Best way to remove dust from your DSLR sensor
Even though there are numerous advantages that digital cameras have over film, there are a few key disadvantages. One clear inconvenience with DSLRs is sensor dust. The image sensor in a DSLR is static—it isn’t constantly refreshed like film would be in a traditional camera—and overtime specs of dust are bound to find it and attempt to ruin your images. Chances are, there’s at least one speck of dust on your sensor right now. Of course, depending on your shooting style, you may never notice—and if you do notice, one dark spot showing up on a photo is usually a one-click fix in Photoshop or Lightroom. It’s when you have a lot of touch-up, on every photo you take, that dust becomes a problem worth solving. For many, sensor cleaning is an intimidating chore and if not done right you may end up worse than you started. After years of trying and researching different sensor cleaning methods, I finally found one that is easy, safe, and highly effective. I love it so much, I had to share!
When I first started noticing dark spots on my images with my first DSLR, a Nikon D70, I researched how to get my sensor cleaned. The options to clean it myself were basically: (1) use a hand blower to blow air on the sensor to dislodge the dust, (2) use some sort of fine, clean brush to wipe the dust away, or (3) to use a combination of a methanol-based lens cleaner and swabs covered with soft, lint-free pads to perform a “wet” cleaning. I could also pay Nikon, or some other professional to clean it for me. I was a bit worried about cleaning my sensor myself but I also didn’t like the idea of shipping my camera away and being without it for long periods of time every time I found a new speck of dust on my images. I quickly realized that the safest method—using a hand air blower—was rarely effective and usually just blew more dust into my camera making the situation worse. So, I learned how to do a proper wet cleaning with Eclipse Lens Cleaner and Pec-Pads taped on the end of a small, plastic spatula. This worked reasonably well most of the time.
For some reason, I never had to clean my D300s. I’d like to think that the built-in sensor cleaning mechanism that I had set to run whenever I turned the camera on was actually doing its job, but it’s also possible that Nikon Service just kept it clean because I had to send it in numerous times to have the autofocus adjusted. Regardless, I sorta forgot about sensor cleaning for a while…well, until I upgraded to a D600. The D600 is a full frame camera and has a bigger sensor than the crop-format D70 or D300s. There’s more surface area for dust to collect so the expectation is that dust may be a bigger problem. Additionally, a manufacturing defect or design flaw in the D600 has caused a number of users (myself included) to report an excess amount of dust or oil dirtying their cameras’ sensors. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about how to keep my images spot-free once again.
The product I found in a blog article at Photography Life. The author, Nasim Mansurov, had seen a video from a Leica factory in Germany where a technician used a sort of gel stick to clean their cameras’ sensors. Four years later he found the product at a trade show and now sells them on his website. The “Sensor Gel Stick,” as it’s called on Photography Life, is essentially a cube of sticky gel on the end of a stick. You press the sticky part on your camera’s sensor to lift dust, dirt, and oil right off the surface. Once you’re done you can clean the gel by pressing it on a bit of sticky paper. The paper is stickier than the gel, so the dust comes right off and is ready to be used again.
I was skeptical at how well this would work, but the first time I tried it I couldn’t believe it. I’d just come back from vacation where I’d taken thousands of photos. Looking through the images in Lightroom I started to notice that images taken with a smaller aperture and that had areas of bright, solid color (like a clear sky) showed possibly hundreds of little dark spots. The dust problem was obviously getting worse as time went on because images I took toward the beginning of the trip were much cleaner than images I took toward the end. I pulled out the Sensor Gel Stick I’d bought “just in case,” re-watched Nasim’s video on how to use it, and in 15 seconds I was done. I took a test image at f/22 and my sensor was almost perfectly clean! With a blower bulb I’d do test after test and find half the time that I was only adding more dust instead of taking it off. With a wet clean there’s always the possibility that you’ll touch the swab on the inside of the camera and pick up extra dirt only to smear it across your sensor. Undoubtedly with one cleaning won’t be enough and it’s common to have leftover dust on the edges. One time I even scratched a sensor performing a wet clean! (Either there was something on the swab or there was a hard dirt particle on the sensor before I went to swipe but I was left with a clearly visible scratch across my sensor when I was done! Luckily, I was using a Sensor Swab made by Photographic Solutions which was guaranteed not to scratch. They covered the cost of the repair.) Using the Sensor Gel Stick was quick, stress-free, and it worked better than anything else I’d ever tried!
For removal of dust I really doubt there’s anything better than the Sensor Gel Stick. Oil, like is sometimes splattered on my sensor by the D600’s shutter, is trickier to remove, but I’ve found that the gel stick does a pretty good job of picking up small amounts of oil too. I just did a cleaning where 99% of my dust was removed on the first try. A few stubborn dots which I’m assuming were oil remained, but I managed to remove most of them with just a few more rounds with the gel stick. The gel stick is also easily portable—I’m definitely taking it with me on my next vacation so I can remove dust when it starts to become an issue instead of spending hours in Photoshop when I get home!
If you’ve got dust on your DSLR’s sensor and are looking for ways to remove it, I highly recommend hopping over to Photography Life and placing an order for a Sensor Gel Stick. I don’t receive any commission nor am I being paid to write this article. It’s just a great product and one that has made keeping my sensor clean so much easier than before. Give it a try and let me know what you think!