Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sensor Cleaning - I don't know why I resisted!!

For those who own interchangeable lens digital cameras, the time eventually comes when you notice too many "dust bunnies" or other various specs of dust, lint or "string" on your images at smaller apertures than can be fixed by a clone or healing tool in Photoshop.

I, like many, used to fear cleaning my own sensor.  I'd paid to have others do it.  Who wants to bungle up their thousand dollar camera just trying to clean it.  Let the professionals do it, right?

Well, that all changed for me when I noticed that my Nikon D300 was showing signs of needing a sensor cleaning.  The camera was running fine otherwise, not ready for a CLA(clean, lube, adjust) that is is done from time to time.  Watching some videos on KelbyOne a few weeks ago, I ran across RC Conception doing a segment on the Visible Dust and Copper Hill Images sensor cleaning kits.  He compared the 2 kits, but the video was about the proper way of cleaning the mirror chamber as well as the sensor itself.

After watching and pondering, doing some more research on both systems - reading reviews from others on each as well as reading information on the 2 companies websites, I settled on getting a Copper Hill Images system.

You can buy individual pieces of the system or there are a series of kits on the website.  They have an all inclusive kit, which I passed on because there were some pieces that I just did not think I needed.  Instead, I got 2 smaller kits, a wet clean kit and a dry clean kit.

Whenever buying a cleaning solution, keep in mind the sensor size you are working with.  Some items are size specific.  The D300 requires a 14mm size swab set, so I got those first.  The Copper Hill Images site has a page that will let you know what sizes you'll need based on the camera you have.

Before beginning to clean your camera sensor, make sure to read the included instructions and go to the Copper Hill Images website and review the information there as well.  There are a lot of important points that you'll want to know before starting.

The wet kit came with a bottle of Eclipse, which is the cleaning solution.  a 14mm swab, a package of full size pec-pads as well as a package of pre-cut pads and stickers to fasten the swab.  The pads are special made material to prevent sensor damage from scratching.  If you have never cleaned your sensor yourself or ever before, the wet cleaning is a good place to start.

The dry kit includes a specially made bristle brush, a Giottos Rocket Blower, and some vellum paper.  The rocket blower can be used to blow dust directly off the sensor as well as charge the bristle brush.  Charging the brush will help draw dust and debris to the bristles.  The vellum paper is also used to charge the brush bristles.

What I did to clean the D300.

First, I wanted to know just how bad the sensor dust was.   I pointed the camera to a clean wall, put on my 50mm f/1.8D lens, set the aperture to f/22.  The image revealed the extent of the dust on the sensor.

Before getting to the sensor, we need to clean the mirror and exposed chamber.  I removed the lens and used the rocket blower to get the lint and dust from the mirror.  I held the camera with the opening pointing down, so that the dust that is moved by the blower would fall down and out of the camera.  I replaced the lens to not allow any dust in the air to get back onto the mirror.

Now it is time to move to the sensor.  In the D300, there is a menu option to lock up the mirror for cleaning.  I followed the instructions for locking up the mirror, then removed the lens.  Now, looking into the camera, you can see the sensor.  I placed the lens back onto the camera until I got the wet swab ready.

Follow the instructions in the kit for attaching a pad to the swab.  The swab, when bought new comes with a pad already attached to the swab.

The Eclipse solution comes out of the bottle very fast and you do not need to squeeze the bottle at all.  I put one drop of solution on one side of the swab, and one drop on the other side.  Wait 20-30 seconds to allow the solution to wick into the pad and distribute evenly.

Now, is the moment of truth.  Be careful to not touch anything but the sensor with the swab.  The side walls of the sensor housing may have lubricants/oils on it and you don't want that on your sensor.  It is difficult to clean off.
In one motion, swipe the sensor from one side to the other, then drop down and swipe back.(A more detailed set of instructions with pictures come with your kit.  It will make more sense to you.)

Remember to only use one side for one swipe.  Don't reswipe with the same side of the swab.  If you do, it will deposit the dirt you just removed to a different place on the sensor.

If you have some stubborn spots, you may need to repeat this swabbing process - but always remember to use a clean swab every time.  NEVER REUSE A DIRTY SWAB.

A wet cleaning was all I needed to do to get 90% of the dust off the sensor.  I took another test shot, and I saw just a few small bits at the bottom left of the image.  I locked up the mirror again and used the rocket blower.  I finally got a clean image from the sensor.  All dust and debris GONE!!

The dry kit is used in a similar way, except, no cleaning fluid is required.  You simply apply a static charge to the bristle brush using the rocket blower and/or the vellum paper, then swipe the sensor with the same motion s you would the swab.  The brush is specifically sized as to be the exact size of the sensor, so swiping in one direction covers the whole area.

Cleaning your sensors should not be intimidating, and after doing it once, I cannot believe I have not done it myself sooner.  I'll be sure to get the appropriate kit for my full frame cameras as well.  So long as you don't muscle the process and follow the instructions, you should have no problems at all.  Plus, with just 2 cleanings, the cleaning systems will pay for themselves when you compare the price of a "professional" cleaning.  Plus, there is no risk of shipping the camera somewhere or losing time with the gear as this literally takes minutes to complete.


  1. I'm so scared to tackle image sensor cleaning by myself! I've never taken parts of my camera apart. Is it easy to forget how it all goes back together, or are the parts pretty self-explanatory? Like you said, I'm more inclined to pay someone to do the cleaning for me rather than risk ruining anything! Maybe I'll give it a try though.

    Lily |

    1. The good thing about sensor cleaning is that there are no parts of the camera that need removed other than the interchangeable lens. So long as you follow the proper procedure, everything else should be fine.