhered! I now carry a supply at all times.
David Kilpatrick (Dave_K) on May 26, 2015
I have been cleaning sensors since the days of the D70 and now routinely clean them on my D300, D700, and D5100. Never had a problem as these are skills anyone can master. I use my cameras extensively both in the woods and the beach and if you have to change lenses you are going to contaminate the sensor no matter how carefully you do it. Sending the body(s) back to Nikon is not going to cut it. I use both the wet cleaning method and the dry cleaning method. For a good tutorial on how to do some of this visit Copper Hill Images at http://copperhillimages.com/index.php?pr=tutorials
Alan Del Ponte (clovis29) on May 25, 2015
Question, I've used the Visible Dust wet cleaning method with good results on my D7100. Using there sensor clean solution & green 1.6x V Swabs I was able to remove the 6 or so dust bunnies although it took several swabs to accomplish the mission. When using the V Swabs I'm assuming they can only be used one time & then tossed in the trash??? There not cheap & I'm wondering if they can safely be used more then once???
John D. Roach (jdroach) on May 25, 2015
I follow this regiment for cleaning my equipment. I have a Giotto Rocket Blower always with me as well as other cleaning tools in all my equipment. I will tell you something has happened a couple of weeks ago that really aggravated me. I always carry the blower in all my bags and one is always with me whenever I travel. When I left Mexico, recently, it was confiscated by the Mexican equivalent of the TSA. They said that since it l"ooked" like a Rocket or a Bomb, I could not carry it. I have flown all over Europe, South America, Mexico, US and never had that stupid response. Thank good they are inexpensive to replace. Just stupid. But I never leave home without one!
Ed Hall (Ed911) on May 25, 2015
I, and many of my photographer friends, have been wet cleaning our sensors for years...no problems. This includes a lot of my retired lady friends...with no mechanical background...that I wouldn't think would want to take on wet sensor cleaning. In fact, that's why I decided to give it a try. Thanks, Susan. Not saying that you can't cause damage, but if you follow the directions, it's easy peasy...and works like a charm. Once you see the dust spots, it's likely that they won't blow off. And, no, I don't want to send my camera off to Nikon for two or three weeks. Cleaning the sensor myself takes all of 15 minutes. And, if you have a shoot coming up...what send your camera off for cleaning...or spend lots of time cleaning dust spots from images, or clean it yourself in less time than it takes to fill up your car with gas. I choose the latter. Don't be afraid...
Laddie Crisp (laddad) on May 24, 2015
I have been following a similar routine for many years. I have never had any issue with cleaning the sensors of my digital cameras. Over the years I have cleaned: D70s, D200, D300, D800 and D810 cameras. If you own a digital camera it is a skill you should learn. It goes with ownership. But then again I can change a flat tire, change oil & filter in my car. But like fixing a car you need the right tools!
Jean Hardy (eliot3b4) on May 24, 2015
Great article. Thank you.
Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 24, 2015
I know two people who have. Very few people are in dust storms in Africa. For most, this sort of thing is a very bad idea, and potentially a very costly one. This is not something that you can just easily do or take on lightly. It can have major consequences.
William Rounds (William Rounds) on May 23, 2015
I've been cleaning my sensors for a couple of years now with no problems. Others that I have spoken to about it haven't had any problems either. I don't suppose there are any statistics on it, but I wonder how many people actually damage their camera's sensor using any of the articles systems. When you do a lot of photography on trips to Africa, as I do, the "send it to Nikon" option isn't very satisfactory. These are simple techniques that I think almost anyone can master.
Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 23, 2015
Nikon charges you $40 to clean your sensor. And it takes about 2-3 weeks. If you mess up your sensor, they will fix it for you and charge you several hundred dollars. Around a thousand bucks for the higher end models. They can have my camera for a couple weeks.