Sensor Cleaning – No Single Solution (Podcast 98)

Martin Bailey Photography Podcast

Sensor Cleaning – No Single Solution (Podcast 98)

Last Saturday I finally tried using the sensor swabs that have been sitting in their little sterile bags for the last few years, along with a bottle of cleaning fluid. To cut a long story short, I used up $80 worth of swabs, and still had a dirty sensor, so I took a trip to the camera shop, and they let me try a few solutions, and made some recommendations. I took their advice and now have a nice clean sensor. Today we’ll take a look at what I settle on. Before we move on, once again, I’d like to say again a huge thank you to all of you that nominated the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast in the 2007 Podcast Awards. Thanks to you we made it to the final list of nominees in the Education category, and voting is in progress until August 11th. During this time please vote every 24 hours at www.podcastawards.com. You’ll find the Podcast listed under the Education section. You need to provide your name and a valid email address, as many of the votes will be validated by clicking a link on an email you’ll receive after voting. There’s some pretty tough competition, but if you think this is the best Educational Podcast you listen to, please do support the MBP Podcast by voting as often as you can during this next week. And if you know of anyone else that probably would like to vote but may not be listening right now, do drop them a line and remind them to support us too. Thanks again for getting us this far, now let’s see if we can’t make a dent in the final voting.


Those of you that listen to the Focus Ring podcast will have heard me say recently that I really don’t need to clean my sensor because I blow the dust off regularly. I also mentioned recently on the MBP Forum that because I shoot with wide apertures quite a lot, dust is really not a problem for me. As we saw last week though, when shooting macro shots, even to get an acceptable depth of field, I have to stop down to f11 or smaller, and when I looked at these shots, I realized that my 5D’s digital sensor was actually pretty dirty. I had to do a fair amount of spotting just to get these shots clean. So, I decided that it was time to give the sensor swabs and cleaning fluid that I bought a few years ago a try. With many people using this method I figured it couldn’t be that scary, so I sat down and re-read the instructions, and set about cleaning the sensor.

Before actually cleaning the first, I took at a shot of a white piece of paper with the aperture stopped down to f16 which, when viewed at 100%, confirmed that there were a large number of very small pieces of dust on the sensor. So, I took off the lens and used my larger blower to blow out the chamber with the mirror and everything while holding the camera upside down to make sure that any dust I loosen drops out of the chamber and doesn’t make its way further in. Then I selected the Sensor Cleaning option from the camera’s menu to flip the mirror up and reveal the sensor below, and gave it a good squirt with the blower as well, to get as much dust off as possible before I proceeded to the swabs. Some people are using a statically charged brush at this point to get what other dust off they can before using a swab, but I don’t have one of these. I can’t rule it out as an option though and I have heard some good things about them. The Eclipse swabs and cleaning fluid I bought are from a US company called Photographic Solutions, who you can find them at www.photosol.com. Each sensor swab is individually wrapped in a clean room, so there’s no dust on them to start with. You take out a swab just before you’re going to use it and drop a couple of drops of the liquid onto the tip. It’s really easy to see how much you need as the swab becomes wet. Be careful with the cleaning fluid by the way as it’s highly flammable, so make sure there are no naked flames or cigarettes around if you smoke.

You then take the swab and slowly put it into the front of the camera so that it touches the sensor at the very edge, at an angle, and then draw it across the front of the sensor until you get to the other side. As the swabs I bought were smaller than the sensor in the 5D, only actually covering about two thirds of the area in this first pass, when I turned the swab around and put it on the opposite side of the sensor to the side I did first, I made sure I was covering the bottom third that I’d not yet done, and then drew it back across the sensor the other way. It seems that Photographic Solutions do make different sized swabs, so make sure you get the ones that match your sensor size, unlike me. I wasn’t even aware that they made different sizes until way after I bought mine, as the size I bought was the only ones they had in the shop then. Remember never to touch the sensor twice with the same side of the swab, as you’ll be drawing dust across the sensor again and could scratch it. Actually, I know that most of you already know this, but when I say sensor, you’re actually touching an incredibly thin glass wafer over the sensor, not the sensor itself, but still, it is subject to scratches that you want to avoid.

Having done my first ever sensor swabbing, I excitedly shot another test at f16, and transferred it to my PC, only to find that although most of the speckles of dust that I’d seen were no longer there, there was still some left, and some of these spots seems larger than before I swabbed the sensor, probably because some smaller dust had now stuck together. What’s worse, around the edges, where I’d stopped the action of drawing the swab across the sensor, there were a couple of distinct large groups of dust. I’d obviously moved it from the centre of the sensor to the edges, but this was pretty ugly, as the dust when grouped together like this was much more prominent. So, I repeated the process, as stated in the instructions, and took another test shot, to find there were still some large areas of dust, and even now some larger bits of dust. I paid the equivalent of around $80 for my box of 12 swabs, and to cut a long story short, used them all in an attempt to get my sensor clean, but failed miserably. It was definitely getting better, but there were still some spots and groups of dust left, that I was not happy about.

It was at this time that I decided to jump in the car and go to Ginichi, the shop where I bought the swabs, and one of my favourite small camera shops in Tokyo, and see what advice they could give me. If they had no other ideas, I was going to buy another box of swabs. Hopefully they’d have some that fit my 5D’s sensor. When I got there, I found that they had the static brushes, and a few other things, including a Delkin Devices SensorScope. Now a few weeks back, one of the members of the MBP forum, Gribbo, or Steve Gribbin from NSW, Australia had kindly mentioned the SensorScope and I said that although I thought it looks interesting, I would probably not buy one myself, as I can tell where my sensor dust is and remove it with the swabs and reshoot a test shot to make sure I’d gotten it off. So I really couldn’t see the usefulness of the tool. I really have to say Sorry to Steve here and eat my words on this one. Let me explain why.

When I got to Ginichi and explained my predicament to the guys in the shop, and being incredibly helpful as ever, they gave me the advice I needed to get sorted out, and let me have a play with a few solutions in the store. They suggested that I use the swabs to do the majority of the cleaning, but then use an Imagesensor Cleaning Kit from Pentax to remove any stubborn dust like the ones I had left on my sensor, and to see that, I’d need the SensorScope. They got a Canon 30D out and the Pentax Image Sensor Cleaning Kit, and I placed the SensorScope onto the lens mount with the camera facing up, as it’s designed to be used, and looked at the sensor while holding the power button of the SensorScope to turn on the lights to illuminate the inside of the camera, and I could see about five specs of dust very easily. I couldn’t find an official page for the Pentax Cleaning Kit in English by the way, but so you can see what it looks like I’ll put a link to the Japanese product page in the show notes. I’ll also include a link to the SensorScope as well, to save you searching for it.

Now, I have to say, the Pentax Cleaning Kit was not a magic bullet either. I was able to remove three of the five specs of dust quite easily and the guy in the shop removed one more. They agreed that the swabs were the way to go to remove the last. How the Pentax kit works by the way is by pressing a piece of very soft sticky rubber onto the sensor where you see the dust, and the dust sticks to the rubber. You then press the rubber against a sticky peice of paper that comes in the kit. As the paper get’s dust on it, you peel off a sheet and start again. At around $40 this is not such an expensive option, and you can keep using it until all of the sheets are used.

I found it really useful to be able to see the dust though using the SensorScope. The beauty of this is that you have instant feedback as to whether or not the dust is gone. Without it, the whole process just takes too long in my opinion. Anyway, I was sold, literally. I bought the SensorScope, even though it’s around $150 here in Japan. I usually find ways to buy direct from overseas, as shops in Japan add a ridiculous amount for going to the trouble to import products like this. The SensorScope alone is marked up at just $89.99 on the Delkin Web site. I was stuck though. I needed the Scope now so that I could get my sensor clean, so I paid the premium. I also bought the Pentax Cleaning Kit, and headed back home to give it a try. I should note here that I did not buy the full Delkin Kit as they were charging $250 for it, which is a hundred dollar mark up over the list price, and they really didn’t seem that keen on the whole thing. I was happy with the Pentax kit too, so I just went for the SensorScope. It’s pretty cool that it comes in a case that not only holds the Scope but also has a second removable case that allows you to put your swabs or cleaning liquid etc in as well so that you can carry it all around with you, which would be great for extended shoots when you can’t get back home for a while, and you might want to clean your sensor.

When I got back, I opened up the camera body again, and looked in at all of that nasty dust that was left. I successfully removed all but one speck, and was really happy with the results, and then I went to remove that last speck with the Pentax rubber cleaning kit, and at this point, somehow squished something back onto the sensor. It was pretty tiny, but looked almost like a tiny fly. I pressed the rubber onto the paper again to clean it, as I’d done after each press, and tried again to remove the new speck, and it wouldn’t budge. Having tried four or five times it became clear that I wasn’t going to get this off with the Pentax rubber. Luckily the Eclipse cleaning fluid comes with 10 sheets of lint-free cleaning paper, so I cut a piece in half and folded it around one of the swabs that I’d used earlier, put a few drops of fluid onto it, and swabbed the sensor again. When I looked through the SensorScope again, I could see just three tiny specs, but the larger fly shaped mark was now gone. I went back to the Pentax Image Sensor Cleaning Kit, pressing it only over the three specs, and they all came off with one go. I finally had a clean sensor again, and a final test shot proved it.

I found that neither cleaning product was able get the sensor clean alone. Even if I had the correct size Sensor Swabs, I’m sure it wouldn’t have worked alone, just because of the way the dust was left around the edges, and the Pentax cleaning kit was not able to clean all the specs without going back to the Swabs. I could have done this without the SensorScope I guess, but I would not like to do so again. It’s just such a pain looking at something that seems to be clean, only to find that it isn’t when you take a test shot. It takes way too much time in my opinion. It was just so much easier to be able to peer into the mirror chamber and see where the dust is, and then target it with the Pentax kit for the final touches, repeating the swabbing as necessary.

Also remember that I really bought what was available to me here. It works, so I’m happy for now, but also bear in mind that other solutions are available such as the statically charged brushes that I mentioned earlier. If I had one of these, I dare say I could have removed most of the dust leaving only the most stubborn that needed to be removed by the swabs or the Pentax Image Sensor Cleaning Kit, so if you are thinking of options all of this should be worth keeping in mind. And of course there are new methods and products to aid in sensor cleaning being released all the time. Chris Marquardt of the Tips from the Top Floor Podcast mentioned SensorFilm in recent Focus Ring Podcasts, which is probably well worth a look at too. Having now become sold on the SensorScope though, I’d say that no matter what solution you use, being able to really see what’s left on your sensor will help you, so keep it in mind as you select your cleaning system. Also remember that the not leaving your lens off for longer than necessary between lens changes and blowing out the dust with a good sized blower while holding the camera upside down will also help to stop dust getting in there in the first place. I’m not as scared about cleaning my sensor now I’ve figured out what’s necessary, but I’d prefer not to have to do it in the first place.


Show Notes

My Eclipse Sensor Swabs and cleaning fluid can be found here: http://www.photosol.com/

Here is the Delkin Devices SensorScope System Web page: http://www.delkin.com/products/sensorscope/sensorsystem

Here is just the SensorScope, that comes in a handy case with room for your own cleaning fluid and swabs etc: http://www.delkin.com/products/sensorscope/sensoronly

Here is a link to a Japanese page with the Pentax Image Sensor Cleaning Kit: http://www.digital.pentax.co.jp/ja/accessory/index35_others.html#08

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/


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Michael Rammell

Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.

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