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A long time ago when I started my first steps into the photography world, a good friend of mine that worked many years as a photojournalist, told me:
“Treat your camera like a soldier treats his gun, keep it clean and ready to fire!”
I never forgot that advice from him, and I kept a Pentax K1000, my very first camera, in pristine condition to this day. Nowadays things are a bit different, and electronic digital equipment is not really built to last like in the good old days of mechanical equipment.
Modern cameras and lenses are built with a lot of sensitive electronic components, and are much more difficult to maintain. Most of the equipment I use is exposed to the elements, and to a lot of abuse during my shooting sessions, and to me it is fundamental to sometimes take a little bit of time off and make sure everything is clean, working properly, and ready to fire.
In this article I will guide you through the steps I usually take cleaning my photo equipment.
Like everything in life, everyone has their own method of doing things. The way I do this process might not be perfect, but it is the best method I have used so far, with all the tips and tricks I have been collecting along the years.
To start, I always try to be in a dust free environment, and have an anti-static microfiber cloth under the equipment I am cleaning. This is really important because your equipment is going to grab all the dust that is in the air like a magnet every time you try to clean it.
The way I do it is always to go from the outside to the inside, meaning I always clean the outer part of the lenses before I clean the glass, and I always clean the outside of the camera body before I clean the sensor. This way I gradually eliminate the dust that is stuck to the equipment.
Starting with the lenses, I used to just clean the outside of the lens with a microfiber cloth, and use a blower to keep the dust away. But a few years ago I was introduced to a new product from Japan that was the answer to all the germophobes that were really concerned with all the germs computer keyboards collect.
This cleaning compound is like a sticky jelly, with anti-bacterial properties that can be used on everything you want to keep clean and germ free.
I use it on the outside of my lenses and camera body, always with the caps on, because it is not supposed to be used on glass.
This product was expensive, and really hard to find when I first bought it, but nowadays it seems to be much cheaper and available in most stores online.
I find it really useful to clean the camera body in the buttons areas, where it collects a lot of dust that is difficult to clean.
Dust specs are really difficult to keep away from your lenses, and you should never try to wipe the glass off with a cloth like most people do. Wiping off dust might result in scratching your lens. The correct process should always be to blow it off first. You can use a blower or a compressed air can, and this way you remove the dust but don’t touch the glass.
Now the dust is gone it is time to clean eventual smudges or fingerprints you might have on the glass. My favorite tool for this process is the Lens Pen. It has a tip with a soft compound that is made to safely wipe the glass, without damaging it.
After cleaning with the soft tip, you may use the anti-static brush on the other side of the pen to get rid of any dust that is still around.
I usually don’t use any lens cleaning fluid unless it’s really needed. Those kinds of chemicals are never good for your lens coating, but if your lens has grease smudges, then cleaning fluid and a soft cloth might be the only solution.
Repeat that process on the glass on the other side of your lens, and while you’re at it it’s also a good idea to check the electrical contacts of your lens (metal parts on the back). Dirty or oxidized contacts are most often responsible for camera malfunctions or errors, so I always clean them off with a soft cloth.
In extreme situations I have heard of people cleaning these contacts with a rubber or really fine sand paper, but I’ve never had to do anything like that.
Dirty lens caps are also something to keep in mind to clean, as they always end up in your pocket or at the bottom of your camera bag while you’re photographing, so they collect a lot of dust. It doesn’t make sense to have your lens all cleaned up, then cover it with a dirty cap, the same applies to the body caps.
Replacing your caps with new ones from time to time might be a good idea, as they are not that expensive and give your equipment a newer look.
After cleaning the outside with the anti-bacterial jelly compound, I usually clean the viewfinder. That is a difficult operation as it is a small, deep, and difficult to reach area. My trick for it is Q-Tips, but not the regular ones. I use some special ones made for babies that have a smaller pointy tip, and are made from a softer cotton, which allows a deeper and more efficient cleaning.
Next I clean the LCD screen glass with a little drop of glass cleaner and a paper tissue. This removes all the grease that the LCD screen gets from being stuck to my face all the time.
As tempting as it might be I never try to clean the mirror of the camera. It usually seems to do more harm than good, and it usually sends more dust to the inside of the camera chamber, making it land on the sensor sooner or later.
We finish with the most complicated part of the whole process that is the sensor cleaning.
Camera makers always advise that this process should only be done in the brand’s technical assistance, by a trained technician, so if you are not comfortable with doing this yourself, please don’t try it.
I remember I was a bit scared the first time I tried to clean the sensor myself. But, the fact is that I have done it lots of times, with different cameras over the years, and it always worked out fine. You just have to be careful and do things slowly and steadily.
This is a totally optional step, but I usually use a sensor loupe to check the sensor before I clean it. It is a really nice device that illuminates and magnifies the inside of your camera, making it possible to see with good precision any dust that is on your sensor.
Now for the cleaning part itself, there are many different systems and brands out there for sensor cleaning. I have tried a few and my favorite is the Vswab by Visible Dust which consists of one time use soft-edge swabs, and a sensor cleaning fluid that you use to clean the sensor from any smudges or dust specs. There are specific swabs for different size sensors, so be sure to buy the correct one for your camera.
Just get the swab a little wet with the cleaning fluid (a drop or two is all you need) then activate the mirror lockup on your camera (or use the sensor clean setting – check your camera’s user manual if you aren’t sure how to lock it up for cleaning). Wipe your sensor from left to right, just one time, touching it but trying not to apply too much pressure.
Most of the times it works at first, but I always check it again with the sensor loupe after cleaning, and if needed I swab a second time.
Note: Keep it mind that these swabs can only be used one time, so if you go for a second clean use a new swab.
This allows the sensor to be clean all the time, avoiding spots on your images, caused by dust specs the get inside your camera every time you change your lenses.
These simple maintenance steps gives me confidence that my equipment is in top shape, and that I can be sure that it is going to work fine next time I pick it up.
Remember, keep it clean and ready to fire!