Triage For A Dirty Camera Sensor

digital camera sensor
Your camera's sensor is the heart of your camera, treat it gently - By John Carney

The heart of any camera is the sensor. The computer is the brain but there isn’t a lot you can do as far as maintenance goes. Keep the firmware up to date and that’s about the extent of it.

But the sensor is another story. That’s where the images are being recorded and there’s a lot going on in the sensor bay. In most cameras there’s a mirror mechanism flipping up and down and those moving parts are lubricated at the factory. After that mirror flips up and down a couple thousands times, it sometimes happens that some of that sophisticated lubricant on the mirror mechanism ends up on your camera sensor.

Another way dust and dirt find their way on to your image sensor is changing lenses. No matter how careful you are changing lenses, short of a dust-free clean room protocol, sooner or later you’re going to get dust on your sensor. For some reason the most powerful attractive force in the universe for attracting dust is located in the sensor bay of your DSLR.

The day will dawn you start noticing spots in your photos. Little smudges that appear in the same spot photo to photo. The quickest way to check for grease and dirt is to go outside and shoot a patch of open sky at f/22. Then take the photo and jam the levels, you’ll see the smudges right away and clearly.

Sensor Triage

Okay, don’t panic. This happens to everyone sooner or later. You have several options for dealing with the problem, so just follow the protocol and you’ll be fine.

If you’re really worried, you can send your camera back to the manufacturer for cleaning. That will mean bouncing it across the country in a FedEx or UPS box and then the lab bounces it back to you. I’ve had cameras come back dirtier than they left, not because the factory guys did a poor job, but because of all the handling.

One gadget that’s indispensable is a lighted magnifier so you can see what you’re doing.

The other indispensable thing to have is a fully charged battery. If your battery dies in the middle of this operation, the mirror will drop back down, possibly on your cleaning tools. That will not make an improvement to the mirror mechanism. You will be sad.

Step 1 – Blower

The idea here is to see if you can dislodge the dust particle with a gentle puff of air. Do NOT get the tip of the blower too close to the sensor surface. Air at high enough pressure will mar the sensor cover. So just gently blow on the dust, it’s either going to come off or it isn’t.

Step 2 – Static brush

The next step is trying a specially made anti-static sensor brush. Do not use a lens brush! Sensor brushes are specially made.

Be really gentle. Anything that won’t come off with a gentle flick of the brush is probably lubricant.

Step 3 – Cleaning Kit

Lubricant is going to require a cleaning kit with methanol. Don’t mess around and try to cobble it together yourself. Spend the money and get a professional cleaning kit. There are detailed, step-by-step tutorials and instructions on their site. Follow them.

Take your time, don’t panic, and don’t try to cut corners and you’ll be fine.

Cleaning Your Camera Sensor

copper hill basic kit
Copper Hill basic sensor cleaning kit

It will happen to you some day.  You’ll be shooting pictures or video and notice a smudge, spot or smear on your pictures, particularly after running color correction.  Don’t panic, it happens to everyone at some point in their photography career.

There are two basic ways of dealing with a dirty sensor: Shipping it off to a service center to have it done professionally, or doing it yourself.

If your camera is still under warranty, then sending it off would be the default option.  If not, then you might consider doing it yourself.  I’ve had cameras come back from the service center just as dirty as when I sent them in.  Once the spec on the sensor was still there, I don’t think they even looked at it.  If you’re careful and patient, you can do it safely on your own.

The Copper Hill Method  Carries cleaning kits sized specifically for different camera models.  There are a couple things you will want to get besides the basic kit.

Your best bet is to get the Mega-Kit which wasn’t offered when I ordered mine.  For sure get the Sensor View magnifier or pick up a lighted magnifier somewhere else.  That makes working in the dark insides of your SLR a lot easier.

The other component you’ll definitely need is the SensorSweep brush or similar static brush.  I’ve never seen fibers cling for desperate life like they do inside the sensor chamber.  It’s like they’re glued on sometimes.

Don’t use any kind of metal tools inside your sensor chamber unless you really know what you’re doing.

Copper Hill has detailed, step-by-step instructions for sensor cleaning.  I would advise going through the tutorials carefully and lay your cleaning supplies out in advance.

A dirty sensor isn’t the end of the world, but if you scratch the sensor, it’ll be the end of your camera.  Be patient, careful, and gentle and you’ll be fine.