Photography / Tips and Solutions

How to Clean Your Lens and Filters

         

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 effect on image quality. A few specs of dust on or inside the lens will have no effect 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 effects 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.

Discussion 73

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Hello, 

I've cleaned my Panasonic Lumix TZ-30. Disassembled it, blew on lens(didn't disassemble sensor), and wiped it a bit with dry microfiber cloth.

Now when I take photos in sunlight, they are incredibly bright. You can barely see what's in the picture.

Why is that?

Thanks :)

Hi Vanja,

Did you actually remove the lens, or did you just clean the front? 

Cleaning the front element of the lens should not cause the problem you are mentioning. I recommend checking and re-checking your settings. It sounds like your exposure compensation might be off, or the camera might be in a mode that is causing overexposed images. Also, there is likely a factory reset option in the menu as well—I would try that if you cannot find a culprit in the settings.

Let us know what you find! Thanks for reading!

The isopropol alcohol you find on the shelf is 70% alcohol and 30% water. Pharmacists can get a 99% alcohol version if you ask. A very large company based in Arkansas usually has it the day after I ask for it. It's not expensive, lasts a long time, and evaporates much quicker with no residue. They also sell boxes of individually packaged Zeiss alcohol wipes that I use after making sure there's no dust. I keep a bunch in my bag with my Rocket blower, and my lenses stay clean.

Hey John,

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing the info and thanks for reading!

Stay clean!

Thanks for the article.

Every time I clean a lens, I wonder is this the time that I'm going to scratch my lens, so I'm always extra careful.

In your three-step process, you don't mention wiping it dry after applying the cleaning liquid.  Are we supposed to let it evaporate, and if it evaporates, will that not leave a residue?

Also, I always get a fine line of residue on the edge of the lens on the eyepiece of my binoculars after cleaning.  Do you know what could cause that?

Thanks.

Hey André,

It's always good to be extra careful!

Just to be clear, you don't want to apply the cleaning liquid directly to the lens. You should be squirting it on the lens cloth or paper. That will cut down on what is left over.

In my experience, most of the cleaning solutions dry fairly quickly without leaving a residue. One way to help speed the process is to wipe the lens a bit longer, if you have too much liquid on your cloth.

I just cleaned a pair of binoculars last night after they got salt spray on them and know exactly what you are talking about. I think that is a build-up of grime and oil that gets pushed out towards the edges when you clean the lenses. I can get most of it out by using a cloth-covered fingernail that allows me to clean out the edges pretty well. I am sure the same thing happens with a camera lens, its just not as noticeable as it is on binoculars/telescope eyepieces.

Thanks for reading!

The lens-cleaning brush I bought (from B&H, I believe) has a retractable sponge-like pad on one end. According to directions, you're supposed to rub this on the lens to clean off finger-print oils, but it leaves a powdery residue which then has to be brushed off. I always assumed this powder was abrasive and so avoided that end of the brush-tool. You don't mention such a brush/sponge combo in your instructions, though I know a few photogs who use it regularly on their lenses. What's your recommendation on using it?

Hi Dennis,

There are a bunch of ways to build a better mousetrap for lens cleaning. There are folks that swear by products like the Lenspen and other specialty cleaning products. My guess is that no one makes a brush or product that will damage your lenses; just some work better than others. Its probably always good to assume anything on your lens is abrasive, but my guess is that the powder will not leave any deep scratches.

When in doubt, revert to the lens cleaning paper and lens cleaning solution. There, you cannot go wrong.

Thanks for reading and thanks for your question!

This is great to learn a proper method of LENS cleaning. I need a kind sugestion form you on the following:-

As I have not a filter till now for my NIKON COOLPIX P610 I had to clean my LENS SURFACE once. I have cleaned the dust from lens first with help of a hand blower, but a few small droplets of oily substance could not wipe out and smudged when microfibre cloth used. I breathed on the lens and wiped only on this little smudge with the microfiber cloth FREQUENTLYwith light pressure TILL IT SEEM TO BE CLEANED TOTALLY by viewing in reflecting light.

I hope I have not scratched or getting bad on my lens! However how I can be confirmed or inspect any scratch on lens?

I would recommend using a liquid cleaner like the ROR Residual Oil Remover with a clean micro fiber cloth to get rid of any excess residue on the lens. If you are concerned about damanging the lens, then I would suggest bringing this to a local repair center. 
 

Hi SAMIDH,

Thanks for writing! I suppose that if you cannot see any scratches, you probably didn't scratch the lens.

Tiny scratches will not affect optical quality, but in rare instances, they could cause unwanted glare in an image. I would not worry about any scratches that you cannot see. Just go out and make pictures!

After seeing a YouTube video uploaded by a very angry, tatooed photographer who showed his lens cleaning technique using isopropal alcohol and cotton swabs, I was temped to give it a try. Temped. I just needed a second source to confirm his method, which this artical did indeed. So, using an older enlarger lens, I gave it a whirl. First using my rocket blower, I removed any surface dust. Then, after applying the 70% alcohol with a q-tip in a concentric circular motion, I used that same Rocket Blower to expedite the drying process. Then, with a fresh Q-Tip, I again used a circular motion, begining in the center of the lens and working my outward to the edge. Then, using a lint free disposable cloth from Aztek (which I use for when scanning negatives)I gave it a light "polish". Another puff or two or 3 from my Rocket Blower and the lens was as clean as it was the day it was made. With my confidence bolstered, I grabbed the lens that REALLY needed cleaning. My Fujinon 18-55mm. After a day shooting at the beach, in the fog, it was in need of a cleaning. Following the same proceedure as described above, I cautiously cleaned my Fuji kit lens with the proceedure outlined above.

Awesome is all I can say. But this is where I needed to "check" myself. The urge to clean all of my lenses came upon me. I know how I can be. If a little is good, then a lot must be better. NO. In thise case, Less is More. I solomely vow to only clean a lens that really needs cleaning.

Hi WIlliam,

Very funny! I am sure the Johnson & Johnson folks are excited about the sudden increase in demand for their cotton swabs! I am calling my broker as I type this.

Thank you very much for reading and writing in. And, yes, only clean when they need cleaning. How many of us have acceptably clean lenses and messy homes? I'm sure our significant others would prefer that we give as much effort in cleaning the shower as we do in cleaning our optics!

Do a web search for "dirty lens article." It will help you break the habit!

Have a great day!

I have a smudge on my camcorder lens and it's been there for a while. Is there anyway I can still get rid of it or am I screwed  and no i don't have any cleaning supplies specifically only for camcorders\cameras. Can't I use a cotton swab and use a hint of water to get rid of the smudges?

Hi Hank,

Is the smudge inside the lens elements or on the outside of the first element?

You can use water and a cotton swab, sure. But, lens cleaner and a lens cloth or paper is best.

You can find lens cleaner at any camera store or eyeglass store. Good luck and thanks for reading!

Very helpful information. I desperately needed it! Thanks to your article I realize that using accetone is not an option. Thank you for sharing it. Greetings! 

I am glad I saved your lenses, SonyaJennings! Thanks for reading!

What about cleaning camera sensors? Is there a way to do that safely short of sending into the factory by mail for service? A problem could very well occur to damage a camera in shipping, too, so do the benefits of cleaning a smudged sensor at home outweigh the risks?

Hi LYNND,

So, I suggested an article about sensor cleaning, but we decided, even with disclaimers every other sentence, that we did not want to encourage someone to do something that, if done incorrectly, could cause catastrophic damage to their camera.

Having said that, many of us have cleaned our sensors with different tools and techniques. The most safe and simple method is to use an air blower to try to remove the dust. If that does not work, my advice is to thoroughly research different methods and then, if you dare, do it as carefully and methodically as you can. Or, just send the camera back to the factory.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helps a bit!

Very helpful, thank you !

Thank you for reading, mary!

Anyone who uses glasses will know the difference that cleaning your glasses makes to the quality of your vision. When I first started using glasses 20 years ago, I used my breath and the a corner of my t-shirt. I thought that I did a pretty good job. Then I got sold lens cleaning fluid by a very persistant saleswoman. I was subsequently impressed and used this for many years. Then I ordered a new pair of glasses elsewhere and was given a free (small) bottle of lens cleaning fluid. I told the sales lady that I had a favourite cleaner and I would not be using her free sample, so could she please take it back. I still had my old glasses on and she asked me to take them off. She cleaned them with her lens cleaning fluid. She used a copious amount of the stuff and then wiped them dry with a soft lens cleaning cloth before giving them back to me. Honestly, I was blown away, the world was a far brighter place. I could not believe the difference. I no longer felt the need for new glasses. I asked her what was in the bottle. Isopropyl alcohol. Ever since, I have used the stuff to clean my lenses/filters. By the way, I use Zeiss UV filters. What else would you use on a Zeiss lens!
 

Hey Brian,

Great story! Thanks for reading and sharing! Sometimes keeping it simple works best!

Recently bought a 24mm f/1.4 E-Mount lens.. .

First night out the lenscap came off whilst it was in the bag and scratched the lens (filter was still in the mail).

What can I do now?? ?

Hey Steven,

Sorry about your misfortune! The good news is that a scratch on a lens probably will not affect image quality unless the sun hits it at the right (or wrong) angle. Even a big gouge will not show up on your images without the help of the sun or a bright light.

What can you do?

1) You can send the lens back to the manufacturer for repair.
2) If you have a valuable property floater with your insurance company, you can see if they will replace it.
3) You can keep on shooting and ignore it (difficult, I know)...protecting the lens from stray light with a lens hood or your hand.

If you don't believe me that it will not affect the images, search the internet for "Dirty Lens Article."

Good luck!

Hi Todd, the correct spelling for 'affect' is actually 'effect'. I believe that incorrect grammar can only serve to undermine your useful contribution to the relevant subject of lens cleaning. Thank you - I'm only writing to help.

Not sure if it's possible, but I would like these comments to be 'zapped' when you have read them. Thanks! Cheers!

Also,

Sorry, friend. Your comments will be engraved on this website for as long as the internet exists!

Sometimes even the most steadfast copy editor can't stop every puck from sailing into the net. Thanks for your comments—I've got Todd's back on those.

Just for Todd,

Thanks for catching that! Eeek!

I guess this is why I got a D+ in English 2 in college!

Hi Todd, Actually, the person who criticized your word usage doesn't know from grammar. Affect and effect are different words with different meanings. You used the correct word. I'm not referring to you, of course, but, apparently, bad advice in photography forums isn't always confined to photography!

We did change the word in the article after drawing and quartering our copy editor. Originally, I had it misspelled. Oh, English. Why must you be so difficult? 

Thanks for reading, George!

I tried this with Pursol optical lens cleaner, precision cleaning fluid, I used 2 different types of blowers, a lenspen, two brushes, lens tissue paper,  and a cleaning cloth. And there are still a lot of spots on my camera, It is a Canon powershot A2200 HD, and when you use the optical zoom and zoom in to 4.0x there a ton of spots most apparent in the bottom left corner. What should I do?

Hey Michael,

Sounds like trouble! Sorry nothing has worked so far. Let me ask you a few questions:

1) Can you see the dust on the front element of the lens? If so, how large are the spots?

2) Do the spots stay relatively the same size regardless of your zoom?

My guess is that the spots are actually on the sensor, and not on the lens. Dust on the lens has to be really large to cause spots on the image or affect image quality.

As you zoom in, the spots get smaller, but more noticeable, and as you zoom out, they get bigger and almost disappear. And no, you can't see the dust on the lens

Hey Michael,

If you cannot see the dust on the lens, a dusty lens is not your culprit. There are websites where folks have put chunks of masking tape on the front of their lenses and there is no effect on the image. Rest assured, your issue isn't dust on your front lens.

My hypothesis is that you have some substantial dirt, somehow, on the image sensor or, less likely, substantial debris on an internal lens. My suggestion would be to send the camera back to Canon for a cleaning/servicing, especially if you are still under warranty, or to your neighborhood camera repair store.

Sorry you are experiencing this. Generally sensor dust is not an issue for cameras that do not have interchangeable lenses. Good luck and feel free to let us know how things turn out! Sorry I cannot be of more help.

Thanks for all your tips! It is not under warranty I got it used and it would probably be cheaper to get a new camera then it would to get it fixed.

No worries, Michael. Good luck! Thanks for reading and writing in!

+1 for LensPens. I keep a LensPen filter pen & a lens pen in my camera bag at all times.

+1 noted, Chris! Thanks for reading!

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!

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!

What about using the Lens Pen?

Sorry! I haven't seen all coments previously.

Hey Leo! No worries! Thanks for writing!

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!

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!

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