Camera cleaning is an essential maintenance routine which hobbyists and professional photographers must undertake to ensure their camera is in good working order.
Furthermore, having a clean camera is essential for photographers to reduce post-process times and maintain high-quality images.
As a photographer with over fifteen years of experience in the industry as a hobbyist and professional, I clean my cameras, lenses, filters etc., religiously, and so should you.
Camera cleaning is among the most spoken-about topics in most online photography forums. However, some of the advice I have been reading lately is poor, such as blasting a mirrorless sensor with a compressed air gun or washing a DSLR mirror and sensor with a cloth dipped in warm water and dishwasher liquid.
Furthermore, most photographers I encounter talking about camera cleaning focus solely on the sensor and nothing more. Dependent on the camera model, you’ll find there’s a lot more than just the sensor that needs maintaining.
So, without further ado, below are five easy-to-follow tips and advice on maintaining and cleaning a mirrorless camera.
A camera sensor is the most important part of a camera because it dictates the quality of the images it can produce. If your camera sensor is dirty, the quality of the photos will be substandard.
Unfortunately, most camera sensors are dust magnets because they emit an electrostatic charge when turned on in normal mode. Atmospheric dust with a positive electrostatic charge will therefore be attracted to a sensor emitting a negative electrostatic charge.
The greater the amount of dust in the air, on the lens shoulder, mounting, contacts, and last surface, the greater the amount of dust the sensor will attract. Therefore, photographers must religiously clean their camera sensors, contacts, lens mountings, etc.
Mirrorless cameras are prone to attracting dust during every lens change because the sensor is exposed, whereas a DSLR won’t attract as much dust because it has the mirror down and shutter closed during a lens change or when turned off.
The image below illustrates a mirrorless camera sensor; those small white dots are tiny dust particles. Some dust and hair particles are visible to the naked eye and, therefore, easier to remove; however, smaller particles not visible to the naked eye will require a loupe light to inspect the sensor more closely and a brush to clean away any residual sensor dust.
At the top right of the sensor, you can just make out some of those smaller dust particles that, if not cleaned away, will show up on every photographed image from top to bottom and left to right, and that’s not good if you shoot and sell photographs commercially because it could end up with customers giving you bad reviews.
The image below illustrates “sensor dust” on a test image I shot several years ago. As you can see, sensor dust can appear anywhere in a photo, so checking your images after cleaning your sensor using the spot removal tool in Adobe Lightroom before displaying or printing them is essential.
So, what’s the best way to clean sensor dust off a mirrorless camera sensor?
First and foremost, you’ll need the following equipment that can be purchased from any decent camera store.
- Visible Dust Mini Quasar 7x Sensor Loupe Light
- Giottos AA1900 Rocket Air Blower
- Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly 724 (Super Bright)
- Lens brush
Secondly, it’s good practice to prepare the area and your camera before commencing a sensor clean such as:
- Choose a suitable location in the home or studio that’s clean, free from air moisture with still air.
- Ensure your mirrorless camera battery is charged with a lens attached.
- Layout all of the equipment listed above within reaching distance.
- Once your camera is fully charged, take your lens brush and brush clean the camera body. Wait five minutes for any dust to settle before turning on your camera.
- Ensure a telephoto or zoom lens is attached, navigate to the cleaning mode and activate this setting.
- Once the cleaning mode has finished, detach the lens, replace the lens cap, and set it aside.
- Take your Giottos rocket-shaped air blower. Ensure your camera faces down and apply gentle air blows to the sensor every 5-10 seconds.
- Next, take your Mini Quasar 7x Sensor Loupe Light, and inspect the sensor and housing around the sensor for dust.
- Repeat the above process if you can still see a few dust spots.
- If you’ve noticed a few stubborn dust spots, take your Dust Arctic Butterfly and clean the sensor again, following the manufacturer’s guidelines. Ensure you’re using the right size Arctic Butterfly brush, such as a 1.6x or 1.0x-1.3x sensor brush.
- Once the sensor is clean, replace the lens, and turn your camera back on. Next, set your camera to aperture priority mode, and select a narrow aperture between f/16-f/22.
- Using a telephoto or zoom lens set to the longest focal length, take a photo against a white wall at the minimum focusing distance from your subject. You can then inspect the image on your camera’s LCD magnified to 100% or transfer the image to your computer for better viewing. If you see any grey marks or spots, then it’s most probably sensor dust. Therefore, repeat the above steps.
The above camera cleaning process is called dry cleaning and should always come first before considering a wet clean with swabs and sensor cleaning fluid.
Wet cleaning is more complex and requires specialist equipment such as the right size sensor swabs and Sensor Clean (specialist fluid that leaves no smears, unlike most sensor cleaners).
A wet clean is best for stubborn dust, hair, smears, mould, moisture stains and sensor grease and should only be applied to the sensor if a dry clean has proved fruitless.
However, if you’ve never wet cleaned your sensor before or don’t feel confident, please seek advice from a professional. Alternatively, please refer to the video below.
If you own a DSLR, please refer to this link regarding sensor cleaning.
Rear element lens dust is the same as sensor dust, albeit it’s found on the “rear element” of a lens. Lens dust is often mistaken for sensor dust. For example a few years back, I just finished cleaning my sensor only to find what appeared to be new dust particles that I found impossible to remove from the sensor.
The dust particle was still visible after repeatedly inspecting my camera’s sensor and applying a dry and wet clean. I then began to panic, fearing I had scratched my camera sensor somehow.
I soon realised that the dust particle wasn’t a camera defect or damage but was lens dust located in the rear lens element. The rear lens element can be seen in the image below.
Like sensor dust, dust on the rear lens element can affect image quality. Still, it’s more straightforward to spot when looking for it through your viewfinder, on the back of your LCD screen or Lightrooms spot checker because it’s magnified, thus appearing much larger than sensor dust, as seen in the image below.
Fortunately, cleaning the rear lens element is straightforward and inexpensive. You’ll need the following equipment for this job.
- Giottos Rocket Air Blower
- Soft bristle lens brush
- Zeiss Lens Cleaning Spray
- Slightly damp microfiber cloth
- Dry lens microfibre cloth
While it’s not essential, I prefer to clean my lenses in the same environment I would clean my sensor—a room free from air moisture and with still air.
- Take your lens (with front and rear covers attached) and blow it with the rocket air blower to remove dust and debris.
- Next, take your soft bristle brush and remove any remaining dust/debris from the lens casing. Make sure to brush all the grooves, buttons and outside of the lens caps. If you’re using a zoom lens, open the lens right up (zoom out) and brush the barrel.
- Take your damp microfiber cloth and clean the lens barrel free from fingerprints, grease etc., paying attention to the front and rear protective caps. I prefer a partially damp microfiber cloth dipped in clean water that’s almost dry for this job. Once satisfied, the lens is clean; set the lens aside for five minutes to air dry.
- Starting with the front of the lens, remove the front lens cover and blow any dust off the front lens and inside of the front lens cover with the rocket air blower. Next, take your soft bristle brush and brush the lens and inside the lens cap.
- Take your dry lens microfiber cloth, add a few drops of Zeiss cleaning spray and gently wipe the front of the lens in a circular motion starting from the outer edge and working in until the lens is clean. Replace the front lens cover when finished.
- Remove the rear lens cap, and remove as much dirt as you can see with your air blower and brush. Next, take your microfiber cloth, add a drop or two of lens cleaning fluid, and gently wipe the rear lens element in a circular motion starting from the outer edge and working in until the lens is clean.
- Once you’re satisfied the entire lens has been cleaned, reattach the lens to the camera and check for any rear element dust spots.
If you’re a commercial photographer or hobbyist that shoots a lot of photography, cleaning your lenses, like your sensor every time you go out on a shoot is recommended.
It’s also worth noting that some rear lens elements may be awkward to clean with a microfiber cloth due to the size and shape of the rear element. Therefore you may want to consider a soft lens cleaning pen.
Regarding the CPU contacts, please scroll down for cleaning instructions.
Most humans sweat; while sweat is 98% moisture, it contains 1% salt and body fat. Sweat also has many other chemicals from the interstitial fluid and the eccrine gland, which will eat through rubber, silicone and metal.
Without regular cleaning, dust, salt, and body fat will build upon the camera body and lenses, affecting their appearance and the quality of images so, to keep your camera and lenses working and images crystal clear, it’s essential to clean the body of your camera (and lenses) after using them.
Storing your camera and lenses in a dry environment is also essential to protect them from dust, humidity and mould growth.
Fortunately, cleaning the camera body is straightforward and inexpensive. You’ll need the following equipment for this job.
- Giottos Rocket Air Blower
- Dry microfiber cloth
- Non-abbrasive soft lens brush
Cleaning your camera body is best done in a clean environment free from dust and moisture.
- Remove any lens you’re using and replace the front sensor cover on your camera. Next, take your rocket air blower and blow the camera body all over, ensuring you get into all the tight spaces around the dials, LCD screen, battery compartment etc.
- Next, take your non-abrasive soft brush and remove any dust and hair hiding in the crevices of the camera body.
- Take your dry microfiber cloth and clean away any grease and sweat etc. Try to be as thorough as possible.
Once you’ve finished cleaning your camera, store it (with clean lenses) in an airtight dry box with silicone gel packets.
Storing cameras (as seen below) in a specially sealed dry box protects them from dust and humidity.
Before you purchase such a container, it is recommended that you line up the cameras and lenses that you want to store to determine how large of a size you will need. A dry box is an airtight, watertight cabinet for storing cameras.
It’s also worth noting that silicone gel packets also come in handy to remove excess moisture lurking in the camera body’s crevices.
CPU contacts are the pins that make contact with electronic contacts inside the camera body.
This contact allows power and data to flow between the camera body and the lens. The image above illustrates electronic contacts on a camera, and the picture below demonstrates the contacts on a lens.
When the CPU contacts of a lens or camera are dirty, the lens or camera will begin displaying error messages on the back of the LCD screen, or the lens may not be recognised by the camera at all.
Therefore, these contacts must be cleaned regularly to avoid problems or mishaps when working on a commercial job. As mentioned above, cleaning the camera and lens contacts are straightforward and inexpensive.
CPU contacts are best cleaned in sterile environments free from dust and with still air.
- Take your photographic cleaning tissue, and wrap it around the chopstick. Ensure the tissue covers the chopstick to avoid abrasive damage to the contacts.
- Dip the chopstick into surgical spirit, and set aside.
- Remove the sensor cover from your camera, take the chopstick and clean, applying gentle pressure over CPU contacts a few times until they look clean and free from black oil-like stains. Replace your sensor cap once you’re satisfied the contacts have been cleaned.
- Repeat the same process above but with the CPU contacts on your lenses this time.
If there is dirt on the contacts of the camera body or the lens, the camera body may not recognise the lens. Therefore, cleaning your camera and lens CPU contacts is essential to ensure the long life of your equipment.
A hot shoe is a mounting point located at the top of the camera to attach a flash or other compatible devices. Not every camera has a hot shoe; for example, some of my old camera models have a fixed flash. Therefore, cleaning the hot shoe is not necessary.
In addition, most cameras will have a hot shoe cover, as seen here; this cover protects the contacts on the hot shoe from dust, moisture, water, grease etc.
Flashes and compatible devices also have a hot shoe point that connects to the camera; these hot shoes also require a plastic cover to keep the connection points clean.
When a hot shoe on a camera or compatible device is dirty, wet, or damaged, the camera will not recognise the attached device.
Sony models are prone to this problem; for example, when hot shoes on Sony cameras are exposed to moisture or damp air, they have a tendency not to recognise the attached device, i.e. a flash, or the camera will warn the user via the LCD screen that the device is “not compatible”.
Cleaning hot shoes is not expensive, though it’s important to note that the operator must not use abrasive materials, cloths or dusters.
- Giottos Rocket Air Blower
- Microfiber Q Tip (do not use cotton buds)
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Soft Lens Brush
I prefer to clean my camera’s hot shoes in a reasonably clean environment.
Furthermore, I also find a loupe light or magnifying light handy to view any hard-to-see dirt on the contact points and/or debris that may be concealed under the rims of the hot shoe plates.
I’ve used cotton earbuds in the past, but I’ve found these to be more of an irritant. For example, small pieces of cotton can dislodge and lead to connection problems. Therefore a microfiber Q tip is best.
- Turn off your camera and device attached to the camera’s hot shoe.
- Replace the hot shoe cover on the device and set it aside.
- Next, take your rocket air blower and blow the hot shoe several times to remove any fibres, dirt, sand, dust etc.
- Take your soft lens brush and clean the inside of the hot shoe. Once cleaned, blow the hot shoe again to remove any debris the brush has exposed.
- Take your Q tip, apply 1-2 drops of isopropyl alcohol and gently wipe the contacts in the hot shoe until shiny and clean from grease. Leave the camera to air dry for ten minutes, then apply the hot shoe cover.
- Repeat the steps above for your flash or compatible devices.
Weekly cleaning of your cameras hot shoe and compatible devices is necessary to avoid connection problems. However, abrasive cleaners must be avoided at all costs.
Having a clean camera sensor can significantly save you time in post-production because you do not need to spend time editing out little dust specks. In addition, your final HDR images will be better quality since dust specks can kill the detail in your images.
The condition of your camera lenses is one of the major factors that affect image quality too. Clean lenses help produce sharp and crisp photos. Also, they tend to last longer than dirty lenses for obvious reasons.
Furthermore, to keep your images crystal clear, the body of your camera requires daily cleaning to avoid dust and mould buildup that can enter the cameras body and lenses.
CPU contacts and hot shoes require weekly cleaning to avoid connection problems too.
Though some cameras do not have a viewfinder, those that do, require regular cleaning to avoid dust and mould entering the camera body. Contrary to popular belief, dust, grease and smears on the viewfinder can affect image quality in the way of being unable to focus accurately. The same applies to a camera’s LCD back screen too.
Air-tight storage is also essential for cameras and lenses to avoid dust, moisture and mould buildup.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.