DSLR cameras are fantastic tools for taking photos but part of keeping this type of camera in peak condition is cleaning the sensor when it is dirty. The image sensor is a key component of the camera as it is the sensor that records the image you take.
The image sensor is relatively well protected whilst you have your lens on, but when changing lenses dust can enter the camera body and stick to the sensor. As the image sensor is responsible for your images any dust or particles that are on the sensor will render as marks on your image.
To clean your image sensor safely you will need a few tools for the job. To start with it is best to try to clean your sensor without touching it and see if that gets rid of the dust. If it does not there are other steps you can take which are a bit more invasive but safe as long as you do them correctly.
Here are some sensor cleaning tools:
Air blower (Giotto’s rocket air blower, Visible Dust Zeeion Blower etc.)
Sensor cleaning brush
Magnifying loupe with light
Electric sensor cleaning brush (Visible dust arctic butterfly)
Sensor gel stick
Wet cleaning products (Just Ultra-soft DSLR Swab 20mm, Visible dust etc.)
Before cleaning your sensor it is important to see if you need to do it in the first place. To ascertain the cleanliness of your sensor set your aperture on your camera to a small aperture (F22 is good) and take a picture of a white piece of paper. Make sure that you fill the frame with the paper. To ensure that you get a picture of white paper don’t have the exposure meter on auto as the meter will try to make everything medium grey. Over expose your shot if you need to for the paper to be white in the image.
Open up your image in your imaging software and zoom into the image to see it at 100 percent. Having the white paper background should help you to see any dust spots which will show up as dark marks. If the white paper is completely white with no spots, then you do not need to clean your sensor. Put your feet up and have a nice cup of coffee instead!
If you have found marks on your sensor then the first step is to use the least invasive method of sensor cleaning. Before any sensor cleaning it is imperative that you make sure your battery is fully charged. The mirror will need to go up for you expose the sensor for cleaning and if your battery runs out of charge mid cleaning, you won’t be able to get the mirror back into place.
Now that you have a fully charged battery read your camera’s instruction manual to find out how to lift up the mirror for sensor cleaning.
Grip your camera well and point the front of the camera towards the floor. Take the air blower with your other hand and point the nozzle towards the sensor (keep it at least an inch away) without touching any of the camera components. Squeeze the air blower hard about 15 times to try to dislodge any particles from the sensor. It’s important to have the camera upside down so that any dust will fall to the floor and not stay in the camera chamber.
At this point you can replace your lens and take another picture to see if the dust marks have disappeared. You can repeat step 4 if your sensor is not too dirty.
If your sensor is still dirty using a sensor cleaning brush might do the trick. I prefer an electric sensor cleaning brush such as the ‘Visible Dust arctic butterfly’, but if you do not want to invest in an electric one, then a manual one can be used instead. Do not use any type of brush. Sensor cleaning brushes are designed to clean sensors without damaging them. If using a manual sensor cleaning brush make sure that the brush is completely clean and use the air blower over it a few times to blow away any hidden particles. Place your camera down onto a secure surface. Place the brush tips onto the sensor and gently stroke the surface of the sensor from one side to the other. I always use the air blower on the brush in between strokes. It’s important not to touch the rest of the camera chamber with the brush as you could transfer some of the oil from the camera chamber onto the brush and then onto your sensor, so take your time with this.
If using an electric sensor cleaning brush charge up your brush in between strokes as per the manufacturers instructions. To not damage your sensor make sure that your finger is not near the on button when stroking the brush over the sensor. After doing this a few times replace your lens (I always use the air blower the get dust off the lens elements before placing it back on the camera) and take another test photo. Hopefully at this stage you will have no dust on your sensor but if you do follow the next step.
At this stage I would use the Sensor gel stick (make sure you get the right one for your model of camera if you choose this method). This is a great tool for picking up dust from the sensor. It is also one of the tools that the professionals use to clean your sensor. As with all of the other methods it’s important that you have your camera on a stable surface free of dust and that when using the gel stick you do not touch the camera chamber with the stick. To see the dust clearly and know what areas on the sensor you need to focus on, you can use a magnifying loupe with integrated light. Place this over the camera without touching the surface of the camera but close enough so you can see where the dust particles are. Once you know the areas to concentrate on gently press the gel stick onto the sensor to pick up the particles. Use the sticky tape that comes with the kit to clean your gel stick a few times during cleaning. Replace your lens and take another test shot.
If your test shot still reveals dust spots or smears of any kind then the only thing you can try at this stage is wet cleaning. This is the type of cleaning that a lot of photographers are afraid to do but as long as you take your time and are gentle with your sensor you should not have any issues. Before wet cleaning use the air blower again as in step one and also use it to dislodge any dust from the wet cleaning swab tip. Moisten the end of the swab with 2-3 drops of the cleaning fluid. Do not use any more so as to not damage your camera. As always your camera should be on a stable surface. Place the swab on one side of the sensor and wipe gently to the other side without touching the sides of the sensor chamber. Turn the swab over and use the other side to wipe the sensor again. Never touch the sensor swab as you could transfer oil and dust from your fingers onto the sensor.
After all of this cleaning you should have a perfectly clean and dust free sensor. If your test shot still shows dust spots then the only thing to do is to repeat the steps from step 4 onwards. Cleaning your sensor should always be done delicately, so only do this when you have the time and the patience.
I always use an air blower or the arctic butterfly electric cleaning brush before and after every job and so far have not had any major issues.
Life should be fun so if you find yourself spending a lot of time cleaning your sensor and really dislike doing it outsource the job to a professional and spend more time taking photos instead!
Enjoy your creativity