Right from the start let me point out that I am just as nervous when it comes to touching the delicate parts of my treasured camera as anyone else is. And I did not pick the above headline just to catch your attention, I really mean it. Sensor cleaning is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The trouble is, cameras with interchangeable lenses pick up dust and dirt on the fly. There is not much we can do about that, even if we choose to keep a simple kit lens mounted all the time. Dust and grime will find a way to bug us for sure.
Most ILCs (Interchangeable Lens Cameras) sold today have some sort of auto sensor cleaning built in. Sucking a little air around the sensor or short bursts of sensor vibration might help a little but it will probably not prevent the accumulation of dust, pollen or even the dreaded oil spots in the long run.
Of course you can go to a professional sensor cleaning service and hope for the best. But this can be rather expensive and you will need to find someone you can trust, someone who is skilled and very, very meticulous. Or you can decide to do it yourself – risking a scratched sensor and ruining your precious camera while you are at it. Well, join the club! You will find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Should you decide to be „brave at heart“ and give it a go, below is a little food for thought.
Some time ago, I had my new Leica M / Typ 240 serviced at Leica in Solms. There, an expert on sensor cleaning gave me a little demonstration on how it can be done quite effectively. Since then, I have felt much more comfortable using well-tried cleaning gear and going through just a few simple steps. I will give you a quick insight into the method I derived from this and what I have adapted to my own liking to use on my Leica M (and all of my other cameras) below.
But please read my disclaimer and note that there are numerous different ways to clean a sensor. My method of cleaning is only one of many. There may be far more effective methods out there. So you better google some more after reading this and make up your own mind on how it is done the best.
Disclaimer: The described sensor cleaning method is not officially endorsed by Leica or any other manufacturer. It is purely based on my perception and interpretation of given information and I have adapted this to fit my personal needs. No one ever said this is the way it has to be done, and I do not claim this is how it is done at Leica in general. If you decide to clean the sensor yourself, this is at your own risk, I will take no liability for any damages whatsoever. You will need to have sufficient eyesight, good enough mechanical skills and a very sensitive touch. If this does not apply to you, better leave it to the pros. The chemicals or methanol that you might use can be quite hazardous to your health (i.e. toxic) and general safety (i.e. inflammable) if not used or stored correctly. So be cautious in what you do and e.g. follow the instructions given by the respective suppliers. You might want to try all this on an old camera or simply use a piece of glass/mirror or the like – until you feel at home with your new method of sensor cleaning.
If that does not put you off – here are some simple steps and the materials that can be used (based on what I have learned from people who know better than me):
- First off, you will need to find a clean work space with minimal air flow and good lighting. I know of some people who set up their cleaning gear in the bathroom because this happens to be the most sterile surroundings they can find (unless it is covered with heavy floor carpet).
- Be sure to have a fully charged battery, turn on your camera and put it in sensor cleaning mode. Do not just use „bulb“ setting unless your camera manual specifically says so for use with sensor cleaning.
- Inspect the sensor under good lighting e.g. with a loupe that gives at least 5 x magnification. I can recommend the VisibleDust QUASAR sensor loupe. See my detailed review of it.
- If it is only loose dust causing the trouble, you could use a good photo blower bulb (e.g. the Rocket Air Blower from Giotto) to see if you can get rid of the problem by simply blowing the dust off the sensor (holding the camera face down). In the worst case this may cause the dust to travel elsewhere inside the camera, or you could accidentally damage the sensor by hitting it with the protruding muzzle of the blower. So this may be a disputable method. Some people like to use simple sterile sensor brushes or the Arctic Butterfly from VisibleDust that can charge its bristles to attract dust like a magnet. But I have not tried this myself (nor is this or the blower used by Leica to my knowledge).
- Alternatively or rather additionally you can then use the Pentax Imagesensor Cleaning Kit which contains a simple stick with a sticky gum-like substance on top (to pick up loose particles and grime) as well as a block of cleaning sheets. You basically just stamp off your sensor ever so lightly with the sticky surface and then clean it afterwards by stamping the cleaning sheet. So you stamp a small patch of the sensor and then stamp the sheet and so on…But you must never use the stick to wipe off dirt – or you might damage your sensor by scraping the muck across the surface. You need to follow the instructions for the kit carefully and always avoid touching the end of the stick with your fingers because this would cause contamination and you would then have to clean it thoroughly. For cleaning the sticky tip of the stick you can simply use water plus mild detergent and/or some pure isopropyl alcohol (ordinarily available at pharmacies). Let it dry off after cleaning. Then you are ready to go again.
- Repeat step 3 and inspect the sensor. This may be all that is needed to effectively clean it. If after inspection you are still not satisfied or you can make out striation that reminds you of the badly cleaned windscreen of your car go to the next step.
- Now it is time for wet cleaning. Choose a sensor cleaning swab of any good make that fits the size of your sensor (e.g. 1.0 for full frame sensors or 1.6 for the usual DSLR crop sensor). I use the ones from VisibleDust. Apply 3-4 drops of cleaning fluid to the tip of the swab and gently wipe the sensor from side to side and and then a second time (using the other clean side of the swab). Be careful not to apply too much pressure. Of course you can use expensive cleaning fluids supplied e.g. by Photographic Solutions (Eclipse) or VisibleDust. If you do, you should look up what solution is best suited for your specific camera make. Some sensors have special coatings that could take damage using the wrong type of fluid. IMO it is not always necessary to use the rather expensive cleaning fluids. What do I do? I simply go to my apothecary and order a mix of one part pure isopropyl alcohol and one part pure acetone. But watch out! Acetone is a very aggressive substance and could damage plastic parts. So do not stumble away from that sensor with your swab! If you do no feel comfortable using acetone at all, you should stick with pure isopropyl alcohol (which is probably used by most Leica technicians working on sensors). All of these substances have to be as pure as can be since you do not want to have any residues left on your sensor after cleaning. Personally, I have used both Eclipse and the cheap chemical stuff and both have done a very good job.
- After wet cleaning, inspect your sensor once more. If you are not happy with the results, simply repeat the same (step 7) again until you are completely satisfied. But keep in mind to never use the same swab twice. If you want to know exactly how to use these swabs, take a look at the video supplied by VisibleDust.
- Should there be any streams or spots left from cleaning with the swabs, try stamping them off again with the Pentax stick. It is a very thorough tool.
- Check your sensor again using the loupe and either be happy or cry for help! And don`t blame me if you have ruined your rig. My only remark would be: „I told you so…“ 🙂 . When you have finished your cleaning turn off your sensor cleaning mode and you are ready to go.
Happy sensor cleaning and good luck!