How to Clean Your DSLR’s Sensor

Sensor dust getting you down, but taking it to a dealer doesn’t seem like your best option? Maybe your warranty’s expired or sending off your prized DSLR in the mail just doesn’t sound appealing. Luckily, as photographer Doug McKinlay shows us below, it’s quite possible to clean the sensor yourself:

Sensor dust is inevitable, especially if you change lenses a lot. And while it’s always best to get it cleaned by a professional, there are times when that’s just not feasible. Maybe you’re out in the field or you wander around with the rear lens caps off from your lenses like Doug McKinlay. Either way, knowing how to clean your own equipment is a good skill to have, and DSLR sensor cleaning is not, generally speaking, rocket science. You just need to have a clean environment to do it in, the right equipment, and a steady hand.

There are two methods for cleaning the sensor: the dry method and the wet method. The dry method is pretty quick and easy and will be the one you’ll normally default to. The wet method is a bit more intrusive to your camera and you’ll only want to do it when truly necessary.

Equipment Needed

The tools you need to clean your DSLR

Before You Begin

  1. Make sure your camera is fully charged (“if not, the mirror could drop and the shutters could close just as you have the cleaning instruments right inside the camera.”).
  2. Do your cleaning in an environment which is as dust free and as wind free as possible (most kitchen tables with good light should suffice).
  3. Wash your hands before starting.
  4. Clean all of your equipment at the same time.
  5. Before removing the lens from the camera body give it a good wipe down so as not to introduce any more grime into the camera body.

The Dry Method

The dry method should take care of the majority of your sensor dust issues, especially if you’re shooting with larger apertures. Here are the steps that McKinlay recommends:

  1. Take a test photo to get an idea of how dirty your lens is. Use a low ISO and a small aperture (f/22). McKinlay likes to use a white background for his test shots and also uses a clean memory card. Shake a little when taking the picture so that it blurs what’s on your background and the only thing that should show up is sensor dust.
  2. Examine the photo at 100 percent zoom using your camera’s navigation tool. Check for dust.
  3. If sensor dust is present, go to the sensor cleaning mode in your camera’s menu and switch to manual. This will lock your mirror and make the sensor available.
  4. With the camera upside down, use the lens blower with the camera upside down to remove dust (do not touch the tip of the blower to the sensor).
  5. Take another test photo to see if the dust is still visible.
  6. If there’s still dust present, use your statically charged brush to clean the sensor. (Be very careful here, as not everyone believes that the brush should be used on the sensor. Some say the brush hairs could inadvertently touch other mechanical parts inside the camera, get grease on them, and transfer that grease to the sensor.)
  7. Take another test photo.

The Wet Method

If there’s still dust on your sensor you’ll need to move on to the wet method of sensor cleaning. Here the primary tools are the cleaning fluid and the sensor swabs. (Make sure you get the right size swab and use them only once!)

  1. Clean your swab with the lens blower
  2. Apply 2-3 drops of cleaning fluid to the swab. (Make sure you do not over moisten the swab and avoid touching the swab with your finger to check its moisture–it can be very tempting.)
  3. Hold the swab like a pen and move the swab from one side of the sensor to the other in a single continuous stroke. Be careful not to apply too much pressure.
  4. Let the sensor dry for a moment before making another pass going the other direction using the other side of the swab. (Two sweeps should be enough.)
  5. If you can see a smear on the sensor try making a third pass.

wte cleaning your DSLR sensor

Still feel a little faint of heart? I don’t blame you. Even though McKinlay is demonstrating this on his Canon 5D Mark III, it still seems a bit iffy. (I’d honestly want to try it out on a cheaper camera first.) Still, while DSLR sensor cleaning may not be for everyone, it’s certainly a tantalizing option for those who either can’t get their cameras to a professional or don’t want to spend the money. Just be sure to use the right equipment and be very, very careful.

What about you? Would you do either of these methods on your own DSLR?

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