Biting the bullet: Cleaning a camera sensor

I couldn’t put it off any longer. Today was the day.

Today is the day I finally clean my camera sensors.

I read the instructions. Actually I read the instructions 40 or 50 times, as well as verifying such with several different online sources. After that excuse waned in usefulness, it was time to just find my ‘clean space’, lock up the mirror, and do it. Not only did my D70 have enough dust bunnies to start a farm, I noticed with the recent blue sky shooting that I had–horrors–picked up a speck on the D200.

I decided to start with the D200 and the sensor brush, figuring there hasn’t been any high humidity and the speck was most likely loose dust. A sensor brush is a well constructed brush with fine, even, soft bristles. The brush is prepared by blowing compressed air across the bristles, creating a positive charge, which helps the brush to pick up dust.

After finding my space (out of bright light and air flow, remember not to breath, and blowing nose first), I made sure I had a fully charged battery in my camera. The instruction manual warned me about the consequences of the power fading while the mirror was still locked up (“broke, brake, broken, to be broken, was broken, sukkarakan, will brake, will be broken, busted”). I removed my lens, locked up the mirror, charged my sensor brush with my handy air blower, and then *swoosh* *swoosh* lightly moved it across the sensor twice.

Quickly, I then turned the power off to unlock the mirror, placed the lens back on the camera and took a couple of test photos. I used a single sheet of white paper, using the flash to create a completely white, non-featured photo, which should show any dust. I then took other photos from throughout the room–just to ensure that the blank, white page wasn’t the only image I was going to be getting from my actions.

I hooked my camera up to my computer, and opened the camera’s USB card directly in Photoshop. Success! Careful perusal of the images showed nary a pesky little bit of foreign matter.

Before I could pat myself on the back too much, though, I knew that the D70 would not be as simple to clean. It had numerous dusty spots and had been changed in areas with higher humidity and I knew that some of the dust was ‘welded’ to the sensor. This means going beyond the brush to using the sensor swab and cleaning fluid.

The sensor swab is a piece of long handled plastic, like a small, thin, spatual. It’s covered in cleaning pads that are folded on to the swab just so. To clean, one barely moistens the swab, and moves it across the sensor a couple of times, using light, firm, consistent pressure.

The kit I purchased contained all the ingredients for cleaning, including a swab already prepared. It provided step by step instructions with pictures. I looked at the pictures, held the swab, and visualized myself making light, firm, and consistent strokes. I became one with the sensor.


Having again effectively delayed the inevitable, it was bite the bullet time. I removed my D70 to my cleaning space, had all the materials ready, and removed the lens. Locking up the mirror, I very carefully inserted the brush, but froze before making contact. All my muscles had become locked. I wasn’t one with the sensor–I was one with the mirror.

Repeating my secret mantra over and over again, I gradually forced my hand down, micron by micron until I was at that sensor. And then, as the instructions specified, drew the swab across the sensor, once, twice, three times. Each time I felt as if I were drawing the swab across the ends of my nerves–or fingernails across a blackboard.

Once swabbed, I turned the camera off, unlocking the mirror, and putting back on my lens. I took a photo of my test paper and again checked it in Photoshop. No dust! At least not that I can see, and only a f22 sky shot will show for sure. I must be off to the park with both cameras to test.

Whether this has completely eliminated all problems, I don’t know, but the important point is I have finally did the act. Frankly, I would rather dig a bullet out of my thigh with a hunting knife than do this on a regular basis. I’m told, though, it gets easier over time.

(For more on sensor cleaning Copper Hill.)

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