Let's say you just got home from The Best Vacation Ever. You've got some down time, so you decide to check out all those wonderful photos you took on your trip of a lifetime. You sit down at your computer and open up the first one - it's a lovely shot of the ocean under a deep, blue sky. But what's that over there in the corner? It looks like a piece of lint. You're tempted to try brushing it off but it's not on your computer screen, it's on your photo. Damn.
While we can clean that spot in an image editor, it's going to be around on every one of your future images. So let's get rid of that spot forever. Let's talk about a little Camera Cleaning.
Church of St. Francis Xavier by Flickr user aaron.knox
Your camera's sensor
Now the chances are pretty good that the lint is on your camera's sensor, not on your lens. If you frequently change lenses, the chances of getting dust or other debris on your sensor at some point are actually quite high (that's why you should never change lenses while you're at the beach, especially on a windy day, trust me when I say you do not want to get sand on your sensor).
If you own a modern DSLR it probably has a built-in sensor cleaning function. You can run this manually whenever you think of it, or you can set up your camera to automatically clean the sensor at startup, shutdown or both. The way these cleaning systems work is fairly simple, the sensor vibrates, and the dust falls off. Sometimes this is enough to get rid of the lint for good, but other times it’s a lot more resilient. When the dust on your sensor was slightly damp upon arrival, for example, it has a tendency to stick. In this case, it may not be so easy to just vibrate off.
You can also try blowing dust off of your sensor, but always proceed with great caution. Sometimes this can just make the problem worse by introducing new dust particles into the camera. Never use canned compressed air, because the accelerant in the can may end up covering your camera's sensor with a greasy film. Yikes! Instead try using an air bulb, which is a manual method of directing a focused jet of air at the offending dust. Often, this is enough to get the job done. Buy an air bulb that was designed specifically for this purpose, such as the Giottos Rocket Air Blaster, which retails for less than 10 bucks.
Any time you open up your camera, make sure you're in a reasonably dust-free location. Don't do it on a ranch in Utah when there are a lot of cattle milling about, for example. In your camera's menu, there should be a function called "lock up mirror for cleaning," or something similar. Select that mode and then remove your lens. Hold the air bulb a couple of inches from your sensor and squeeze.
If this doesn't work, you may need to send your camera to the manufacturer for cleaning, or find a local professional to do it for you. I don't recommend using cleaning agents, even those that are designed for cleaning image sensors. It's too easy to make a costly mistake. Your camera's sensor is the heart of your camera if you damage it, you'll have an expensive repair on your hand, possibly even cause to buy a whole new camera. If that's not an expense you're prepared to accept, it's best to let the professionals clean your image sensor when simple air isn't enough.
Now that I've sufficiently frightened you, let's talk about cleaning your lens. This is a fairly simple process, and a lot less hazardous than trying to clean your image sensor.
All photographers have different methods for cleaning their lenses. There's no right way to do it, but there are definitely wrong ways. You'll have the best results if you find a simple, effective procedure and then stick with it.
Your lens should be cleaned every six months or so, unless something happens that requires your immediate attention, your son flicks chocolate milkshake all over it for example, or it acquires a fingerprint. Over cleaning your lens may actually harm it in the long run, so don't be too zealous.
Tools you will need
The whole lot can be bought together as a lens cleaning kit, but here is what you'll need:
- A microfiber cloth. This is useful for wiping down the non-glass surfaces of your lens, such as the mount.
- A brush. Get one that's specifically designed for cleaning lenses—other types of brushes may attract lint and then introduce it to your lens, which just compounds the problem you were trying to correct.
- A blower. That Rocket Air Blaster we talked about above is also useful for cleaning your lens, so if I didn't already convince you to buy one you might want to reconsider. You do need something that will blow dust off of your lens.
- Lens cleaning fluid and tissues. Again, don't try to save money when it comes to caring for your beloved DSLR. Buy cleaning fluid that is specifically designed for cleaning your lens. If you use products you bought at the grocery store or pharmacy, you may end up damaging the glass. Products that aren't designed for this purpose often contain harmful impurities. While you're buying that lens cleaning fluid, pick up some lens cleaning tissues as well, they are often packaged together, which makes shopping for them a bit simpler.
The parts of your lens
When cleaning your lens, you'll need to focus primarily on the following areas: the mount, the front element and the rear element. It's also a good idea to wipe down the lens body with that microfiber cloth, this will keep away stray dust particles that may end up migrating to the glass.
After you've wiped down the lens body, move to the mount, that's the metal or plastic ring that attaches your lens to your camera. Use the cleaning fluid and microfiber cloth to wipe down this part of the lens, and be gentle about it. You should also clean the contacts, but again, you need to be very gentle or you risk damaging an important component of your lens.
Now switch to the front element, that's the glass under your front lens cap. Start by blowing dust off with your Rocket Air Blaster, then move on to the brush. Gently but firmly brush until you can no longer see dust particles on the glass.
Sadly, fingerprints often don't become obvious until after you've already taken the photo.700 - damn fingerprint on the lens by Flickr user thetravellor
There's no need to use the lens cleaning fluid unless you also see smudges and fingerprints on the glass. If you do, dampen the lens cleaning tissue with the cleaning fluid and gently wipe away those smudges with a circular motion. Finish by wiping the lens with a dry tissue to remove excess moisture.
This process may introduce lint, so it's always good practice to use your blower again when you've finished wiping down the lens.
This process is the same for the rear element, blow, brush and then use your cleaning fluid and tissue if there are any smudges. Blow again, and you're done.
A final note about your lens
Remember that you can protect your lenses from dust, fingerprints and scratchy things by purchasing a good-quality, multi-coated UV filter and always shooting with it in place. Now, you will hear some debate about whether or not these filters impact image quality so, if that's something that concerns you, you can skip it altogether, or at the very least do some testing to see how much of an impact the filter has and whether you can live with it. You may find that there's not really any noticeable impact at all, and if that's the case it's a worthwhile investment that will undoubtedly extend the life of your lens.
Nothing is scarier than boxing up your beloved DSLR and handing it over to UPS to ship back to the manufacturer for cleaning. If you can avoid the stress of placing your camera in someone else's hands, plus the loss of its use for the several weeks it usually takes before you finally get it back again, well, that's something you definitely ought to do. But cleaning your camera and lens yourself is a process that you should approach with great seriousness and great caution. Master the process and do as much of it as you can safely do yourself, but also make sure you learn how to recognize cleaning jobs that are best left to the pros.
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