Who Knew You Had To Clean These Things?

In most of my life, I’m a bit of a neat freak.  Until my recent embrace of hobo-ism, my car was the one that people remarked on the cleanliness of while I was pulling out the vacuum.  I just like straightening things up and putting things away.  It’s cathartic or something.  I’m the same way with my camera gear – my lenses and filters are always clean.  Until now, however, I never cleaned the sensor on my camera.  I figured it wasn’t that dirty (I don’t change lenses in the desert or anything) and if you make a mistake, not only will you have a broken camera, you’ll have a voided warranty.  In any case, a photography newsletter I read just published a link to some instructions which included an easy way to see how much crap is on your sensor.  Well guess what?  Mine was filthy:


Hit the jump for the easy cleaning steps.

If you want to get an idea how dirty your sensor is, there is an easy way to do it.

  1. Make a completely white image in photoshop (or grab this one) and pull it up on your computer screen.
  2. Put your DSLR in Av (Aperture Priority) mode and dial the aperture as closed as it can get – at least f/22, higher if you can.
  3. Set focus to manual and speed to 100.  Zoom all the way in if you’re using a zoom.
  4. Hold your camera about 2 inches from your screen and take a picture.  Moving the camera slightly during the exposure will ensure that the crud you’re taking a picture of is in the camera, not on the screen.
  5. Open the picture up in your favorite photo editor.  In Photoshop, use Image -> Adjustment -> Auto Levels.  If you don’t have Photoshop, use the auto levels or contrast setting to get something similar.
  6. Check the picture – all those little bits of gunk on there are dust, pollen, etc.

There are a few methods of cleaning your camera, some of which get complicated, expensive, and difficult.  Some cameras have a built in ultrasonic cleaning mode that might just do the trick.  Mine doesn’t, so I did something about it the old fashioned way.  Things in there don’t need to be 100% clean and unless you’re a pro, it really won’t matter, but for just a couple bucks and a few minutes, you can make things a lot better.  You ready for the cleaning process?

  1. Make sure your camera battery is charged – you don’t want to run out of juice while you’re playing in the guts of your camera.
  2. Remove and cap the lens.
  3. Set your camera into cleaning mode.  You might have to jump through the menus to find it, but it’s in there.  The mirror will lock up.
  4. With the mirror locked up, use a hand blower (not compressed air, not one with a little brush on it, and don’t try and blow on it with your mouth.) to repeatedly blow air over the sensor.  You’ll need to get close and you’ll need to use it pretty agressively, but be careful – you don’t want to touch that thing!
  5. Once you’re done, cycle the power (at least on my Canon) to lower the mirror, reattach the lens, and take another picture.  This is what I got:


It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what I started with and that extra large speck of gunk that I was actually manually removing from pictures is gone.  Time to shoot some more and see if I notice a difference.

If you use a point and shoot, for once you have it easy – there is no lens to remove and therefore no sensor to get dirty, but if you do have a DSLR, I’d highly reccommend giving this a shot!

  • Aperture: ƒ/22
  • Camera: Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
  • Focal length: 105mm
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: 1/2.5s


  1. I’ve been noticing three dark spots taken on the camera I just got for Christmas starting around F11 or so and they’re very noticeable and ugly when it’s stopped down even more (requiring removal in PS). I tried this test last night and it appears to be on the senor.

    I actually didn’t even need to take the image off-camera, they were very apparent just from looking at the camera LCD. It’s annoying because I’ve only had the damn thing for a few weeks and I’ve taken the lens off maybe three times.


  2. It took me a good while to build up this crud. Recently I found myself photoshopping out one major spot of gunk and even that didn’t really tip me off. The good news is that with just a little rubber blower, you can get most stuff off. They sell swabs that remove EVERYTHING but I think you can damage things or leave other smudges if you don’t do it just right. Start with a blower – it’s easy and low risk. Hit it pretty hard and often. If you can see it on the camera, it must be a huge chunk of grime!


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