May 1, 2005

Cleaning Your Digital Cameras Sensor

By Scott Bourne
I saw the look on her face from across the room. She looked like the monster in one of those horror movies had come back to life for the second time and was trying to kill her. What could cause one of my students to react with such fear? She was trying to clean her digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera sensor for the first time.

With the advent of digital, there are new opportunities and new challenges. One of those is learning how to clean your camera's digital sensor. Why is this necessary? Digital camera sensors can attract dust. It's necessary to remove this dust periodically in order to get clean pictures.

It's not hard to remove these dust spots from your sensor. If I can do it, you can do it. But there is a great deal of misinformation out there so this article is designed to set the record straight.

BASICS

The easiest way to clean your camera sensor (remember when I say that I am actually talking about the glass or plastic filter that sits in front of the sensor) is to blow it off with a bulb blower or other similar device. NEVER EVER use DUST OFF or any similar canned air product. Canned air is sprayed with the help of liquid aerosols that can seriously damage your camera.

I use the Giottos Rocket Air Blower (Mfr # AA1900 / B&H # GIBA ) available from B&H for $9.95. This device will safely blow air into your camera, fits easily in a gadget bag and will not be barred from commercial airplanes.

The procedure is simple. Find a clean, dust-free area. Remove your lens. Then turn on your camera and go to the menu and find the "cleaning mode." It is probably a custom function or a main menu item. By engaging the cleaning mode, you will lock up your mirror and open your shutter gaining access to the sensor. (Be sure to use a freshly charged battery for this operation and/or be sure you are plugged into AC power. If the shutter closes while you are performing this operation due to power failure, you could permanently damage your camera.)

Don't leave your camera in this position any longer than necessary. While it is open, it can attract dust. If possible, mount the camera in a vice to stabilize it and point it down so that you can reduce the introduction of new dust and use gravity to help remove the old dust. You can also just hand hold the camera and point it down but it's easier on a vice.

Then point the blower up into the lens mount and start aggressively pumping air up into the chamber. This should dislodge any larger dust particles and if you are pointing the camera down, they will naturally fall out of the opening. BE SURE NOT TO TOUCH THE SENSOR FILTER WITH THE BULB BLOWER! This could permanently damage the filter over the sensor. Also, if you're using a blower other than the one I recommend, be sure it doesn't have a brush on the end. Do not run a brush over the sensor filter. You could scratch it and that will be worse than the dust!

Immediately after you have blown out the dust, re-attach your lens and exit cleaning mode. You usually exit cleaning mode by pressing the shutter button or turning the camera off. Be sure that the bulb blower is NOT still in the camera opening.

The entire process of removing the lens, entering cleaning mode, turning the camera upside down, blowing the air into the camera, re-attaching the lens and exiting the cleaning mode should take less than 60 seconds.

This procedure should be performed at the end of every shooting day. It will keep your camera generally clean and is not intrusive or difficult or even dangerous if performed correctly with the proper tools.

ADVANCED CLEANING

Now we get to the part that scares most people. You need to clean the sensor filter with a cleaning pad to get the stubborn dust that the bulb blower can't reach. Once again, this is no big deal. But you do have to pay attention.

Get started by performing the bulb blower procedure described above. But this time, do not re-attach your lens. Instead, go get your Eclipse fluid and Photographic Solutions SensorSwabs. They are the right tools for this job. (Visit www.photosol.com for more information.)

Before I go further let me say that I differ greatly from many of my colleagues who think it is okay to make your own SensorSwab. There are numerous web sites out there that tell you how to do this. They are popular because the SensorSwabs from Photographic Solutions are expensive. I strongly suggest that you avoid this practice. When it fails, and it does, you essentially render your camera useless. Use the Photographic Solution SensorSwabs. You paid umpteen dollars for your digital camera, spend $50 more and get the right tools. (Photographic Solutions is NOT a sponsor of this site, OMSP or any affiliated person or entity. I just think their product is worthwhile.)

The SensorSwabs come in protective plastic bag. Remove it only when you are ready to actually use the swab. Make sure your work area is clean. Do NOT lay the swab down on a table or other work surface. Do not touch the swab with your fingers.

Put TWO drops (not three) of Eclipse fluid onto the SensorSwab. Using firm but not hard pressure, drag the SensorSwab across the sensor filter in one smooth motion. Use about the same amount of pressure that you would to sign your name. You will find it easier to do this if you tilt the swab slightly in the direction of movement. Note that you will be working in a small, tight area. It's important to keep the moist end of the swab in full contact with the sensor filter. And keep the swab nearly perpendicular to the sensor for the full sweep.

After you have completed the first pass, flip the swab over (to the clean side) and reverse the process in the other direction.

Remember that the Eclipse fluid dries quickly so don't dawdle. You don't want to touch the sensor filter with a dry swab.

This should be sufficient to clean most sensors. If you still find dust you should repeat the process but ONLY with a new swab. NEVER re-use swabs. Throw them away immediately after the first use to make sure they cannot be used again.

By the way if you want to see a full demonstration of this technique, the Photographic Solutions web site has a complete FLASH demonstration that will give you a good idea of what to expect.

CONCLUSION

The advanced cleaning process should not be repeated more often than is necessary. I generally use it three or four times a year. If you are careful to keep a cap or a lens on your body, avoid exposing the camera to extreme dust or dirt and avoid push/pull zooms that actually pull air and dust into the camera body, you shouldn't have to do the advanced cleaning all that often. The occasional spot removal in Photoshop is no big deal. But when the sensor is completely covered, spend the money on the SensorSwab and do the complete advanced cleaning. Your pictures will love you for it.

NOTE: Proceed with caution. If you are not sure you can clean your sensor properly, send your camera to the company that made it or to a professional repair center for cleaning.

Article Copyright 2005, Scott Bourne - Photofocus Magazine

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Bourne is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 1970s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indianapolis. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His present passion is wildlife photography.

Scott is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, http://www.mountainschoolpress.com. His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He has appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of Photofocus.com, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, Washington near Seattle.