How to Clean Your Lens and Filters Properly

Share

The first question most people ask when shopping for a new lens is “Is it sharp?”, yet if you were to pop the lens cap off that new lens a month down the line there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll find dust and a fingerprint or two on it. And if it’s not on the lens, there’s a 50-50 chance there’s dust or a fingerprint or two on the “protective filter,” which was purchased to keep dust and fingerprints off that new lens. And that’s on a DSLR.

If it’s a point-and-shoot camera, there’s even a greater chance of dust or fingerprints on the lens because when you turn the camera off, the lens usually slips behind little louver blades that A) protect the lens, and B) hide the fact there’s dust or a fingerprint on the lens.

Checking your lens for dust and smudges is something you should do on a regular basis, not only to ensure you’re getting the sharpest possible pictures, but also because a fingerprint or alien smudge left to “ripen” can cause permanent damage to the lens coatings. Keeping your lenses clean isn’t rocket science, but nonetheless, is a chore that should be performed carefully, thoughtfully and with the proper tools and techniques.

Dust and smudges on the front element of your lens (or your filter) are the easiest to spot because they’re front and center. While dust and smudges on the front element can diminish sharpness and contrast levels, you lose greater levels of sharpness and contrast when you have dust or smudges on the rear lens element because that’s the one that ultimately projects your image onto the camera’s sensor (or film). If your “projector lens” isn’t clean, your pictures won’t be sharp as they can be.

The Proper Tools for Cleaning Lenses and Filters

The Proper Technique for Cleaning Your Lens or Filter

The surface of your camera’s lens has special coatings designed to maximize contrast, color saturation and color fidelity as well as minimize flare. These coatings can be scratched easily, and as such, when cleaning your lens it’s always a good idea to keep things simple. If dust or loose grit is the only villain, the best way to get rid of it is to gently brush the surface of the lens with a soft, camel-hair brush or give it a few blasts of air using a bulb-style air blower. Avoid using pressurized canned air. Avoid grinding grit into the lens surface with a cleaning cloth.

Smudges and fingerprints take a bit more effort, and here too, you should be as gentle as possible. Start by taking a soft micro-fiber cloth or a piece of lens tissue (folded, not bunched up), breathe onto the lens surface (never dry-clean a lens) and gently wipe the lens surface in a circular motion. Repeat if needed using a fresh piece of lens tissue or clean portion of the micro fiber cloth. If this doesn’t work, try dampening the tissue or cloth with a few drops of methanol (wood alcohol) or alcohol based lens-cleaning fluid and try again by gently wiping the lens in a circular motion.

Alcohol or lens-cleaning fluid should never be applied directly onto the lens surface. Doing so can possibly harm the lens coatings and/or compromise the adhesives that hold the lens elements in place.

If you’re out on a shoot and need to clean dust or smudges off your lens, and do not have a micro-fiber cloth or lens tissue with you, a cotton t-shirt or similar cotton-based material (preferably old and not freshly starched) should do the job equally well. What you never want to use is facial tissue, paper towels, polyester-based material, or any type of coarse or abrasive fabric or paper surface.

If the above procedures fail to do the job, or if gritty particles that can scratch the lens coatings are embedded in the smudge, you’d be wise to have a qualified technician address the problem.

If you can see a few bits of dust floating around between your lens’s inner elements, they’re not worth fretting over, as they will have little if any visible impact on the sharpness levels of your photographs, and are certainly not worth the time, trouble, or expense of having the lens taken apart, cleaned and reassembled.

Dust on your Mirror and Imaging Sensor

A common misconception about dust is that you can see it in your camera’s viewfinder. The truth is the specs of dust you see in your viewfinder are not on your lens, but on your camera’s mirror. These dust marks, as distracting as they may be, do not affect your picture quality. Now before you take your lens off and try to clean your mirror, be advised the mirror in your camera is a surface-coated mirror finish, which can be permanently scratched with little effort on your part. Never, ever try blasting dust off with canned air, because you’ll most likely pit or scar the mirrored coating, or even blow the mirror off its hinges altogether.

The most drastic action you should take is to try removing the dust particles by gently blowing them off with a bulb-type air blower. If this doesn’t do the trick, bring the camera to a trained technician or simply live with it because as noted above, dust on the mirror is annoying, but will not affect your picture quality.

Dust marks on your image files―specifically, blurry smudge-like marks that appear repeatedly on the same portions of all of your image files―are caused by dust on your camera’s imaging sensor. Here too, the most drastic and least invasive action you should try on your own is to remove the lens, set your camera to the mirror-lock position, and gently blow it off with a bulb-style air blower while holding the camera face down. If this does not work, it’s recommended that you have a trained technician clean your camera’s sensor. And just as you should never blast your mirror with canned air, the same goes for your camera’s imaging sensor.

Items discussed in article

Add new comment

In general a very nice write up and good advice.  The last paragraph, however, I think is out dated and naive.  Having a professional sensor cleaning done is very expensive, often requires leaving the camera for a couple of days, and when traveling it may be almost impossible to find somewhere or someone to do it for you.

While I don't recommend casual photographers tackle the job, I think there are more than enough resources for tools to properly clean one's own sensor in a safe and fairly effective manner.  I still get a rise in my heart rate each time I do it, but have cleaned my sensor often enough now that even if the next time I did it I ruined the camera that it would have been worth the savings I would other wise have spent.

I will reinforce Efusco's comment about cleaning the sensor.  I was forced into purchasing the required solvent, blower brush and wipes because I didn't have time to leave the camera; we were leaving on vacation when I noticed the spots on my images.  Like Efusco said, if you are more than a casual photographer and not daunted by the camera, give it a try.

A couple of additional suggestions, I always try the blower and butterfly brush first.  I hold the camera with the lens attachment facing down to take advantage of gravity.  I start with blowing the mirror off because if there is dust on the mirror it can migrate to the sensor.  I then move to the sensor and last the lens before taking another test shot.  This usually works; if it doesn't, I then use a wipe stick with appropriate solvent.  Be clean, be steady and save $$.

I've not had to do this very often in the last 3 years because I'm very careful when changing the lens yet I am not hesitant to tackle the job and have done this for my brother.

In my opinion, breathing on the lens isn't that good an idea. You almost always deposit something besides water vapor that can gunk up the lens even more. So I would tend to go right to alcohol. I generally prefer isopropanol to methanol. It's somewhat lower in polarity and vapor pressure and I feel it cleans better. Don't use ordinary rubbing alcohol (denatured ethanol) - they put stuff in that like jet fuel (to keep you from drinking it) and that can leave a residue.

Anonymous is a bit mixed on the difference between rubbing alcohol and denatured alcohol, but he is spot on (or rather, spot off!) with his recommendation of isopropyl alcohol for cleaning.  Rubbing alcohol is usually a mix of isopropyl alcohol, water and occasionally glycerine to decrease the drying effect of the alcohol.  The glycerine will cause major smearing.  Denatured alcohol is a mix of ethanol and something else to keep you from drinking it.  Common additives include methanol, isopropyl and yes, jet fuel.

What about ionfree water ? is it good for cleaning?

Ion Free Water is probably one of the worst cleaning agents available.   True, it is "free" of contaminants, but it is a terrible wetting agent.  The structure of water is inherantly resistant to wetting something and is therefore not a good candidate.   Isopropyl alcohol is much better. 

Use Distilled Water which is ion free. Get it at Walmart, less than $2 a gallon. This is also the best for use with developing chemicals and as a final rinse for film.

The alcohol we drink is ethanol. You do not want to drink either isopropyl or methanol, they are both toxic and nothing needs to be added to keep you from drinking them. Since rubbing alcohol is to be used on the body all ingredients must be disclosed. If you buy the cheap rubing alcohol it is only isopropyl and distilled water but sure to check the label. The 90% formulations work fabulously for cleaning all kinds of stuff including lenses.

I've also had success with hydrogen peroxide to remove fungus on several lenses that I bought for almost no $$. This is he best way to learn to clean lenses. Bought one on ebay that has fungus for $10 plus shipping. Then experimnt taking it apart and cleaning it. You can put all kinds of marks on it an see if you can get them off.

In addition to the comment about DI water not being good because it doesn't "wet" the surface, a lot of lens problems are "Smudges" from fingers or such. Water will not remove skin oil so stick with the fluid from the cleaning kits. 

I purchase my kit and supplies from known camera suppliers and have never had a problem. They use the same materials. These are not cheap, yet they can save you leaving your camera for a few days or when you are in the middle of nowhere and need the sensor or lens cleaned.

Besides water, your breath contains traces of ammonia which can actually help cut through greasy smears. As long as you dont spit, i've found exhaling onto the lens to be a safe and excellent method. You don't need to force out the air, and don't blow; as the man said, exhale, and then wipe. Practically foolproof. Btw, regarding the original article, it is a bit odd to say 'don't use polyester' when most cleaning cloths are made of... Polyester. Maybe an explanation for why a polyester shirt isn't safe is in order. Or for that matter, why you shouldn't bunch up lens tissues (they clean better bunched than folded).

Unless in an emergency stiatuion, like you are out in the field and no authorized shops near you or don't have time, you should always always always leave it to authorized shops to clean your camera and lenses.  Never clean your $5000 Nikon D3 with some "kits" from internet that may or may not damage your sensor or lens....  NEVER.  Trust me, you are not good at cleaning your camera sensor.  Don't risk it.

There are no shops that do this service where I live, so it's not an option. I've done it myself numerous times, and while I must say it's a giant pain to do; it's not that complicated.

In the arid climate of Arizona dust on the sensor (and the rest of the camera) can be a real problem. There are only a few shops in the entire state that are qualified to clean sensors so DIY becomes necessary.

There are many resources on the internet discussing how to do this. Read them all before starting. Once you have read many guides you will learn that there is an accepted methodology. Follow it carefully and patiently and realize that if you follow the guidelines you will not harm your sensor. But it may take a few tries to get it really clean. I am always disappointed that it takes a few cleaning sessions to get most of the dust specks off the sensor.

I use a blower for routine cleaning and the swipes with fluid for major cleaning. All available at B&H, of course.

Ok so which camera shop do you work for? I fully clean all my lenses and the mirror and sensor in my 7D as do all the other Pro photogs I know. Why would any one want to pay a camera shop to clean their glass???

A great write-up, but you left out a couple of points - that I'm aware of:

1) Here in Arizona its dusty and dry; which means much of the dust sticks around with static. I find it really hard to remove dust from the front lens element/protective filter - it simply moves to a different position. And I do use most of your recommended methods. Is there some way of using static to remove the dust?

2) Cleaning sensors: what about the camera's own inbuilt sensor cleaner? Are they any good?

 Thanks, Peter

Hi Peter,

The "Artic Butterfly" brush is designed to build static when it spins and may trap the dust. I ran up against this last year when we were out there and was able to either use the Butterfly or the puffer to get it off. Fortunately, I never had it on the sensor. I didn't use any of the cleaner or wipes for fear of scratchin the filter.

I would be interested in anyone else's experience.

Paul

Hi again,

I forgot to address the built in vibrating cleaning system. I've used it with some success yet always wonder where the dust/dirt goes? When returning home or to the motel, I've always taken the lens off and used the puffer to blow off the mirror and then the sensor and the cavity.  There is no place for the misplaced dirt to go & I always imagine that it is just waiting to attack at a critical time and in the worse location; and yes, I'm paranoid. :-)

Cameras with an ultra sonic sensor cleaning systems have an adhesive coated strip to catch the dust as well. If you are getting dust on the sensor the whole chamber that contains the mirror needs to be cleaned and have the dust removed.

In 35mm I've wet cleaned the mirror, the bottom of the prism, focusing screens and just about everything else. Keeping the caps on the body and lenses helps a lot. Also paying as much attention to keeping these caps dust free is important. You need to brush or blow them off before using them. I aso clean my medium and large format cameras.

There are several methods to control static. From special brushes to ionizers.

Paranoid, maybe...but you're still right!

If you are experiencing issues with dust sticking to your lens via static, you can use the Kinetronics Model 60 2.5" StaticWisk Brush for Cleaning Lenses to pass the brush across the surface of your lens to repel dust attached via static.  I do caution to clean the brush between multiple uses, as its properties can have the brush hold on to dust (a good thing when cleaning, though you want your cleaning tools to also be clean as well).  You can clean the brush in shampoo and water, and it still retains its antistatic properties.  I would recommend using this in conjuction with a hand blower; after passing the StaticWisk brush over the lens to repel and remove the dust, use the hand blower to disipate any dust left on the lens, which would no longer hold its static charge.

Concerning In-camera sensor cleaners, while different manufactures have their own way of handling internal dust, most use a variation of using micro-vibrations to shake either a tin-oxide foil in front of the sensor, shaking the low-pass filter in front of the sensor, or shaking the sensor itself, to remove dust, which is then captured by an adhesieve strip inside of the camera.  Certain Nikon cameras add air-flow inside the camera during the sensor cleaning process and have control ducts near the lens mount that collect the dust.  The adhesieve strips inside the camera that collect dust do need to be replaced from time to time, which can be done during regular maintenance of your camera when sending your camera to the manufacturer or camera repair center.  The air-flow ducts used by Nikon are stated it is unlikely they will need to be cleaned in the life of the camera.

Regarding if they are any good, tests have shown Olympus' sensor cleaning is among the best (although they were also the first to design an internal sensor cleaning system).  Regarding cleaning by themselves, Nikon, Canon, and Pentax have similar results with cleaning alone, however, using both cleaning and pixel-mapping does greatly improve the image quality concerning dust removal on the image.  I feel adding a Rocket Blower helps (note: when using internal sensor cleaning, keep the camera HORIZONTAL, flat on a counter, as the adhesieve traps and air flow ducts are on the bottom; when using hand blowers, hold the camera DOWN, FACING THE FLOOR so gravity can assit the dust from falling away from the sensor).  The article is meant to be informative and show there are multiple options at your disposal.  Use whichever method with which you are most comfortable or which is available to you in your area, or simply when needed.

As much money as I've paid to B & H over the last 15 or so years I would have thought they'd fly a technician to Indiana every 6 months to do some cleaning and preventive maintenance on my gear!

HeHe!!

Seriously, thanks for the great advice. It was really good to see the static info. too. It's not really a problem that I've had a big problem with, but I will be ordering one of the StaticWisk Brushes this week.

Thanks Again Guys

I agree with the original post and replies on almost all points, except one. The dust or specks that you can see have to be in focus, not in the light path somewhere else. Therefore, dust seen sharply in the viewfinder can only be in focus if it's on the ground glass at the lower side of the prism, where the image is formed. This is not on the mirror, which is in the light path but not in focus. Among the Never, Evers, that I follow is doing anything at all to the mirror. I have gently blown on it with a syringe but never touched it.

On the other hand I've blown harder on the ground glass, avoiding the mirror, with good success. I've also had luck with a compact camera by using a vacuum cleaner at the eyepiece to suck dust out of the chamber rather than just relocating it inside.

As to cleaning the sensor, I cleaned my 20D each 3 months (needed it), cleaned my 40D just once in three years, and haven't needed to clean my 7D at all in 18 months - all due to the effectiveness of the internal ultrasonic cleaning process in the 40D and 7D and changing lenses quickly.

Both the article and all the comentaries posted are excelent and very informative. Thanks to all.

Regarding the sensor cleaning, not all photographers live near BH or some other qualified service facility. So DIY is a reasonable option as long as you educate yourself, purchase the best supplies you can afford and be careful and patient when you work on the sensor.

On the matter of lenses, cleaning should be in the right order, right? So before using alcohol or some other fluid, I suggest that the first step is to use a rocket blower to blow away most of the dust off the lens before using the brush or the microfiber cloth. A do not forget item should be not to apply the alcohol or fluid directly on the lens. Otherwise the fluid might creep into the lens. Just moist the microfiber and carefully work the lens surface in circles and then buff with a clean and dry section of the cloth.

Another point if I may. When photographing close to the sea coast or the beach, the wind brings salty moisture, sand, etc. This leaves a salty film and residue on the lens and camera that should be cleaned at the earliest opportunity Don't leave it until tomorrow. Salt is harmful and corrosive.

Thank you for the article - being a beginning photographer, I really appreciate the knowledge so many of you are willing to share.

Question: I have air on the inside glass of my lens, and I'm noticing dots on my images of sunsets, water, anything landscape. How to I clean the inside of my lens?

Thank you for your help!

I learned to clean laser optics by first blowing off the surface with a rubber bulb blower (no breath or spit), then carefully folding a piece of lens tissue into a little pad and grasping it in hemostat to use it as a cleaning pad, keeping it slack and limp.

The pad is saturated in pure ethanol (Everclear at the liquor store, or equal), and then GENTLY dragged across the surface to be cleaned, one wipe per pad. Discard the pad after every wipe.

GENTLY use a blower to dry the alcohol, or just let it evaporate, and then repeat as necessary, using a new pad for each wipe. **** store isopropyl has too much water in it, and leaves water spots. Pure 180 proof ethanol, or even better, punctilious reagent grade (200 PROOF) is better if you can find it. You only need a little for a lifetime's supply, so don't skimp.

Hi Allan
Many thanks for an very informative article, I have been looking online for 'how to maintain my Canon 90-300mm zoom lens' and the only articles that I can find are about cleaning the lenses themselves. I have discovered that you can take out the from lens and clean inside to 'you must never ever remove the front lens' I also watch a video on cleaning the outside of the lens by washing it under warm tap water with mid soap - this I couldn't believe what I was watching. I guess what I'm saying is that you have to use your on common-sense when it comes to maintaining your camera gear - I liked your article because you gave some sensible solution's to general cleaning and then recommend taking it to a expert - lens are not cheap and must be maintained by professionals just like your car or any other expensive item. So my lens will be going to the lens doctor very soon.
So many thanks for giving all of us even experienced photographers a heads up.

Mentioning using t-shirt materials may lead to the usual, non-pro (and some pros) grabbing the lower section of their shirt (generally with their predominant hand) and using that. Can't ***** how many times I've stopped someone mid-grab and offered a cleaning cloth instead. Just sharing my own experience.

Chris

Just wondering if there are pictures out there of the front of professionals' lenses. Are people able to get perfectly clean/streak free lenses after their cleansing for many years on a lens?

Thanks!

Most professionals' lenses don't look spotless and pristine because most professionals realize a little dust or even light scratches on the front element have little to absolutely zero effect on image quality. Light is very defocused as it passes trough the front element - light rays from each point source in the field of view fall on the entire surface of the front element and then are (hopefully) focused back to points at the film/sensor plane. The same is true of minor scratches. Material which can alter the refractive properties of the glass, such as smudges of oil and other gooey substances are more problematic.

What is the reason why canned air should not be used to clean lens?

I just picked up a mint Crown Graphic (4x5) with a non-original Schneider 150mm Symmar-s for a very good price, but the lens has been sitting around for quite a while in an environment that has allowed the deterioration of the coating on the the inside of the rear element. I have tried using alcohol, etc. to clean it, but the patterns of discoloration persist. Is there a way to fix the problem?

So if a camera lens were cleaned with normal eye glass cleaning pads, its probably safe to assume that any coating has been effectively removed from the lens correct? Is it possible to have the lens recoated? Is this an expensive process?

I have a canon 70 D.
I shot some pics on the beach in strong winds. I got salt spray as well as fine sand stuck to the front of the lens. (actually the UV filter). In the canon manual it says that you should not use organic solvents. Methyl alcohol is an organic solvent.
What should I use?

I just got a Sony RX100 II (for regular use) and a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 (to use in the water).  The manuals say to clean with a soft cloth and not to use disposable cloths or any kind of liquid cleaner.  I assume they are referring to a micro fiber cloth.  I like the idea of using a single-use lens cleaning tissue rather than reusing a cloth multiple times during one session.  When Sony says not to use disposable cloths, are they saying that the lens cleaning tissue should not be used?  Also, Sony doesn't mention anything about using a hand air blower yet this is recommended by most photographers.  Just looking for suggestions on what to purchase to clean the cameras.  It's strange that Sony doesn't sell any sort of cleaning kit.  I called and asked for recommendations but all the Sony rep could tell me is to use a soft cloth. 

Thanks for writing!  Just so you know, we have an updated version of this article available here:  http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solution/how-clean-your-lens-and-filters

Todd Vorenkamp is the author of the new article and his reply to your question here is as follows

"I am not sure why Sony would steer you away from using disposable cloths or liquid cleaners. I will try to contact a Sony representative to see what I can find out.

As far as gentle cleaners, disposable lens paper is probably near the top of the list. Sony may be concerned about people applying liquid directly to the camera for cleaning, which could cause problems, especially for point-and-shoot cameras that might not be very well weather-sealed.

My theory is that, because they do not offer cleaning kits, they want to be as general as possible when making recommendations in order to avoid steering customers in the wrong direction."

I hope that helps! Thanks for reading Explora and writing in!