Keeping Clean

Not personal hygiene, but camera hygiene. Photographers in general haven’t a great reputation for the first, and probably the more arty you aspire the longer and more tangled your beard, except, possibly, if you are a woman. And photojournalists can often find themselves in places where baths and showers are in short supply. Lee Miller and David Scherman even had to borrow Hitler’s in Munich

Digital seems to bring more problems in keeping cameras clean. Not just sensors, but also lenses seem to me to be more affected by dust, fingermarks and more. Perhaps its because we are getting used to a cleaner result with digital and there is no grain to disguise defects. With film we pick up the crap after the event (I’ve just spent what seems like hours cleaning a few scans) but with digital its what gets on when we take them that matters.

With lenses the solution is easy. I didn’t believe it when I went on an internet photo radio and the presenter spent half the programme plugging the ‘Lens Pen’ but it is really a rather neat solution, although they do fall to pieces after a few months of use they are still worth the money. Just a shame that 7 day shop no longer seem to stock them, but even at the RRP of £8.99 they are worth the money. Fast, easy to use, efficient. Who could ask for anything more?

Cleaning sensors is a little trickier. Start by buying a really good (i.e. big) ‘Hurricane‘, ‘Rocket‘ or similar air blower – a big black rubber bulb with a valve at one end and a red plastic tube with a small hole. I got mine from Jessops for a fiver, though they no longer seem to list them, but other photo dealers will have them. These last for around a year or two if you are lucky before the rubber will start to crumble and give dust.

Air blowers are safer than aerosols on your sensor, better for the environment – even the so-called ‘green’ aerosols damage it severely and don’t run out when you need them. They also seem to be as effective. I’ve got into the habit of using mine every day before I go out, it takes half a minute to remove the lens, blow out the mirror box a few times, raise the mirror and give the sensor a few thorough blasts, then replace the lens and put the mirror down (don’t leave it up, as on some cameras this runs the battery down.)

Blowing doesn’t remove stuck dirt, but this daily ritual has significantly cut down the amount of proper cleaning I’ve had to do. I fire a test shot – my fridge door exposed out of focus with the lens at the smallest aperture and wide-angle and moving the camera to prevent any of the dirt from the door making an image. Then I zoom in to the exposed image and check for any spots.

Stage 2 cleaning involves the use of a brush. I bought a genuine and expensive ‘Sensor Brush’ but I’m told any suitably sized brush will do, so long as you clean it very carefully to remove any size before initial use. Petteri Sulonen has a great feature that tells you how to choose a brush, clean it and test it, along with many other tips on sensor cleaning.

Keep the brush in a suitable container that keeps it pristine, such as a sealed box or plastic bag. It will need washing occasionally too. To use it requires a little common sense and care. The brush shifts dirt when you brush the sensor, but you also want it to pick dirt up. You also need to work on a clean surface in a reasonably dust-free room – I find my kitchen a suitable place, and avoid wearing clothes that produce fluff or dust. Always start by using the blower as above before turning to the brush.

Sulonen recommends striking the brush against the flat edge of a kitchen knife to clean it before use. I use half a dozen puffs from the blower brush to blow it out (away from the camera of course.) Then a single pass of the brush to lift dirt, clean the brush, another pass… Repeat this perhaps half a dozen times, then put the mirror down, replace the lens and take another shot to check the image is clean.

If there is still dirt on the sensor after repeating the brushing process a few times, then you need to consider wet cleaning. Roughly following the ‘Copperhill‘ method, I made a support for my home-made swabs from the handle of an old toothbrush and an old credit-card style pass. I cut a slot in the end of the handle to fit the card, cut a strip from the card just slightly less wide than my sensor, rounded its corners slightly, carefully cleaned the edges and pushed it into the handle.

Working again under clean conditions, I fold a clean Pec-Pad lint-free non-abrasive tissue around the card to form a swab (put the end half way across, fold the bottom up, then fold left and right sides over, secure with sticky tape – see photo.) Add one drop (or at most 2)  of superfine clean Eclipse methanol, place the tip of the swab at one edge of the sensor, pushing just hard enough to flex the card very slightly and thus ensure good contact. Wipe the sensor from there to the other edge slowly and firmly with the swab leaning slightly forward, pick it up and go back in the opposite direction – you will be using the other side of the swab.  Discard the swab, leave the camera (sensor pointing down so as not to collect dust) for around 30s to ensure any residual methanol has evaporated,  refit the lens and test as before. If there are still dust spots, repeat. The swab and methanol cost around 10p, rather cheaper and I think at least as effective as any of the commercial products I’ve tried.

A single swabbing won’t always remove all dirt – either with a homemade swab or commercial ones. Occasionally I’ve had to use 3 or 4 before I was satisfied. At 10p a time it isn’t a problem, but using commercial swabs at £4 or so a time, costs soon mount.

Of course even that is cheap compared to taking your camera to a repairer for cleaning (and costs there can mount if the dust is hard to clear.) The other good reason for doing it yourself is the great time saving – no travel and no waiting until a technician is available – or leaving your camera to collect later.


Although I’ve yet to hear of anyone having problems from using this method, it is always possible, and you follow any of these suggestions entirely at your own risk.

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