Cleaning a camera sensor can be a scary undertaking. That is why so many photographers opt to send their camera in to the manufacturer when they start noticing those annoying dust spots and dirty specs showing up in their images. If you are like me, you may not be willing to spend the time or money to send your camera in to be cleaned. Luckily, I have had really good luck keeping my sensor clean and haven't had to clean it very often. I think this is mainly because I am too lazy to change my lens very often. This is especially true when I am outside. Living in the desert, I try to pick the lens I need before I go out and then I only change it if necessary to get the shot I want.
Even if you don't change your lens very often, the time will come when your sensor needs cleaning. You will know it is time when you see discolored specs or spots repeatedly in the same location on your images. There is also an easy way to check in Lightroom. If you open the spot removal tool, there is a check box under your image titled “visualize spots.” Checking that box will turn your image black and white. As you slide the slider to the right, you will see little white spots appear (this is easiest to test with an image that is mostly sky). If you go all the way to the right, there will likely be spots all over. Do not panic, the sensitivity being used to show those spots is nothing you are going to be able to see on your image. I will usually go 1/4 to 1/2 of the way to the right to see if there is anything I need to worry about. On the image below, you can see I have one pretty defined dust spot, but I had to push the slider pretty far to get it to appear so it is not something I am too concerned with at this point. While these can be easy to fix in post processing, that can get annoying when you have to do it on every image. Eventually, enough dust and dirt can build up on your sensor that it causes irreversible damage to your image. Seeing that cleaning a sensor is an easy task, quit dealing with the spots and just get it done.
When the time does come for cleaning my sensor, I push those butterflies aside and do it myself. If you are afraid of damaging your sensor, check out this video Jim Harmer put out a while back where he tried his hardest to ruin his sensor! In all seriousness though, the sensor is hugely important so don't be stupid about cleaning it.
For advice on cleaning my own sensor, I turned to expert Brent Bergherm from Brent Rents Lenses. With the amount of gear he has to clean, he knows what he is doing. Brent has a very thorough process he uses. If you watched Jim's video, you know you can get away with doing less, but I wanted to present to you all the steps Brent uses so you can decide for yourself how much you want to do. If you want to here his advice from his own mouth, listen to him on Episode 216 of the Improve Photography Podcast. Here is his step-by-step guide to cleaning your own sensor:
- Use a bulb blower
The first step you want to take is to use a bulb blower like the Rocket Blaster to blow out all the loose particles. These are small and cheap and can sometimes be sufficient on their own to get rid of loose dust that may have settled on your sensor. Jim Harmer says that they never work for him, but I can second Sandy Dorau's experience that blasting some air on dry desert dirt in Vegas can often be all you need.
- Turn your camera to sensor cleaning mode (if needed)
If you are cleaning the sensor on a DSLR, you will need to turn your camera to this mode in order to get the mirror out of the way so you can access your sensor. If you are shooting a mirrorless system, you of course do not have a mirror so your sensor is right there when you take off your lens. While the mirrorless system may be easier to clean, you will want to be extra careful changing the lenses as your sensor is always exposed. If you are shooting a mirrorless system, you will probably want to pay extra attention to your sensor and clean it when necessary.
- Use a Sensor Loupe to examine your sensor
If you are like me, you probably hadn't heard of the Sensor Loupe before Brent introduced it. You don't need this to clean your sensor, but this is a really cool tool that helps you examine your sensor to find the dust and dirt and make sure it is clean after you are done. It is essentially a magnifying glass with lights that fits over your lens opening. Brent does recommend making sure you check to confirm you are getting the right one for your camera as mirrorless and dslr sensors are different distances from where the magnifying glass will be. Using the Sensor Loupe will help you see exactly where you need to clean.
- Brush the sensor with an arctic butterfly
Once you know where the dust is, Brent recommends using the (slightly expensive) Arctic Butterfly brush to remove any loose dust or dirt still on the sensor after using the bulb blower. Brent does caution you not to get too close to the edge of your sensor if you have a Nikon as there is a residue there that the brush can smear across your sensor. It won't scratch or damage your sensor, but it can make cleaning more difficult.
- Use the Sensor Klear for the stubborn stuck-on particles
The Sensor Klear is made by lens pen and basically looks like a skinny lens pen for your sensor. You can just rub this back and forth across your sensor to get those stuck-on specs of dust or dirt off your sensor. While I haven't used the Sensor Klear, I have been using Lens Pen products for a while and I really like them.
- Perform final cleaning
There are a handful of items you can use for a final cleaning of the sensor. Jim Harmer recommends using Pec Pads and that is what I personally have used. Brent likes to use materials from Visible Dust. Namely, the VDust Plus formula and swabs. Whatever you are using, just make sure to read the instructions so you are using it correctly and not risking any damage to your sensor.