Cleaning your Nikon camera sensor - a guide
Feb 6, 2009
Camera sensors seem to attract dust and, even if you've got an in-built anti-dust feature on your particular camera, the day will eventually come when you need to clean the sensor.
I had been using my D40 for a full year before it got to the point where I finally plucked up enough courage to have a go at cleaning it. Things finally came to a head after I started doing very long exposure photography which sometimes involved stopping the aperture down to very small fstops (the f22 end) where dust becomes very visible if your cameras sensor is dirty.
Just before cleaning my sensor for the first time I reckon that on one long exposure photo I must have cloned out more than 30 dust spots before the image was useable.
Before we get too far into this guide I'd like to make a point that should be obvious but it's worth stating anyway: 'If you can't see sensor dust appearing in your photos then don't go looking for it and certainly don't think you need to clean the sensor.'
Sometimes, however, here on the forum I see someone posting photos which have dark spots asking questions about what they are; so if you are uncertain about the issue here's how to tell if you have a problem.
How do you tell if your sensor is dusty? :
The answer is to take a photo of a white piece of paper with your lens stopped down to it's smallest aperture - f22 or thereabouts - any dust on the sensor will show, as on the photo below:
My sensor is pretty clean so you'll see that there are only a few dust spots showing up on the image.
When deciding what to buy to clean up my sensor I decided that I wasn't going to buy an air type blower as I wanted to make sure that I got the sensor properly clean rather than risk just ending up blowing the dirt about into a different spot in the mirror box for it to eventually settle again on the sensor.
The kit I bought to clean my sensor is made by a company called 'Visible Dust' and is called the Arctic Butterfly. It bought it along with a really invaluable 7x illuminated loupe and with their wet cleaning system with swabs exactly sized for the Nikon DX sensor and fluid designed for the type of sensor on my D40 (they have different swabs and different fluids depending on your model of camera) http://www.visibledust.com/products3.php?pid=701
The basic idea of the Arctic Butterfly brush is that is powered by a small battery which spins the brush when you turn it on to get rid of any dust that it's picked up from the sensor and also to give it a very small charge (don't worry - it's not enough to harm your camera!) which helps it lift dust up when you lightly brush it over the surface of the sensor.
In order to be able to get inside the cameras mirror box so you can examine the sensor and clean it you need to be able to lock the mirror up. The internet is full of horror stories from photographers whose mirrors have flipped down while they've been cleaning their sensor so make sure your battery is on a full charge.
Engage mirror lock up by going into the full camera options menu (not 'my menu')
As the notice on the back of the camera says, the mirror will stay up as long as you don't turn the power off so make sure you keep your fingers away from the on-off switch and make sure the battery is fully charged before you start. (no answering the phone in the middle of the process or going off to make a cup of tea
The next step once you've locked that mirror up out of the way and removed the lens is to use the 7x magnifying loupe to have a look at the sensor. the loupe is absolutely invaluable as it lets you really see what you are doing, where the dust is and just when you've got it clean instead of guessing or hoping for the best.
The loupe has a ring of bright battery powered lights inside the inner rim that really light up the sensor surface and the 7x magnification is just right allowing you to see the dust that matters.
as you can see, the loupe sits neatly onto the ring the lens mount without wobbling.
This next photo is pretty representative of what you'll see when you use the loupe to look at the sensor although the first time I cleaned the sensor on my D40 there was a lot more dust than this
The next step is to use the the brush - remember it needs spinning (away from the camera!) to both clean it of any dust and to pick up a charge.
The first time I tried this I thought I'd be clever and watch a youtube video of someone explaining how to do the next bit - what a load of rubbish and the worst thing I could have done as the reviewer simply went for it by putting the brush straight into the mirror box with no care or technique.
The result of following this advice was that I touched the sides of the mirror box as I was putting the brush in then smeared what looked like heavy axle grease all over the sensor - first time and I ended up having to resort to a wet clean to get the grease off (fortunately it happened to work really well....sigh of relief that I had the wet clean kit to hand).
The technique recommended by the manufacturer, and the one I now use, is to turn the brush so it is lengthways parallel to the long side of the rectangular mirror box - once the brush is in position just above the sensor then that's the time to turn it though 90degrees and brush the sensor in one clean sweep from side to side. You remove the brush and have another look with the loupe and repeat as necessary until you've got all the dust out. Remember to spin it clean way from the camera each time!
The charge on the brush is tiny so don't expect miracles - I usually find it takes 6 or 7 goes with the brush to get the sensor clean as some spots are more stubborn than others.
Photo showing insertion of the brush lengthways to the mirror box making sure you don't touch the sides as you carefully put it in
Once just above the sensor turn the brush through 90deg to clean the sensor
That's almost it really, other than to say that it's best to turn the camera upside down before releasing the mirror lock and replacing the lens as this will help to ensure more dust that has settled around the camera while you've been working over it doesn't immediately settle straight onto the sensor ruining all you good work.
On a final note, if you are unlucky enough to have dust that has stuck to the sensor so stubbornly that it won't come off with the brush then wet cleaning is nothing to be worried about as long as you are reasonably careful.
The swabs pictured are sized exactly for the width of our D40-D300 DX sized camera sensors - I've found that they work best with just 3 drops of the special cleaning fluid (make sure you get the right type of fluid!) onto the end of one side of the swab.
The swab is really well manufactured so there are no seams or hard edges that could scratch the sensor and the fluid dries instantly with absolutely no smearing - I was a bit sceptical about the no smearing claims before trying it for myself but it really is amazing stuff.
The technique for using the swab is the same as for the brush - insert lengthways to the mirror box; turn when it's just above the sensor and wipe in one go from edge to edge.
If it needs another go after checking with the loupe, just use the other side of the swab. The swabs are very effective and I've never needed to use more than two to get the sensor on my camera as clean as the day I bought it (probably cleaner!)
Here's a final photo to show what the sensor looks like through the loupe after a wet clean: spotless!
I hope that has removed some of the mystery that seems to surround DSLR sensor cleaning - it isn't that difficult as long as you are careful and methodical.
Many thanks Ian - this is a very useful guide. I will need to clean my sensor soon, so I shall be printing your instructions out for future reference.
Many thanks Ian - this is a very useful guide. I will need to clean
my sensor soon, so I shall be printing your instructions out for
Hi Amanda....I'm really pleased that you found it useful.
When I was making the switch from a compact digicam to the D40 one of the things I really worried about was the idea of getting dust on the sensor but it's really not an issue once you get over the initial fear of cleaning the sensor yourself.
Those camera repair places that charge £30 - £40 per clean must be laughing all the way to the bank as it's so easy to do once you've done it the first time.
Thanks for posting this. Your kit looks very effective -- much better than what I got. Neither with brush or wet cleaning have I ever been able to get the sensor completely clean. And that loop of yours is much better than the one I have: having it sit on the lens mount is really super.
The Rule of Thirds is meant to be broken, but only 1/3 of the time.
D80/D90 photos: http://esuastegui.esmartweb.com/D80
Thanks for doing this. Can I inquire as to the cost of the whole kit ? I went on the visible dust site and their stuff seems really expensive. Also, when you do a wet cleaning, do you use the dry surface of the swab to dry the sensor after the wet pass ?
Great instruction Ian, and so nice of you to take the time to put it together. One thing though, many people can't afford that "kit" you have demonstrated and there are more reasonably priced alternatives to the artic butterfly.
I've been on Dpreview since June 2006. Unfortunately, some posting history has been lost along the way...
If it needs another go after checking with the loupe, just use the
other side of the swab. The swabs are very effective and I've never
needed to use more than two to get the sensor on my camera as clean
as the day I bought it (probably cleaner!)
Ian, great photos and text. Although your experience was a good one, some people, including myself, have needed much more than two swaps to clean the sensor (10-12 my first time). The Copperhill instructions state something to the effect that you shouldn't give up, and that it can sometimes take a dozen wipes to fully succeed.
I only put that out because some people have attempted to clean their sensors but after 1 or 2 failed tries, they become dejected and think that there is a permanent scratch or stain on the glass, when it fact it just takes a little more work to succeed.
Its so amazing how many people buy digital SLRs and never know about the possibility of getting unwanted dust on the camera sensor and having many photos ruined. you certainly don't get much advice about that from a camera salesman who's only job is to make the sale, but anyway not only is it a pleasure to view your photos its also a pleasure to see the information that you have posted here about cleaning the all important camera sensor. I dread taking the lens off and trying to clean my cameras sensor. I try the Rocket Blower first and if not successful there I go ( Ugh ) to the next extreme. Very informative to people who need to be educated on taking care of the camera sensor
Thanks Ian. It's in my favorites now too. Graeme in oz
I've always loved taking pictures. Other interests incl motor bike...suzuki C90 cruiser, pushbike riding (just to keep fit after retiring),make things such as kitchens, picture frames,wood turning and other things out of timber (my forte when teaching).