Sensor Cleaning: Stay Focused with Doug McKinlay

Sensor Cleaning: Stay Focused with Doug McKinlay

Hi, I’m Doug McKinlay and you’re watching AdoramaTV. For this video we’ll be looking at how to clean DSLR sensors. AdoramaTV presents ‘Stay Focused’ with Doug McKinlay. For this video we’ll be looking at how to clean DSLR sensors. I think it’s a necessary task and one that every photographer should know how to do. It might seem a little daunting at first but with the right care and attention it’s relatively easily done. Yes you can have your sensors professionally cleaned but it’s not cheap, at least not where I live so by following these simple steps you should be able to get your sensors clean for most environmental conditions.

First the essential tools I’ll need to get the job done. A blower, a statically charged cleaning brush, eclipse cleaning fluid, cleaning swabs a lens cloth, a small head lamp or torch, flashlight, a bright white surface or a clear blue sky shooting backdrops and either a small zoom or a 50mm lens. You can add a can of compressed air to this list but just remember never blast it directly into the camera as it can damage the mechanisms. Personally, however, I just stick with the blower. Before we get into it, though, let me just point out that for the most part you’re not cleaning the sensor itself but the low-pass filter that sits in front of the sensor. But for arguments sake we’ll call it sensor cleaning here. Now there’s two methods to cleaning camera sensors. The dry method and the wet method. The dry method is one that you should be doing most. It’s easy and fast.

As for the wet method, it’s something that might be needed only once or so a month, depending on how much shooting you do. Now, just a couple of things to be aware of. A very important first is make sure your camera battery is fully charged. If not, the mirror could drop and the shutters could close just as you have your cleaning instruments inside the camera. Thus potentially causing damage. Second. Do your cleaning in an environment that is as dust and wind free as possible. There’s no point in trying this while mounted on the back of a camel in the Sahara Desert. Most kitchen table tops with good light should suffice. Make sure you wash your hands before getting going. Just remove any grease or dirt that you might have picked up doing your normal day. When taking on the task of cleaning your sensor you should really be thinking about cleaning all your equipment at the same time. How dirty your gear gets depends on your photography style and the environments you work in.

For instance when I’m working take all the lens caps and backs of my lenses when they’re in my camera bag. The reason why is that I can change the lenses faster. The downside, though, is they do collect dust and even though I always carry a lens cloth in my back pocket for quick wipe, you don’t get anywhere near as clean as when I do a dedicated proper cleaning session. So before popping the lens off the camera body, give it a good wipe down, we don’t want to introduce any extra grime into the camera.

OK, it’s time to get started. First things first get a blank memory card, insert it into the camera and take a picture of your bright background. For me it’s the white side of a reflector. To get this right and see the visible dust you need to shoot at a low ISO. 100. We’re not looking for the noise here, and use a small aperture, F22 for instance. We’re not worried about things like diffraction or tack sharp focus. In fact, if your shutter is a little slow it will work in your favor. When taking the test picture, move your camera a little bit , even pan a little.

This will blur any marks on your shooting surface, so only the dust and dirt on your sensor should show up. Once zoomed into 100% use your navigation tool and start in the top left hand corner, work your way across and then down and backwards and forwards all the way to the bottom of the frame. By doing this you should be able to see how dirty the sensor really is. OK the camera’s wiped down and the lens has been removed. Now in the menu, find the camera cleaning setting and switch to manual this will lock the mirror up when the release button is pressed, making the sensor visible. It will close again once the camera’s main power is turned off. Grab the blower, invert the camera body upside down and carefully blast a few shots of air into the cavity. Do not touch the sensor with the tip of the blower. It will damage it. Then snap the lens back on, take another picture.

Have a look at the LCD screen again and if dust is still visible, move on to the dry clean method. For my dry cleaning needs, I use a statically charged brush. Keep in mind these brushes come in different sizes for the different sized sensors. There are two ways to charge these brushes. The cheap and the more expensive way like canned air. I use the cheap way, the blower. Simply take your brush, give the bristles a couple of whacks on the edge of the table, just to loosen any collected bits of crud then blast it with the blower a few times and the brush should be charged. Insert into the camera body. This is where your head lamp, or torch comes in handy.

And draw it across the sensor from one side to the other with only the tips of the brush making contact, and then without turning the brush over, draw it back again. This should get rid of most surface dust. To be sure that the lens back on, take another picture and repeat the zooming method. If it’s all clear or relatively clear, that’s all you need to do. Keep in mind that depth of sensor cleaning to be matched to what you shoot. If you’re a documentary photographer or your apertures are relatively big, say F8 to F2 and small specks of dust probably will never show up in the final image, but if you’re into small apertures landscapes etc, F11 to F22, and you’ll most likely need to give the sensor a deeper clean, a wet clean. Wet cleaning is definitely a more invasive method of getting your sensor grime-free, but with a little care and the right equipment it is not that difficult.

For me I always start with a dry clean even if I intend to do a wet clean. Now for the wet clean, the most important tools are the swabs and the cleaning fluid. Don’t cheap out on the cleaning fluid. Personally I use Eclipse as it has always been reliable. Next before applying the cleaning fluid, give the end of the swab a few blasts of air from the blower. This will help get rid of any errant pieces of lint and then place small drops of your chosen fluid across the tip of the swab. Make sure you have the right sized swab for your sensor. Two or three drops should be more than sufficient to cover the whole tip, no matter which swab side you use.

Be very careful to make sure you do not over moisten the swab. Too much fluid in the swab can cause fluid to leak into unseen areas of the sensor chamber and cause serious damage. If accidentally over moistened just gently dab the tip on a clean piece of lint free paper. You may be tempted to touch the tip to check if it’s damp but this is ill-advised, as greases from your finger tips can be introduced to the swab and then to the sensor. To efficiently swab the sensor, hold the swab like a pen. Place it on one side of the sensor and move the swab from one end to the other, in a single, continuous, firm and slow motion. Do not put too much pressure on the swab against the sensor. Remember the glass is very thin. Allow the sensor a moment to dry and repeat this, but starting on the other side this time.

Two sweeps should be enough to remove the vast majority of the dirt. If you can see a smear on the sensor, a third pass is sensible. Be sure to turn the swab over as you move across so the cause of the smear no longer presents an issue. When finished, suitably discard the swab as it should only be used once. Just to finish up, remember there are a number of different products in the market for cleaning sensors, some really good, some not so good. But ultimately the choice is up to each photographer depending on a number of factors: budget, shooting environments and the end use of images for example. Like a lot of photographic products you may have to work your way through a few to find the ones that suit you best.

So that’s it for this week and I’m Doug McKinlay for AdoramaTV. Don’t forget, you can also subscribe to AdoramaTV for more great videos. And we really want to know what you think so send your comments or like and share this video. You can also check out the Adorama Learning Center for more great tips and tricks. Do you want great-looking prints at low-cost. Be sure to visit our easy to use online printing service. AdoramaPix has professionals who treat your images with the utmost care that you can count on. For a quick turnaround on photos, cards or albums use at

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