October 21, 2021
Out in the field, sensor muck can be a risk so get into a good maintenance routine. Picture credit Guy Edwardes
Whether you’re looking to clean your full-frame camera sensor, APS-C sensor, or Micro Four Thirds sensor, this guide is for you.
Anyone shooting using smaller apertures will notice sensor dust in their images from time to time. Electronic in-camera sensor cleaning modes help but they cannot remove sticky particles or grease, meaning manual cleaning is sometimes necessary. Cleaning a camera sensor is a terrifying prospect for many photographers, but as long as you’re careful the risks of damage are low. In any case, you’re usually cleaning a filter in front of the sensor, rather than the sensor itself. I always clean my own sensor and do so every few weeks, or more frequently when working in dusty conditions.
Guy hard at work with his cleaning stick
Some sensor cleaning methods involve the use of a brush. Having experienced stray bristles collecting grease from inside the camera and spreading it across the sensor I avoid this method myself! Popular wet cleaning methods involve dragging a swab across the sensor, which carries the risk of scratching the covering filter if any harder contaminants are present. This is often the method used by professional sensor cleaning services, and it is the best method if you have any stubborn marks.
For many years I have used the Eyelead sensor cleaning kit, which is an extremely quick, easy, reliable and safe method. It involves pressing a naturally sticky silicone pad against the sensor. The kit is widely available online but please check you are buying the right version for your camera. As this is lifted off it holds on to any contaminants, leaving the sensor perfectly clean. Very rarely do I have to remove a dust spot from any of my images. Not only does it save me time when cleaning the sensor but also a whole lot more in post-processing.
Unless you’re confident that your sensor is spotless to start with, I recommend a professional wet clean prior to starting to use the Eyelead kit. This is because some dirt, especially pollen, can become quite firmly stuck if it has been there for some time, requiring a wet cleaning method to remove it completely. After that, with regular use, the Eyelead sensor gel stick should keep your sensor spotless.
There are two different models of Eyelead sensor gel stick – a blue one (SCK-1) for most cameras and a red one (SCK-1b) specifically for Sony sensors. However, there are reports of some SCK-1b sticks leaving a sticky residue on Sony sensors, so it would be worth Sony users testing on a clean glass filter before using on the sensor for the first time.
How can I check if I need to clean my sensor?
The best way to check is either visually, by having a look at the sensor, or by taking some test shots. To check a sensor visually, on most mirrorless cameras, it is very simple as you simply take the lens off and have a look at the sensor. You can buy a dedicated sensor inspection device, but normally a brightly lit room, or lights will let you see the sensor clearly. With a DSLR, you’ll need to activate the manual sensor cleaning mode so that you can see the sensor without the mirror unit being in the way.
Image taken to show dust on the DSLR sensor, and highlighted in red, f/13
The other way to check if your sensor needs cleaning, is to take some photos of a white piece of paper or a white wall. Take one photo at the brightest aperture on your lens (such as f/1.8-f/3.5), and then take another photo at a much smaller aperture, such as f/13-22. Then compare the two photos. If dots suddently appear, then it’s highly likely these are on the sensor of your camera, as shown above. Once you’ve cleaned your sensor, you can repeat this process to check that all the specks of dust have gone.
Step by step: how to clean your camera sensor safely
Get everything ready
Always clean your sensor indoors in a well-lit space. Gather everything you need so that the operation can be carried out as quickly as possible. Protect the silicone tip of the gel stick from contamination by leaving the cover on as much as possible, and never touch it with your fingers or put it down on dusty surfaces.
Face the camera down
Before you begin ensure your camera has a full battery, especially if it’s a DSLR. Keep the camera facing down and remove the body cap. Give a few blasts inside with a rocket blower to allow any loose dust to fall out. Never use canned air inside the camera body.
Safe sensor cleaning mode
Set sensor cleaning mode in the camera menu. On a DSLR this will flip the mirror up and expose the sensor. With some mirrorless cameras it is important to demobilise the in-camera stabilisation. Always refer to the instruction manual of your specific camera for sensor-cleaning instructions.
Begin in the corner
With the sensor revealed, start in one corner holding the flat surface of the gel stick parallel to the surface of the sensor. Press down gently onto the sensor and then lift straight up. You’ll feel the gel stick grip the sensor slightly. Don’t allow it to touch anything but the sensor surface.
Repeat over sensor
Repeat with slightly overlapping applications until the gel stick has covered the entire sensor. Your sensor should now be clean, but if not simply clean the gel stick and repeat the process. De-activate sensor cleaning mode as soon as possible to prevent new contaminants entering the camera and replace the body cap.
Clean sensor gel stick
You must now clean the sensor gel stick by pressing the surface of the gel tip onto the supplied sticky paper. As the paper is more adhesive than the gel, any contaminants remain on the paper. I always use one sheet of sticky paper per clean and I clean all five surfaces of the gel stick.
Disclaimer: although this is a safe process if followed correctly, as Guy Edwardes has shown, neither Amateur Photographer nor Guy accept any responsibility for any damage caused to your camera or sensor or lens as a result of following this tutorial. If you are in any doubt get your sensor cleaned professionally.
Once you’ve cleaned your camera sensor, make sure you keep the rest of your camera gear clean and protected, by following our guide to maintaining your camera.
Based in his home county of Dorset, Guy Edwardes has been a professional landscape and nature photographer for over 25 years. His work has been widely published and he has written two books on photography technique. He runs a series of popular photographic workshops all over the world. See his site here.