Best way to remove dust from your DSLR sensor

Sensor Gel Stick, container, and sticky paper.

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.

Photo taken in Bangkok at f/16 which shows evidence of a dirty sensor, especially in the upper, left corner.

Photo taken in Bangkok at f/16 which shows evidence of a dirty sensor, especially in the upper, left corner.

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!

Lightroom's "Visualize Spots" mode on images before and after cleaning with Sensor Gel Stick.

Lightroom’s “Visualize Spots” mode on images before and after cleaning with Sensor Gel Stick.

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!

Evidence of dust or oil spots on sensor.  Photo of white table taken at f/22, contrast boosted in Photoshop.

Evidence of dust or oil spots on sensor. Photo of white table taken at f/22, contrast boosted in Photoshop.

Clean sensor! Photo of white table at f/16 after using Sensor Gel Stick, contrast boosted in Photoshop.

Clean sensor! Photo of white table at f/16 after using Sensor Gel Stick, contrast boosted in Photoshop.

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!

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Comments

  1. Jason,
    just happened to find your blog via 500px (we follow each other, there) and must say: great blog! Thanks for sharing your dust removal tips, here. To make sensor dust even better visible, I found a great article including a lightroom preset on this (german) website: http://delighted-fotoschule.de/2013/06/sensorflecken-sichtbar-machen/
    (Google translate here: https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=y&prev=_t&hl=de&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fdelighted-fotoschule.de%2F2013%2F06%2Fsensorflecken-sichtbar-machen%2F&edit-text=&act=url)
    The download-link for the Lightroom preset is the magenta-ish box on the bottom of the page.
    The usage is straightforward: install the two presets – take a picture of a white paper or the clear sky (preferably some even surface without detail), apply the first preset, identify your dusty spots and reset everything by applying the second preset.

    As for the cleaning kit: Since I live in Germany, buying that product from the US is a bit of a hassle – long delivery, customs etc… On Amazon, I may have found an alternative – do you happen to know, whether that “Pentax Sensor Cleaning Kit” may be as good as the one you discovered? I still have a huge respect, not to say I fear performing “open heart surgery” on a sensor, still 😉

    1. Jason says:

      Hi, Joerg! Thanks for stopping by!

      Thanks for the links to the presets, too. Looks interesting! I find that the “visualize spots” mode in Lightroom 5+ works pretty well, but I imagine there might be certain cases where using a different method might help find spots more easily. I’ll have to check it out!

      The Sensor Gel Stick from Photography Life is actually imported from Germany. I imagine you may have more luck just looking for a retailer in your own country than trying to get it from the US! I don’t have any experience with other gel sticks, but I wouldn’t trust anything that I knew hadn’t been tested from a reputable dealer. There are actually warnings on the Photography Life webpage cautioning about buying other similar, fake, products made in China. If I were you, I’d only go with this specific product made in Germany.

      “Open heart surgery” is a good way to describe sensor cleaning! I know people do it all the time but I only clean my camera if I absolutely have to and I try to be extremely careful. It’s just too easy for something to go wrong!

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