Dust on your image sensor – Don’t panic

Digital camera image sensor
Digital camera image sensor

If you shoot digital photography with a camera that uses interchangeable lenses for any length of time, the day may dawn when you see a strange artifact on your photos.  Most times you’ll notice it first on your videos as those use a smaller portion of the image sensor. Being careful when you’re changing lenses will cut down stray dust and dirt but won’t eliminate it.  Sooner or later, it will happen to you. You’ll have dirt on your camera sensor.

Your first and natural reaction is to clean your lens, even though dust particles have to be quite large before they’re visible through the lens.  You go over every millimeter of your glass with fine care, getting every spec of dust.  But, when you check your pictures or video, the smudge is still there.

At this point you have two choices: Send it in to the manufacturer, the safe and recommended method.  Or clean it yourself.  Not recommended by anyone, but a lot of photographers do it.

Technically you’re not cleaning the sensor, you’re actually cleaning a thin film over the CMOS or CCD.  Understand that if you take it on yourself, you could damage or scratch that cover to the point the image sensor has to be replaced and that will be a really big bill.  Your camera is basically a computer and a couple servos attached to an imaging chip.  It’s a big part of the cost of any digital camera.

Sure it’s not a dead pixel?

Dead pixels are relatively easy to spot.  They stand out as a sharp black square.  Dead pixels are obvious, dust particles tend to be less well defined at the edges.

The procedure

If you’re determined to do this operation yourself, then most definitely don’t try it with what you have laying around the house or stuffed in your camera bag.  There are special tools and chemicals for the job.  Spend the money.  Read the directions.  At least one of the cleaning kits comes with excruciatingly detailed instructions.  Take the time to read them.

Step one is to use a blower.  Personally, I don’t use canned or pressurized air delivery devices.  I use a hand powered air puffer, very gently.  It’s either going to work or not and raising the air pressure is just begging for trouble.  This is my least favorite technique because it doesn’t get the dust out of the camera body.  It’s still there, waiting for another day to settle on your sensor.

There are new special brushes available specifically for image sensors but I don’t like those either.  More than once I’ve tried a brush only to have the dust spec be something that smears.  The dastardly chamber lube.

Chemical cleaning

This is my preferred choice, specifically the Copperhill method.  The sensor cleaning kit comes with an applicator sized for your camera chip, a package of cleaning pads and a bottle of special Eclipse cleaning fluid, which is mostly methanol.  Check the sensor chart for the applicator size that’s appropriate for your camera model.

Do be aware you won’t be able to take the Eclipse cleaning solution on an airplane.  It even has to be shipped by ground delivery.  And it’s really flammable.  Handle with care.

Read the directions and follow the tutorial.  Take it slow and careful and you’ll be fine.  I had butterflies the first time I tried it, but made it through okay.

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