Cleaning DSLR sensor yourself

Let’s go back in time to the dawn of the DSLR age, which to be honest, really wasn’t that long ago. As more and more people started to adopt DSLRs, a common problem started to occur along with well-propagated myths. The problem was dust getting on the sensor, and one of the myths was that you could not clean the sensor yourself and that, if you tried, there was a high probability that you will damage the sensor. Many of these myths were spread by camera manufacturers and repair companies who tried to create a cottage industry out of sensor cleaning. Over the last few years, it has become apparent that it is possible to clean your own sensor and quite difficult to damage sensors.

The reason for this is that most, not all, DSLR sensors have what is known as a low-pass filter that sits over the sensor. Made of glass, this filter, is in fact pretty tough, and the biggest issue that you are most likely to face is smears, not scratches. Let’s first look at why your sensor gets dirty and how to determine if it needs cleaning.

how to clean dslr sensor

Image courtesy of Akeg | Flickr

Every time you remove a lens from your camera, you are increasing the likelihood of dust entering the mirror box. Even if you never remove the lens you can still get dust, because, focusing and zooming creates a mild vacuum that sucks in dust. Many cameras today have anti-dust mechanisms, which can be effective but are not infallible. Some dust has an adhesive quality that literally sticks it to the sensor making it very difficult to remove.

The easiest way to determine if your camera is suffering from sensor dust is to take a picture, at a small aperture, of a white wall. Defocus the camera to eliminate any blemishes that might be on the wall. Load the resultant image into your computer and examine it at 100% view all over. Dust will easily show up as small dark specs on the image.

Cleaning DSLR Sensor using dry cleaning

Having determined that we have a dust issue, how do we go about removing it? These days there are a multitude of options falling into two broad areas: dry clean and wet clean. You should always attempt dry cleans first; a dry clean means that you do not need cleaning fluids.

The first dry clean stage is to use a hand blower. If your blower comes with a brush, remove it and, before blowing the sensor, give the blower several blasts to clear any dust that might be in its nozzle. Next, put your DSLR in bulb or cleaning mode, remove the lens with the camera facing down. Activate the shutter and give several blasts of air, aiming, if possible, from the center of the sensor toward the edges. For loose dust, a simple blast from a blower will remove most dust bunnies. Never use condensed air for this, the chemicals in the propellant can cause damage to the sensor.

dry cleaning dslr sensor

Image courtesy of Whipartist | Flickr

Another example of dry cleaning is to use a static brush, such as the Arctic Butterfly. These brushes use a static electrical charge to attract the dust off the sensor and onto the brush bristles. Some people swear by these brushes, others have had mixed results.

cleaning dslr sensor sweep

Another recent addition to the sensor cleaner’s armory is the sensor pen. This is an adaptation of the popular lens pen and uses a triangular soft pad at the end of a pen. This is applied gently to the surface of the sensor, moving from the center to the edges, and is best used in conjunction with a sensor loupe. This magnifies the sensor area so that you can see if there are any large dust particles on the sensor. As this is a contact cleaning technique, you need to be confident yet gentle when using the sensor pen.

Another useful technique is to use specially designed vacuum kits, such as the Green Clean Mini Vac. These literally suck the dust from the sensor.

Cleaning DSLR sensor using wet cleaning

While most of the above dry cleaning techniques are good for loose dust, at some point or another, you will find a dust spot that adheres itself to the sensor and cannot be removed. In this case, it’s time for a wet cleaning.

Wet cleaning, as the name suggests, involves using a specially formulated solution on the sensor to remove stubborn spots. The major downside to this, especially for first-timers is that you have to make several contacts with the sensor, first to apply the fluid and clean, and second to remove the fluid.

As mentioned, most sensors are in fact covered with a glass, low-pass filter, and it is actually this that you are cleaning, but you still need to apply care and attention. The most common form of wet cleaning is done by using specially designed pads in combination with an alcohol-based fluid. The best known of these is Sensor Swab and Eclipse Cleaning Fluids. You will need several Sensor Swabs, making sure that you have the right size for your sensor.

pec pad dslr sensor cleaning

Apply one drop of Eclipse fluid to the swab, and gently wipe across the sensor in one direction. Then take a dry swab and repeat in the same direction, then take a shot to check for further dust. Wet cleaning will often require several attempts to remove all the dust, the major issue with this being the price of the swabs.

It is possible, for the more adventurous, to create your own swabs from lint-free lens-cleaning paper or Pec Pads and a plastic spatula, you can even attempt to put the Pec Pad over an old Sensor Swab stick, this can save considerable money for those of you prone to dirty sensors.

dslr sensor cleaning swab stick

The reality of DSLR sensor cleaning is that there is no one single way to go about it. Start with the basic dry techniques, and if you find you have some stubborn marks, move onto the wet technique. Before starting, make sure you either have a fully charged battery or AC power supply to prevent your shutter closing mid-clean. Be confident yet gentle and thorough. Lastly if you do not feel confident, there are many places now that will do a sensor clean for you. These are not usually cheap, but they will give you the piece of mind that the sensor cleaning is done well.

About The Author

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Odessa Ukraine. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers, books magazines and strangely on towels from a Turkish textile company.

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  • Sam

    I had no idea that cleaning the DSLR sensor was such a big deal. I guess I have never had this problem before and I didn’t even know that it needed to be cleaned. I haven’t really removed the lens too often. Maybe that is why?

  • Jamie

    I am realizing now that I never really noticed the need to clean my DSLR. I’ve always taken photos of family and stuff, but only more recently I’ve been trying to explore the artistic side of photography (hence why I’ve stumbled upon your site!). But, they’ve always seemed to turn out fine! So, just a moment ago I took a look at my lens and realized there was a bit of dust! I went and grabbed a hand blower like your article recommended, and I could see the particles fly off into the distance. Afterwards, I opted to take a few pictures to see the difference. It was pretty subtle, but ultimately noticeable. I can only imagine how much more useful this article will be to someone with bigger problems than a few things of dust. Thanks though for the advice.

  • Robert A

    Wow thanks for this info! Just went and got a cleaning kit and cleaned it out. What a difference!