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What You Need To Know About Camera Sensor Cleaning (How To Get Rid Of Those Damn Dust Specks!)

dust example

When I first took up photography my tutor had this peculiar fear of going anywhere near a camera's sensor. He would encourage us all to pay for a professional cleaning job to get rid of those infuriating specks of dust and dirt. So, for quite a while, I would trot off to my camera store, who then sent my DSLR off for cleaning. Naturally both the store and the cleaners took a cut, leaving me paying quite a lot for what seemed a common occupational hazard of photography.

Thankfully, I eventually realized that there were much cheaper and simpler solutions available. In a nutshell, if you combine these 3 points, the woes of a dirty sensor should be a thing of the past: 1) Point your camera downwards when changing lenses (so the dust falls out not in!). 2) Use a squeeze bulb blower to blast away dust specks. 3) Tidy up with the clone-stamp tool in Photoshop.

So, here's what to do when you discover that you're sensor is getting a bit dirty...


Step 1: Take A Test Shot

Before you dive in and attack the particles on the image sensor, take a test shot to get an idea of where they are and how numerous.

Set the aperture to its narrowest setting (highest f.stop - this will show the dirt at its worst) and focus on 'infinity'. Aim the lens at a bright, plain subject such as a white wall or clear sky. Take a photo and upload it to your computer. View the image at 100%  and have a good look at where the dust lies, so you can bear this in mind when cleaning.

100% zoom on dust

(100% zoom on a picture taken with a dirty image sensor)

Step 2: Use A Squeeze Bulb Blower

Basically, a squeeze bulb-blower (/air blower/bellows blower...take your pick!) comprises a soft plastic pocket of air, which when squeezed shoots air down a narrow tube. It provides a powerful and accurate blast of air for pushing dust specks off your sensor. Bulb blowers always come with a little pouch, which should they should be kept in at all times to prevent them from gathering dust (it would slightly defeat the point to dangle dusty tube over your sensor!).

This is just about the only piece of equipment I ever use to get rid of dust on my sensor. It's simple and it works. I always carry it in my camera bag in case it's needed mid shoot. Here's a step-by-step guide if you've never used one before:

  1. Go to your camera's menus and select the 'mirror lock-up' or 'sensor cleaning mode' option.

    Doing this will cause the reflex mirror inside the camera to move up and expose the image sensor. When you turn the camera off, the reflex mirror will return to its normal position.
  1. Hold the camera pointing downwards (I've recently started fixing my camera to a tripod and pointing it down so that I have both hands free - worth doing if you can be bothered). Get your squeeze-bulb blower and move the tip towards the image sensor.

    Do be careful, and make sure you don't bash into the camera's internal workings! Pump air on to the sensor for around half a minute, causing loose bits of dust to disperse and fall away.
  1. If necessary, blast a bit of air over the two ends of your lens to remove any dust gathered there. Return the blower to its pouch and attach your lens when you have finished cleaning.

  2. Take a second test shot to see how successfully you've removed the dirt.

cleaned sensor

(100% zoom of picture after use of a squeeze bulb blower.)

Warning: Don't buy cans of compressed air which are sometimes available as an alternative to the bulb-blower. They can propel tiny molecules of liquid which settle on the sensor and cause damage that shows up in your pictures. Not the idea at all!


Alternatives: Brushes, Swabs and Solution

dirty sensor

These are alternative options for the most stubborn dust specks of all.

Now, as I've mentioned, I'm personally content with careful lens changing + a bulb blower + the Photoshop clone stamp tool as my trio of weapons for camera sensor cleaning. But there are some other, slightly more hardcore options available. I can't speak with a great deal of authority on these things, having had little experience of them.

All I'll say is that I've heard some horror stories (very expensive damage caused), but also know a few people who use them all the time. I guess that if you know you're not not the most dextrous person in the world, give this stuff a wide berth!


Camera sensor cleaning brushes are essentially brushes with a thin handle, for manoeuvring into the camera body, and very soft, fine bristles for brushing away particles of dirt on the sensor. You can buy electric sensor brushes, where the bristles whirl around at high speed on the press of a button. Here's how to use them:

  1. If you have not just been using the bulb blower, prepare the camera as in step 1 above. As ever, point the camera downwards - you want the dust to fall out, not back in.
  2. Carefully move your sensor brush into the camera body. Wipe it once across the surface of the image sensor. Take the bulb blower and pump air into the brush's bristles to remove any particles that were picked up - you don't want to put them back on again.
  3. Wipe the sensor once again, clean the brush with the blower, and repeat several times.

As with the squeeze-pump blower, keep your brush in a clean protective case; it completely defeats the object if you are not painstaking in keeping camera sensor cleaning equipment dust-free.

Swabs and Solution:

This is the method of camera sensor cleaning that, understandably, people feel most concerned about. It's counter instinctive to go slapping liquid on to that precious looking little sensor where so much of your camera's value is contained. But the little kits of swabs and solution are very popular with some photographers. So if you think it's necessary, here's how it's done:

  1. Having started off with the blower and the brush, the final stage in a thorough cleaning process is to get ready with the swabs. Point your camera down, with the sensor exposed.

  2. Moisten a fresh, new swab with a little bit of cleaning solution. Don't drench it so it's dripping with the stuff, just apply enough to provide some lubrication to help free up the stubborn particles. Apply solution to both sides of the swab.

  3. Be really careful to only touch the sensor with the swab. Wipe it smoothly and with some downward pressure across the face of the sensor. Then, turn the swab over and, with the clean side, glide it over the sensor once more.

  4. Throw away the swab - only ever use new, clean ones.

Warning: Only ever use the solution that comes with the swabs you buy (e.g 'Eclipse' cleaning fluid); don't be tempted to have a go with some other household cleaning solution - believe it or not some people do this! It'll usually be curtains for digital camera sensors.

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