How to Clean the Sensor on Your DSLR Camera

Updated on September 27, 2018
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Tom Lohr loves travel, photography, mid-century Americana, and all things weird.

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Dust Is Your Enemy

Have you ever taken a look at a series of photographs taken on your DSLR only to find a spot on EVERY photo. The spot or spots appear in the same location of each image and without some post processing there is no way to get rid of them. They are easy enough to get eliminate in Lightroom or Photoshop using the spot heal tool, but every step saved in post processing makes life a little easier.

Those unsightly spots are caused by specks of dust on your camera's image sensor. That is the square looking shiny thing behind the mirror. You can see the mirror when you take the lens off of your camera. When specks of dust settle on the sensor, it will show up in your photos.

How Did Dust Get on Your Sensor?

It is not that you are a bad steward of your photography equipment, every shutterbug ends up with dust on their sensor at some point. It usually enters the camera body when changing lenses. While you can takes steps to reduce the chances of dust finding its way into your camera, it will eventually happen.

You can try using the sensors self cleaning setting on your DSLR (if it has one), but it will usually not get rid of the stubborn specks that refuse to give up residency in your camera. At this point you have basically three choices

  1. Live with the spots and deal with them in post processing.
  2. Have your sensor professionally cleaned.
  3. Clean the sensor yourself.


Why Clean Your Own Sensor?

Quality camera equipment is expensive. The fact that your DSLR sensor will need periodically cleaned adds about another $50 to camera ownership for each cleaning. Depending on how often and where you shoot, as well as how often you change lenses, that can add up to a pretty penny over time. The money you save from 10 self cleanings could buy a really nice lens.

Cleaning your camera's sensor is also a relatively straightforward and simple procedure, providing that you have the right tools and follow sensor cleaning instructions. I will walk you through the sensor cleaning routine of a Nikon D3300. Most cameras use a similar procedure, (check your owner's manual for model specific instructions).

Be advised that you can severely damage your camera if these instructions are not followed properly. The most common damage occurs if the mirror inadvertently shuts while you have a swab between the mirror and sensor. While you should be able to clean your sensor with ease, if you have serious qualms about doing it yourself, then by all means have a professional do it.

Take a Test Photo

Set the lens aperture on your camera to its largest Fstop number. Typically, this will be F22. Take a photo of the clear blue or gray sky. Download your photo to your computer and note where dust spots are visible. You will use this photo for quality control comparison when you have completed the sensor cleaning.

That is not a UFO, it's a dust spot on my lens.
That is not a UFO, it's a dust spot on my lens. | Source

How Prepare Your Camera for a Sensor Cleaning

To get your camera ready for a sensor cleaning, you have 6 tasks:

  1. Use the camera's sensor cleaning function remove as much dust as it can (the tool causes ultrasonic shaking of the sensor).
  2. Use the "lock mirror" function on your camera to make the mirror flip up and stay up. Ensure you are familiar with this portion of the procedure as it is the part the that most commonly causes damage.
  3. Remove any attached lens or remove the lens hole cap.
  4. Clean the sensor using a specialized swab.
  5. Replace the lens or lens hole cap.
  6. Release the mirror.

Tools Needed for a DSLR Sensor Cleaning

You really only need two things: good light and a sensor cleaning kit. The kit contains specialized swabs that you will drag across the sensor to remove the stubborn flecks of dust. It is important that you use a swab specifically designed for sensor cleaning. Using a Q-tip or other type of swab will damage your camera. I use the VSGO Sensor Cleaning Swab Kit. It is inexpensive and comes with enough swabs for 10 cleanings.

It is important to note that the cleaning kits come in two sizes. One for full frame cameras and one for APS-C (aka cropped sensor) cameras. Ensure you order the correct size.

The VSGO sensor cleaning kit.
The VSGO sensor cleaning kit. | Source

Using the Self Cleaning Function

On your camera's menu display, scroll down to the setup menu (usually the wrench icon). In the setup menu, scroll down the the "clean image sensor" choice and press OK.

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This is the section where you can choose to clean the sensor now or at startup/shutdown. Select "clean now" and press OK. The camera will now attempt to shake any dust off of your sensor. You will not feel this function happening, and it only lasts a few seconds.

Locking Up the Mirror for Sensor Cleaning.

WARNING: Ensure your camera has sufficient battery life to complete a sensor cleaning. If the camera battery dies, the mirror will close and cause damage.

In the same setup menu, select "lock mirror up for cleaning" and press OK. The display will prompt you to start, do this by pressing the OK button again. That should trigger instructions to be displayed, it should explain that he mirror will lift when you press the shutter button (the button you normally press to take a photo) and that it will flip back down when the camera is shut off.

YOUR CAMERA MUST REMAIN ON FOR THE DURATION OF THE CLEANING!

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The Nitty Gritty

Once your camera's mirror is in the locked up position, remove whatever lens is attached to the camera body. This will expose the sensor.

Camera sensor exposed.
Camera sensor exposed. | Source

In a clean area that has as little dust as possible, lightly apply the tip of the swab at a 60 degree angle to either the left or right end of the sensor and, while applying very gentle pressure, drag it in the direction that the swab stem is leaning. If it leans right, drag the swab from left to right. Make only one pass.

Flip the swab over, and using the same gentle pressure, drag it over the sensor in the opposite direction as the first pass.

Reattach your lens. You are finished cleaning. Turn your camera off to release the mirror from the lock up position.

Swab in packet (the kit comes with 10 swabs).
Swab in packet (the kit comes with 10 swabs). | Source
The swab out of the packet.
The swab out of the packet. | Source
Dragging the swab over the sensor (left to right).
Dragging the swab over the sensor (left to right). | Source

Quality Control

Did you remove the dust that was causing your photographic headaches? To be certain, take another test photo against the sky and compare the results from your first test photo. The offending dust spot should be gone. If not, repeat the cleaning procedure with a new swab.

After cleaning photo (the sky had changed color). Notice the dust spot has vanished.
After cleaning photo (the sky had changed color). Notice the dust spot has vanished. | Source

Enjoy the Savings

Not only will you save a ton of cash by cleaning your own camera sensor, but your camera will never have to be shipped off to the manufacturer or dropped off at a shop. That way, you will never be without your trusty snapshot maker.

What to do with the savings? There are plenty of F 1.8 lenses you can buy me. Contact me for my shipping address. And thank you in advance.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Tom Lohr

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