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Sensor Cleaning

Eventually you will find that photographs you have taken with your DSLR will start to show artefacts. These may make themselves apparent as slightly darker patches on the image or is individual black or brown spots that are quite visible to the naked eye. Even more annoying are those that only make themselves apparent on certain photographs, when photographing a white sky for instance. If you suspect that your camera does have dust or dirt on the sensor (it will happen at some time in your cameras life) a quick way to test (assuming your camera does not have a built in test mode) is to point your camera at a plain white wall (or a large sheet of white paper) in a well lit (even lighting is important) room, set the focus to infinity, and take a picture. This will reveal any hidden nasties (often referred to by photographers the world over as “dust bunnies”) that could rear their ugly heads on your prized snaps.

Some camera manufacturers have gotten wise to the idea of sensor cleaning and actively encourage it, initially they were wary of encouraging home users to tinker with the inner workings of their cameras but it is acknowledged as a necessity when you own a DSLR unless you want to run up a large bill (and potentially damage your camera) shipping it to an external cleaning firm or back to the manufacturer every time it gets dirty. Many manufacturers now include a variety of self cleaning modes in their cameras, some even produce sensors that gently vibrate when you turn the camera on in an effort to shake off dust and loose particles. However often these attempts are in vain and you have to resign yourself to the fact that eventually you will have to physically clean your own sensor.

There are many methods that various companies and photographers will recommend, and before you attempt any please be warned, the Photography Website is not liable for any damage you do to your camera (or yourself, friends, loved ones or the pet cat after you damage your camera), consider yourself warned! Always read your cameras manual as many manufacturers do not recommend touching the sensor or in some case even cleaning the sensor yourself.

The most common method (and most recommended by manufacturers) is using a blowing implement of some kind to direct a gentle stream of air over the sensor. Do not attempt to do this with cans of compressed air or anything under pressure! You will almost certainly damage your camera if you do, the only air that you should blow into the camera comes from a blower bulb (think the strength of someone gently breathing). Hold the bulb no further into the camera than the lens mount and use it to blow air over the sensor. Unfortunately this technique can sometimes actually redistribute the dust across the surface of your sensor rather than dislodge it, however it is worth trying in the first instance, it may just dislodge those annoying dust bunnies. If you are unable to get rid of the dust spots using a blower bulb then you may have to manually clean your sensor, again this can be dangerous if done incorrectly and could result in the destruction of your camera, so please do not attempt it unless you are absolutely confident.

Fortunately you can now purchase “sensor swabs” designed specifically for cleaning your DSLR sensor, or a “sensor brush”. These will contain full instructions that you should follow, however they usually involve cleaning the brush with compressed air and wiping in one sweep across the sensor, and then cleaning the brush again after every stroke to ensure you are not simply spreading the dust around. When using sensor swabs they often require dampening with a non-water based cleaning solution (ensure you purchase some just for sensor cleaning) or you can used an alcohol based cleaner such as methanol. Unfortunately if you are overzealous with your cleaning fluid you can often leave streaks on the sensor with swabs, however they are often vital for removing the more stubborn artefacts caused by things such as pollen (since pollen is moist it will often be harder to remove than regular household dust).

It is worth noting that occasionally you can get dust that is trapped beneath the filters or even beneath the filters and the sensor itself (when we talk about cleaning the sensor we do not refer to the actual sensor but the filter that sits over the sensor, as a home user we do not have the tools or expertise to access the sensor directly) and nothing can be done about this other than send your camera back to the manufacturer for servicing. Fortunately this is a rare occurrence, however if you are unable to remove a stubborn dust spot please resist the temptation to scrub or rub hard at the face of the sensor, you will simply damage it and probably void your warranty. And if you are at all lacking in confidence or unsure of how to approach cleaning your sensor you should always send it back to your manufacturer for a service.