Cleaning your digital-camera sensor

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I recently found myself on board a cruise ship packed not only with Mac experts but also digital-camera gurus as well. With so many of the brightest brains in the business on board for the MacMania/Photoshop Fling cruise —and with nowhere but the Pacific Ocean for them to flee—I took the opportunity to confide my dirty little secret about my digital SLR camera: I had gunk on my sensor, and I didn’t have a clue how to safely remove it.

Should you be out of the know, it’s like this: When you switch lenses on your SLR, it’s possible for the camera to collect small specks of dust on the sensor—the light-sensitive silicon chip that samples incoming light. Even without changing lenses, you can collect dust when shooting in dry, dusty environments. These bits of dust manifest themselves as tiny (and sometimes, not-so-tiny) spots on your pictures. I wanted those spots gone without having to edit them out in Photoshop or iPhoto —but I also wanted to know the safest way to do it.

Boy, was I surprised by the conflicting—and, often emotional—responses I got.

Two views on sensor cleaning

I first heard from the Don’t Even Think of Doing This Yourself camp. Representatives of this group state that attempting to clean a sensor voids the warranty on some cameras and that the chance you take in doing it yourself is far outweighed by what you risk—completely destroying the camera. Cited risks are blowers that put more gunk on a sensor than they remove, damage from the use of compressed air, damage due to a shutter suddenly snapping closed because a camera's battery dies mid-cleaning, and a scratched sensor (actually, its protective covering). These folks contend that Taking It To The Shop is the wisest course.

Then there are the What, You’ve Successfully Taken Apart an iPod? Just Be Careful and You Can Do This Too folks. This group understands that my Nikon D70 is going to earn its fair share of sensor dust, and taking it to the shop time and again will eventually become an unreasonably expensive proposition. (Handing your camera over for cleaning services can cost $30 to $40, according to the estimates I’ve gotten. And that can add up over time.) With the right tools and techniques (and a measure of care), these people contend, I can do it myself.

Oh, and to be fair, there’s my local camera guy who claimed he could put things right with the judicious use of a can of compressed air and a couple of Q-Tips. Representatives from both of the aforementioned groups suggested I put as much distance between myself and the camera guy as humanly possible.

The tools for the job

Because I trusted the judgment of the Do It Yourself folks I spoke with (and because I’m a cheapskate), I opted to take a chance and clean the sensor myself. I consulted with Macworld contributor and digital photo god Ben Long, who suggested I visit VisibleDust —one of the leading suppliers of camera cleaning tools—for the items I’d need.

What follows is a list of the tools I bought and the steps I followed to clean a digital SLR. None of the instructions below are applicable to point-and-shoot cameras since those devices are essentially sealed, making it almost impossible for dust to find its way to the sensor.

Econo 1.6x Complete cleaning kit

Not knowing what I’d be up against, I opted for the Econo 1.6x Complete cleaning kit. It’s not cheap at $286.25 Canadian (around $250 in U.S. dollars, depending on the exchange rate), but if it gives me fewer than a dozen cleanings, it’s paid for itself in what a shop would charge me. The kit includes specialized sensor cleaning brushes, sensor stain removal solution, sensor brush wash, a brush-cleaning device that rapidly spins the brush and helps eliminate dust on the brush, special sensor and chamber cleaning swabs (with solution), and a large-bulb blower for safely blowing dust off the sensor.

I began by putting the chamber cleaning portion of my kit to good use. After all, little good it would do me to finally expose the sensor only to have crud from the chamber rain down on it. Following along with the video tutorial on Visible Dust’s site, I removed the camera’s lens and swabbed out the inside of the D70’s chamber with one of the foam-tipped swabs dipped in the company’s Chamber Clean solution.

Cleaning the camera’s chamber

Nikon tells you precious little about the ways and means of cleaning a D70’s sensor so it was off to purchase Thom Hogan’s $34.90 Complete Guide to the Nikon D70 & D70s. I won’t give away the plot of Thom’s PDF guide other than to say that he provides more details and recommendations on how to go about cleaning the sensor than does the Nikon manual that comes with your D70 purchase.

Let’s get clean

More-cautious experts will tell you that you must plug your camera into an AC adapter when cleaning the sensor. This is good advice as it’s a Very Bad Thing when you’ve got the tip of a blower inside your camera and the mirror snaps closed because the camera’s run out of power. Since I don’t have an AC adapter, I charged the camera’s battery fully and worked as quickly as safety would allow.

Blasting away dust with a blower

Step 1 was to use the blower to blast the dust from the sensor. For this sort of work you want a blower with a big bulb that can deliver a good blast. You do not, however, want a blower with a brush attached. The brush can collect dust of its own and scratch the sensor cover if it comes in contact with the sensor.

Compressed air is not a good idea because it contains a propellant. If you accidentally turn the can upside down, you’ve just doused your sensor with that propellant (not good).

After a few good blasts from the blower, I put the camera back together, took it outside, and snapped a photo of a white piece of paper. I loaded the resulting image into iPhoto and adjusted the exposure and contrast levels so I could see any specks. The largest speck was gone, but a few smaller specks remained. Subsequent blasts with the blower didn’t remove them.

sensor brush and spinner

Step 2 was to move to VisibleDust’s Sensor Brush 16. This specially designed brush is safe to use on sensors. Following the online instructions, I wiped it once across the sensor, mounted it on VisibleDust’s spinning device (pictured above), spun it around several times to remove any particles on the brush, and repeated the process until I’d completely brushed the sensor.

Sensor Brush 16 in use

I again reassembled the camera, took the white shot, and examined the results. Most of the specks were now gone, but a couple remained. Going in one last time, I gave the sensor a couple of good blasts with the blower, which removed the remaining spots.

The verdict

I’m living proof that Joe Sixpack (albeit a careful Joe Sixpack with good tools) can take on the cleaning of a not-inexpensive digital camera’s sensor. I expect to read at least a couple of strongly-worded comments in the forum link below suggesting that I was foolish to attempt it and, perhaps, even more foolish to hint that others take my success as their guide. I urge you to read those comments and carefully consider any warnings they might contain.

I was willing to risk my camera in what might have been a perilous experiment. As it turns out, both my camera and I got out clean. Only you can decide if you’re willing to balance the cost of a new camera against the hope of speck-free images.

[ When not risking the health and safety of his beloved D70, Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld and Playlist. ]

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