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Quick Tip: Slow Down Sensor Dust

February 2, 2010

Today’s blog post is short and sweet.  It comes to you after having paid $50 to have the positively filthy sensor of my 5D MKII cleaned by Pictureline.  I’m not complaining as they do a fantastic job and I always receive the camera back with nary a speck of dust to be seen anywhere on the sensor.  That lasts for a few days and then the dust bunnies start appearing.  Oh well, such is life with a digital SLR.

However, there is one quick tip that can help you keep your sensor free of dust a little bit longer.  When you change lenses, always turn off your camera before initiating the lens swap.  When your camera is on the sensor is magnetized.  Now, I am no physics or engineering guru but as I understand it, a magnetized sensor means you are far more likely to attract dust than a non-magnetized, i.e. OFF, sensor.  Here are the steps I take to change lenses in the field.

  1. Try like hell to compose the image without changing to a different lens.
  2. Realize that I have to change lenses.
  3. Curse.
  4. Dig out the lens I’m switching to, place it front element down in my pack (WITH the front lens cap on!), and loosen the rear lens cap.
  5. Turn off the camera.
  6. Holding my camera, turn it upside down so that the front of the camera is facing the ground so gravity works for rather than against me.
  7. Remove the lens and quickly place it in my pack while continuing to hold camera face down.
  8. Remove rear lens cap from lens I’m switching to and attach lens to the camera all the while moving as fast as I possibly can to minimize exposure to the elements of the sensitive internal camera components.  During this entire maneuver my camera is always face down.
  9. Once lens is in place I compose and make the image.
  10. Zoom in to 100% and curse at all the dust specks showing up in the sky.
  11. Leave lens on until I absolutely, positively have to change it again.

That’s it.  11 steps to less sensor dust.

I’m often asked on workshops how I clean my sensor.  The answer depends on how dirty it is.  If it isn’t bad I use the Dust-Aid wands to remove all but the really tenancious stuff.  When the sensor gets too bad for me to deal with I drop it off at Pictureline in Salt Lake, pay ’em $50 and pick it up in a couple hours all shiny and clean.

So, turn off your cameras and keep ’em turned face down when you change lenses to minimize dust collection on your sensor.  Or, if you’re really rich and have a strong back, buy several of the same camera body and attach a different lens to each one.  Then, you’ll never have to change lenses again.

How do you minimize sensor dust?  Leave a comment and help your fellow digital photographers maintain their sanity.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 9:09 am

    This all sounds too familiar to me Ron! Good advice. I’ve given up on cleaning my senor myself, aside from blowing dust off with a rocket blower. I use Canon Professional Services for my sensor cleans. They give you two free cleanings a year for the $100.00 gold level membership fee. The only catch is that you can only join if you have the appropriate amount of Canon gear (at least two bodies of the 5 D Mark II or higher.)

    Things were so bad with my old 1 Ds Mark II that I bought the Mark II when it came out, hoping that the self-cleaning sensor would improve things. It did a little, but what’s interesting is I had them change my sensor after about a year because of a non-dust related problem, and the new sensor hardly ever gets annoyingly dirty.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that dust spots are more apparent on images with a lot of depth of field, so I’ll shoot at F8 or F11 instead of F16 now if I don’t absolutely need the extra depth of field.

    • February 2, 2010 9:12 am

      Sorry Bret – didn’t mean to call you Ron!

      • February 2, 2010 9:30 am

        It’s okay, Jerry. I’ve been called much worse. And thanks for the comment!

  2. Jim Casteel permalink
    February 2, 2010 9:33 am

    You should also make sure to put the rear cap on the lens you just put into your bag! 🙂

  3. February 2, 2010 9:45 am

    I throw an extra step in when time isn’t an issue. I carry the camera’s body cap and a blower with me. When it’s time to change lens, I turn off the camera, take off the lens, and quickly put on the camera body cap. This allows me to give a few puffs with the blower to the back of the next lens. I quickly take off the body cap and put on the next lens.

  4. Bret Edge permalink
    February 2, 2010 10:29 am

    Really good reminder, Jim!

  5. February 2, 2010 10:29 am

    Bret – excellent advice, and very close to what I do, also (especially the cursing part).

    My only suggestions would be:
    – Turn the camera off first / as soon as you realize you’re going to change lenses, so that any residual power / magnetic field has time to dissipate;
    – Use your blower to get rid of any external dust around the lens mount and front of the camera body before you remove the lens;
    – If outside, turn your body to block the wind as much as possible, or if possible get in the car & shut the doors so it’s sheltered. (If you just hiked five miles the car part is wishful thinking, of course.)

    It’s not really part of the procedure, but another thing that helps is to set the self-cleaning cycle to run at camera startup and shutdown. (On Nikons this is configurable; I’m assuming on Canons also.) And run it manually as needed, for good measure. In drier climates especially this can prevent a lot of dust particles from sticking in the first place.

    Nice article – this is one of the more aggravating aspects of digital life!

    • February 2, 2010 10:28 pm

      Good idea to turn the camera off first. This also will help to negate forgetting to turn it off while hastily changing lenses in rapidly changing conditions. Good idea, Moira!

  6. February 2, 2010 8:35 pm

    Awesome tips, Bret. I never thought of turning the camera off, but your logic makes great sense.

    FWIW, if you shoot Canon, they will clean the sensor for free (or at least they did 1 year ago). This isn’t practical if you have to ship it off, but since I essentially work in Irvine (where a service center is), I simply drop it off on my way to work and can usually pick it up the next day.

    • February 2, 2010 10:29 pm

      I didn’t know this, Greg. I’ll have to start shipping my camera to you from now on! 😉


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