It used to be that messing with the mechanics of a camera was left strictly to the pros. That included the seemingly involved task of cleaning camera sensors. But now photographers can clean their own sensors-as long as they're not intimidated by the process. "Cleaning a camera is not a problem," says Matt Tycholaz, marketing coordinator for VisibleDust, Inc. "It's overcoming that initial fear of scratching your sensor that's a problem."
Joel Rudy, VP of operations for Photographic Solutions, concurs. "I tell people their sensor is not nearly as fragile as they'd have you believe," he says. Photographic Solutions, which was the first company to offer sensor-cleaning solutions a decade ago, is also the only company to offer a complete guarantee if a photographer damages his or her sensor while using their products, which include Sensor Swabs (in three different sizes) and Eclipse and Eclipse E2 liquid cleaners. "In our 10 years of replacing sensors, I think we've had to replace a total of five sensors," Rudy adds.
First the user has to determine if the sensor is indeed in need of a good once-over. Examine a few different styles of images to get a feel for the condition of your sensor. "If [you have] 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."
There's also likely some dirty work to be done if you're spending a lot of time in post-production. "If you're spending more time cloning out dust specks in Photoshop than shooting, clean your sensor filter," says Ross Wordhouse, the inventor and founder of Dust-Aid.
Some companies feature products that allow users to determine in-camera whether their sensor needs cleaning. "People used to 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]."
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; 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."
Some of the major manufacturers also have some handy tips for doing the job. "Don't clean your sensor unless it really needs cleaning," says Richter. "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."
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, 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 run the risk of scratching the filter while swabbing."
Some companies try to walk photographers through the steps with online support. "We have videos online to help photographers through the process," says Photographic Solutions' Rudy. Green-Clean and VisibleDust also provide online support. "Using our products is simple, and with our online cleaning manuals/videos, we try to soften the blow for first-time users," says Tycholaz.
Curt Fargo, president of Fargo Enterprises (which includes The Dust Patrol and Micro-Tools products), is an avid advocate of educating [DSLR users] about sensor cleaning and heads 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," says Fargo, who is partial to Photographic Solutions' products.
Every Second (and Dollar Spent) Counts
Time-savings becomes a huge factor for many photographers. Before some of these do-it-yourself products came on the market, photographers would usually have to send their camera to the manufacturer. "The major point is that they lose their camera for four to six weeks," says Rudy. "This takes time," agrees Tycholaz. "Since most photographers can't operate a business with that kind of downtime, they would resort to digitally editing the images. You could spend anywhere from five minutes to five hours trying to correct the image. We also take the risk out of the equation for long photo shoots in remote locations, because finding a Canon cleaning center in the middle of Kenya isn't likely to happen. We've helped countless photographers spend less time in Photoshop and more time shooting."
Dust-Aid advocates using its product due to its ease of use, its effectiveness, and how easily it passes through airport security (no liquids are involved, as it's an adhesive-based solution). "It's providing a solution to the customer that is going to save them time in Photoshop doing post work," adds Wordhouse. "I know-I've been there. As a shooter myself, I've spent hours upon hours cloning dust out of entire photo shoots. I've tried all the gadgets and wasn't happy with any of them. I developed a product that worked at removing the dust that drove me nuts."
The cost-savings for most photographers is significant as well. To send the camera out to a manufacturer to be cleaned "costs anywhere from $50 to $100," says Tycholaz. "Pro sensor cleaning is expensive," Richter concurs: "Some photographers want to bring their cameras in once a week."