Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

The answer to cleaning your digital sensor

If you shoot digital SLRs, chances are you're troubled by dust specks on your files. It is almost an inevitable by-product. Dust may be in the camera chamber, in the back of the lens, or it may simply settle from the air, to be circulated when the D-SLR's mirror flips up and to settle, eventually, on the sensor. Camera manufacturers almost always (to the best of my knowledge it is 'always') recommend returning the camera to the factory for cleaning. Recently I heard a story from a camera store where a 10D camera was sent in to Canon for cleaning, and the store was charged $150! True story -- right from the owner.

Regardless, even if the service was free (and it may be for the first service call), sending in a camera represents complete down-time for that camera. If you don't have a spare 1Ds Mark II (an $8,000 camera that everyone keeps two of), you're out of luck until the camera is returned. Clearly this isn't the solution.

There is a great deal of fear associated with cleaning a sensor, for if the sensor is scratched the camera may be 'totaled,' or at least may warrant an extremely costly sensor replacement. Consequently, many photographers avoid cleaning, and resort to using Photoshop to clean up spots. Over time, as you can imagine, dust will only build up until those photographers are forced to send their camera in for a factory cleaning.

I've never done so. I've cleaned my own sensors, and have always done so nervously. I've used Eciplse Solution and Sensor Swabs, and the Specgrabber, and between the two I've managed to clean my sensors. However, Sensor Swabs cost about $40 or more, and I've often had to use four or five swabs before the cleaning process was finished. Granted, that $20 in material is cheaper and more efficient than sending a camera in, but still ... at $20 a pop you think twice about cleaning a sensor frequently!

One of my digital instructors, Rick Holt, just introduced me to what is undoubtably the ultimate sensor cleaning system. Called 'visibledust,' the cleaning involves brushing off the sensor with a microfine brush that is primed with canned air or C02 that acts as an attractant for particles. I tried it out, and had extremely satisfying results with 4 of my 5 cameras. One digital camera had a mark -- a line -- that seemed to be stuck on despite the visibledust treatment. I then tried wiping it off with a Sensor Swab. Didn't work. Tried touching the speck with the Specgrabber amd had no luck -- in fact, I ended up getting more dirt on the sensor! Tried the Swab again without success. Finally, tried the Visibledust brush again, brushing a bit more enthusiastically, and wham-o, the speck was gone!

Rick used his brushes daily while on a recent trip to India and changed his lenses several times a day without worry, knowing that he'd have a clean sensor ready the next morning. That is so refreshing; in the past I've often kept a 1.4X attached to my Mark II so that the body was protected, and that was a real pain in the butt. I won't be doing that any more.

I received my visible dust package too late to include photographs of the procedure, but I'll do an update via a future Tip of the Month column where I'll illustrate this. I'm not suggesting you throw out your Sensor Swabs -- sometimes a speck may need a liquid solution to help dislodge it, and the Sensor Swabs may do this. However, Visibledust also sells a liquid product with their sensor cleaning kit, as well as a camera chamber cleaning kit, so I doubt if I'll ever be ordering more Sensor Swabs.

Rather than say more, just check out their website where there are several tutorials and plenty of illustrations, as well as information about ordering. They work, try them!

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