Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Sensor cleaning update for DSLR and MILC camera sensors

Nikon D200 with lens removed to give sensor access for cleaningIn my NSL Photography Blog article, Essential camera gear protection and maintenance, I discussed the importance of keeping your camera clean to ensure it's ready for your photo sessions and whenever a photo opportunity presents itself. Part of keeping your camera clean is keeping your camera's sensor clean.

Today's DSLRs and MILCs have internal sensor dust removal systems. While they do a credible job, they aren’t 100% effective. Repair shops, and manufacturers offer “professional” cleaning services, but they’re often expensive. Some charge $150 or more, and it can take as long as 3–4 weeks to get your cleaned camera back.

Eventually every interchangeable lens camera will need to have its sensor cleaned, as every time its lens is changed, dust and dirt in the air freely enter its sensor compartment. At times, it may be necessary for photographers to clean the sensor themselves rather than wait for a professional cleaning, particularly when in the field.

Cleaning a DSLR or MILC sensor is not hard. There are a series of progressive cleaning steps to use that are fast, easy, and effective. You advance from step to step, if the completed step didn't remove all the sensor's dust and dirt.

In recent years, sensor cleaning tools and methodology have improved and become safer. Even so, photographers must be careful and deliberate when cleaning sensors in order to avoid damaging their camera's delicate parts during cleaning.

Before sensor cleaning, photographers will need to purchase specific supplies and tools. Their cost is easily justified by eliminating the need for future professional sensor cleaning.

The basic sensor cleaning steps are, in order:
  1. Cleaning the sensor and sensor compartment with blown air,
  2. Cleaning the sensor with a gel stick sensor cleaner,
  3. Wet cleaning the sensor with a non-film forming optical cleaning solution.
Cleaning the sensor and sensor compartment with blown air:

While the Giottos’ Rocket blower has been the top choice of photographers for years, my personal blower choice is the Zeeion® bulb blower by VisibleDust. Like the Giottos' it has an air valve to prevent dust intake, but it also has filters to further prevent tiny particles from being expelled from the blower on to the sensor. The Zeeion blower is anti-static which reduces the chance that dust can reattach to the sensor surface while blowing it out.
Critical Tip: Never use canned air as it uses propellant which sometimes is expelled from the can and can damage your sensor. Don't use typical CO canister blowers. Many contain lubricant which can damage the sensor. Both blowers can blow too forcefully into the camera and damage it.
To blow out dust and dirt from the camera's sensor compartment and sensor:
  • Move to an area as free of dust in the air as possible, away from direct and bright light,
  • For DSLRs, insert a fully charged battery into your camera to ensure your mirror can remain up during the entire cleaning process,
  • Clean the camera and lens' exterior to prevent dust from entering the camera when you remove the lens for access to the sensor,
  • Ensure your camera is turned off,
  • Remove the lens from your camera,
  • For DSLRs, turn on your camera and lock-up its mirror up to give access to the sensor in the sensor compartment,
  • For MILCs keep your camera turned off,
  • Holding your camera with the lens opening pointed down, use the blower to blow out any accumulated dirt and dust from the sensor and sensor compartment, being careful to not touch the sensor or other camera parts with the blower.
This should always be the first step taken for sensor cleaning, even though it may not always remove all the dirt and dust from the surface of the sensor.

Viewing the sensor to inspect its condition and clean it:

It's difficult to see dirt, dust and various kinds of residue on your sensor with the naked eye. In order to locate dust and dirt on the sensor and determine if the sensor is clean, I recommend the Quasar® R Sensor Loupe® Magnifier with Dark Adaptation Technology from VisibleDust. It’s a 5X magnifying glass with both white and red LEDs for illumination. Placed over the lens opening, it enables you to fully examine your camera's sensor to determine its cleanliness. The seven red LEDs, are especially effective in assisting photographers see dust particles on sensors.
Note: I have not tried the Loupe on the new Nikon Z mount yet, however, I expect it will work well.
After blowing out the dust and dirt, use the Loupe to examine the sensor to see if it's clean. If the sensor remains dirty, try gel stick sensor cleaning.
Note: Cameras with image stabilization at the sensor have more frangible support of their sensors than those without it. For those cameras with sensor image stabilization, be aware that you want to avoid using any substantial force when cleaning the sensors using gel sticks or during wet cleaning.
Cleaning the sensor with a sensor gel stick:
There are numerous brands of sensor gel sticks available for purchase. I have tested many and found the Eyelead brand superior to other gel sticks to clean DSLR and MILC camera sensors. My tests show the Eyelead gel cube holds it shape while others warp over time, rendering them ineffective.

Some users reported that the original Eyelead gel stick didn't work properly with Sony MILC sensors. As a result, Eyelead designed the SCK-1B sensor gel stick specifically for Sony DSLR and MILC cameras. The SCK-1 sensor gel stick is for all other DSLR and MILC cameras.

When you touch the sensor gel stick cube to the sensor the dirt and dust from the sensor adheres to the cube. Lifting the cube from the sensor removes the dirt and dust. The stick is cleaned by using special sticky paper that comes with the gel stick. The gel stick is designed to leave no residue on the sensor surface.
  • Turn the camera so the lens opening faces up,
  • Place the camera on a protective pad on a firm work surface,
  • Use the Loupe to locate dust and dirt residue on the sensor,
  • Lightly touch the gel stick cube to the sensor where dust and dirt are located, then lift it from the sensor to remove the dust and dirt,
  • Repeat this action as necessary
  • When the gel stick cube needs cleaning, press gel stick cube on the sticky paper to remove the dust and dirt from the cube,
  • Repeat the process until the dust and dirt have been removed from the sensor, to the extent possible.
This method will clean stubborn dust and dirt that blowing alone won’t remove. Most of the time, gel stick use will finish the cleaning of your camera's sensor.

If, after using the sensor gel stick, Loupe examination reveals stubborn dirt can't be removed with it, advance to wet cleaning.

Wet cleaning the sensor with a non-film forming optical cleaning solution:

Today's updated wet cleaning process, compared to the original Copper Hill Method created more than a decade ago, uses a safer tool and rarely results in a film that requires additional cleaning.

To wet clean your sensor, I recommend two Photographic Solutions' products: Sensor Swab Ultra® and Eclipse® Optic Cleaning Fluid. Sensor Swab Ultra comes in three sizes, matched for different size camera sensors. Purchase the Sensor Swab Ultra that matches your camera's sensor.
  • Continue to keep the camera still on a pad on a firm work surface with its lens opening up,
  • Wet the Sensor Swab Ultra with about 6 drops of Eclipse to thoroughly wet its edge but not oversaturate it.
  • Starting at one of the long ends of the sensor, smoothly and firmly drag the swab across the sensor.
  • At the end of the sensor, tip the swab in the opposite direction and smoothly and firmly drag its clean side to the end of the sensor where you started. Lift it off the sensor and discard it.
  • Repeat the process until the entire sensor is clean. It will take at least two swabbings for total sensor cleaning.
After wet cleaning, use the Loupe to examine the sensor. If there are some dirty areas missed on the sensor, or in the unlikely chance you detect a film on the sensor, reswab the sensor until clean. Once the sensor is clean, for DSLRs, release the mirror from its locked position and reattach your lens. For MILCs reattach your lens.

With careful, deliberate use of these cleaning methods your sensor should continue to capture images at peak performance for years to come.

(Disclaimer: Well the attorneys want to make sure you understand that while these tools and methodology work great for most camera sensors, they may not be the best solution your particular sensor according to its manufacturer, type, material composition, coatings, etc. Photographers should always consult with their camera's manufacturer to ensure the tools and methodology discussed here will be safe for their sensor before cleaning any sensor. NSL Photography, this blog nor the author warrant the use of the tools and methodology discussed here or will accept any liability for their use.)


Jane - Miami said...

I'm book marking this article. It's the best one on sensor cleaning I've seen. I'm going to purchase a gel stick too, the one specifically for my Sony mirrorless. I didn't know a safe one existed.

Jim-Phila said...

Great tip on the Eyelead. I've been using another gel stick and I keep having to press it into shape to get it to work. I've just ordered an Eyelead at Amazon and see how it goes. Thanks.

Bruce-Chicago said...

I guess I'm old fashioned. I'm still using pecpads. Is there any real reason to switch. I've been using them for a long time but I just got the new Nikon z7.

Ned S. Levi said...

Photographic Solutions have long warned photographers not to use PecPads to clean digital camera sensors. They can scratch the coatings used on digital camera sensors.

You should discontinue their use immediately. Apparently many of the newer camera sensors are even more susceptible to scratching from PecPads than prior ones.

I strongly suggest throwing out your PecPads and going with Sensor Swab Ultras immediately.

Buzz-Houston said...

So, that's a pretty big disclaimer Ned. What's the story with that?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Buzz.

I've tested these tools and methods on many camera, but I certainly haven't tested them on every camera. Subtle differences in sensors can make a big difference in cleaning.

Take for example the problems some Sony camera users had with the original Eyelead Gel Stick. Eyelead had to come up with a gel stick specific to Sony camera sensors.

I've not had any trouble cleaning my own cameras with these products and methodology, but there may be an existing camera or future one that could have trouble.

Hence the disclaimer. I really meant it when I said photographers should check with their camera manufacturer about cleaning their sensor.

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