DIY sensor cleaning tutorial


Note: this article is a translation from French of the excellent article
written by Stéphane on his Folo blog. There are already a few articles on this topic on the net but Stéphane post is well illustrated and simple.

Of course, cleaning your camera sensor can be a dangerous operation and I cant be responsible of the result. Do it at your own risk.

Start of article

This tutorial will show you a simple, safe and cheap way to clean your DSLR sensor. The technique shown here is much safer than some others, reliable and used by the author plus many other pro photographers. Of course, there are no warranty of success since a bad execution of the procedure could result in damage to the camera.

If you take your time and do it in a relaxed mindset, you should be fine. You can also ask a professional to do it in case you are scared. The advantage of doing it yourself is that you can clean your sensor outside of normal business hours, just before an important shoot.

Before starting with the procedure, lets make something clear: we are using the term ‘sensor cleaning’ but in fact we are not cleaning the sensor it self, we are cleaning the protective filter which is on top of the sensor.

Note from Alain: If you ever happen to damage the filter, it cost about 400$ to replace according to the repair center I have contacted.

What you will need:

capteurclean-009-3

1)A box of laboratory grade paper: about 7$ for 280 sheets.

This kind of paper has the property of being non abrasive and does not leave residues on the cleaned surface. As its name imply, it is mostly used in laboratories to clean microscopes and can also be found in camera stores are lens cleaning paper.

2) Cake icing spatula: 5$

The most important tool, you might have to look around to find a suitable one. Forget the cheap ones from the dollar stores and pick one that is flexible enough. Also make sure that the part holding the rubber section to the handle is not too wide (as the one in red in the picture bellow).

Once you have your spatula, you have to cut it to a width of 14mm for full frame sensor or 11mm for cropped sensors (Note: you can pick the width you want, the author suggested these number based on his experience).

capteurclean-spatuleb2

3) graduated syringe: cheap

Pick one at your local drugstore.

4) a bottle of isopropyl alcohol 70%: 8$

At the local drugstore again.

5) scissors

6) rubber bands

You can also use medical gloves, just make sure to pick the ones without powder.

Step 1: Examine the sensor

This is easy. Create a white background in Photoshop then display it full screen. Set the aperture of your lens to its smallest value (ex: f32) and take a few shots.

Note from Alain: You can shake the camera as much as you want, it wont change anything since the sensor is only capturing the white background.

The next step is to process the RAW: increase exposure if needed, remove saturation and boost contrast. You should see some dust particles as in the picture below.

dust-060-2

Step 2: Prepare your tool

Cut the paper in a squarish shape and fold the two opposite corners to form a triangle. Put the edge of the spatula at the fold line (picture 2) then fold the left and right sides over each others to wrap the spatula (pictures 3 to 5). Finally, put the rubber band in place to hold everything (picture 6).

pliepapier2

Step 3: Preparation of the working area

Install your camera on a tripod, facing up, and make sure to have a good light source over it so you can see the sensor. Of course, it is also a good idea to make sure the light source is clean and wont have dust particles falling onto the sensor once you remove the lens!

Read carefully the next steps, the order is critical.

Before moving forward, it is a good idea to verify that your battery is at full charge. If the battery would happen to run out during the operation, you might damage the mirror while it is returning to its initial position.

Now hold the spatula in a upward position and use the syringe to put a single drop of alcohol on the top of the paper. Lets make it clear: use a single drop! If you put too much liquid, you run the risk of damaging the sensor by having the alcohol run between the IR filter and the sensor. Someone else made the mistake, so you have been warned!

goutte

While the paper is absorbing the liquid, activate the sensor cleaning function and remove the lens. By the time you are ready, the paper should be covered with alcohol.

Step 4: The Operation!

You are now ready to clean the sensor. It is important to only do a single pass with which paper. Any subsequent passes would only contaminate zones that have already been cleaned.

The picture below shows the path you should follow with your tool. Start at point 1 and move toward point 2. Once there, do not rotate the tool, keep a straight line and go to point 3. You then repeat the same steps to go from 3 to 4 then return to point 1.

cleaning-249

Once you have completed your passes, turn the camera off and put the lens back on.

Step 5: Verification of the results

It is time to go back to step 1 and examine the sensor again. While it is probably much cleaner than before, it might need another 1 or 2 passes. Do not go above that. If the sensor is still dirty, let it go for now. The dust is probably going to go away the next time you clean it. Also, do not expect your sensor to be perfectly clean, there are always some dust spots left. It is ok, the important thing is that you improved the overall  situation.

Here is the final result. While there are some dust spots left, they are minimal and easy to fix in post production.

dust-060-4-1

Summary

  • Take your time. There is no rush, be zen about it!
  • Make sure the battery is fully charged
  • Do not touch the paper before before using it
  • One pass per paper, no more!
  • Only use one drop of alcohol.

Many stores sell cleaning kit. They are expensive and wont get you better results than the technique described here.

And of article

Thanks to Stéphane for allowing me to repost his article here. I have a few more article to translate in the next few weeks and I am always looking for more. So if you are a French blogger and would like me to repost your article here, just contact me.

As suggested by David in the comments, you can buy all of the items mentioned above from Amazon in the Digital Survival KIT. It is a bit more expensive but still ridiculously cheap compared to sending your camera to the store.

About Tommy

Photography allows me to be what I want to be, to be where I want to be, and to do what I want to do ... I'm not professional photographer and I don't need a title, I love to take photographs and that is what I do, I love to learn and I always try to do it better ...
  • http://martybugs.net/blog Martin

    It looks like the body is mounted on a tripod, with the lens opening facing upwards. While this makes it easier to see the sensor when cleaning it, it can also lead to additional dust entering the body.
    It might be better having the lens opening of the body facing forward, rather than upwards…

    • admin

      I understand what you mean but if you do this in a clean environment, with the windows closed, it should not be too much of an issue. Most of the dust particles travel around because of air movement in the room. If there are no movement, they wont move so you should be safe. Of course, to play it safe, it is possible to do the operation with the camera facing forward, it is just going to be more complicated and uncomfortable!

  • http://www.photosignals.co.uk Mike

    One tip I read long ago was to clean the sensor in the bathroom after running the shower on cold for a while and letting the room dehumidify after. The water spray will draw dust into it and help maintain clearer air.

    works for me in a house with 2 cats and lots of dust :)

    • admin

      That is actually a good tip that I might want to use too since I also have two cats! The only problem is to have enough room to sit conformably and move around in there.

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  • http://www.weaver.net David Weaver

    This is probably a fine way to do this. It is essentially the same as the copperhill method and the same method my camera shop uses for cleaning sensors. Considering that I’m cleaning a $1000+ pice of gear which could be ruined if done incorrectly, I’m much more in favor of using PEC pads (thicker than lab paper) and the Eclipse solvent or E2 (instead of isopropyl alcohol 70%). I think a kit ran me about 35 bucks and came with the stick (spatula). My local store charges 50 bucks for a cleaning. I’m still DIY, just with more professional materials.

  • admin

    Thanks for the suggestion David, I will add a link to the PEC pads kit!

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  • http://www.edbarton.co.uk Ed Barton

    I think it’s worth noting that you can achieve close to those kinds of results without touching the sensor with a Giottos Rocket Blower or similar. I didn’t have a particularly dusty sensor but it cleaned it off perfectly and obviously just blowing at it should always be your first port of call.

    • admin

      Ed: giving a few blow solves 80% of the dust issues but some dust particles seem to be too light or greasy (urg!) to go away. That is when you have to pull the cleaning kit out of the bag. I have had my 5D Mrk II for almost a year now and thanks to the automatic cleaning sensor, I haven’t had to do more than a few rocket blow once in a while to keep it at a decent level. Lets hope it stays that way!

  • Niklas

    Very interesting tutorial.
    I have got some serious spots on my sensor that are seeable at smaller apertures, and after reading your tutorial I’m considering using your method.
    I was thinking about the liquid you use, isopropyl alcohol 70%. Is it important that it’s 70% or could I use a higher percentage, like 96%? Would ther be any differences?
    Oh, and another thing which I can’t see you mentioned in your tutorial, should the sensor stay facing upwards until the alcohol has dried by air?

    • admin

      Niklas: Actually, I dont know if the percentage is important, but I would not risk it and keep it at 70%.

  • http://www.bonusballking.com Robert

    This article really helped me out, i found kim wipes at a laboratory and took care of business, i practiced a few times on regular glass, and that also really helped me out.

    Thanks again for the awesome article and keep them coming.

    Robert

  • Gary

    I ruined my sensor trying to do this. You’ve paid a lot of money for your 5D, take it to the shop to get cleaned and avoid blowers at all costs.

    • admin

      Sorry to read that Gary. From what I have seen the vast majority of people do this task without any issues. While it is a relatively safe operation, there are risks and people should be aware of them. What happened? Did you use too much liquid? Because that is the only thing I could see that could damage the sensor.

  • Gary

    I’m not sure what happened, I used a Dust-Wand kit and there are ‘scuffs’ on the surface of the filter now, and the effect on pictures is a general degradation of sharpness, and hundreds of small ‘spots’ all over the print.
    I’m extremely disappointed, but lessons learned and all that.
    IMHO blowers do nothing more than force detritus even deeper and further into the camera and I can’t believe people still use them instead of a strong vacuum to suck debris out.

  • http://emiliagracephotography.com Nick Licata

    Has anyone used the PEC pads on a 5D Mk II. Ive used them successfully on my 40D but saw an article sometime ago that suggested they might damage the 5DmkII sensor and have been too afraid to try it.

    • Tom

      Well to be honest, you can use it, but its not same material as Sensor Swabs. But if you are careful and don’t touch it with your hands, they do their job. Just first blow out bigger particles of dust if any, with clean dust blower, so you don’t damage your sensor with dust and Pec Pads. Do it in clean room, in good light condition, if you have to do it on your own I would recommend Sensor Swabs or other recommended tool for cleaning sensor on Mark II camera. At last if you are not sure about it go to somebody who will guarantee for that work, to be more honest I would not risk $2000 + cam for $50-$60.

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