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Digital SLR Cleaning for Beginners
The different sensor cleaning methods available today
The consumer is faced with a bewildering array of products for sensor cleaning these days. Each method has its own pros and cons which we will try to highlight.
A quick blast of air will often dislodge the loose dust from a sensor. The only problem is that this technique will not always remove the dust from the camera. If the dust remains in the camera, it can fall back onto the sensor. However, it’s a technique that works for many people. Just make sure you use the right kind of air….
Blowing on the sensor yourself is not recommended. You will almost definitely put some fluid onto the sensor, which may prove harder to remove.
A compressor and airline is not suitable either, unless it has some very comprehensive filtering on the airline. Most compressors introduce microscopic particles of oil into the air, which will make the problem worse. They often have very high pressures too, which again may cause damage.
Most Aerosol ‘canned’ air products should be avoided as they use a chemical propellant rather than air. It is possible for the propellant to escape without very careful use, which can lead to sensor contamination. There are some air blasters that use only CO2 canisters as the propellant. Generally these are suitable for use on sensors.
The best type to use is a dedicated rubber bulb blower (with no brush) and a reasonable sized bulb. Look for the type with a non-return valve as these generally have a bit more ‘puff’. Remember, that these can splat the sensor with debris from inside the bulb. So, always squeeze the bulb several times in a safe direction, before using it on the sensor, to ensure any debris has been expelled. Keep the blower, inside a zip-lock polythene bag when not in use, so that it can’t suck up any debris from the bottom of your camera bag.
Good Points – Cheap; Easy to use; Effective; Doesn’t touch the sensor surface.
Bad Points – Only works on Loose Dust; Moves rather than removes contamination; Can ‘splat’ the sensor.
There are numerous brush products on the market at various price points. Generally there are two technologies employed. Anti-Static and Static.
Anti-Static brushes use a mixture of conducting and non-conducting fibres to eliminate the static on the surface being cleaned. Since static can contribute to keeping dust on the sensor surface, elimination the static means the dust particles can be swept away by the bristles. CCD (as in CCD Sensor) stands for Charge Coupled Device, so static can and does attract dust to the sensor. Modern sensors have special anti-static coatings in order to reduce the effects of static on dust contamination. Anti-Static brushes have been used successfully for many years by photo-laboratories to clean dust from film, which was notorious for attracting dust and spoiling the negatives.
The other type of brush technology uses a low-cost nylon brush that is then ‘charged’ by some means to introduce a static charge onto the nylon bristles. This charge can used to attract dust from the sensor surface to the bristles. A nylon brush can be charged by various means, such as blowing air over the surface, or an aerosol or by spinning.
Like a blower, a brush can only remove loose dust from the sensor surface. Unlike a blower, which doesn’t touch the sensor surface, a brush with greasy bristles can smear the sensor surface. Unfortunately because the sides of the camera mirror box can get contaminated with lubricant from the shutter and mirror mechanisms, it is easy to contaminate the bristles by touching the insides of the camera. Touching the bristles with your fingers can also transfer grease to the bristles. So it is necessary to pay close attention to cleaning the brush on a regular basis to ensure the bristles are both clean and dry.
Good Points – Can be cheap; Easy to Use,
Bad Points – Can be expensive; Only works on Loose Dust; Brush must be cleaned regularly.
These fall into two categories –reusable and disposable.
These use a small piece of ‘tacky’ silicon rubber on the end of a small probe. The pad is lightly pressed onto the surface being cleaned and the offending particle sticks to the pad. The technique works well provide that you can see the dist particle you want to remove and that (like a brush) you keep the tip scrupulously clean. Key to success is a light touch, just grabbing the particle and not pressing hard with the tip.
Good Points – Cheap
Bad Points – Can be tricky to use; Need too see the dust; Need to keep the tip clean.
Unfortunately, most dust-particles on the sensor are far too small to be seen with the naked eye, so a small silicon pad has limited use in cleaning the entire surface of a sensor. Much more effective is a disposable system with larger pads. With this system, there is no need to see the contamination as the pad is used to clean the entire sensor. Furthermore, as the pad is disposed of after use, there is nothing to keep clean between uses.
Good Points – Easy To use; Highly Effective; No rubbing the sensor; No liquids; No maintenance.
Bad Points – Expensive; Only removes loose dust.
These use an aerosol air duster can with a small venturi attachment and a thin hose to produce a vacuum which is used to pull contamination from the sensor. Because the vacuum effect is limited and the hose is quite thin, it takes some time to cover the entire sensor. Aerosol propellants are quite expensive and generally not good for the environment. This method will only deal with loose dust particles.
Good Points – Sensor is not touched ( if you are careful).
Bad Points – Expensive, Fiddly to use; Only removes loose dust.
Swab Based Systems
All the methods described so far, can be used to deal with loose contamination particles. These methods can suffice for some time, but eventually, all sensors reach a point where the amount of hard to remove stuck-on contamination means that the sensor has to be wiped clean with some cleaning solution and some form of swab. There are a number of swab systems available including swabs you can assemble yourself. There is also a choice of cleaning fluids. These are either alcohol based or water ( detergent based).
Eclipse – Alcohol
We recommend using Eclipse solution which is an alcohol based product available in two types ( For coated and non-coated sensors). The reason we approve of Eclipse is because it is highly effective at cleaning greasy marks, it evaporates extremely quickly, before the fluid can migrate elsewhere and it evaporates totally, leaving no deposit.
Water based cleaning solutions are more prone to smearing and do not evaporate effectively.
Good Points – Highly Effective; Does not smear; Evaporates Quickly.
Bad Points – Flammable.
Eclipse Solution is designed to be used with Sensor Swabs. These are clean room manufactured DSLR sensor cleaning swabs. Used as directed, Sensor Swabs are extremely effective at cleaning greasy marks from the sensor. Sensor Swabs are manufactured in 3 different sizes to ensure a precise with the different sensors used in modern DSLR’s. Recommended by leading manufactures including Kodak, Fuji, Leica and Sony, Sensor Swabs are warranted by the manufacturer to be safe to use to clean your sensor.
Good Points – Easy to use; Highly Effective; Recommend by manufacturers; Warranted safe to use.
Bad Points – Expensive.
A Sensor Wands is a custom made spatula onto which a user can attach a pec*pad ( very soft lint-free cleaning material) in order to construct a ‘homemade’ sensor cleaning swab. Sensor Wands are inexpensive and available in different sizes to suit different sensor sizes. They can be quite effective, although there is the overhead of building each swab yourself together with the risk of contaminating the swab while it is assembled.
Good Points – Cheap; Reasonably Effective.
Bad Points – Time Consuming; Higher risk of damaging sensor; No warranty.
Self Cleaning Sensors
It would inappropriate not to mention to the current trend of manufacturers fitting some form of self-cleaning sensor technology into their latest cameras. Clearly this is a step in the right direction, not least because finally, after many years of ignoring the problem of sensor contamination, the major manufacturers are at least acknowledging the problem exists and attempting to address the issue. Our feedback suggest that these systems have limited success at reducing loose dust on the sensor, but have very little effect on reducing sticky marks. Unfortunately this means that those owners of cameras with self-cleaning mechanisms are still going to need to Swab the sensor clean occasionally.