Is it time to Clean Your DSLR Sensor?

I believe that if it “ain’t broke, don’t fix it“, but I also believe that you shouldn’t be lazy and you should also pay attention to routine maintenance. Maintenance really makes a difference in the longevity of your stuff.

“In-camera sensor cleaning appears to have no effect on removing dust from the sensor.” Read my test results with sample images at the bottom of this article.

So which is it for sensor cleaning? Some things fall into the category of not being routine maintenance anymore, but instead having a limited number of cycles you can preform on them. I’m sure when I start talking about this in relation to sensor cleaning I’m going to get people in both camps. You will either think I’m clearly wrong or you will relate. I expect this to be almost as charged as the UV filter protector wars between those that use them and those that don’t. In my case I think you need to treat sensors like they have a limited number of cleaning cycles.  Every time you put a swab on your sensor your risk damage. You risk cumulative micro scratches and cumulative wear on optical coatings.

D7100 Sensor Dust – Top has dust circled, bottom is the same photo with the dust.
(click for a larger view)
For those of you that don’t want to read a lot, let me cut to the chase:

Q: When should I clean my sensor?

A: Clean sparingly and only when you start to see spots or other artifacts that are getting in your way, but no sooner.

Unless the dirt on your sensor is bothering you, don’t go looking for a problem that doesn’t affect you. If the only way you can see it is to go looking for it, by shooting the sky with your aperture set precisely, followed by analyzing it at 100% magnification on a large monitor, maybe it really isn’t a problem yet.

I personally treat every time I get my sensor cleaned as an opportunity to put a big scratch down the middle of it and pay a ton of money to have Nikon fix it.  All for something that wasn’t causing any real problems. Stay out of your camera body if you can, you’re likely to cause more harm than good.

Can you spot the dust in the photo of Nubble Light from my Nikon D7100? Its time for a cleaning.
(click for a larger view)

I didn’t realize my D7100 needed a sensor cleaning until I started looking at my Nubble Light photos. See the red circle photo at the top, its this same photo just showing the dust for easier viewing. There is no doubt its time for a cleaning. Its not one spot, its several spots.  I have a dust problem that needs fixing and in all honesty I held off too long on a cleaning.  Cleaning my D7100 in this case was overdue.

D7100 Image with different color treatment. Some dust showing.
(click for a larger view)

My second example of when to clean a sensor is below. I was actually kicking myself for doing that shoot with a sensor as dirty as it was.  My D700 had never been cleaned prior to the shoot below.

Be sure to Read my warnings about sensor cleaning. I cleaned my D700 myself.

Once I saw those ugly spots, I knew it was time to clean it. It was causing me rework and risk in having a spot in the middle of something important.

D700 Sensor Dust shows up as spots in the background. Same image, one with the dust circled.
(click for a larger view)
D700 – Final image with edits and dust cleaned up
(click for a larger view)

Okay Virgil, your rule of thumb is fairly simple. Clean it only when necessary and try to limit the number of times you clean it. But also remember you can also go too long before the problem turns into a problem in your shoot. Got it, so how do you clean your sensors?

Warning: Clean your sensor at your own risk. Its not hard, but its delicate and requires real attention to detail. If you don’t have extreme attention to detail, don’t do it yourself. Scratch your sensor or leave big streaks and your done for. Expect to pay a lot to get it fixed. My recommendation after doing it myself is to send it out for a professional cleaning.

With my D40, which is my all time favorite camera, I went the professional route. Not because it was my D40, but because I had never cleaned a sensor before. $50 USD and my sensor was clean, guaranteed, with the risk put on someone else to get it right.

When I realized I needed to clean my D700, I didn’t want to truck it to the shop for a cleaning and also pay $50. Instead I bought the highest quality sensor cleaning product on the market from Photographic Solutions figuring I could clean more often and save money. 12 type 3 swabs for $33 + solution, with the average being 2 or 3 swabs used. That would last a long time. I also don’t think its worth skimping on cheap knockoff products. Just pony up the money for the high quality product if you are going to do it yourself.

After watching several videos and tutorials from Photographic Solutions and on Youtube, I was ready. It wasn’t hard, but it requires practice and skill to get things clean and right. If you are trying to do a really good job and not do any damage, it takes a special personality to get it right. For me just getting the swab to release at the end without any dust or steaks on the sensor edge took several passes. Since you can’t reuse the swabs (for good reason) it took me six swabs on my D700. 1/2 of all my swabs. I could just feel the money burning in my pocket as I used up six swabs at $3 each. Still in the end I’m break even with 6 swabs left for the future, some solution (which might not last) and since I have done it once I might get two more cleanings.  All for about $50. But remember you might end up blowing through all 12 swabs the first time. Be prepared to use swabs until you get it right. Don’t order yourself a kit of three pre-soaked swabs thinking that’s enough for the first time.

Along the lines of using six swabs, make sure to follow the companies advice and never swipe a swab twice on the same side. When I clean my D7100 this weekend I’m hoping to go through only 3 swabs now that I understand the mechanics better. We’ll see how that goes.

Update after cleaning my D7100:
Before and after cleaning shots below. I shot these specifically to see my sensor dust, but I already knew I had problems. I was more appalled then I would have imagined. Do you think my “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was a way overdue? Also notice my results with the in camera sensor cleaning menu option.

Click on an image and use the scroll buttons to view these three shots in succession.

Nikon D7100 before any sensor work. Shot with 35mm at F13 of a cloudy sky.
Nikon D7100 before any sensor work. Shot with 35mm at F13 of a cloudy sky.
(click for larger view)

I shot my test shots at f13 aperture priority mode at a cloudy sky with focus near infinity, meaning mostly in focus. In Lightroom I cranked up the clarity to max just to make it easier to see in this article, but if I were just checking on my own I wouldn’t need to post process to see the dust.

Nikon D7100 after in camera sensor cleaning mode. Note that it doesn't seem to really do much.
Nikon D7100 after in camera sensor cleaning mode. Note that it doesn’t seem to really do much.
(click for a larger view)

Just for giggles, after my first test shot I ran the camera through a couple of the in-camera self cleaning cycles. I can’t tell a difference. All the crud is still right were it was before. It didn’t even change position. From my single sample test, in-camera sensor cleaning appears to have no effect on removing dust from the sensor.

D7100 Sensor after 4 Sensor Swabs. If you look closely there are still a few minor dust particles.
D7100 Sensor after 4 sensor swabs. If you look closely there are still a few very minor dust particles.
(click for larger view)

It took 4 swabs and at the purchase price for those type 2 swabs, that was $13 (USD) in swabs. I already had my rocket blower (don’t use canned air) and Eclipse solution so you would need to add that to the $13 (USD) for your very first cleaning. If you look closely at the final shot there are still a few very minor spots, but its almost insignificant and not significant enough to keep cleaning. I personally think there will always be a few spots and dust in your sensor box, even if you clean it in a clean room, you are certainly not changing lenses in a clean room. Dust is going to happen.

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