Sensor cleaning can be quite terrifying for a photographer to try on his or her own. Considering how much you paid for it, delving deep into your digital camera’s inner sanctum is the last thing most photographers want to do. Luckily, as we’ll show you below, there are safe methods of sensor cleaning, which are also quick and easy to accomplish.
First, why do we need a sensor cleaning tutorial like this? Dust and dirt can be your digital camera’s downfall. The interchangeable lens system makes it impossible to stop foreign particles entering your camera, and it doesn’t take long for them to stick to the sensor.
Most of the time you won’t notice them, but when you’re shooting blue skies or white studio backdrops with a narrow aperture, dark flecks will become all too visible (download our cheat sheet on when to use a wide or small aperture).
Back in the days of film there was no such problem – you quite literally started each exposure with a clean canvas. However, with digital cameras, a spot of dust on the sensor will blight every shot until it’s removed.
It’s only a matter of time until your digital camera’s sensor will need to be cleaned manually. The more you change lenses, the more you zoom and the dustier the places you go, the quicker this moment will arrive.
To clean one of the most delicate parts of your camera, you do need to exercise caution. However, anyone with steady hands can do it.
There are lots of specialist tools and solutions available for cleaning sensors, but they can be split into two camps – wet or dry. You should think of sensor cleaning as a two-stage process: use a dry system first, then move on to the wet process if necessary.
For both tasks, you’ll need to use a special setting on the camera so that the delicate shutter and mirror mechanisms stay out of the way. This means you can reach the sensor and clean to your heart’s content. Here’s how to do it…
Sensor cleaning made easy
Before You Start
Before you start the sensor cleaning process, shoot a piece of white paper before you start, to see how dirty the sensor is. Shoot in Aperture Priority (A) mode at f/22; you can use the pop-up flash.
Take a similar shot after you’ve finished your sensor cleaning, comparing the images and seeing the improvement. It’s possible to zoom in and review these shots on the camera’s LCD, but a computer is better.
01 Dry clean
To reach the sensor you need to get the mirror and shutter out of the way. On recent D-SLRs, go to Setup, then ‘Lock mirror up for cleaning’. This option will be greyed out unless the batteries are fully charged. Press OK, then OK again. Press the shutter release.
02 Use a light
You need good light to see the sensor – a head torch is ideal, but a desk lamp can be used instead. Remove the lens and use a hurricane blower to blast dust from the sensor. Be careful not to touch the sensor or other internal components with the blower tip.
03 Add the solution
Use a specialist cleaner designed for the size of your camera, and read the instructions. Pre-impregnated swabs are good when you’re travelling, but a dry swab with a separate cleaning solution tends to give a more effective clean. Don’t use too much liquid.
04 Sweep up
Drag the swab slowly and smoothly from the left of the sensor to the right. Use a single movement, and don’t rub or scratch at the sensor. Turn the swab 90 degrees and drag the clean side from right to left. Throw this swab away. Turn the camera off to reset the mirror.
Top tips: more sensor cleaning ideas
01 Shake away
If your camera has it, try using the built-in vibration cleaning system to clear some dust. Do this before you start a manual clean.
02 Charge up
Charge your battery before cleaning the sensor. Full power will be needed to keep the shutter open and mirror raised.
03 Blast off
Keep your hurricane blower in a plastic bag when it’s not in use, so that it doesn’t suck up dust as you carry it.
04 Know the options
Dry cleaning alternatives to a blower include special brushes such as the Arctic Butterfly, or sticky pads like Dust-Aid.
05 Wipe down
Carry a microfibre lens cloth to clean the outside of the camera. This can reduce the amount of dust getting to the sensor.
- How Digital Camera CCD Sensors Work (petapixel.com)
- Video: How CCD sensors work on digital cameras (thetechblock.com)