Photography / Tips and Solutions

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 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 105

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Could this be inside?

[Attached: panning-dust.jpg]

Hi Alice,

The spots you see on the image are caused by dust on your digital sensor...not on the lens or inside the lens. Almost definitely sensor dust!

Thanks for stopping by! We have an article coming out soon on sensor cleaning.

My nikon lens had a spot. I tried to clean it with a q tip. Now ther is a circular piece that came loose in there and I can't use it.

Hey Lou,

May you give me some more information? Was the loose circular piece a result of the cleaning? Were you cleaning the front or rear element? Which lens is it? Can you identify what part came loose?

Thanks!

Well I haven't looked at it in 5 months. It is the inner lens I believe. Because it  is in. Not Ratteling but I can't turn the focas to the right.

Sounds like your lens is due for a trip to a repair shop or back to Nikon! Sorry, mate!

Using a lens cloth is often recommend along with some kind of liquid product, typically isopropyl alcohol.

 However, lens cloths easily get dirty just as lenses do, which leads to the recommendation of disposable lens cleaning tissues.  I've heard that In hi-tech delicate industrial applicationss including electron microscopes and mirrors for astronomical telescopes, one-use Kimwipes are used.  Would these be appropriate for camera lenses? They're very convenient  and not overly expensive.

Hey Larry,

According to the Kimberly Clark website, they are designed for lenses, so I would say you are good-to-go!

I crunched the numbers. The Kimwipes cost about $0.02 per wipe. Our Tiffen lens paper is TWICE as much at $0.04 per wipe! HUGE savings!

After 1000 lens cleanings, the Kimwipes will have set you back $21 and the Tiffen paper $40. Unless you are doing a lot of lens cleaning, I think the savings over a lifetime are pretty minimal, but, hey! Go for it!

Thanks for stopping by!

I attempted to clean the rear element of my Nikkor afs 20mm f/1.8 with a Tiffen lens tissue but it felt like there was resistance between the tissue and glass. I assume that's because of the coating on the glass? The tissue also made a sort of "screeching" sound so I stopped. Would a liquid lens cleaner be ok if applied to the tissue first? 

Hi Wayne,

I guess the coating could create resistance. Did you see any marks on the glass after the fact?

Yes, liquid lens cleaner will be OK as long as, like you said, you apply it to the tissue first. This is especially important when cleaning the rear element.

Thanks for reading!

I have a 24-70mm 2.8 L II lens and im not sure how this happened but i see a water spot inside of the front part of lens. Its a problem becasue when using the lens the photo or the video shows a blurry spot on subject. How can i get this repaired. Obviousley i cannot do it myself.

Please help. 

Hi Jay,

I assume you mean that the droplet is in between the first two elements of the lens and not between the lens and filter, correct?

The obvious solution is to send the lens to a Canon service center and have them take care of it.

But, before you do that, if I were you, I might try to store the lens in a warm spot, or out in the sun for a bit to see if I could get that water to evaporate. [Hopefully it is water and not oil.] This is a complete and total guess...I have no experience with this solution, and no way to test it...just a hypothetical solution for you to try before you send the lens in!

Let me know if you try it and if it works!

Addition top my comment below: nitrile gloves, not latex. and get 'denatured" alcohol from pharmacy or lab supply that is 99% alchohol, the hight test stuff.  For persistent greasy film that wont come off with alcohol products, try very carefully optical grade hexane on cotton or q tips.  have to be careful because hexane will disolve things like balsam and other glues used on internal lens parts.  just be sure you don't flush surface with hexane and stay away from edges.

Thanks again for the tips!

I'm startled your illustration above shows some person's right hand holding some filter, piece of optical glass with their bare hand and with their fingers directly on the lens/filter surface. Aside from filters that can be washed in dish tetergent in the sink, all optics should be handled with latex gloves and handled only by the edges.  The easiest way to clean fingerprints from lenses is dont touch them with your fingers.  I've been cleaning filters in warm running water and dish detergent for 40 yrs and have never had a problem.  if you have trouble with streaking, pour isoproply alcohol over surface after rinsing to accelerate drying.  If that doesnt work dry with hair dryer to speed drying even more.  Of course you would never do with a camera lens.

Hey R,

Well, we have to show an illustration on how filters and lenses get dirty, right? :)

Thanks for sharing your process! Very interesting, even though I haven't been in the market for a hairdryer since I was in grade school!

Thanks for reading!

I wouldn't advise breathing on your optics in an attempt at "cleaning". Even the cleanest mouth is full of bacteria, which can cause the growth of cultures, or "lens fungus".

Hi Brandon,

I have heard that advice as well. The best way to clean is with lens solution and lens tissue or a cloth, but, if you are in the field and have no other options, the breath might be your best bet.

Based on the amount of dentistry I carry around, I would imagine that I have a higher-than-average amount of yuck in my mouth, and even my oldest lenses (decades of getting breathed on occasionally) have not shown signs of gingivitis or cavities.

Still, its good to err on the side of lens cleaner!

Hi Todd Thanks for yor article and humour. I am in despair..i have a nikon cp610 and I can't get rid of the smears on the lens. I have tried lens cleaner and tissues many times and it like the pink in The cat in the hat, it moves around but won't leave. What can I do?? I guess I must have touuched the lens at some time and once some citrus pollen blew on it while a was taking a bee pic. Thanks for this opportunity to ask.

Hey allie!

Thanks for the kind words! 

If you see the banter below with "Dave" from NYC...I think he had sort of the same problem. On his lens, I had success using a Lenspen to get a stubborn film off. You could try that, just make sure your lens is free of dust and other material before you apply the Lenspen.

Also, if you aren't noticing any degradation of your images, you can just ignore it. A lens has to be pretty dirty before you see any effects on the images.

Lenspen: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1058626-REG/lenspen_ndslrk_1c_dslr_pro_kit_w_micro_clear.html

Keep us posted, allie!

How would you go about cleaning the front element of the Nikon 60mm f2.8d micro? It's so recessed even after taking it out of infinity focus it's hard to clean with anything

Hey Dave,

You might need smaller fingers! You should still be able to dampen a lens tissue and get to the front element. Once you get that clean, put a filter on that sucker and just worry about keeping smudges off the filter!

Or, because I now own Q-Tip stock, you could put lens paper around a Q-Tip and use that to get deeper.

Good luck! Thanks for reading!

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've tried using the angry tattooed guy's method.  first with the rocket blower, then with 70% rubbing alcohol with a q-tip in a concentric circular motion immediately flipping the q-tip to wipe it with the dry end (without touching either tips of course).  i'd then use distilled water to repeat (i'm assuming you need water after the alcohol as it leaves residue that resembles a kaleidoscope) to clean it off again switching back and forth between wet and dry to use the dry side before it evaporates.  somehow once i'm done with this i'm left with what seems like a clean lens in normal light but at certain angles i see circular hazy streaks where the q-tip went through.  It's very clear when flashing a flashlight over the lens at a certain angle.  I've tried going back and forth with the alcohol and distilled water (25 q-tips or so on each lens) to try to get it out with no luck.  What am i doing wrong here and how do i get those circular hazy streaks out?  Am I doing this wrong?

actually the kaleidoscope was when i applied the alcohol.  i now remembered the hazy streaks were there after using the dry end (after alcohol) so that's why i used water to try to get it out but was still left with the same circular hazy streaks.  I guess two questions, do i use alcohol or water or do i use alcohol and then water?  how do you get the circular hazy streaks out?

Hey Dave,

Thanks for single-handedly boosting my recent stock investment in Q-Tips!

I cant tell you if you are doing it wrong, but the circular streaks will probably not affect your images.

As much as I am a fan of homemade remedies for different things, I think that lens cleaning solution and lens paper are the best bet for optics. This is what the folks that build the lenses recommend. The cost difference between the homemade recipe and the "real" stuff is probably minimal and you might save yourself a lot of frustration.

Just my $0.02! Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have more questions.

Just tried using Zeiss lens cleaner. I'm seeing the same circular hazy streaks. I've tried both wetting the entire lens then drying and wetting then drying sections at a time and the same thing. I've even tried cotton rounds and q-tips. At first I was thinking I was overdoing it or that I'm applying too much pressure but the results are the same. Even tested it out on my eye glasses. Is it because my apartment is dry (cleaner is drying too fast)? Should I try cleaning it in my bathroom after a shower? I live in nyc. If these are bad ideas can I bring it in to have you check it out to see what it looks like? Driving me nuts I can't get the results I'm looking for

Hey Dave,

Were you getting streaks on your eyeglasses as well?

Did you apply the solution to the lens cloth/paper and then apply the cloth/paper to the lens?

You can definitely come by the Superstore and I can take a look. Let me know when you will be stopping by...I'm at extension 2775 across the street, but can be at the store in minutes.

had the same streaks on the glasses.  Yes, i've always applied to the qtip/cotton rounds first and never on the lens as the cleaning solution could drip inside if applied directly on the lens (bad).  i've even tried micro fiber.  you should buy more stock in J&J as i finished going through a big box of qtips in a few days.  It did improve after i've turned on hot water in the bathroom and cleaned there but still have some left over.  I'll give you a buzz when i'm free to stop by.  Thanks!!

Hey Dave,

I just got off the phone with my broker! Buy, buy, buy!!!

With that stock on a meteoric rise, I might sell my shares and retire from B&H in a matter of days...so you'd better get here quickly!

Standing by for your visit! I hope we can figure out a solution!

Hey Todd, it was great meeting you today!!

So as per our discovery for the Nikon macro lenses that have the recessed front lenses, cleaning as you normally would and then with a clean lens cleaning pen buffing out the smudges seemed to work to reduce those smudges. We've also agreed the lens would function perfectly fine without the use of the cleaning pen. Hope this helps out others looking to do the same. Thanks again!!!

Good to meet you, too! Thanks for coming to the Superstore, Dave!

I am glad I was able to help. Your gear is in specatular condition! Time to go out and shoot!

Tattooed photographer! What does this mean? Are you stereotyping people who have a tattoo?

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!

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