So What’s So Top Forty About DSLR Sensor Cleaning

September 01, 2017

Originally posted Dec 17, 2014


SensorView_XXXSensorView_XXX This year, instead of running my blog on taking better holiday photos for the third year in a row, I decided to see if I could bring more light than heat to cleaning – or not – the image sensor on a digital single lens reflex, for those of you who have them.

I bought my first DSLR in the summer of about 2005, with a substantial background in photography but no practical knowledge whatsoever about digital photography. I’d previously purchased and used for a couple of years a small digital point-and-shoot fixed lens Olympus for birthdays and holidays, and it did a great job with those kinds of photos.  It came with some proprietary photo editing software, and I was flabbergasted that I could do more with that computer program than I ever could three decades ago in my basement black-and-white darkroom…and without ever getting my hands wet.

But the day came when I decided that I wanted to get back into “serious” photography, including wildlife photography, and I knew that would take a DSLR.  I’d been an Olympus single lens reflex guy back in the day but decided that with a few more dollars to play with than I had back in those days, I’d spring for either a Canon or a Nikon.  I finally settled on a Nikon D70 probably as much because I had so wanted a Nikon back in the sixties, when I was a new dad and simply didn’t have the scratch to buy one.  Accordingly, I wound up with something called a Miranda, which went out of business within a year of my purchasing it.

After buying the D70, one of the smartest things I’ve ever done was travel out to Denver a few months later to attend a weekend Nikon workshop and find out just how this digital thing worked.  At that point, all I’d done with the camera was use it on the “Program” setting, and while that turned out some good photos, I knew that I wasn’t beginning to tap the D70’s potential.  What I found out was (duh) in these digital cameras, an electro-magnetic sensor simply takes the place of film in my old Olympus OM equipment.  Everything else was the same!

That very pregnant discovery was back almost a decade ago now.  Since then I’ve shot some 75,000 frames, having traveled literally half-way around the globe seeking “killer” wildlife and landscape photos, and going through several Nikons on the way to my present D3s, Df, and D810.  Early in that journey, I stopped using the Olympus editing program and found my way to Photoshop Elements, which I’m finally giving over for Photoshop CC and Lightroom 5, which is a story in itself and very much a work in progress.

What does this history lesson have to do with sensors?  Just this:  At the time I got into DSLR photography, we, as owners, were cautioned to never ever lock the camera’s mirror up and touch the sensor with anything.  That was a job for professionals, and unwary amateurs who attempted to wipe dust or a smudge off their camera’s sensor were risking scratching the sensor and rendering the camera body pretty much useless, the cost of the sensor being the major component in the price of the camera.

Inevitably, my D70 showed evidence of lint spots on shots with a large white colored area in them, and I decided I needed to get it professionally cleaned.  So I took it over to the camera store where I bought it and told the young lady behind the counter that I needed to have the sensor cleaned.  She politely said she could help me with that right on the spot and proceeded to remove the lens and wipe off the view finder mirror with a lens brush.  That didn’t seem right to me, but I wasn’t sure how sensors were to be cleaned, so I paid the modest charge for this service and went forth.

A couple of years later, at a Popular Photography workshop out at Durango, Beth Wald, a world class National Geographic photographer and one of the instructors, showed us how you really clean a sensor, but her cautions that came with the lesson were enough to haze me off of trying it myself for another three or four years.

So here’s the real deal on sensor cleaning.  You have three choices:  Don’t ever clean it; have a professional clean it; or, clean it yourself.

The only place I’ve found in Nebraska to have sensors professionally cleaned is the Camera Doctor out in Kearney, and he does a great job.  But he doesn’t give that service away, charging in the neighborhood of $100 for it, and you either have to drive out there (from Lincoln or Omaha) and spend several hours hanging around Kearney (having arranged a cleaning appointment in advance), or UPS the camera body out and back.  The only time I took the latter approach, the shipping and insurance along with the cleaning of two DSLR sensors brought the whole exercise to somewhere north of $300.  But again, the guy does good work, and periodically, DSLR sensors do have to be cleaned, or eventually, all you’ll have in your photos are dust spots, causing them to take on a sort of polka dot quality.

BUT, you really can do this yourself if you take the trouble to learn the process from the many videos on the subject posted on the web AND if you do it oh so carefully and with the right supplies and equipment.  This became all too apparent to me when I did yet another workshop in the Black Hills some three years ago with Moose Peterson (his real name), one of my true photographer heroes.  Every evening, after winding up that evening’s instruction, Moose would tell us, “Okay, spend some time in your room getting your equipment ready for a pre-dawn start tomorrow morning… batteries charged, lenses and bodies cleaned and dusted off, and sensors cleaned.”  What was that last part?  Yes, you can indeed clean the sensor on your DSLR, and it’s not that big a deal, again, if you use the right stuff, and do it the right way.

I’ve been doing it ever since the Moose workshop and have had no trouble with it whatsoever, though it is kind of a tedious process.  I personally use a Rocket Blaster bulb duster, an Artic Butterfly battery powered brush, an Artic Butterfly sensor loupe, and Copperhill swabs and cleaning fluid.  To do it right and carefully takes about 15-20 minutes per camera and generally is good for three to six months. Consult your camera’s manual on how to do this, which on a Nikon involves going to the menu and selecting the clean sensor option.  I’m sure that Canon has something quite similar, but on my Nikons, you remove whatever lens may be on that body, and select the cleaning option which locks the mirror up revealing the sensor.  Working in a well-lighted place, I first use the Rocket Blaster to blow air onto the sensor to chase any dust mites that could be lurking there.  Be careful not to touch the sensor with the spout on the Rocket Blaster squeeze bulb and NEVER, NEVER use canned air for this task, as it will indeed ruin your sensor.  After the squeeze bulb dusting, I fit my sensor loupe (sometimes supplemented by a small lithium battery flashlight and a magnifying glass) over the lens opening and carefully look over the sensor for evidence of dust or lint.  If you find none, congratulations, you’re through and ready to button things back up.  But I generally do find some, so my next step is to use the Artic Butterfly precisely according to the directions and see if that will do the trick.  If looking at the sensor carefully through the loupe shows evidence of smears or especially stubborn dust or lint (and about half the time it will), I then use a Copperhill swab, applying to it exactly the amount of Copperhill sensor cleaning fluid recommended and again, doing that precisely as directed.

That should do it.  And here’s probably the best piece of sensor cleaning advice I’ve picked up in my pretty extensive reading on all of this.  You won’t get it absolutely perfect – that’s what the Photoshop clone stamp tool is for.  Before I read those magic words, I might have spent an hour cleaning the sensor, going outside to take a photo of our off-white garage door, and then going back to the computer to look at that shot extremely closely to see if I could spot any remaining dust, etc.  And usually I could, but you know what?  If you keep the “big chunks” off your sensor, spotting out – in Photoshop – any dust spots that show up in clouds, etc. really is not an arduous task.  And then, when your photos begin to show two or three spots in any lightly colored area, it’s time to clean the sensor again, and that doesn’t have to be a big deal either.


A couple of side bars:

My Nikons have an on-board internal sensor cleaning choice in the menu, where you hold the camera upside down, and the sensor is supposed to vibrate all the dust and lint right off itself.  I’ve yet to see it work, and I think you have to consider that shaking things up inside the camera could actually cause dust or lint present to float around and attach itself to the sensor.  My personal choice is not to use this option.

Dust is endemic and attracted to camera sensors because they are, after all, magnetic.  So when it is said that sensors are dust magnets, they really are, but you can take some steps to avoid dust, the major one being establishing a routine for changing lenses that leaves the camera’s innards open to the world for the shortest possible time.  When I’m ready to put a lens on a body, or take one lens off and mount another in its place, I first get the back cap off the lens to be placed first, then remove the body cap so I can quickly attach the lens when I open the camera up.  If I’m changing lenses, I leave off placing the back cap on the one I’m removing until the new lens has been mounted and the camera closed back up.  The rear lens element is easy to clean…a lot easier than a sensor.

Also, consider where you change lenses.  I’m doing less of it than in prior years, but I am a lifelong motor sports fan and like to photograph area sprint car races, especially when I used to help sponsor the Tige Jensen #71 car.  And I’ve never been anywhere more dusty– including the Africa bush, which is supposed to be incredibly dusty – than auto races on a dirt track in the middle of a dry hot Nebraska summer. That being the case, I just don’t change lenses at the track itself.  I either mount a multi-purpose wide angle to telephoto zoom lens on the camera before leaving home and shoot everything with that setup, or I take two camera bodies, each with a different lens, and leave all the other lenses at home, because I’m not going to be opening the camera(s) up in an environment where you can cut the dust with a knife, when you’re not chewing on a mouthful of it.

Now, even though the theme of this piece is that you can clean your own sensor, my attorney would want me to say here that I assume absolutely no responsibility for any damage to your sensor, your camera, yourself, or any other bad thing that might happen when you try it.  I’ve told you my own experience here that cleaning a DSLR sensor can be performed by camera owners, but obviously can’t take responsibility for the actions of each and every reader of these words who decides to give it a shot.

So, that’s it for sensor cleaning.  If you want to read my general instructions on how to improve your holiday picture taking – even with the simplest of cameras – you can find that on this site in a blog post (originally) from a few years ago.

Thanks for stopping by my site and Happy Holidays to All!

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