Saturday, 19 April 2008

Cleaning the Camera Sensor | CCD | CMOS | Sensor Swabs | Eclipse Fluid

A Strange Man on the Internet Says That it is Safe!
Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. Although this post may initially appear to have little to do with macro photography. In fact it could prove to be quite useful even if you have a point and shoot, compact or bridge camera. All optical and electronic equipment needs to be maintained and cleaned for best performance at some point. Neglect your expensive camera and lenses and you may as well set your money alight and make a conical hat with the letter D printed on the front (a dunce’s hat). There is no doubt that photography is an expensive past-time. I accept that there are lots of websites, blogs and books that tell us all how to make camera equipment from cardboard boxes, old toilet rolls and bits of tin foil. I have made plenty of home-made gadgetry in my time and will continue to do so. I regard making camera equipment as an education and recommend such projects to my readers. However, the fact remains that for the fundamental gear you have to spend some money. To protect your financial investment you will have to spend more money on cleaning and maintenance. Keeping the camera and photography equipment clean will ensure that it works at its optimum. I would like to point out that cleaning the camera sensor is not part of routine maintenance. Only clean the camera sensor when it requires cleaning, not when you feel like it Cleaning and maintenance must be done properly to prevent expensive and potentially fatal damage to the sensitive areas of your camera or optical equipment. There are companies that will service your camera for you but it often means sending your camera away or leaving it behind while you wait for it to be serviced. I've heard lots of horror stories of cameras getting lost, damaged and coming back dirtier than when they went in for service. I do not know whether these stories are true or not but I took the decision to clean my camera sensor myself. To find out if this went to plan or ended in tragedy you will have to read the rest of this post!

Figure 1. Using Adobe Photoshop to highlight the dust on the camera sensor (click to enlarge if you dare) Note: Most of this sensor dust would not be visible under normal photographic circumstances.

Sensor Cleaning Products
Sensor cleaning products are not cheap. I would be worried if they were cheap because they have to be of the highest quality. I have just had to spend a large amount of cash on a pack of 12 sensor swabs and a small bottle of Eclipse cleaning fluid. I did a lot of research before purchasing the appropriate sensor cleaning products. There are such a lot products available it is enough to boggle the sanest of minds. In the end it was possible to narrow it down to the essentials, these being the most reliable from the myriad of products available. The sensor cleaning swabs that I decided to use are manufactured by Photographic Solutions and are very highly recommended by photographers. The makers are confident enough to guarantee that their pec-pad product will not damage the camera sensor when used correctly. I can confirm that they are of a very high quality and each pad arrives individually vacuum packed. I also bought a Giotto Rocket-Air blower for getting rid of all the surface dust in those impossible to reach areas. My plan is to attempt to clear all the loose surface dust with the Giotto Rocket-Air blower. The main reason for this protracted cause of action is to avoid dragging any grit over the sensor with the pec-pad when wet cleaning the sensor. To remove the more stubborn sensor dirt such as pollen grains or grease I will use Eclipse Sensor Cleaning Fluid and a sterile Pec Pad.

I also used the Giotto Rocket-Air blower to remove all the dust from the chamber (sounds a bit strange that!). Talking of strange things…using analytic tools to check how visitors found my macro photography for beginners website I found the words “Granny Flasher” in the list of keywords. I confess to using the word Granny in one of my earlier posts. It was used in relevant context in a statement about photographic composition. I am not sure what this term refers too exactly (However, I am quite reluctant to use it too often in case lots of people arrive here under false pretences, after all I do not want to be prosecuted under the trade descriptions act. I wonder if this is a consequence of making a joke about indecent exposure in one of my earlier posts. I might have to be more careful how I word my posts in future. There is no chance whatsoever of me telling the hilarious story about my neighbours gardener and his pet cockerel.

Figure 2. Giotto Rocket-Air. If you do not have one of these blowers go out and buy one right away!

Before you clean the sensor in your camera you ought to find out exactly what it is you are cleaning. Not all sensors are the same and most people incorrectly call their sensor a CCD. Not all Digital Cameras have sensors that use a Charge-Coupled Device (CCD). This component is not strictly the sensor itself anyway but part of the processing system. The Canon 300D (Rebel or Kiss to some people) has a Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor image sensor (CMOS). It is important to understand which type of sensor your camera uses because some of them have different coatings. Make sure that you buy the correct size and type of sensor swabs for your make and model of camera. Damage the delicate coating on the sensor by using the wrong sort of cleaning product and you will be left looking at an expensive paperweight. To make certain that the sensor on my camera requires cleaning I have examined it carefully and found several large specks of dust. I have already cleaned all my lenses very thoroughly and will take several test images before attacking the actual sensor with the Eclipse fluid and pec-pad. Technically it is not the actual sensor that need to be cleaned, but a coated filter that sits above it. Although my digital camera is getting old and I am thinking about upgrading to a more advanced model, I still want to preserve this iconic device for future generations to admire. This is a camera that introduced digital single reflex lens photography to the consumer and ignited the touchpaper for the digital camera explosion.

Cleaning the Viewfinder
Dust in the view finder obviously does not affect the outcome of the image, however it can be quite annoying and is a cause of distraction, particularly on older models that do not have a live view option. To clean the view finder of my camera I used the Giotto Rocket-Air to remove surface dust. Giotto makes a cleaning kit that includes Cleaning Solution, Micro-fibre cloth (magic cloth), a retractable brush and Cotton Swabs (with paper shaft). The kit comes with the excellent Rocket-Air blower and is relatively cheap to buy. The cleaning solution is environmentally friendly and if the information on the packaging is to be believed, innocuous as fresh air. I suffer with mild asthma and it did not trigger any symptoms. The kit is not specifically for cleaning cameras, it can be used for all kinds of devices. It is a really useful item to have around the home. The Giotto Rocket-Air blower comes in handy for getting dust from awkward places. I use mine to clean around dashboard switches in the car and to remove dust from the heat grills in my LCD televisions. It is great for cleaning dust, hair and crumbs from computer/laptop keyboards. The reason I mentioned this kit is that it comes with the cotton swabs. DO NOT use the Giotto fluid or cotton swabs to clean the camera sensor. I only use the Giotto cleaning kit to clean the outside of my camera, lenses, other optical equipment (i.e. Binoculars) and household items (i.e DVD's, CD's, telephones etc). The Giotto cotton swabs have a blunt end and a pointed end and are great for cleaning the outer glass of the cameras viewfinder. I used the Giotto Rocket-Air blower to remove dust from the interior of the view finder. This has to be done very carefully to avoid touching the mirror. The mirror is accurately aligned and any contact could move it out of position. The viewfinder has always been a very difficult area to clean on my camera. I was obviously pleased to finally discover a method that actually works. Now when I look through the view finder I am no longer confronted with hair, dust and pollen grains.

Cleaning the Camera Sensor!
Sensor dust is a major concern for photographers using Digital SLR cameras. Modern SLR cameras have self-cleaning sensors that vibrate when the camera is turned on to shake off surface dust particles. Although these systems work quite well some substances are more difficult to shake off than others. Pollen grains for example may stick to the sensor surface or small amounts of oil and grease used to lubricate the cameras mirror mechanism. These more stubborn substances will not be removed with a blower and therefore have to be removed by wet cleaning. Wet cleaning the sensor means using a special formula cleaning fluid and a swab tool called a pec-pad.

I was determined to continue with the more risky process of wet cleaning the camera sensor. I would like to stress the point that I am a very competent person with regard to machines, devices and tools. If you are not confident about your ability to clean the sensor in your own camera then please do not attempt to clean your sensor. There are plenty of camera repair and maintenance companies who can service your camera for you. Anyway…I like to take the occasional gamble and ploughed on with the sensor cleaning process. I have to say, it was much easier than I ever expected. I made sure the camera had a fully charged battery (it will not let you clean the sensor without a full battery). Removed the lens and used the menu to put the camera into sensor cleaning mode. This lifts the mirror up giving you clear access to the sensor below. I placed the camera on its back facing upwards on a sturdy surface, took the pec pad from the sterile packet and added some Eclipse cleaning fluid (2-3 drops). I then swiftly and firmly moved the pec pad from left to right, turned it over and ran it right to left. On the first run the pec pad juddered a little in the middle section of the sensor and I was concerned that I had pressed a little bit too hard. The process is quite like pressing down on a pocket calculator screen with your finger. The sensor changes colour as you progress along it in the same way. I was slightly anxious and wanted to test the camera as soon as the cleaning process was completed. Cleaning the sensor had only taken approximately 2 minutes from beginning to end. I was pleased to discover that my camera worked perfectly and the sensor was notably cleaner, but not perfect as there are still one or two small marks on the sensor. It is nothing that I can not live with, and hopefully I will get those pesky particles next time! Overall, I am happy with the results and would not feel concerned about repeating the process.

Figure 3. This image of a white sheet of paper has had the levels changed in Adobe Photoshop to highlight any dust remaining on the sensor (the same technique as Figure 1). There are a few specks of dust in the upper left corner of the picture but they do not appear under normal photographic circumstances even at small aperture values. They may have survived this first onslaught but I will try and get them next time!

I hope that you have found this article useful and thank you for visiting my macro photography for beginners website. Now that I have got my camera sensor clean I can get back to taking macro photographs!

Marvin Africa

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