Digital Sensor Cleaning Tips

PhotoSol Sensor Swabs
PhotoSol Sensor Swabs
Many benefits come with shooting with a digital camera - and there are also the down-sides to it. Cleaning a digital sensor probably being the #1 nightmare for most, especially if you don't really know what you are supposed to do, and how to do it correctly. It did not take long for me to find spots on my images taken with my first digital camera and retouching them all out became an ongoing nightmare. I quickly found out that I had two choices: either retouch every image or find out how to clean the sensor myself. And since I had heard that digital sensors are as sensitive as working with nitroglycerin, I was not in any hurry to be doing that. (I know how explosives work)

My first research into cleaning digital sensors only got me the basics of how it is done, and not how best to do it. To begin with no one told me that there are different size swabs for different size sensors, so I started out using swabs too small and had to make several passes across the surface. A no-no for several reasons. First, you do not want to use a swab more than once. Second, you do not want to make half passes across a sensor because it leaves streaks where they overlap. Third, more than one pass can pick up dirt on the first pass and then deposit it on the second pass, or even take that dirt and scratch the sensor on the second pass. Replacements are EXPENSIVE!

So, how do you do a proper cleaning of a digital sensor, get out all the dirt and clean off all of the spots? If you are rich, buy a second digital camera to use as a back-up and send the first one out to a camera repair shop and let them worry about it. Or if you are poor like most of us, follow these simple steps and you should have no problem. I learned how to do it correctly and now my D800e is spotless (until my next photo trip).

By next trip, I mean that if you use a zoom lens or change lenses a lot you are exposing the inside of your camera to dust and other contaminates whatever they may be. Most people do not know that every time you so much zoom in and out with a zoom lens you expose your camera to dust because with each movement the lens creates air flow in and out around the barrel fittings, which then suck in dust and if its already inside, moves it around. So, checking and cleaning should be a routine job you do with added use.

The first step to do in cleaning is taking off the lens and blowing out the mirror area. Some cameras have a menu option you can select for cleaning the sensor. If your camera does not offer this, you can open the shutter by using the bulb exposure setting. Once you have the sensor exposed, blow off the sensor. This should be done even if you don't expect dust to be inside, because if there is any hiding, this will usually clean it out. The next step I do is to take an exposure outside of a cloudless sky. Then open that image on my computer and enlarge it to 100%. I then start in one corner and move across the image to the other corner, scroll down the distance of one monitor screen area, and move back across to the other side, continuing this until you get to the last bottom corner. Go slowly and if there is any dirt or spots on the image you will know where on the sensor they are at so you can pay extra attention to that area.

PhotoSol Sensor Solution
PhotoSol Sensor Solution
If you start finding spots on your images, do the first cleaning steps covered above, then get out your sensor swabs and cleaning liquid to get rid of the spots. Here comes the touchy part. DO NOT buy cheap cleaning materials. They will be just that, cheap, and can do more damage than good. My first un-named brand of cleaner caused as many marks & smears on my sensor as it cleaned off. Mainly because they did not inform me that the swabs had to match the sensor size, so the ones I got were too small, hence the smears. All of my cleaning materials now come from PhotoSol. Inc. ( The first thing you will notice about sensor swabs is that they are not cheap. A dozen swabs cost over $30 depending on the size, which is over $2.50 per swab, but when you consider that they are all manufactured in spotless clean-rooms, you know that you are getting your moneys worth. The cleaning solution is about $15, but PhotoSol also has them in kits, so you can save that way. Compared to the cost of someone else doing the cleaning for you + shipping, its a steal.

So, back to the how-to part of sensor cleaning. These are my basic steps for using the swabs. After you have blown out the inside of the camera, take a swab and put a few drops of solution on its edge. Then place the swab along one side of the sensor and, pressing down firmly, draw it across the surface. ( Yes, I said firmly because the solution must wipe off the spots ) Next turn over the swab and repeat in the opposite direction. DO NOT use the same side of the swab for the 2nd swipe. (The reason mentioned above) That is it. Put the lens back on, shoot another frame of the sky, and check the image again to make sure the spots have been cleaned off. (Sometimes) a second swab cleaning is needed depending on just how bad & what the spots are from. I have had to do more than one second cleaning, but never a third one.

Job done. Enjoy shooting clean images once again.

Remember, you must buy sensor swabs to match your camera make and model and sometimes a solution to match the swabs. Just check to make sure you are buying what is needed for your camera. There are sellers on eBay that have the PhotoSol products, but not really at all that much of a savings, and for them I'd say, Buyer Beware. But many of them are ok. I have bought from one seller and got the real product, but it is best to know the seller and their reputation. Even with good sellers you are still probably getting old discontinued products that have been replaced with upgrades.

If you need any more info on cleaning sensors just Google Digital sensor cleaning and you should even be able to find video tutorials on the subject. PhotoSol also has other cleaning products for sensors, lenses and film emulsions. Just check out products on their site.

by Paul W. Faust

All photo illustrations included with my articles are my original work. My travel photographs, and many of my other original photographs, are available as signed or unsigned fine art prints through my web site at Framed prints can be obtained through my Fine Art America gallery at

Photographs included with my book and product reviews are provided by the book publisher or product manufacturer.

Paul W. Faust is a self-taught Fine Art Photographer, Writer, and Photo Stock Service professional.

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