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How to Clean Your Camera Sensor in 3 Easy Steps

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There is really nothing more frustrating for photographers than a camera sensor that is full of dust and specks. Dust on the sensor happens, it’s just a fact of digital photographic life. If you’re an outdoor photographer with a zoom lens, or one who changes lenses in the field, dust and particles will find a way onto your sensor on an almost regular basis. But even studio photographers experience the distress of a dirty sensor.

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The world’s dirtiest camera sensor. Yuck.

A few weeks ago I was on a mountain photo tour, and was constantly changing lenses in the windy and dusty alpine weather. This is a photo taken to show you my sensor dust. All those black specks are fragments of airborne stuff that either gets sucked into your sensor when you use a zoom lens, or when you change your lens outdoors. The image above is the result.

There’s not too much you can do about it if you’re out on a shoot, other than know that there will be many hours spent on your computer editing out those miserable spots from your otherwise beautiful photos. However, you needn’t stress once you get back to your home base, where you can easily take care of cleaning the sensor and removing the smudges in three easy steps.

Is Your Sensor Dirty?

Check to make sure your sensor needs cleaning. It’s quite possible that it does, but you may not know it. If you shoot wide open, or at larger apertures (smaller f-stop number, such as f/2.8) you may not really see any sensor gunk on your images unless you view them at 100% on your monitor. But one day you’ll want, or need, to set your aperture to f/8, or f/16; then sensor dust will become visible, almost as if from nowhere, to torment you, frame by frame.

To see if you have sensor dust right now, so you won’t be surprised when you’re out in the field shooting, stop down to the smallest aperture on your lens (the largest f-stop number, f/32 for example) and take a photo of a white or light colored wall. What I do then, is open the image in Photoshop and click on Auto Tone (under the Images Menu item). Horrors! Do you see it? Hopefully your sensor dust won’t look as bad as mine, above. But if you see the dreaded black specs, read on.

Step 1) Using the Auto Clean Function

Many newer DSLRs have a special function for automatically cleaning the sensor.  Look for it in the Tools menu on your camera. When you use this tool, the camera gives the sensor a series of micro-vibrations that “shake” the dust loose, in theory anyway. You may have to repeat this process several times. But with some patience, and providing your sensor is not as bad as the example in my image above, you’ll be relatively free of most of your sensor dirt in a few minutes.

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If you don’t have this feature on your camera, don’t worry, there is a way to manually clean your sensor. Sooner or later, even those photographers with auto-clean cameras will have to wash their sensors using this manual method, Step 2 below.

Step 2) Using Sensor Swabs and Eclipse Fluid

Sensor swabs are specially designed cleaning pads for camera sensors. Used with a few drops of Eclipse cleaning fluid they will wipe you sensor clean. Think of it as a tiny Swiffer for your sensor. You can get the swabs in exactly the right size for your sensor, so one swipe in each direction could be all you need.

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The procedure is easy. You’ll simply put 2 drops of the fluid on a pad, and then gently wide the swab across your sensor ONCE, ONE WAY. Then change directions and swipe the other way. Throw that swab away. If you need to repeat the process, use a new swab.

Step 3) Power up, Mirror Up

To use the swabs you’ll need to keep your mirror up to give you access to your sensor. This is the tricky part – you don’t want your mirror to come down while the swab is still inside your camera.

If you don’t have a setting for Lock Mirror Up for Cleaning, make sure your battery is fully charged, and set your camera exposure on Bulb. The Bulb setting will allow you to keep the mirror up until you release the shutter (use a locking shutter release to hold it not your finger). This way you can access the sensor, and do the quick sensor two-step, swipe left, swipe right.

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Check your results: take another shot at the same stopped down aperture and take a look at the difference.

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Image of sensor dust after using Sensor Swabs. The main culprits are gone.

There are still three spots but all the big blobs, and large dust particles are gone. Depending on your preferences, you may be happy with this knowing that it’s a few easy clicks of the clone tool to remove these small faint marks. Or you may want to give the sensor another round of swabbing. Either way the sensor is super clean compared to the initial test image.

Cleaning your sensor is not difficult, you do need to be careful but it’s very worth the effort. Your photographs will love you for it.

I’d love to see your sensor dust horror stories – post your before and after cleaning shots here.

Editor’s note of warning: if you are terrified of damaging your sensor (it is delicate) you can usually find a local camera store that offers this service. You will pay a lot more for it than doing it yourself, but if they damage it, they have to replace it for you. The camera that is! If you damage your sensor there is no going back. So do follow the directions exactly, and do be cautious. Perform this procedure in as dust-free, windless room as possible. And remember to NEVER, EVER touch your sensor with your fingers. The oil from your fingers will do more damage and is much harder to remove (i.e. you’ll likely be sending it to the manufacturer to get that off).

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Alex Morrison is a professional fine art and nature photographer, accredited by The Professional Photographers of Canada. She was the Canadian Photographic Artist of the Year in 2009. She teaches photography, runs workshops and online classes on fine art and nature photography, as well as infrared and iphone photography. Her educational website with photography tips is at nature-photography-central.com. View her art photography portfolio here. Alex has a coupon code for her Infrared Post Processing e-book, use DPSTKS to save $12.00.

  • Martin

    How much pressure is required when you swipe the swab? Barely any? Lots? Somewhere in between?

  • try barely any first and see what you get – if you have smudges it may require a slightly firmer touch

  • Kishan

    Thanks Alex for your tips at the right time 🙂

    I just returned from a trip and when I was looking at my pics, I did indeed see a lot of black spots which spoilt many of my pictures (using a lot of clone tool). But your advice is timely. I will buy the cleaning kit right away and will post my results later !!

    Thank you..

  • Kristian

    And be asured: You are not really cleaning the sensor as it is hidden beneath a thick layer of glass filters (IR, UV, maybe AA…) These are a, depending on model and brand, a few milimeters thick. If you are at least a bit careful, you cannot break them. Only thing to worry about is scratches. Or more dirt, really.

  • Juha Ylitalo

    These instructions worked well with cameras, where sensor is firmly attached to the body. If your using camera, where image stabilitation is built into the sensor (for example Olympus OM-D/PEN cameras), you might want to be more cautious.

  • Happy to share my Sensor and Viewfinder cleaning guides for Canon bodies using my EOS 5D Mark II as an example:

    http://shimworld.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/dslr-focus-screen-and-sensor-cleaning/
    http://shimworld.wordpress.com/2009/08/24/cleaning-the-5d-mk-ii-viewfinder/

  • Aaron Guzman

    I love to use my filtered air blower. The “Hepa Jet II” to blow dust off my sensor. I’ve had great results with that. Well worth the $25 dollars.

    http://www.kohglobal.com/JetAir.html

  • NikonUser

    I was very nervous initially when I took a picture of a white piece of paper at f22 and noticed about 4 or five gray spots on the sensor. I tried the auto clean feature while putting the camera on a hard surface to maximize the effect. This did not do anything. So, I used my Giotto blower…the bigger one and tried blowing it away a half a dozen times. Again, no difference. Then I got the Eclipse cleaner and swabs for the sensor size on my D7100. I made sure my battery was fully charged as my camera will not even let me do the cleaning function until the camera is at least half charged. I used a headlamp strapped to my forehead so I could see exactly what I was doing and put two drops on the swab end, crossed my fingers and swept at a slight angle one way and then the other way, also at a slight angle. Checked the sensor again and it was perfectly clean! The entire process took less than 2 minutes and it cost about $25. I still have 3 more swabs and a small bottle of fluid left. But, even if I did not, it would still be worth it compared to having it professionally cleaned. It really is very simple if you follow the directions exactly and have a reasonably steady hand. With the plastic swabs you really can’t go wrong putting to much or too little pressure. U-tube has a few videos that show this. Good luck to all.

  • Mark

    Hi Guys,
    how about cleaning a dirt which is inside your viewfinder?
    any advise?

  • you mean on the eye piece on the back of the camera? Try a cotton swab like you’d use in your ear to remove water – just be gentle

    Inside the camera that’s on your mirror- that’s a factory job I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole.

  • CarolW

    I have this problem with my Canon right now – looks like it’s back to the shop 🙁

  • thenaturephotog

    NikonUser, thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve been cleaning my sensors this way ever since i got my Nikon D70 at least 10 years ago. It’s never failed. Sometimes I have to make a few passes. If the sensor is really dirty one pass won’t do it.

  • thenaturephotog

    You’re so right Kristian, they tougher than the popular myth about sensor damage would have us believe. In Japan Nikon sells sensor cleaning kits and provides videos on how to do the job. Here it seems sensor cleaning is destined to remain a bit of a mystery!

  • LoriB

    A friend who is an experienced photographer and cleans all her won equipment cleaned my sensor before I left on my trip. I didn’t see the spots until i shot the blue sky. How do clone this much out. So sad.

  • The mirror is dirty? Or inside the eye piece?

    If the mirror has dust you can try using a plain air puffer (NOT canned that’s chemicals!) to blow it out gently. It really won’t affect your images though until it gets on the sensor which it could to eventually. So it’s your call.

  • Stoffers

    I have a Canon 70D and every time I turn it on and off it claims to clean the sensor, is this just some time wasting terribleness or does it actually clean the sensor? I’m assuming it mostly just vibrates after reading this article.

  • My local camera shop offers sensor cleaning for $50 I believe. Seems like inexpensive “insurance” considering if they screw it up I get a whole new camera worth $3,500. I guess the upside to cleaning your own sensor is convenience? Any other compelling reasons to risk it yourself?

    http://www.camerastupid.com

  • canon addicted

    Yeah in the end i always use my blower at least once every month for my 70D

  • Josie Longo

    I paid $60 to my local camera shop to do this. I was told never to try cleaning the sensor myself. But, now I can do it myself. Thanks!

  • Good information,this helped me to clean my camera sensor

  • Michael

    Do not be afraid to clean your sensor! If you use the proper tools and follow the instruction, it’s not really that easy to damage the sensor. From my first experience I used SensorSweep brush first and the result was disappointed. DO NOT BUY AND USE SENSORSWEEP BRUSH! It smeared my sensor and made the problem worse. So I use 14 mm SensorSwipe (I have Canon ASP-C sensor) and couple drops of Eclipse solution, however, I read that you should swipe in one direction only and do not go back to opposite direction. Next instead putting your lens back and going outside to shoot blue sky with f/16 or f/22 then downloading your images on your computer to check if you still have some spots left, invest into Delkin Device Sensor Scope having Focused Light Technology. It perfectly fits into your lens opening and gives you 5x magnification of your sensor surface so you can clearly see all even very little spots on the sensor. That makes the whole job much easier and faster.
    So far I cleaned my sensor about 6 months ago and still there are no visible spots on it but if I change my lenses, I usually do that inside and with my camera body lens opening facing down plus I use my Rocket GIOTTO blower just before I install a new lens.

  • Michael_Delman

    If we’re looking for debris on the sensor, not anything in front of the sensor, why does it matter what aperture is used? If anything, it seems like using a small aperture would result in being able to see more debris that’s in or in front of the lens, which might obscure debris on the sensor itself. In fact, wouldn’t it be better to take the test shot with no lens on the camera?

  • Peter Horn

    Every year, at Texas School (of Professional Photography), I have Scott, from http://www.viewfindermasks.com perform my cleanings. Well worth the money to have someone annually do it right. Yes, I have cleaned it myself, and will in a pinch. But I still trust Scott every year.

  • Eufgaihni

    A quick tip. They say use Bulb mode to lock up you mirror then clean it…not recommended as the camera is still on and emitting an electrostatic discharge, just making the dust cling back once dislodged. Make sure your battery is fully charged and use the clean sensor function in the menu as this locks the mirror up and disables the sensor. Just my 2 cents worth.

  • Govind AR

    how to clean manual 1100d

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