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Tutorial: How to spot and remove sensor dust

Benjamin Pazdernik - 23. April 2013

Tags: cleaning, dslr, milc, mirrorless camera, tutorial

In this post I am going to tell you how you can find out that there is dust on your image sensor – which almost certainly is the case – and how to remove it without damaging your precious camera gear.

Update: I switched from a simple WordPress blog to a MODX powered portfolio page for my webdesign and photography work. My (few) old posts are still accessible from the previous URLs but I don't know if I will be posting any more English blog posts in the future as it is much easier for me to post in German. Just so you know if you reached this post via Google and are wondering about the website being German. Thanks for visiting my website and enjoy the read!

In this post I am going to tell you how you can find out that there is dust on your image sensor – which almost certainly is the case – and how to remove it without damaging your precious camera gear.

First, lets talk about about the…

Most common causes

Switching lenses in dusty environments

This is the main reason for dust getting on your camera sensor. Every time you switch lenses, you run the risk of dust particles getting in your camera body and sticking to either your mirror or sensor. You can not eliminate this problem completely but you can minimize the risk by holding you camera face-down while switching, in order to shield it from dust falling down. If you happen to be at a beach, construction site or near to a busy road, avoid switching lenses at all! If you absolutely have to, shield your camera with your body as much as possible or switch the lens while holding the camera body within your camera bag (if it is big enough of course).

Zoom lenses

This could also be a reason for dust slipping into your camera body. Almost all zoom lenses are not sealed against dust or other particles like sand. If you zoom in and out with such a lens, it “pumps” air in and out of the lens barrel, which could let small particles slip through gaps around the lens barrel. Now don’t get me wrong here! I am not saying that you should not zoom in dusty places! The point I am trying to make, is, that even if you never switch lenses, you should occasionally check you sensor for dust!

How to check for sensor dust

My sensor at f/22. Pretty nasty!

Dust particles mostly shows up as small specks on areas with uniform color, like a blue sky or white wall. It also only becomes visible if you use small apertures like f/11 and above, so if you mainly shoot at wider apertures like 1.8 or 2.8, you will not see any dust on your photos even if there is some on you sensor.

If you want to check how just much dust is on your camera sensor, choose an extreme aperture of f/22 or something like that and take a photo of the sky, a white wall or an all-white computer screen. If there really is a lot of dust on your sensor, you will be able to tell from the camera screen alone. For better judgment, load the image in a photo editor of your choice and increase the contrast until you see black spots appearing all over the place.

Getting rid of those spots

Now that you know how to make them appear you certainly want to know, how the hell you will be able to get them to disappear again! So here we go: There are several ways to tackle this issue:

  • Most Safe Options: Use the automatic sensor cleaning function of your camera (look into your cameras manual for further information), blow all the dust you can off the filter with a special blower, and retouch or map out the remaining dust via software.
  • Less Safe, More Effective Use an antistatic brush to sweep away the dust.
  • Least Safe, Most Effective Use a special Sensor Swab to clean the filter, make sure there aren’t any streaks or dust left, and you’re done.

I would always recommend the safe way, especially if you never cleaned your sensor before. I’ve been using this method of cleaning myself for almost four years now and combined with being cautious while switching lenses, it always sufficed.

What you need:

  • DSLR or a Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC)
  • Blower (For example Giottos Rocket-Air or any other powderless squeeze bulb)

Here is how it’s done:

  1. In order to get to your image sensor you have to lock the mirror up (MILC do not need to do this – skip to step 5).
  2. Go into your camera settings menu
  3. Depending on what camera you use, there’s an option called “Sensor Cleaning” or something similar.
  4. Now take your lens off the camera body.
  5. Keep the camera pointing towards the ground.
  6. Stick the nozzle of the blower into your camera while keeping a distance to the sensor to prevent it from touching it!
  7. Blow three or four times.
  8. Stick the lens back on the camera body and take another test shot.
  9. Repeat the procedure if there still are some dots visible in the test shot.

What you should NOT do

  • Blow with your mouth – Spit particles can be a pain to get rid off!
  • Use compressed air – The force could be to strong and you could damage your sensor severely!
  • Clean with Q-Tips – Those are made for your ears and not your camera! They are often prone to leave small fibres on the sensor or scratch the very sensitive surface of the sensor or better its filter.

Use things which are tested and have solid reviews. Do not fool around with your camera sensor. It is the most expensive thing in your camera and not cheap to repair! If you have questions about cleaning your sensor, post a comment or write an email!

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