How to clean your camera sensor
One of the biggest problems photography has at the moment is misinformation that is spread throughout the industry. The biggest producers of information about photography come from bloggers and YouTubers who are not working professionals but professional content creators. They have a huge influence but sometimes that is not the best source of information, especially when it comes to some technical aspects of photography. Take the sensor cleaning. Almost every single Youtuber and blogger out there will tell you that it is dangerous and you should send your camera into the manufacturer to have your sensor cleaned. That is such bullshit. They pretend that a camera sensor is this extremely fragile thing, and one wrong move will destroy your camera. Whenever I read or hear this, I roll my eyes, curse them as a stupid blogger or Youtuber and carry on with my day job, which is shooting.
There is no black art or magic involved to cleaning your sensor, it is an easy and safe process to do and it is something every single photographer should know and practice, especially if you are shooting with a mirrorless camera. Your camera sensor is designed to be cleaned and it has an outer coating that protects the photocells in the sensor. So as long as you follow some basic guidelines, you really cannot damage your camera or sensor when you clean it.
So why do you need to clean your sensor? Dust is the answer. Small tiny particles of dust that can find their way onto your sensor over time with a DSLR or every single time you change a lens with a mirrorless camera. The more often you change your lens, the quicker your sensor will get dirty. Now dust on your sensor is not always going to show up in your photos. If you shoot your camera lens wide open all the time, there is little change that you will see the dust on your image. But when you are shooting during the day, and you stop down your lens to f8 or higher, you will start to see dust spots in your image.
To test your camera for dust spots is really easy. First off, you need to do this in the daytime so you have lots of available light to work with. Keep your ISO at the base setting, and set your aperture at f16 or higher. Find a white wall or even shoot into the sky, it does not matter. Just shoot something that is uniform and does not have distracting things that could hide the dust stops. Take one shot and load the image into your computer. No, you have two options. Number one you could use an image editor and crank up the contrast to see the dust spots on your sensor but I prefer to use Lightroom for this. Lightroom has a nice little utility for dust spots. Load the image into Lightroom and select the clone brush. Click the visualize spots check mark at the bottom of the image and Lightroom will render the image in black and white while boosting the contrast and sharpening the edges so it is very easy to see the dust spots in the image.
I clean my camera sensors every single week for my DSLR and I clean my FujiFilm each morning that I plan to use the camera. Mirrorless cameras just need more cleaning as their sensors are exposed all the time and have no shutter curtain to hide behind. If you change your lens on your mirrorless camera outside, it will get dust onto it. That is just something you got to deal with. Now you don’t need to spend a lot of money on equipment to clean your camera sensors. There are so many gimmicky things on the market to clean your sensor with and all of them are a waste of money.
Now before you start with cleaning your sensor, let’s go over some things that you should never do. The first thing that you should never do is use liquids on your sensor. Even a tiny bit. Electronics don’t like liquids. I have seen a lot of sensor cleaning kits that ask you to drop some special cleaning liquid onto your sensor. Be sensible. You would put your pore liquid into your computers USB ports to clean them? Keep liquid far away from your camera’s internals. A second thing is don’t use air, does not matter if it is compressed air or a rocket blower, once the sensor is exposed, keep air away from it. You can spray air into your camera to clean it when the shutter is closed, that is fine, just don’t blow air onto the exposed sensor. The last thing you got to be careful with is static. So don’t use a brush to brush the sensor with. Static is bad for electronic components when you work on a PC, you’ve got to ground yourself, so why would you think that your sensor is any different. Again, you can use a brush to clean the inside of the camera, but do not use it on the sensor. Only a sensor swap should touch your sensor.
Now that we have gone over what not to do, let’s go over cleaning the sensor of a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras can skip these first few steps. With a DSLR, you have got to clean the sensor with the camera powered on, so that means before you start to clean your camera’s sensor, make sure you have charged your batteries. If your batteries are charged and you have your swap ready to go, then the next thing you want to do is go into your camera settings and select the option to clean the camera sensor setting. This will usually require you to click the shutter button to flip up the camera mirror and open the shutter. Similar to how a camera shoots in bulb mode.
Once the camera sensor is exposed, you want to remove the swap from the protective cover and start cleaning straight away. The cleaning process should not take you more than one minute and this process is the same for DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Take the sensor swab and start at one end of the sensor, I usually start at the top left-hand corner and run the swap around the sensor from left to right, and then move the sensor swab down a little and run it back again. Similar to cleaning a window. Only use one side of the sensor swap for this. Keep running the sensor diagonally across the sensor until you have reached the bottom. Once you are at the bottom, you want to turn your sensor swap around, so you are using the clean end and run the sensor swab vertically up and down the sensor from one side to the other again. Once you have finished, your sensor should be clean, power off the camera, and that will shut the shutter curtain and lower the mirror down. Put your lens on the camera and go take a test shot to look for the dirt. This method should clean up about 98% of all sensor spots but now and then you might get a single spot that is more stubborn, and you will have to do a second cleaning. Always use a new sensor swap for each cleaning. A side note on mirrorless cameras, they are much easier to clean because they have no mirror or shutter curtain, so when you clean them, you don’t have to power them on to remove the mirror and shutter curtain. So all you need to do is run a swap over the sensor to clean it. You don’t have to worry about static or liquids as much because of this.
A final word of advice, just because this is called sensor cleaning, does not mean that you got to scrub that sensor clean, you want to use minimal force with the swap, just gently pull it across the sensor. Don’t scrub the sensor. When working inside your camera, you want to be nice and gentle. And if you live in a dry environment, then you want to find a way to introduce some humidity into the environment before you start this process. Have a hot shower before you start or boil some water, just get some humidity in the air to reduce the dust particles in the air. Otherwise cleaning your sensor is really easy and it should be a fast hassle free process. I spend no more than 40 seconds per sensor that I clean. I have been cleaning my own sensors for more than 10 years now and I have never had any problems doing it. Nikon and Canon each charge around $50 dollars to clean your sensor and they basically do the same thing that I have outlined here. So start to learn how to clean and maintain your own gear, save some money and enjoy your shooting.