Tips for Cleaning Your Lenses and Image Sensor

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It’s true that keeping your equipment clean and in tip-top shape can be a chore, but it’s unfortunately a chore that everyone needs to take on at some point. Right now might just be the perfect time to take on the arduous tasks of giving your lenses a good cleaning, as well as maybe stepping up to the intimidating process of cleaning your sensor. Keeping both of these tools clean helps to ensure the highest image quality when you get back to shooting, and will also make your post-production life a bit more efficient. It’s also a good thing to get in the habit of doing since the more frequently you do it, the less intense the process will be each subsequent time.

Cleaning Lenses

The task of cleaning lenses can be a very simple one, but it’s one you should do regularly to reap the most benefits. I can confess that I didn’t clean any of my lenses for a good 8-10 years when I just started out. It didn’t seem like an especially necessary thing to do. I’d wipe off a big fleck of dust from time to time, but never really took on the task of using specialized tools or cleaning products. Then one day, I received some lens cleaner as a free item and decided to give it a go. The next rolls I shot, post cleaning, had a noticeable increase in sharpness and contrast; images felt punchier and crisper, so much so that I was curious if I was missing focus on all of my images for the past few years. But I chalked it up to just taking a layer of dirt off my lenses and beginning to make full use of my lenses again. The actual process of cleaning a lens is straightforward.

  • Working with a specialized cleaning fluid and a clean microfiber cloth, apply a small amount of cleaning fluid directly to the cloth (not directly to the lens)
  • Apply the fluid-doused section of the cloth directly to the lens and move in small concentric circles
  • Repeat as necessary, making sure to use small circles to avoid streaks
  • Use a dry portion of the cloth at the end to remove any bits of dust or larger patches of remaining fluid

There’s really not much else to it. You might have to perform this task a few times for extra dirty lenses, and you might want to do it to the rear element of the lens, too, if it’s been stored without a rear cap. Primarily, though, this is now a simple task I do to the front element of my lens after each trip I take, or what ends up being three to four times per year. My lens cleaning kit is pretty minimal—I’m a big fan of the Lens Care Kit from ZEISS—because it comes with the fluid and a nice microfiber cloth, but I do keep a few more microfiber cloths around, like this Sensei one, just in case. Or for a smarter travel kit, there are also these ZEISS Lens Wipes as an all-in-one solution, which alleviates the need to bring a bottle of solution or worry about keeping your microfiber cloth clean.

ZEISS Lens Care Kit

It’s also worth pointing out that there are some other lens-cleaning kits designed for more intensive cleaning sessions, such as this Giottos Lens-Cleaning Kit, the Sensei DOC-CK Deluxe Optics Care and Cleaning Kit, and the ZEISS Lens Cleaning Kit. Versus a simple cloth and cleaning fluid kit, these more inclusive kits feature an air blower, a brush, and some other specialty tools for removing stubborn pieces of dust or dirt from your lens surface. These kits aren’t necessary for maintenance-type cleanings but are better suited for the complete detailing of your lenses if you’ve never cleaned them before or if you’ve just returned from an especially dirty location. Additionally, the brushes and air blowers can also be used to efficiently clean the external sides of the lens barrel; bursts of air and a quick brushing can dislodge dust from underneath focusing and aperture rings for smoother rotations.

Giottos Lens Cleaning Kit with Small Rocket Air Blower

Cleaning Sensors

I’ll preface this section with the warning that cleaning your sensor isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be a tricky task, and something you shouldn’t take on unless it’s necessary. There are also various degrees of cleaning one’s sensor, ranging from simple camera-based operations that everyone should do, to much more intensive wet cleaning methods that can be a real skill to acquire. Sometimes, it’s best to bite the bullet and hand your camera over to the professionals for thorough sensor cleaning. On the other hand, if you see some faint spots showing up on your images one day, there are a few things you should try first before relinquishing your camera for a full-service cleaning.

First, use the internal, automated cleaning feature of your camera. Most current digital cameras have a built-in feature that will physically vibrate the sensor at a very high frequency, which will essentially shake the dust off of the sensor and clear up any dark spots you’re seeing in shots. Many cameras automatically do this each time the camera is turned off and on, and therefore it will likely also happen each time you switch lenses, which prevents you from having to perform this function manually on a regular basis. In my experience, this method of sensor cleaning has been incredibly efficient over the years, and keeps my sensor clean a majority of the time, but there are still certain times when a bit more intensive procedures are needed.

The first upgrade from using the camera’s own vibrating/ultrasonic method is to work with an air blower of some kind, and work within your camera’s manual cleaning mode. In this instance, I’d strongly recommend working with a bulb-style blower, such as the Giottos Rocket Blaster or the Sensei Bulb Air-Blower, compared to canned, compressed air. Manual bulb-style blowers offer much more control over the pressure and amount of air you’re blowing into your camera and are less prone to some kind of damage-causing malfunction. When working with any kind of a blower, though, don’t fully insert the tip of the blower into the camera; keep it outside of the lens mount and do several short, light bursts of air. Also, it’s recommended to work with the camera facing downward so any expelled dust will fall out of the camera rather than back onto the sensor surface. Between the camera’s own ultrasonic cleaning function and working with some light bursts of air from a rocket blower, I’ve been able to keep my sensors clean over the years... but I know there are still additional circumstances for even more stubborn dust. Enter the intensive cleaning supplies.

Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool

If you have a smudge on your sensor, either a liquid or oil stain, then shaking the sensor and blowing air on it isn’t going to do much to clean the surface. This is the instance when a wet, contact-based cleaning method will need to be employed. This is also the instance when having someone else clean your sensor becomes a more realistic expectation, but still not an impossibility for those with a deft touch. VisibleDust’s EZ Sensor Cleaning Kit is a great starting point, with specialized options for full-frame, APS-H, and APS-C-sized sensors. This kit includes two distinct liquid cleaning solutions for various stains along with five single-use swabs for accurate and efficient cleaning of the sensor surface. Along similar lines, Photographic Solutions also offers individually packaged single-use swabs for full-frame, APS-H, and APS-C sensors. As an alternative to wet cleaning, the Lenspen SensorKlear Loupe Kit is a viable option for highly selective dust removal, and includes a loupe for identifying dust on the sensor surface along with its own SensorKlear Pen II for removing individual spots of pesky debris. Finally, it’s also worth introducing one of the best-named tools in all of photography, the Arctic Butterfly; a powerful brush for removing dust from the sensor surface. This brush features an internal rotary motor that spins the brushes at high frequencies to build up a static charge that safely lifts dust from the sensor without needing to use liquids or other contact-based cleaning tools. One thing to keep in mind with the Arctic Butterfly, though; don’t turn on the motor while the bristles are near the sensor! The motor-and-brush movement is meant to generate a static charge prior to using the brush inside the camera.

VisibleDust EZ Sensor Cleaning Kit DUALPOWER-X Extra Strength with 5 MXD-100 Green 1.0 x Vswabs

Hopefully breaking down some of the cleaning tools into a few viable options makes the whole process feel a bit less daunting and something that everyone can keep up with to keep their gear in top shape. Let us know if you have any questions about any of the cleaning processes in the Comments section, below.

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