How To Clean Your Camera’s Sensor

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Slap on a telephoto lens, and take a shot of a plain white surface using a small aperture like f/16 at +1 stop over exposure, open the image in Photoshop, and apply Auto Levels. At 100% magnification, you should be able to see all the dirt sitting on top of your sensor.

Sensor cleaning is a tricky task because you can end up causing more harm if you don’t know what you’re doing. With that being said, we advise that you bring in your camera to a service center if you aren’t comfortable with cleaning the sensor yourself. We would also like to issue this disclaimer (the same one Thom Hogan uses) on our behalf: When you work on your own camera, you do so at your own risk. We will try to provide accurate, useful information that reflects how we work, but we cannot be held liable for what you do with that information. Use the procedures listed here at your own risk.

Before you open up your camera, make sure that you are in a clean environment to prevent more dirt from landing on your sensor. Put your camera on a flat table where it won’t move around. We recommend that you mount it on your tripod and tilt it forward a bit so that gravity can help you dislodge dirt once you start cleaning. Remove the lens and raise the shutter curtain to get access to your sensor. (You might need to refer to your manual on how to do this for your specific camera.)

Like cleaning lenses, your first line of attack should be air. Use a blower like Giotto’s Rocket Blower to shake dust off your sensor. Avoid using compressed air as some of these are powerful enough to cause some damage to your sensor. Some compressed air cleaners leave a film of moisture if it’s not held at an appropriate angle making your problem worse. Try doing some test shots after using a blower to see if the problem is still there.

If it is, you will need to resort to brushes. Don’t use just any kind of brush. You need one specifically designed not to leave any scratch marks. Try getting Brush-Off for this. It is electrically conductive which helps lift dust off. Again, do some test shots to check whether it worked.If the dirt is still there, you will need to move on to Sensor Swabs. Sensor Swabs come in different sizes for different camera models. Make sure you purchase the correct one for your gear.

Apply a few drops of cleaning fluid on the swab and gently swipe it across the sensor in one continuous movement using one side only. Reverse the swab then swipe it across the opposite direction. Each side of the swab is made for only one pass. If you reuse a side then you’re just swirling dirt around your sensor. You can find pictures on these steps and more detailed instructions here.

It bears mentioning again that if you’re not comfortable doing this on your own, have a service center do it for you. It’s going to be cheaper that way. The sensor is the single most fragile, and most expensive part of your camera body.

As always, prevention is the best cure. Here are some tips to avoid getting dirt on your sensor.

  • Always try to find a non-windy place to change your lenses in. If you’re shooting outdoors then go in your car to change your lens.
  • Make sure that your camera is turned off before removing your lens. Your sensor is charged with static electricity when it is running and that acts like a dust magnet.
  • Point the camera body down when changing lenses.
  • Give your camera a few minutes to acclimatize before turning it on when moving between areas of different temperature to avoid condensation from forming inside. If the temperature change is extreme then keep your camera in a zip lock or in a camera bag for about 30 minutes before taking it out.
  • Only clean your sensor when it becomes absolutely necessary. If the blemish on your photo is minimal, remove it with your photo editing software.

If you haven’t done this before and are dead set on trying it, do read up on it some more:
Understanding Digital SLR Sensor Cleaning
Cleaning Your Sensor
Demystifying D-SLR Sensor Cleaning
Cleaning Camera Sensors

Thanks to Mangia for the article suggestion, and to my lovely wife for her mad editing skills and for inserting the disclaimers to cover my ass.

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How to Clean Your Lens

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