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I hadn’t planned on writing a blog on this topic since it has been well over a year since I’ve cleaned a sensor on one of my cameras. The first week I had my first DSLR I learned not to change lenses out in the field. There was a slight breeze blowing and sure enough I managed to get dust on my sensor. I didn’t know what to do so I started searching the internet looking for information on sensor cleaning. You really only have a few options to get your lens cleaned. One is to ignore the problem, which I did for about six months, send it in for professional cleaning or clean it yourself.

First off I would highly recommend trying not getting dust on your sensor. This can be accomplished by not changing lenses but for someone with quite a few lenses that are used for a variety of different purposes this is impractical. If you do have to change lenses do it in a clean environment preferably not out in the field. I can usually go for over a year without cleaning my sensor if I’m careful which brings me to today’s topic. I was out shooting early one morning and needed to change lenses quickly. I did it in the field and as a result I started to notice lots of dust spots on the resulting photos. I put up with it for about a week before deciding to clean the sensor..

One nice thing is the new cameras have built in sensor cleaning which works well. I noticed that I had dust on my new Nikon D300s sensor and was a bit puzzled as to why. I check and sure enough I didn’t have the sensor cleaner turned on. I set it to clean each time the camera was turned on. The dust was gone and I haven’t had a problem since.

This is the process I use when cleaning my Sensors:

 Test Photo

 Take a test photo

I clean the screen on my computer then I open up a blank Word document on my computer which results in a white screen.

  1. I put a zoom lens on my camera making sure that I’ve cleaned the camera lens.
  2. Set the camera to manual focus and set the f stop to its smallest aperture.
  3. Focus on the header at the top of the blank word page.
  4. Then I take two photographs of the blank white page. I take two photos of different areas to make sure the dust is not on the computer screen.

Examining the test photo

  1. Load the photo into Photoshop.
  2. Open one of the test photos and make the following adjustments.
    1. Click on Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights
    2. Under Shadows move the amount slider to the right until you can see any dust specks on the screen. The photo on the right is a screen shot showing the dust particles on the sensor.
  3. Save this image as my benchmark. Note that the image is flipped so the dust spots you see on the top are actually at the bottom of the sensor.

Cleaning the sensor with air

 My first attempt at cleaning is to use air I use a Giotto Rocket Blower, available from Photographic Solutions, to try and blow any dust off of the sensor. Do not use compressed or canned air as this could damage your sensor. I’m now thinking that when I first notice dust spots I’m going to try an immediate cleaning with air and try to remove the dust before it gets impermanently stuck on the sensor.

  1. Uncleaned Sensor

    Make sure you have a fully charged battery in your camera.

  2. Mount the camera on your tripod with the lens facing down at a  45 degree angle.
  3. Go to the camera settings and engage the mirror lockup.
  4. Remove the lens from the camera. I normally keep rear and front lens caps handy and use them when I remove the lens.
  5. Use the blower to blow the dust from the sensor.
  6. Put the lens back on the camera
  7. Disengage mirror lockup

Sensor Cleaned with Blower

Create another test photo using the process noted above. This shot shows the results of my first attempt at cleaning with the blower. If I didn’t have the one large dust particle in the upper right I would have probably quit at this point. Since I wanted to remove the large particle I decided to try using the blower a second time. A second test shot confirmed that it was not going to come off. To be honest I have never had much luck with the Giotto Rocket blower. I usually try it several times just to be sure but I always end up going to the next step.

 Cleaning with a Brush

 You can purchase brushes for cleaning sensors. I recently purchased a SensorSweep from Copper Hill Images. This is always my second step in attempting to remove dust from the sensor. The SensorSweep comes with detailed instructions on how to use it.  It does require you to provide a static charge the brush by using a rocket blower, canned air or vellum paper (supplied). Once this has been done you can use it to clean the sensor. I’ve had varying success with the brush. Sometimes all of the dust comes off after a few passes of the brush over the sensor. Other times the dust is not removed after repeated attempts. I always try the brush as the second step in sensor cleaning.

 Liquid Cleaning

 If I fail to get all of the dust off with the blower or the brush I move on to using a liquid cleaning. For this I use an Eclipse optic cleaning fluid and a Sensor Swab both available from Photographic Solutions. The swabs come in different sizes so make sure you have the size that matches your sensor size. Also make sure you have everything handy when you start the process.

  1.  Make sure you have a fully charged battery in your camera.
  2. Mount the camera on the tripod with the lens facing down at a 45 degree angle.
  3. Go to the camera settings and engage the mirror lockup.
  4. Remove the lens from the camera. I normally keep rear and front lens caps handy and use them when I remove the lens.
  5. Place a drop of the optic cleaning fluid on the tip of the swab.
  6. Move the swab across the sensor in both directions.
  7. Put the lens back on the camera
  8. Disengage mirror lockup

Sensor Cleaned with liquid

Create another test photo using the process noted above. This shot shows the results of my cleaning with a liquid cleaner. It doesn’t always go this well. Sometimes there are a few spots that remain. My experience is to quit while you are ahead if you have most of the spots off. If you are not satisfied repeat the process. You might be attempted to reuse the swab. Don’t you will likely just cause more problems. Use a clean swab for subsequent cleaning.

Sometimes I use the SensorSweep brush after I get most of the dust off with the Sensor Swab.

It’s not hard but proceed at your own risk. If you screw it up it could be costly.


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3 Comments

  1. Hi, Philip –

    Huge geek that I am, I’ve tried all kinds of sensor cleaning tools and techniques over the years. I’ve settled on pretty much the same progression as you – camera self-clean, blower, brush (Arctic Butterfly) – but I have one more step before I break out the wet cleaner. I’m a big fan of the LensPen SensorKlear – same technology as their LensPen, but sized & configured for cleaning sensors. This is a contact cleaner, so you do have to exercise the same caution as with anything that touches the sensor, but using the SensorKlear followed by another round of blower & brush has let me avoid many wet cleanings over the years. (I also use the Photographic Solutions products when I do need to wet clean.)

    – Jack


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