How to Avoid a Dirty DSLR Image Sensor

How to Avoid a Dirty DSLR Image Sensor

If you’ve got a DSLR you’ve probably had the experience of uploading your photos onto your computer after a long day of photography – only to find that there are dark ‘spots’ and ‘blotches’ on your pictures.

These spots and blotches appear on all your shots in exactly the same position. They might be less noticeable on backgrounds with lots of detail (and more noticeable on plain backgrounds (like blue skies – especially when you have a small aperture) – but they’re there in all your shots (the picture to the left is one of the worst examples I’ve seen – and was the result of poor image sensor cleaning technique).

The reason for these marks is that you’ve almost certainly got dust on your camera’s image sensor.

Cameras are being developed that combat this problem (for example the Canon EOS 400D/Revel Xti and others) but until we all go out and upgrade our DSLR we’re all susceptible to it.

Most DSLR owners do eventually get some on your sensor (unless you never change your lens) but here are some tips for decreasing the likelihood of it:

  • Avoid changing lenses in risky environments (where there is wind, water, dust etc) – pick a lens and try to stick with it.
  • Turn camera off before changing lenses. On some cameras the sensor has an electric charge that will actually attract dust to it like a magnet.
  • Hold camera upside down (with the opening facing down) when changing lenses – it’s impossible for dust to fall into your camera if it’s upside down (unless there is wind that blows it up into it).
  • Have your lens ready when you’re changing lenses (be prepared and have your new lens ready to attach so that your camera is open for as short a time as possible).
  • Check your lenses for dust before attaching them – have a blower that you can get any specs off your lens with.
  • Clean your image sensor with care. There’s a lot of debate about whether to do it yourself or whether to get your sensor professionally cleaned (see below for of some of the DIY approaches to cleaning sensors) If you do tackle it yourself do so with extreme care – let the picture above be motivation to get it right!

To test if your image sensor is dirty photograph a white wall with a small aperture (large number) and you should see it in the images that result if you have any.

See some of the techniques for cleaning dirty and dusty image sensors below:

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Elaine January 29, 2013 03:57 am

    My D3s is like a dust magnet. So this article is really helpful! Thanks for this! Sorry if this is a double post

  • Pete December 17, 2012 11:40 pm

    Best bet !! a Olympus DSLR they have the BEST sensor cleaner on the market and have had for years. I should know I'm a Rally Shooter !!
    One other thing, Nikon and Canon ALWAYS copy Olympus and their ideas !! ;-)

  • Wedding Photographer Colchester March 3, 2012 11:51 pm

    Having had dust on my sensor I know what a real pain it can. Much better to avoid it in the first place than to have to deal with it in Photoshop.

  • Dave C January 25, 2012 04:15 am

    Will there always be visible spots when shooting at f/22? I have a brand new D700, shot it at f/22 to get the sun flare and there are dust spots in the clear blue sky. Could it be a lens issue as well or does it mean it is the sensor for sure?

  • Charlotte Wedding Photographer September 26, 2011 06:29 am

    Great tips, I try to shoot with multiple cameras so I don’t have to change lenses at weddings. After shooting a wedding there is nothing more painful than deleting a photo because the sensor is dirty and it ruins the shot.

  • Paul December 30, 2010 11:50 pm

    Not to over state the obvious, I now keep all my lenses, lens caps, macro extensions clean using canned air, (be careful not to freeze them when using the air), and in fresh static free plastic bags which I switch out lenses with when changing. The lens is either in the bag or on the camera at all times. I have found this significantly reduces the frequency that I have to clean the sensor.

  • boyd April 19, 2010 09:36 am

    I personally don't think sensors are as fragile as we think they are. Granted its in the camera companies interest to make them fragile so we have to buy a new camera more often. None the less I've cleaned my sensor with less than optimal equipment and I haven't noticed any damage to the sensor.

  • Ryan Parent - Ottawa Wedding Photographers January 25, 2010 04:17 am

    I have always been terrified to touch my sensor. Im not sure why. It feels like an area Im not qualified to touch. I haven't had to clean one yet. For now I just use a blower to blow dust away. It works great for light dust.

  • Karen Stuebing January 18, 2010 09:33 pm

    I am not convinced that the automatic sensor cleaners work. I have a "sensor shake" on power up on my K10D and I have sensor dust. I am extremely careful when changing lenses and don't do it very much. So now I will have to learn how to clean the sensor. Good tips. Now need to check out the links on cleaning.

  • AlienBee4Ever January 3, 2010 01:55 pm

    I'm one of those who never change the lens. I rather have 1 body for 1 lens. If i need a super zoom i will try to get a dedicated body for that zoom.

    I know some people find this very silly to have a DSLR and not changing lens. But who are they to say that DSLR are meant for lens changes. If you are very happy with the lens you have and you can do everything with that lens, there is no need to switch lens unless you need a fisheye or a super zoom. (which i never need) for the type of photography that i do.

    By changing lens, i once damaged the viewfield glass in a 5D Mark II which cost me 150.00 to repair. Cleaning the sensor is easy, but cleaning the viewfield glass can be a pain if you don't have the propar environment and equipments.

    Sometime dust get inside the viewfield section. It does not affect the picture but its damn annoying to look at. By not changing the lens, you will hardly get dust anymore and hardly need to clean anything.

    Also the good thing about dedicated lens for dedicated body is that you can quickly switch camera when time is a factor. Having multiple camera with different lens around your neck is very useful for wedding shooting where you do not have to the time to play around the settings...

    Ofcourse, this is if money isn't an issue.

    On my Nikon D300s i never changed its lens (17-55) f2.8 DX. And nearly 12000 shots later there is absolutly no dust inside.

  • Alex - Suffolk Wedding Photographer November 6, 2009 11:07 pm

    Some good tips there - just also be aware that there isn't too much need to be totally anal about having a 100% spot free sensor.

    If you check your sensor at f22 and you see a few bunnies - don't sweat too much, as you wont see them at wider apertures (unless you routinely shoot at f16/f22).

    Unless they are seriously effecting your images (say a speck gets stuck somewhere where it's often noticed - I shoot most things portraiture and so faces occupy certain parts of my sensor regularly), I'd say leave well alone and have it cleaned properly when you get your cameras serviced every year.

    Newer cameras of course have 'self cleaning' and the like to lessen the effects of dust.

  • denzil August 22, 2009 07:32 am

    have you guys not tried using "dust delete data"? refer to your canon book that came with the camera. Download your shots to your computer using the canon software, and any dust spots will not show, need to update dust delete data regulary, in case you have picked up any more,


  • Lew August 21, 2009 11:17 pm

    My 5D II sensor definitely stays cleaner than my 30D's. I used to clean the 30D sensor at least once a month or so. I haven't had to clean the sensor in my 5D II since I purchased it about 4 months ago. My preferred method of cleaning was to blow compressed air across a sensor cleaning brush and then brush the sensor gently which attracts any dust that has landed on the sensor.

  • Oscar August 13, 2009 08:49 am

    Thanks Arron. I actually found out that I live a few miles away from a Canon facility. I took it in to see how much they'd charge to do the job. She said le tme ask a technician, took it in the back and came back with it. Said "its done" have a nice day.

    I was excited, they did it in 3 minutes for free and no problem.

    A cloth would not fit up there at all and I don't feel like I should be touching the mirror or the other parts. I'm not sure about using "little extra force" the parts in there seem to vie in really easy to even the slightest pressure. I don't want to go messing with that.

    Thanks for answering though.

  • Arron Lilley August 13, 2009 01:26 am

    Oscar.... the best way i found to clean that area is to use a lint free cloth and very gently run it over the area. because the image senser is not affected feel free to use a little extra force! Your photos, as you know , will remain perfect.. This is also the same for the mirror! give it a try!.

  • SarahJ July 31, 2008 05:01 am

    I don't have a DSLR, but a Sony Cybershot DSC-P200. I've had it about 3 years, and for the past year or so, I sometimes get black blobs on the images, especially in very sunny conditions.
    I'm about to upgrade anyway, but thought I might pass this one on to my nephew, so if anyone has any ideas what is causing this, and how to fix it... I'd be very grateful!

  • Oscar March 7, 2008 05:12 am

    Hello, I have a similar problem but I'm not sure how to address it. During a recent trip to WRC in Mexico, I picked up some dust. I can only see it when I look through the viewfinder but it is very annoying. I followed all the tips as close as possible, but it was a pretty dusty environment and I don't have the $ to purchase another camera just to not have to switch lenses.

    I can't find a lot of information on how to get that cleaned. I have a rebel xti. If you remove the lens, you see the mirror and directly above it is a white piece that shows the focus points... the dust is settled on top of this so no amount of air will move them out of the way. Any suggestions? Again, the dust does not ever show up on the pictures, I see it only through the viewfinder and so its not a huge problem as much as it is an annoyance.

  • LK March 1, 2008 01:42 pm

    It's a rebel, not revel. Just pointing it out. Good tut and tips. I am going to share this with my old photography prof.

  • Dmitri August 23, 2007 04:28 am

    A lot of people are afraid to clean their sensor. I'be been cleaning my own sensor since the first dslr I bought. There's no danger if you are careful. It's very easy to get dust inside nowdays. Thankfully Canonrecently acknowledged the problem and start releasing cameras with the auto clean technology. Stores in Canada charger $100+ to clean your sensor. Even more if you send it to the manufacturer+ weeks of wait time

  • Fran November 26, 2006 11:28 pm

    Thank You I'm very new to all digital and computer'stuff' Love it all and am learning, slowly but surely. Especially with articles and sites such as this. Invaluable, thank you again. I even learned how to tag this with in deeping it in my site.

  • Antoine Khater November 7, 2006 08:28 am

    basic tips almost intuitive still good to have them all in one place for the beginners.

  • Rich Milazzo November 4, 2006 01:39 am

    The olympus e500 has a automatic sensor cleaner every time you turn it on.

  • Darren November 3, 2006 03:39 pm

    check out this post Dennis

  • Dennis Kelley November 3, 2006 03:00 pm

    Hi, I always enjoy the tips. I have several Konica T3's from many years ago. Some had Fast lenses f1.4 and another f1.8. It seemed easier to shoot in low light because of very fast film speeds and it was more forgiving.

    I have learned with digital to keep shooting because there are many shots that you may catch a great shot of someone who is not the focus of the show but who may be somewhat lost in the background too.

    My question is: With digital, why is shooting in RAW better?

    Thanks, Dennis