It used to be that messing with the mechanics of a camera was left strictly to the professionals. That even extended to the seemingly involved task of cleaning camera sensors. But anyone (even your amateur-shooter customers) can clean their own sensors-as long as they're not intimidated by the process and follow the often-simple instructions. "Anyone with an SLR can do this," says Eric Richter, marketing manager for Delkin Devices. "You don't want to have to do Photoshop as a prosumer."
"The skills needed to clean a sensor are much different then those that are needed to operate a camera, so [there's no correlation as to whether a pro versus an amateur photographer] might be better at cleaning their sensor," says Curt Fargo, president of Fargo Enterprises (which includes The Dust Patrol and Micro-Tools products).
"Cleaning a camera is not a problem," adds Matt Tycholaz, marketing coordinator for VisibleDust, Inc. "It's overcoming that initial fear of scratching your sensor that's a problem."
First the user has to determine if the sensor is indeed in need of a good once-over; then he or she can start taking the appropriate steps to clean it. A customer may need to closely examine a few different styles of images to get a good feel for the condition of his or her sensor. "If you're [creating] a picture of 100 hemlock trees, you won't see any specks," says Anneliese Lettner, CEO of Green-Clean. "[However], if you [create a picture of] a bride with blue sky behind her, you'll see everything."
Another good hint that there's some dirty work to be done is if someone is spending inordinate amounts of time in post-production. "If you're spending more time cloning out your dust specks in Photoshop than actually shooting, you need to clean your sensor," says Ross Wordhouse, the inventor and founder of Dust-Aid.
Some companies even bypass the image-examination process so users can determine immediately, in-camera, whether their sensor needs cleaning. "In the past, people would have to take a picture of a gray wall with a wide aperture, and then go into Photoshop," says Eric Richter, Delkin Devices' marketing manager. "Now they can use products like our SensorScope [which allows the photographer to look into the camera chamber and inspect the sensor], which is designed to work with every SLR on the market."
How dust and other pesky debris finds its way onto your sensor starts with your lens. "While out on a shoot, you'll change lenses, and the dust is piggy-backed on the mounting ring," says Tycholaz. "The dust then connects with the camera and shuffles onto your mirror. The quick movements of the mirror in motion kick the dust everywhere in the chamber. From the chamber, it eventually falls onto the shutter while you're taking different angle shots, and finally onto the sensor. Some cameras have excessive lubricants within the camera. When photographers use a device such as a bulb blower, the air movement pushes the greasy dust off of the chamber walls and onto the sensor. There are even lenses that create a strong airflow when zooming in and out."
Once a customer determines they're going to bite the bullet and break out the cleaning supplies, it's important that they understand the process and how to avoid damaging the sensor.
Manufacturers offer some handy tips for doing the job. "Don't clean your sensor unless it really needs cleaning," warns Richter. "And follow the directions exactly; this is a very delicate surface. We include a vacuum that has a soft brush. The tip dislodges large debris (sand, dust particles, metal shavings, etc.)-the last thing you want to do is take a wand and brush it across the sensor. Then, after the big debris is gone, you can check again with the SensorScope. If you still have little hairs on the sensor, then you can get the wand and some sensor solution."
VisibleDust, which uses its patent-pending Arctic Butterfly Sensor Brush technology for dry dust (and liquids and swabs for sticky dust), has engineered the bristles of its Sensor Brush to be super-soft to eliminate any scratching problems. "When compared to an artist's brush at the microscopic level, Sensor Brush appears as smooth cylinders, whereas an artist's brush has a thorn-brush appearance," says Tycholaz. "And the permanent charge never leaves the bristles, so the CCD can't be short-circuited. I can say that, when used improperly, such as spinning the Arctic Butterfly on your CCD, the probability of scratching your sensor greatly increases. The potential to harm the sensor is always there. But personally, the only time I've scratched a sensor using VisibleDust's products was when I was spinning a 724 on our test camera. I was demonstrating improper usage to our customers. So don't spin the Arctic Butterfly on the sensor, and don't apply excessive pressure."
Dust-Aid offers an ultra-low-tack-adhesive foam tape that is used to remove static-clung dust particles. "The main thing is not to touch the sides of the camera chamber walls surrounding the sensor filter," adds Wordhouse. "These have dust particles clinging to them, and if disturbed, then you'll make the sensor filter dirtier than when you started. Plus, if people don't blow off large dust particles with a hand blower and then swab with a little liquid, they can run the risk of scratching the filter while swabbing."
Some companies try to walk photographers through the steps with online support. "We have a demo video online that can help photographers clean their sensors," says Green-Clean's Lettner. "Using our products is simple, and with our online cleaning manuals/videos, we try to soften the blow for first-time users," adds VisibleDust's Tycholaz.
Fargo, who is an avid advocate of educating consumers about sensor cleaning, heads up the website www.cleaningdigitalcameras.com, which doesn't align itself with any one manufacturer and discusses all methods of sensor cleaning regardless of what supplies a customer may have purchased. "[It's important that] you watch out for the snake-oil salesman and use proven methods," he says.
It seems like a good idea on paper, but how can retailers sell the idea to both their professional and amateur customers?