Cleaning a DSLR Sensor

Anyone who likes to shoot landscape photography is going to have their camera outside a lot, and that means the camera is susceptible to getting dirty. This can happen when you change lenses in less than ideal conditions and perhaps the wind blows dust into your camera. When this unwanted material gets on you sensor, it can show up as spots in your photos and can be difficult to clean.

I have had my current DSLR for about 14 months and over that time the sensor has accumulated some dust. This dust is most noticeable when shooting at small apertures as this tends to put the spots into sharper focus. And you most notice the spots in large areas of negative space, like the sky. The photo below was shot at f/14 and I have cropped in to a segment of the sky in which you can see several spots caused by the dust on my sensor.


This can be corrected in LightRoom with the spot removal tool, but when there gets to be a lot of spots caused by the dust, this gets to be a tedious process.

I have known that I need to clean my sensor for quite some time and have put it off because this is a delicate task and I am a bit nervous about potentially damaging my camera. I researched this quite a bit, watched some videos from some trusted sources and I finally ordered some sensor cleaning products and set about cleaning the sensor this weekend. Below are the products that I purchased:

Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool (Large, Black) $15.49 from B&H. This is basically a squeeze bulb that lets you shoot blasts of air at your sensor to blow off loose dust.


Eyelead Camera Sensor Cleaning Kit $56.99 on Amazon. This is a plastic stick with sticky gel on the end that you can use to get dust off of the sensor. There are also some sticky papers in the kit to let you clean the gel. This brand came much more highly reviewed compared to the cheaper options.


Photographic Solutions Swab ULTRA Kit (Type 3) for FX or Full-Frame Sensors $25.45 on Amazon. This kit has some sensor swabs for a full-frame sensor, some cleaning solutions, and then some lens cleaners in a zipper pouch.


So, with all of this in hand I set about to clean my sensor. The first thing I did was to make sure that my lens was clean and take a test photo. To take the test photo, I spread a white pillow case on my desk, dialed to the tightest aperture with ISO100, and took a photo of the pillow case. This was about 2.5 seconds exposure and during the shot I intentionally moved the camera around so as to just have my sensor spots against a blurred white background. See the image below; if you look closely there are plenty of dark spots.


One way to make the spots easily visible using LightRoom is to select the Spot Removal tool and then check the Visualize Spots box and move the slider to the right; see the image below. This clearly shows all of the sensor dust as white specs against a dark background. The test image below looks pretty bad.


To clean the sensor, you have to get to the sensor, which requires a few steps. Ordinarily when you take the lens off of the camera, the mirror is down and in front of the sensor. The mirror can accumulate dust as well, but this will not show up in a picture as the mirror moves up and out of the way when a photo is taken. The sensor is behind the mirror and actually has a filter in front of it and it is the filter that I need to clean.

To get to the sensor, you have to go into the camera settings and find the ‘Lock mirror up for cleaning‘ function. You select this, then select ‘start‘, and then when you press the shutter button, the mirror raises and stays up until you turn off the camera. This only works if you have a fully charged battery.  There is a ‘Clean image sensor‘ function but this didn’t help my problem at all.

The first thing that I did was attempt to blow the dust off of the sensor with the rocket blaster. This is simple and avoids touching the sensor with anything but air. You wouldn’t want to just blow with your mouth as you might also blow saliva on the sensor. So, I put the nozzle of the air blaster in the camera and blasted air around the sensor several times while holding the camera facing down so that the dirt would fall out of the camera. The air blowing had a minimal effect on the sensor dust as you can see from the image below.

Noise on sensor after blowing with rocket blaster

The next step that I tried to remove the dust stuck on the sensor was the gel stick. To use this, you have to carefully put the sticky gel on the sensor and then remove it hoping the dust comes with it. You keep doing this until you cover the entire sensor. You can then clean the gel stick with the sticky paper that comes with the kit. It is difficult to cover the corners and edges of the sensor with the gel stick. The image below shows the result after two passes with the gel stick. A lot of the dust is gone, but there are still some stubborn spots on the sensor.

Dust on sensor after two passes with gel stick

The next step was the wet cleaning solution and the sensor swabs. You basically put a few drops of the solution on to the swab and go across the sensor and back with the swab. The swab is the horizontal size of the sensor so it covers the sensor in one pass. I did this a couple of times and ended up with the following result.

dust on sensor after wet cleaning solution

I have watched YouTube videos and was warned that the sensor swabs would get the stubborn particles off of your sensor but could end up spreading dust around, so the image after the sensor swab steps did look a bit worse.

But then, I went back to the gel stick to try to get the rest of the junk off of the sensor. I made three more passes with the gel stick, cleaning the gel after each pass, and was able to get most of the spots off of my sensor. The spots along the edges are particularly difficult as the gel just doesn’t quite reach to the edge.

Dust on DSLR sensor after cleaning with wet solution and gel stick

The above image is where I stopped. I don’t think that these minor specks will be much of a problem in my photos and I worried about messing with the sensor too much.

Compared to the before picture, my cleaning steps made a big difference and I am glad to have this done. I am looking forward to editing pictures without having to spend several minutes zooming in and finding dust spots to correct.

I am sure that I will accumulate more dust in the future and have to clean the sensor again or else that means that I won’t be shooting. Anyone have any other advise or experience cleaning a camera sensor? Leave a comment below.


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