Adventures in Sensor Cleaning

  • Sensor dirt on my Canon 550D

I have never been afraid to change a lens in the field, no matter where that field happens to be. If I’m standing on a rock by the coast in howling wind with sea spray flying everywhere then I will turn my back on the ocean while I switch lenses, but that’s about it. I’ve changed lenses on beaches hip deep in water, up mountains with gales blowing and in fields with pollen playing merry hell with my hayfever and my camera. I’ve had my 550D for a couple of years now and in that time have picked up a good patina of filth and crud on my camera’s sensor.

Up until now I have dealt with those splodges by using either Lightroom’s or Photoshop’s magical tools. Since the splodges on my sensor don’t move around, I had most of them tracked and a special Develop Settings preset that removed most of the big ones automatically. Any that made it through Lightroom I would quickly fix in Photoshop with small content-aware fill selections or the spot-healing brush.

However recently I managed to get a dirty great smudge right in the centre of the sensor and just off to the right. In other words it was in a spot that mucked up the principle subject in about 80% of my images. Sometimes Photoshop would be able to remove the sensitively positioned splodge easily, but sometimes it took upwards of half an hour of careful editing just to get rid of it. It was a royal pain in the arse. The splodges had to go.

Sensor dirt on my Canon 550D

Check out all that crap! And bear in mind that that’s just the sky where the splodges are visible – there are just as many below that horizon line but they’re masked here by the ocean and the vegetation. It’s pretty bad, isn’t it.

Now I’m also of the opinion that the camera manufacturers, in their wisdom, understood that dirty sensors were going to be an on-going issue for photographers everywhere and therefore designed their expensive products so they could be cleaned easily. The official word from Canon is that you should leave the sensor well alone and several people told me they’d never do anything as drastic as clean their sensor so they pay (quite a lot of money) to get Canon or Nikon to do it for them. Well screw that, I’m not going without my camera for a week and paying for the pleasure.

So, I looked into it. There’s a vast amount of information and mis-information out there and you have to tread very carefully and pick your ‘experts’ well. After a considerable amount of research, countless YouTube videos watched and posts on photo forums I decided that the way ahead for me was a wet sensor cleaning product. The products that came in for the most praise were by VisibleDust – a Canadian company that produce a whole range of camera cleaning products. Word of advice here – make sure you buy the right sized swab for your camera – since mine is a cropped sensor I bought the 1.6x pack, if you have a full frame sensor you’ll need the larger full size swabs.

I live in Australia and over here we have a big unofficial tax levied on us by every single company that imports stuff, so I checked eBay first. I could get my chosen product, the VisibleDust Sensor Cleaning pack, for about $35 from America. But I’d have to wait weeks for it. So I checked retailers based here and found a camera chain in Sydney called Paxtons who’d sell me one for $55 including postage. So I ordered it from Sydney in the mistaken belief that I’d get it sooner that way. Paxtons managed to take over two weeks (nearly three) to get it to me – fellow local photog Ian ordered a similar product from a retailer in Hong Kong and got his in a couple of days. And the retail industry here wonders why Internet shopping is so popular!

Anyway. It came, finally. For my $55AUD I got four swabs and a little bottle of sensor cleaning fluid. The instructions in the pack were very brief and so I watched a couple of YouTube videos of people using the product, to ensure I didn’t muck it up.

In order to access the sensor on a DSLR you have to lock the mirror up and open the shutter blades. On my Canon there’s a manual cleaning mode that does all this for you. You activate the mode, press the shutter button and then take off the lens to reveal the filthy sensor in all its debauched glory.

The swabs are specifically designed not to damage your sensor and to pick up the water splodges, oil stains and bits of dust that have accumulated on there. They look a bit like something you’d find in a hospital surgeon’s tray. So I put a couple of drops of the fluid on the swab and then dragged it across the sensor from left to right, pushing firmly (but not too hard) until I reached the other side. Then I dragged it back the other way with the other side of the swab.

I did this once, put the lens back on and took a picture of a piece of plain white paper in order to see if it had got all the splodges. It hadn’t. So I resisted the urge to use the same swab twice, got a fresh one out of its shrink-wrap, loaded it up with fluid and cleaned it again, this time paying special attention to the persistent splodge and the corners of the sensor. I put the lens back on, took a test picture and hey presto – no marks. Hurrah!

I have to admit that cleaning your sensor yourself is fairly nerve-wracking the first time you do it. DSLR cameras are not cheap and none of us wants to damage them while trying to keep them in working order. But I’m a big believer in self-sufficiency and if I can do a job myself I’d rather learn how to do it. The bottom line is that this is not a tricky process, it takes a couple of minutes at most and then you’re good to go. I’ll certainly continue to clean my long-suffering sensor myself. Death to splodges everywhere!

By |2018-06-14T13:57:45+00:00February 7th, 2013|Techniques|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Kaz Gorrie February 27, 2013 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    …..and here was I thinking about parting with my hard earned cash to get Nikon to do this for me (not to mentioned being without camera for however long it takes). Thanks Andy might give this a go.

    • Andy Hutchinson February 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm - Reply

      Definitely a DIY job – I’ve had no issues whatsoever. 🙂

  2. Kaz Gorrie February 27, 2013 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    I have my Nikon D90 bought a number of years ago. I had put it in to the local camera fella (in Sydney) who sent it away for cleaning. It has a couple of ugly marks as well. They told me trash it – I said no – send it back to me. still have it, but edit the marks out. Am still getting some good photos off it. They are oo quick to say buy a new one…

  3. Liz June 13, 2013 at 10:33 am - Reply

    You’re gamer than me!! Luckily with my extended warranty on my 1100D, I have a free sensor clean per year BUT I didn’t send my camera away until I bought my Canon 7D this March (18 months down the track with as many marks as you have here). I became quite proficient in “splodge” removal in Lightroom 4!! It took 4 weeks for the 1100D to come back from Sydney after the sensor clean!
    I too will happily change my lenses while out in any situation. I’m lucky enough so far to have no marks yet but I haven’t used the 7D enough, yet!! I don’t have an extended warranty on the new Canon, so I may be forced to clean my own sensor down the track. I couldn’t be without my camera for 4 weeks!!

    • Andy Hutchinson June 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm - Reply

      The time delay was the clincher for me – I wouldn’t be without my camera for a week – let alone a month! 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: