How to Clean Your Lens and Filters

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Let's start with some facts:

  • Dirty optics can and will affect your image quality.
  • There are correct methods and tools to clean lens and filter optics.
  • There are incorrect methods and tools to clean lens and filter optics.
  • There's a great deal of information available on the topic of lens cleaning—some of it conflicting.

So, let's try to keep things simple, and find the best and safest way to get your lenses clean, so that you can spend more time making photographs, and less time on cleaning chores.

"When you use your gear, it's going to get dirty."

Rule #1: Avoid unnecessary cleaning of your lens

Glass is relatively hard and durable. However, when advanced coatings and other chemicals are added to the lens, it becomes a surface that's more vulnerable to scratches and damage from chemicals and contact. Because of this, we want to try to keep our lenses and filters free of fingerprints and dirt, and avoid repeated physical interaction—this includes touching the lenses and—yes—cleaning.

When stored in your camera bag or on your shelf, judicious use of front and rear lens caps will help keep your optics clean. But, when you use your gear, it's going to get dirty. This cannot be avoided. Your lenses will benefit from an occasional cleaning of your camera bag innards, as dust and dirt will likely find a home inside your bag and attach itself to the lens.

Rule #2: Dust happens

Dust is everywhere and everywhere is dust. It will get on and inside your lens. Lenses are manufactured in extremely clean factories, where manufacturers go to great lengths to try to eliminate dust from the environment. Even then, brand-new lenses may have dust between the lens elements.

Dust, however, is not the main enemy. A lens that sits on a shelf in your home for years and collects a thick layer of dust will, obviously, produce image-quality issues. But, a few specs of dust here and there on or inside the lens will have no affect on image quality. A few specs of dust on or inside the lens will have no affect on image quality. That statement was intentionally repeated.

"Dust is everywhere and everywhere is dust... Dust, however, is not the main enemy."

Trying to keep your lenses dust free through continual cleaning may serve to shorten the life of your lens, as you run the risk of scratching the lens surfaces every time you clean the glass.

Rule #3: Beware of rear smudges

Oily fingerprints and smudges on the rear element will have the most dramatic impact on image quality, because of the way that the light is focused narrowly through the back of the lens.

The good news is that the rear element of the lens is less susceptible to dirt and oil because, when mounted on the camera, it isn't subject to kids' sticky fingers, your sticky fingers, or other environmental dangers.

Cleaning your optics is easy to do, even in the field

Here is a simple, three-step process for effective lens and filter cleaning:

  1. Remove as much dust and dirt as possible from the lens with a blower or soft-bristled brush.
  2. Apply a few drops of lens cleaning solution to a lens tissue or cleaning cloth.
  3. Using a circular motion, gently remove oil, fingerprints, and grime from the lens surface, working from the center outward.

Analysis

Remember, you can perform those three easy steps in the field when needed but, unless there are greasy fingerprints or oily smudges on your lens, avoid unnecessary cleaning. You don't need to be in a dust-free "clean room," and don a vinyl suit and rubber gloves to clean your lens.

The parts of the lens that are most exposed to the environment are the front element and the barrel of the lens. The best way to protect the front element is to attach a high-quality filter. The filter, generally much less expensive than the lens itself, will serve as a sentry that absorbs the gunk headed for your expensive lens optics. The filter will be cleaned in the same manner as any other lens.

A dirty lens barrel will not degrade image quality, but keeping the lens barrel clean may help avoid potential issues with the mechanics of the focus and zoom mechanisms. Use a lens cloth or tissue and lens-cleaning solution to keep your lens barrel clean.

Brushes and Blowers

When it comes to dust removal by air, the best method is to use a blower, and to avoid using compressed air. Without a blower, you can always blow on the lens with your own lung power, but beware of spraying your lens with saliva or your lunch. A blower should be mandatory equipment in your DSLR camera bag for sensor and lens cleaning.

There is a multitude of lens-cleaning brushes on the market. A high-quality one is recommended. Camel hair works very well. Also, do not touch the brush bristles with your oily fingers, unless you want to transfer grime to the lens while cleaning.

Cloth, Tissues, and Cleaners

Lens tissue is relatively inexpensive. One use only, please. Discard the tissue after cleaning your lens.

Microfiber cleaning cloths are popular as well. There are a few precautions to help ensure their beneficial use. Keep them clean, as they will likely be used for multiple cleanings, and you do not want to re-apply dirt and grime or particles that may scratch your lens. If you wash the cloth, avoid using liquid fabric softeners, as they may leave a chemical residue on the cloth and create streaks on your lens.

Use your cotton t-shirt at your own risk. Again, if the lens does not need cleaning, do not clean it, but if you find yourself separated from your lens-cleaning gear and need to remove a smudge, using a clean 100% cotton t-shirt and warm breath is not the end of the world. Again, avoid liquid fabric softeners. You will find better (and safer) results with dedicated lens-cleaning tissues and cloths.

Cotton swabs are a good option for cleaning, and can be especially effective for cleaning the edges of a lens.

Facial tissue is not recommended, as some brands are abrasive and others contain oils and lotions that can streak your lenses.

Many lens manufacturers market specially formulated lens-cleaning solutions designed to accommodate optical coatings. Again, these are relatively inexpensive, but if you want to make your own solution, or store a 50-gallon drum of the stuff, the use of reagent-grade isopropyl alcohol is recommended. De-ionized water is also safe, but is not a dedicated cleaner and, like moisture from warm breath, will only be effective on water-soluble smudges.

Do not use acetone. Acetone is a great cleaner, but, when used on camera lenses, it could have adverse affects on the plastic and paint of the lens barrel, as well as the optical coatings. Again, do not use acetone.

"Oily fingerprints and smudges on the rear element will have the most dramatic impact on image quality, because of the way that the light is focused narrowly through the back of the lens."

Using household window cleaners is not recommended on coated optics. Stick to the dedicated lens-cleaning solutions, alcohol, or de-ionized water.

Apply the cleaning solution to the tissue or cloth, instead of directly to the lens. There are several reasons to do so. You want to avoid having beads of liquid running to the edge of the lens element and then entering the lens body. Even weatherproofed lenses might not be watertight, and the liquid may enter the lens body due to capillary action. Liquid droplets function as a lens and may focus sunlight to a point on the glass lens surface creating a super-heated area that could damage the lens or coatings. Also, mild liquids and water can have corrosive properties if left in contact with a surface for a length of time.

Cleaning Technique

Wiping in concentric circles will reduce the occurrences of streaking more than working across the lens.

Working from the center to the edge will move debris to the edges of the lens, away from the center of the image circle, in the event the objects do not get removed.

When wiping, apply only enough pressure to remove the offending smudge.

Lens-Cleaning Miscellany

On a DLSR, when you look through the viewfinder, many times you will see lots of dust specs throughout the image. This dust is on the camera's mirror, and will not affect the photograph. The mirror can be cleaned, but the silvering is very delicate. Also, using air blowers here may blow dust from your mirror onto your digital sensor, which will definitely affect image quality.

A note to users of sport optics, telescopes, and night photographers: beware of inspecting your lens for cleanliness with a color-filtered flashlight, as some of the dirt and smudges may not appear.

Finally, you may clean your lens mounts (camera and lens) with a cloth and lens-cleaning solution. The digital contacts that allow the lens and camera to communicate may require occasional cleaning. Be sure to use a different cloth from that used for the optics, as wiping a metal lens mount to clean it may impart tiny metal debris on the cloth that should never be introduced to the glass.

Remember the three simple steps, remember that dust happens, and be sure to spend more time making photographs than cleaning your gear.

Add new comment

Well written guide!  I have a couple notes to add:

If you do timelapse, you may have issues collecting dust over time - especially in dry, low humidity environments due to static electricity.  A lens hood is your best friend in this case. 

The more closed the aperture (higher, towards f/22), the more likely you are to see spots on your lenses and filters.  The further the filters are from the lens element, and the more filters you use, along with a more closed aperture; tends to accumulate and visually display more dust.  The worst visual dust spots I've ever seen, were using a 3-stop grad filter with no lens hood, at f/22.

For this reason, I've gone to 4x4 filters with a full matte box to protect from windblown dust, so that I can use all the filters that I want and stil l have some lens hood protection.

Dust is much less likely to be visible in night photography; as you're likely to be using wider aperture values, and less likely to be using filters.  Even if there's a few specks of dust on your lens, in this situation it's less likely to be visible in the final image.

Thanks!  feel free to check out my website at http://starmountainmedia.com 

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for your comments and the link. Keep fighting the good fight against dust! Thanks for adding to the guide!

Daniel, the link to your site doesn't work as it's picked up some garbage characters at the end of the address somehow.

Todd, thanks for this clear and concise how-to.

Thanks, Patrick!  My pleasure!

Thanks Daniel Lowe, for the complete explainatory on lens cleaning. Could you poat an article of sensor cleaning techniques?. For the lens cleaning solutions you have mentioned in the article, is it safe to use a ionized water for cleaning the lens barrel?.

Hi Ameet!  Thank you for the comments. Yes, it is safe to use ionized water for cleaning the lens barrel. However, just like when cleaning the optics, apply the fluid to your cleaning tissue or cloth instead of directly to the lens to prevent water from penetrating the various joints, connections and openings on the lens barrel. Lens cleaning solution works well for this task as well. Remember, a dirty lens barrel will not have an effect on image quality, but you do not want dirt to make its way into the zoom or focus mechanisms.

I will see if we can publish an article about sensor cleaning soon!

Thanks again!

Try this.

I'm surprised LensPens weren't mentioned.  I find it is much easier to clean a smudge off a filter or lens with a LensPen than it is to use lens cleaning solution and lens papers.

Hi Martin,

Thank you for your comment. I agree, the LensPen family of products are very good cleaning tools for your lenses and filters.

However, my intent with the article was to keep things as simple as possible by discussing basic procedures while covering only the basic cleaning tools that are commonly found in drug stores, department stores, optometrists, sunglass stores, etc. so that those in the field can be confident of a safe and efficient process to clean their optics.

Thanks for writing!

INTERESANTE

GRACIAS! :)

What is your opinion on using Zeiss Lens Cleaning cloths? I shoot on the water a lot (with boats running beside us), so I occasionally get water spots. I always use a filter, but my cleaning method is a lens pen and the lens cleaning cloths, if needed. Are these okay?

The Zeiss lens cleaning products are excellent.  You might checkout their Lens Cleaning Cloth kit with two micro fiber clothes and 30 moistened wipes.  Otherwise, if you already have micro fiber cloths, they also carry the moistened tissues separately.

Thanks, Todd.

I have been using Pec Pad wipes for the cleaning solution application.  Excellent product; but is there a wipe that is a little more liquid soluable?  The drops don't soak into the Pec Pads.

Is "ionized water" the same as distilled water?  If not, where does one obtain ionized water?

Also, is "isopropyl alcohol" that you recommend the same as denatured alcohol?  After research, I discovered that a good mix for cleaning my eyeglass lenses is 50/50 denatured alcohol and distilled water.  The source said do not use "rubbing alcohol" as it has some oil in it.  Would the mix I use for eyeglasses be OK for lenses?  Or, are the available lens cleaning solutions better?

Lens pens.  Are they for real and safe?  Or, are they a gimmick to be avoided.  I've had and lost two.  Carried them for in the field cleaning, along with a dust brush.  But, without hearing that they are safe from an expert, I quinge.

Finally, protective filters.  Two instincts.  Do I really want to put perhaps "cheaper" glass in front of my thousand dollar Canon 70-200 L lens?  And, what type of filter doesn't ***** stops of light?  There must be some loss there?  I honestly don't know.

Thanks for a good article and a chance to ask these questions. 

Hello J McGill!

Thanks for writing and thanks for the excellent questions.

Here are my attempts at intelligent answers for you!

1) I am not personally familiar with the Pec-Pad wipes, but I believe I know what you are saying. You apply liquid to the Pec-Pad and it beads up. When you rub the liquid on the lens with the Pec-Pad, you end up with the liquid being moved around the surface of the lens as it is not absorbed by the Pec-Pad. Correct? I know that the company that makes Pec-Pads has their own brand of cleaning solution - Eclipse. My guess would be that this works very well with the Pec-Pads, but I cannot be certain as I have not tried this myself.

2) Ionized water and distilled water are two different things. Distilled water has been purified through distillation (boiling and condensing) and ionized water has gone through electrolysis - electrical charges are imparted into it to make it more alkaline. Because of this, I would not recommend using ionized water when cleaning lenses or filters. This is why I recommended only "de-ionized" water in the article. The safest bet is to use a dedicated lens cleaning solution and, if in a pinch, distilled water.

3) Isopropyl alcohol is NOT the same as denatured alcohol, but both are used for cleaning purposes and both have been recommended for lenses. However, some writers/bloggers have warned about the chemicals that are added to denatured alcohol as being bad for lenses. I have no scientific or first-hand data to back that up. Again, the safest bet is dedicated optics cleaners.

Bottom line for both of these questions - dedicated lens cleaner is your best option. It is not expensive and it is readily available if you look for it. One big-box store in my neighborhood actually sells lens cleaner bottles with free refills for life! Lens cleaning party, anyone?

4) I have used the LensPen lens cleaner and found it to be a very handy product. However, like with any cleaning tissue or cloth, be careful to keep it clean and free of debris. You never want to pick up small particles on your LensPen or cleaning cloth and then re-apply them to the lens surface. This reinforces why it is important to use the blower to get rid of as much debris/dust as possible before you physically touch the lens surface with anything.

5) The verdict will always be out on filters! Trust me, you are not the first to ask, nor the last. Here is one person's opinion:

If you have a very high-quality lens, you do not want to buy an inexpensive filter. I would argue that the most important part of your camera is the lens. With the huge increase in sensor resolution these days, manufacturers are designing large expensive lenses that can accommodate the rapidly expanding resolving power of the cameras. The lens is, and has always been, critical to successful images.

There is a difference in quality and craftsmanship in filters and this is reflected in the wide price range of different types and brands of filters. In general, like most things, the more you spend, the better filter you will receive.

My thought here is that if I am spending a lot of money on a lens, I will spend some more on a quality filter as well. If for nothing else, I have peace of mind that any blur or softness in the photo is my fault and not the fault of an inexpensive filter or lens!

The first thing that light is going to pass through on your lens is the filter. You should hope that that light will pass through that first piece of glass virtually untouched - no diffraction or color shift or loss of light. Having said that, a filter is not a science-fiction invisible force field. The higher quality the filter, the less that light will be affected as it passes through that glass to the lens's front element.

With a clear UV filter, light loss will be negligible. With a quality filter, image quality will not be affected.

Once upon a time I (gasp) bench-tested my lenses. I shot them at a test target with a top-of-the-line German-made filter and without that filter. Zooming in on the digital file beyond 200%, there was a barely perceptible difference between the images with and without the filter - honestly not enough to ever be seen on a print or un-zoomed image. This was "splitting pixels" in its purest form. Don't get me started on that soap box!

Bottom line, a good filter, although expensive, will not degrade your expensive lens in any manner. It will also protect the front element of your lens from dust, grime, dirt, and other intruders. If you are concerned about a loss of image quality, then either remove the filter before taking the shot, or judiciously use your lens cap!

As a former helicopter pilot, I never used lens caps as I did not want to introduce loose foreign objects into the cockpit. The filter was my one and only line of defense for my lenses and the filters have, on more than one occasion, sacrificed themselves in the duty of protecting my lenses.

I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for forcing me to become an expert on different types of water and alcohol! Feel free to write again if you have more questions. THANKS!

Nice article, very helpful, thanks!

echang88,

Thank you for reading and thank you for the compliment! See you on the next one!

1)  When blowing or brushing dust off a lens, work with the lens surface you are cleaning facing the floor. Take advantage of the effect of gravity. Let the dust fall away from the lens rather then back on it.

2)  Instead of a camel hair brush, I use a sable artist's brush; especially when cleaning front surfaced mirrors. Although they are expensive, they are much softer and give an extra level of protection.

3)  The use of filters to protect the lens is a highly debated topic. Although Todd is in the "filter for protection camp", I, along with many other photographers, do not subscribe to the use of filters (even clear ones) for the purpose of protecting the lens unless you are using your camera in a harsh environment. Every piece of glass placed in the light path, no matter how high quality, introduces internal reflections and other aberrations that reduce contrast and image quality. I do not use a filter unless I have a specific artistic reason to do so. You need to weigh both arguments and make up your own mind on this subject.

Hi Bart,

Thanks for the additional tips!

I totally agree with your filter choice comments. It is definitely a choice and there are many views on the subject.

Like I said, in the harsh cockpit environments in which I used to work, a filter was a virtual necessity as I did not use lens caps. As a night photographer, there have been many instances where I have removed a filter in order to cut down on ghosting reflections from artificial lights coming into the lens.

Someday, someone may invent a way to bend light without lenses (force fields?), but until then we have to make do with glass and crystal and the drawbacks that come with it...or switch to pin-hole cameras!

Thanks again!

Todd,

You wrote: As a former helicopter pilot, I never used lens caps as I did not want to introduce loose foreign objects into the cockpit.

I have contemplated not using a lens cap because when I take it off, I usually put it in my pocket. I have noticed the lint and dust that it picks up from my pocket.  So if you don't use a lens cap, do you find it necessary to blow/wipe your lens every time you pull your camera out of the case...or are you able to keep your case dust free?

Thanks for the article and reply to the comments, this is a very useful article. 

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for your question and the compliment.

Pocket lint loves to latch onto a plastic lens cap in your pocket. It can easily transfer from the cap onto your lens or filter.

To answer your question: No, I do not find that I have to blow/wipe off my filters each time I pull the camera out. Everything gets a bit of dust on it, but I generally do not sweat a little bit of dust. I actually do not worry about cleaning my optics unless I see a smudge or I have been out in the rain. I "deep clean" my gear once or twice a year if I am not feeling too lazy.

Like I said in the article, dust is not really the enemy. Smudges are. You have to get dust particles of a huge size or number to have any real degradation on image quality, so "don't sweat the small stuff" might be a great adage for anyone's lens cleaning approach.

For the record, I encourage the use of lens caps even if you are using a protective filter - unless you work in a place where you do not want a plastic round object to potentially jam flight controls!

I hope that helped answer your question. Thanks again!

everything so finely explained here ...

only, i never use any kind of liquid on my lenses!

a simple, carefully-applied breathing on the lens (so that it'll have some fog on it) is usually the best type of harmless liquid to be used for lens cleaning imo.

just make sure your mouth is 'clean enough', ie, don't do this when you have just had food and your mouth is greasy ...

also be ware of spits: don't let your mouth saliva get on the lens either!

Mr. Parsipour,

Thank you for your comments! I have often fogged up my lenses with my warm breath for a quick cleaning (I would guess that almost all of us have) but there are some that would argue that this is not entirely harmless to the lens. A few years ago, a major camera/lens manufacturer recommended not breathing on your lens as they claimed that breath contains acids that may harm the lens coating.

So, based on that hypothesis, I might argue against regular lens fogging by breath and stick to the specially formulated cleaning liquids to keep your lenses and filters safe.

Good luck out there! Thanks for writing!

What about using the Lens Pen?

Sorry! I haven't seen all coments previously.

Hey Leo! No worries! Thanks for writing!

Loved the article and made me feel good about my cleaning methods on my lenses.  I use rice paper to apply the lens cleaner liquid on the lens surface and I always put a single drop on the center of the lens.  I have a question for you about cleaning: how do I go about cleaning the camera mirror?  Many, many years ago I tried cleaning the mirror of a Pentax SLR I had and I completey ruined it.  Since then I have only used my blower and the camel hair brush to clean it.  However in my expensive DSLR I noticed with horror that the mirror is stained and I don't know how to go about getting rid of a line that it shows sideways.  Thanks for your very interesting article!

Hi Gustavo!

Thank you for your comments and questions. Before I answer your mirror question, you might want to modify your cleaning method slightly to add that drop of liquid to the paper versus the center of the lens. I am sure you are careful, but a sudden movement or gust of wind might send that droplet towards the edge of your filter or lens and create a new headache for you. Safety first!

The mirror. One of the most annoying things in my world is a dirty SLR/DSLR mirror. It always irks me to see specs of dust or tiny hairs when I look through the camera. Having said that, because the mirror is not involved in the actual capture of the image, all of that dirt and grime is simply an annoyance. Therefore, if you can live with it and know that it is not affecting your photos, then take a deep breath and accept the dust.

You seem like you might be past that point of annoyance and ready to take some action. A few words of caution first. As I said in the article, the mirror's silvering is very delicate, so always use the maximum of caution when touching it with a foreign object. Having said that, you are left with two real options. You can always try, at your own risk, lens paper and cleaning solution to remove the grime. Start with the blower and, when using the tissue, use the lightest of pressure. Your second option is sending the camera to a repair center or the manufacturer for cleaning. Depending on where you live, a local repair shop might be the fastest alternative as they likely have plenty of experience cleaning mirrors and cameras and intimate knowledge of the camera's complicated electronics is not really needed to effect a mirror cleaning.

Good luck and thanks again!

Good information and this article was really funny in a subtle way.

"...store a 50-gallon drum of the stuffstore a 50-gallon drum of the stuff..."

Thanks, Stan! And, thanks for reading Explora!Thanks, Stan! And, thanks for reading Explora!