Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dust spots on the sensor of your digital camera - How to find them and best get rid of them!

Do you regularly check your DSLR cameras to make sure there is no dust on the sensors? Most likely you would answer this question with one of the following:

* Dust on my sensor? How do I check for that?
* I don't need to since my camera has a dust cleaning feature.
* I had my camera's sensor cleaned a long time ago.
* I do this regularly

If you answered anything other than the last option, you need to read this blog post.

Let's start with the basics...

How does dust get in your camera?

Any time you remove a lens from your camera you are taking the risk that some dust particles (or worse) will get into the inside of your camera. These particles will likely land on a thin piece of glass which protects the sensor of your camera. This is why I ALWAYS change my lenses with the camera facing upside down and I switch lenses as fast as I can, to limit the amount of time that anything can travel into the camera. And...I try to never change lenses in a really dusty environment. I remember being on safari in Tanzania two years ago and one of our workshop attendees was changing lenses right after the vehicle stopped. We were in a cloud of dust and she had the open camera laying on it's back with the lens opening acting as a dust collector. Don't do this!

Why do these dust particles matter?

Since the sensor of your camera is the piece that receives the light and effectively makes your photo, the dust particles will show up on your photos. The smaller the aperture you use (the larger aperture number like f/11, f/16 or f/22) will make these dust particles much more prominent on your photos.

I can not tell you how many times people have sent me photos to critique and the image is full of big ole dust spots.

Heck - even I have them. But I remove them during the retouching process. Here are some extreme cases:


Here is a photo from the 2014 Indy Grand Prix. I was shooting at f/29 to get a slow shutter speed and boy did I bring out all the dust spots!!! It would take me a while to clean all these spots. I would have been smart to clean my sensor before shooting these photos! (You can click on the photo to enlarge it and see all the spots.)


This is another of my images to show you just how much dust was in my camera on my last African safari. Because I was changing lenses in the open air vehicle during the trip, it was hard to keep the camera clean. Click on the image to see it larger, and you will see what I had to clone out from this image to get the final photo I could print and display.

Isn't the camera dust cleaning feature good enough?

Nope! When the camera companies first started adding the dust cleaning feature (which effectively shakes the sensor element to try and shake the dust off the glass) I thought that this would be 100% effective. I even remember having a constructive argument with my friend Moose Peterson, asking why he was still cleaning his sensor when it was not needed anymore. Boy, was I wrong. The camera may shake some of the dust off, but the majority of it can not be removed in this manner.

How do I determine if my camera has dust on the sensor?

Here is my step-by-step process for checking my camera's sensor:

* Set the camera to a low aperture (usually f/22)
* Increase the ISO to 3200 to give me a decent shutter speed
* Load MS work on my computer and go to a full big white screen of nothing. Or you can point your camera at a big clean sheet of white paper.
* Point the camera at the blank white area and take a photo
* Hit the "playback" button on the camera to see the image.
* Zoom in on the camera's LCD and move around the image to see if there are any visible dust spots.

You want to be most conscious of the cleanliness of the center of your sensor. This is where you will likely have your subject and important information. Having a small piece of dust way off to the side of your sensor is bad, but not as bad as having it right in the middle. It is easier to clone out a dust spot from the sky than in the middle of your subject's eye.

Once I see all that dust on my sensor, how do I clean it?

Most camera stores will have a sensor cleaning service. If you feel more comfortable having a professional do the cleaning for you, then this is always a good option. And many of the camera manufacturers will clean your equipment as well. I know that Canon's Professional Services group does this as part of the membership.

But in most cases, I prefer to clean the sensor myself. The reason for this is that I want to be able to clean the sensor anywhere in the world and immediately. Remember, I travel to places in the world where there is no camera store nearby, and don't want to take all my photos with a massive dust spot. This actually happened to me in Tanzania on safari, but more on that in a minute.

If you want to clean the camera yourself, there are a ton of different sensor cleaning kits on the market and I have used many of them.

The most common types are:

* Air blowers
* Sensor brushes
* Liquid swabs
* Gel sticks

For the first 5 years I used an air blower and the Arctic Butterfly brush from VisibleDust and they worked pretty well. I combined that with the VisibleDust sensor loupe, which I put up to the camera and it lights and magnifies the sensor area so that I can physically see the dust. I also liked that the brush was soft and not going to scratch the sensitive glass covering the sensor. This all worked well until my last trip to Africa.

My first MAJOR dust issue

You can see the dust spot almost dead center in this photo.

At some point early in the Tanzania safari trip, I got a big piece of dust RIGHT in the middle of the sensor of my Canon 1Dx Mark II.  If this spot was in a far corner, I would not have been so frustrated. But having the dust spot right in the middle meant that it would be right in front of many of my subject's faces. Since I shoot a lot of my photos at a low aperture (especially when doing motion panning), I knew that this was a major deal. I tried using my sensor brush, but it would not brush away the dust. One of the other workshop attendees had a sensor swab and liquid. I need to stop here for a second and say that I am not a fan of putting any liquid inside my camera! But I was desperate and decided to give his sensor cleaner a try. Once again, the cleaner failed and the dust spot won the battle. Argh!

A crop of the same image, showing you the one dust spot in the sky. Easy to clone this out of the sky, but not if it was in the middle of a cheetah's face.

At this point, I had no other choice but to shoot all my photos with just the one Canon 5D Mark IV. I ended up using the Canon 1Dx Mark II mainly for video (even though the dust spot was still there).

(If you want to see the dust spot in video, check out this short video clip I uploaded a long time ago. The dust spot really bugged me, but I figured that very few people would notice it. Look at the video now, especially at the 30 second mark and you will see the dust spot right in the middle of the video)

Upon arriving home to California, I grabbed my German made Sensor Gel Stick that had been sent to me about a year ago. This is a device that has a gummy end to it. It almost looks like a square gummy bear attached to a plastic stick.  I pushed this down on the surface of the glass and worked my way around the entire surface. I then cleaned the gummy end on a piece of sticky paper (which are included and an integral part of the solution) and repeated the cleaning process. I did this and it worked on the first try!!! Suffice it to say that the Gel Stick is my cleaner or choice and now will be going with me on all my trips.



I called the company that distributes the Gel Stick before writing this blog post and asked some questions. I should mention that no sensor cleaning companies are paying me to write anything here or giving me a cut of their sales.

It turns out that the gummy end is just sticky enough to pick up the dust without being too sticky and damaging the mechanism of your camera. They also make a red tipped version for Sony and Leica cameras which have a different type of glass covering their sensors. It honestly surprised me how intricate this seemingly simple device was. But then again, I don't really care how advanced the device is, I just know that it is only $50, it is easy to use and really works!

In my discussions with the distributor, they did tell me that there are a lot of knock-off products out there, even using similar product names. If I were you I would purchase the real product (which is essentially the same price anyways) from this site.

I encourage all of you out there to check your cameras for dust and then either get them cleaned or do it yourself. You will be happy you did.

Oh - and make sure to pass this on to all your friends with DSLR cameras. They will want to know about this too.

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4 comments:

Al Luckow said...

I was totally looking for something like this. I had tried everything. Also, good tip about the China knock offs. There is a huge price difference and its easy to be tempted. The spots don't matter as much to me for photos because they are easy to photoshop out, but for video, it's really difficult to ignore the spots.

Lois said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lois said...

I owe you a BIG thank you! For some time I have thought that I had dust inside one of my lenses as I was getting this black mark at the side edge of my pics...much like the spot that you showed in one of your pictures. I thought it was lens as I wasn't seeing the spot when I used different lenses...or at least I didn't think I was. I did the white paper test using two different lenses and they both showed black spot...so...I decided to take a quick look at the sensor on my mirrorless camera...and there was a speck of something that I could see. So I quickly out lens back on and went to get my brush. I did a quick brush and speck moved right off...and when I next did white paper test NO SPECK!!! I will now look into getting the gummy stick to give my two mirrorless cameras sensors a good cleaning! Thank you! Thank you! And, again, THANK YOU!!! This had been bugging me for months...and I was sad that my good power zoom lens had a problem. Lens is fine...camera is fine! All's well that ends well! 😀📷

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