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How to Clean Your Camera Sensor in 3 Easy Steps

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).

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Alex Morrison
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.