A photographer’s job is not the cleanest job in the world. Unless you only shoot in studios, you’re bound to get some dirt under your nails. With all the streets, nature treks, rummaging through wind and rain, snow and fog, crawling down the pavements or grass, it’s impossible to stay clean. You’ll clean your nails and boots when the day is done. But you probably won’t clean your camera – at least not on a regular basis.

The problem is, your camera does need a proper cleaning every once in a while. With all the fine particles of grit, sand and dust, it might be tough for it to function properly. And that’s true even if you don’t notice various spots and speckles on your otherwise spotless photos. There’s a common household rule that applies to our camera parts as well, especially lenses: an item will get loads of dust even if it’s just sitting somewhere doing nothing. And if it gets out in the wild… Well, you know that better than anyone.

On the flip side, certain camera parts don’t require frequent cleaning – and by that, I mean the camera sensor. Furthermore, it’s not the safest thing to do – especially with the complicated machinery of a DSLR. But learning photography isn’t easy either, and you are doing it anyway. To help you find the perfect balance, I’ll teach you the basics about cleaning camera and maintaining your own gear.

Cleaning Your Camera’s Sensor

Whereas it’s often recommended to bring your camera to a specialized service, you can do it yourself if you’re confident and patient enough.

But first, let’s get one thing clear (pun intended). There is a reason your sensor is so well protected. It’s the most sensitive part of your camera. So, you should only clean it if you notice some real dirt that gets in the way. Of course, it will always have microscopic particles, but they are not a sufficient reason for you to open up the camera and take all the risk that goes with it. Besides, frequent messing around the sensor can wear off all the sensitive parts on and around it.

Now, if you’re absolutely sure that your sensor needs some sweeping, let’s see what you can do about it. You’ll be needing a number of items:

  • Soft microfiber cleaning cloths
  • A magnifying glass or a sensor loupe
  • An air blower
  • Sensor cleaning swabs
  • Sensor cleaning solution

Make sure to get items specialized for camera cleaning, since you don’t want to end up scratching or damaging anything. The best idea is to get a whole cleaning kit, so you wouldn’t have to dig for all the tiny stuff and purchase it separately.

Here’s What to Do

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Before you embark on this journey, you might want to try the auto-clean mode, if your camera has it. It should shake larger particles off the sensor, but it isn’t very likely to help with the tiny bits that are invisible to the eye.

Take another word of warning. Make sure your camera is fully charged. If it’s not, the battery could drain out in the middle of the process, opening up a world of pain. And yes, there’s even a third (possibly most important) warning. Never (and I mean never) use canned or compressed air on your gear. There is no way to control the stream, which is so powerful that it could destroy your sensitive parts in an instant.

Now that we’re done with the warnings, let’s proceed with the steps for those bold photographers who are still determined to do their own cleaning. Ready? Let’s go!

  1. Pick up a light and clean room. It should be as empty as possible, without any carpets, curtains, or any other surfaces that dust likes to nest in. Vacuuming and running an air purifier would be excellent as a precaution. Of course, it’s impossible to get rid of dust entirely, but you should do your best to eliminate most of it. If you have a spacious bathroom, even better. Turn the shower on and let hot water run for a few minutes. The steam will pick up all the dust and bring it down.
  2. Make sure your clothes don’t have any lint. Cleaning your sensor is a meticulous job. Don’t let anything ruin it.
  3. Clean the camera body. A microfiber cloth will do it, and a gentle brush should deal with any dirt stuck in the crevices and buttons. Obviously, you will need a bunch of microfiber cloths to remove all the grease and other unwanted contaminants. You might consider dampening the cloths slightly.
  4. Turn the camera on. That’s the only way you can access the sensor, obviously. Make sure not to shut it down during the process. Most DSLR cameras have a sensor cleaning option in the menu. If yours does too, select that option and both the shutter curtain and the mirror will open and lock in, exposing the sensor to the maximum.
  5. Take the air blower (also known as a rocket blower) and gently squeeze it a few times at the sensor. A crucial moment here is not to touch the sensor with it (or anything else), or it might get damaged. The air blower will get rid of any rough particles that could scratch the surface of the sensor filter.
  6. Now it’s time to use your sensor cleaning swabs. Take the solution and apply a couple of drops on a swab. Wipe the sensor very gently with both sides, with a smooth motion. Don’t use any force – you’re not scrubbing anything here. Also, be careful not to soak the swabs with too much solution, since it could remain on the sensor filter surface and double your workload.
  7. Turn off the cleaning mode. Some cameras will instruct you to just turn off the camera itself when you’re done cleaning. I can’t tell you exactly how it works with your model, so it’s best to check the manual.
  8. Test the sensor. The most accurate tool you need here is a sensor loupe. It’s a special magnifying glass with LED lights that will let you see the big picture of your sensor (quite literally). If you don’t have a sensor loupe, there’s another way to test for blemishes, and it’s fairly simple. You just need to set up low ISO and take a photo of a clean white background, say a piece of paper. Then, transfer the photo to a computer and zoom it in. If there’s still nothing, you can try adjusting the contrast, so it accentuates black spots, if there are any. And that’s it! Unless you’re planning to shoot deserts, you won’t have a reason to worry about your sensor for a longer period of time.

How to Clean Your Lenses

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To prevent your sensor from getting dirty, you should clean your lenses regularly. It’s way simpler and less risky than cleaning your sensor, so it shouldn’t be a source of frustration for you.

I always do it after a shooting trip, as soon as I remove the lens from the body. Even though lenses are not nearly as sensitive as the sensor, they do require some precaution. Never spray the solution directly onto the lens. Instead, do it on the cloth, and then use the cloth to wipe off any dirt from the lens itself. You may also want to clean the lens mount within the camera’s body. To do that, just turn the camera upside down and use the air blower on it. That way, you will make sure the dirt doesn’t get pushed further inside the camera. Put the cap back on and you’re good to go.