Tuesday Tutorial: Sensor Cleaning

Menu 2156 600pxSensor dust.  The bane of  DSLR photographers everywhere…

The hot, dry summer months, along with increased camera use during vacation adds up to lots of dirty sensors. Considering that most photographers have likely never cleaned their sensors,  it’s a sure bet that most digital cameras in use today have a significant amount of debris on their sensors.

Not your camera, you say? Trust me, if you have never cleaned your sensor, it’s filthy – you just don’t know it.  And don’t try the “But I never take the lens off…” excuse either.  Camera systems are not hermetically sealed and all brands and models are prone to contamination when used regularly.  Ironically, the bigger the sensor the more likely it will have dust.

Since most photographers shoot  between  f/4 and f/11, they don’t realize that their sensors, actually the anti-aliasing filter protecting the sensor, is dirty.  At that range the depth of focus is relatively shallow so any dust on the sensor may not be visible. Once you start shooting at f/16 and smaller it is likely you will observe some dust spots in the areas that have consistent tonal values, ie:  the sky.

Check your DSLR sensor for dust:

Take a photo of a piece of white paper while stopped down at f/22 or smaller (do not blow out the highlights). On your camera’s LCD monitor, zoom in and review the image at 100% magnification using the scroll-wheel to inspect it. If you see some blurry dark spots, those are dust specks.

The question is: Do you send the camera in for cleaning (about $125 and two weeks down-time), or do you attempt it yourself?

Frankly, it’s not that scary or difficult and you can easily clean your own sensor with the right materials.  The first step is to determine if you  actually NEED to clean the sensor at all. Although there’s certainly some dust on it, you should only attempt a cleaning if there’s visible dust on your images.  

Dry vs. Wet Method

Visible 2157 800px  Dry 2159 800px
There are many different methods for cleaning sensors and much debate on which method is best.  Generally speaking, they’re categorized as either  “Dry” or “Wet”.  The “Dry” method uses a blower (not compressed air!) and/or and special brush. The “Wet” method uses a special solution such as methyl alcohol and a swab. The most challenging jobs will require both.

Cleaning Your Own Sensor

1) Determine if you really need to clean the sensor by reviewing a test image shot at the lens’ minimum aperture (f/22 – f/32)

2) Activate the Manual Sensor Cleaning mode on your DSLR .  Make sure the battery is fully charged before starting.

3) Use the “dry method”  first using a handheld blower “Rocket” type blower. It’s best to face the camera in a downward position while blowing off the sensor.

Blower 2153 800px


4) If needed, continue by using one of the many specially designed sensor-cleaning brushes. These are use micro fiber bristles that are specially treated for cleaning sensors. Do not use a small paintbrush. Those are too harsh and will scratch the sensor.

5) For stubborn dust specks still remaining, you’ll need to switch to the ‘wet” method using a swab wetted with sensor cleaning solution.  Apply a very small drop of solution to the swap and, working quickly, swipe across the sensor in a firm and smooth motion.  The motion is similar to running a squeegee across a window.

6) Discard the swab. Do not use it again. Don’t even think about it.  If the sensor requires another pass, use a fresh swab

7) Repeat as needed.

Cleaning your sensor can seem like a daunting task, but with the right tools (most available at Omega Photo), the instructions above, and some basic common sense, you can save a lot of time and money by doing it yourself.

For more information and supplies, stop by Omega Photo at our new location in downtown Bellevue.

Omega Photo
210 105th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98004
(Located between NE 2nd & NE 4th behind Safeway)

(425) 455-2126

Call or “click” below for information regarding our photo processing and print services, full line of cameras and lens sales, and our comprehensive passport photo service.

Omega Photo website

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