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Recommended Essential Camera Cleaning Gear

By Tim Barribeau, Wirecutter

Photography isn’t a sterile business. Unless you’re shooting in a studio at all times, dust, mist, mud, rain, sea spray, and all manner of other outdoors filth can easily get on your camera. For cleaning the front element of your lens, and a rare scrubdown of your sensor, we recommend the following products.

So you’ve bought an SLR or Mirrorless camera. You’ve got your first few lenses. And you’ve started taking some really interesting photographs. Congrats, that’s awesome! Now we just need to get you sorted out with the stuff you should have to keep all your gear in good condition, so that you can keep on shooting without trouble.

Photography isn’t a sterile business. Unless you’re shooting in a studio at all times, dust, mist, mud, rain, sea spray, and all manner of other outdoors filth can easily get on your camera. And lets not forget how easily oil from our fingers can smudge a lens. So with this gear guide, you should be set up to clean any problematic dirt that gets on (or in) your camera.

Photo credit: Flickr user tiagoafpereira via Creative Commons.

For cleaning the front element of your lens, and a rare scrubdown of your sensor, we recommend the $9 Giotto’s Rocket Air Blaster, a $6 Lenspen, a $10 set of PEC-PADS, a $12 vial of Eclipse Cleaner, and if you need to get into your sensor, a $35 set of Sensor Swabs. Between these different cleaning products, you should be able to keep your images spotless.

Best Practices

You know how it goes. An ounce of prevention and all that. The first thing you can do to prevent your lenses from getting dirty and scratched, and your sensor from getting dusty, is to take some basic steps to keeping everything from getting gross in the first place.

For your lenses, keep the lenscap and rear cap on them when not in use. It’s also worth putting a basic UV filter on the front of your lenses, so that if the worst should happen and it gets damaged, it’s a filter that bears it, and not the lens. The downside of this is that it’s adding an extra element to the lens, and so gives an opportunity for image quality to drop, specifically in terms of getting more lens flare and color fringing. A good general purpose brand for this is Hoya, who offer filters that range from $15 up to more than $100, depending on how much lens quality you’re trying to preserve.

Photo credit: Flickr user so_wrong_its_kelly via Creative Commons.

Also, don’t do that thing where you breath on the lens, and then wipe it with your shirt. That’s a really bad idea. Nikon used to specifically recommend against breathing on your lens as they claimed your breath might hurt the lens coating (though the support page no longer says that). What’s probably much more of an issue is what’s on the edge of your shirt that you’re rubbing into the glass. That’s a very easy way to scrape the hell out of your lens.

Be as quick as possible when swapping out lenses, so that the internals of your camera are exposed to dust and air as little as possible. If your camera has a built-in sensor cleaning tool, see if you can’t set it up to run every time you turn the thing on or off, that way it’ll shake loose any gunk that gets on quickly.

See? Easy.

The Lens Cleaning Kit

The area of a camera you’re probably going to want to clean the most is the front element of your lens — the bit of glass that you point at everything. It’s the part of your camera that gets exposed to the most elements, including errant raindrops, fingertip smudges, and dirt and dust.

For a good, step-by-step guide to how to clean your gear, I’d recommend these articles by Roger Cicala at LensRentals and Bob Atkins. We’ll lay out the basics here, but they’re a good source of more detailed explanations, and if you want to read a bit more into how the pros do it.

Your primary tool should be a simple puffer. The Giotto’s Rocket Blaster is seemingly universally loved (well, except by the TSA). It’s your first port of call for blowing off little particles from your lenses (or anywhere else they might be lurking). The advantage to using a blower is that it’s incredibly gentle, and there’s no chance of smudging the lens. Some people use compressed air of one sort or another, but those occasionally have accelerant in them that can leave a residue on the surface you’re blowing.

The-Digital-Picture called the rocket blaster “an inexpensive and indispensable product that should be in every photographer’s kit,” and wildlife photographer Richard Peters called it “a fast and effective non-contact tool to keep your sensor dust free.”

The next stage in cleaning a lens’s front element is a Lenspen. These pen-sized double-ended cleaners are affordable and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

On one end, you’ve got a nice little brush for knocking away loose particles, and a carbon-charged felt tip on the other. The carbon end is used to absorb oil and other particles that may have settled on your lens. Each time you cap the pen, it recharges the felt tip with more carbon, letting you use it again to swallow up even more grease and fingerprints. As Cicala points out, “We like several things about them: no liquid residue, simple and easy to use, gets into the edge of the lens better than most other methods. And out of the office, they’re small and easy to carry around. They come in a variety of types and sizes and we use a number of different ones. Smaller ones are perfect for camera viewfinders, angled edges are great for lenses with deep edge recesses like fisheyes, etc.”

Photo credit: Flickr user marc-lagneau via Creative Commons.

But he goes on to point out a caveat:

“The most important point, though, is to not overuse a Lenspen. Once the felt on the tip gets worn, the rubber underneath doesn’t clean, and can leave marks if used with too much pressure. We get, at best, 100 cleanings from a Lenspen, but that varies by which brand we’re using and how big the lenses are being cleaned.”

I talked to Roger Cicala about the differences between brands of pens, and he pointed out the situation is murky, as not only is the largest manufacturer called “Lenspen”, but that they sometimes make pens for other companies to spec, and then there are cheap Chinese versions. Generally speaking you can trust Lenspen brand it seems, and Cicala told me “the only thing I’ve seen consistently is screw on cap lens pens don’t last very long or work as well as pop-off capped ones.”

After you use the pen, give the lens another quick puff of air to blow off any carbon particles that might still be there.

Finally, if that hasn’t totally cleaned the front of the lens, it’s time for some big guns. Some folks will say that a clean microfiber cloth will do a good job. But the problem with that is that since you re-use them, it’s very easy for something to get trapped in the cloth, and then scrape the element. People who stick with them suggest frequent washings of the cloth, and keeping it sealed away from the elements. For safety and convenience, I’d argue you’re better off using a disposable wipe.

Non-abrasive, so they won't scratch up your delicate gear.

For that, you can either use individually packaged, pre-moistened wipes like the ones Zeiss makes which some people like, but others accuse of leaving some streaks.

Alternatively pick up a dirt cheap big bag of PEC-PADS (which are extremely widely used, and are “among the best on the market”), and some lens cleaning fluid. PEC-PADS are all but universally used. One writer at the-digital-picture called them “integral”, and they come up in any discussion of preferred cleaning gear. Generally, you can trust Eclipse and ROR brands when it comes to fluids. Put a drop or two on the pad, and then clean from the center of the lens outwards in a circular motion. Throw out the lens tissue after use.

I talked to Ben Keough at DigitalCameraInfo, and he said that when he needs to do a wet cleaning, he goes for PEC-PADS and Eclipse fluid. I asked him if he’s had any trouble with Eclipse fluid leaving residue, which some people report, and he told me “Occasionally Eclipse will leave a bit of residue, but I’ve never been unable to clean it up with another dab or two. I think a lot of it has to do with what kind of substance you’re cleaning off the glass. If it’s oily/sticky it’s more likely to leave a residue after being cleaned, regardless of what you clean it with.”

Alternatively, you can roll your own lens cleaning fluid. Some people use isopropyl alcohol to clean the lens, though it’s debated about the best way to approach it. Some recommend using the 99% stuff, some say you take that and cut it 50/50 with distilled water, and some say even add a drop of Dawn soap to the mix (which is apparently used often to clean telescope elements). For a bit more of a discussion of various cleaner types and formulation, here’s a DPReview user who tested a number head to head.

If that still doesn’t do it, then you’re probably best off getting your gear looked at professionally.

There used to be another way of cleaning the lens glass, using a product called Opti-Clean. From what I can gather, this was a thick, polymer cleaner gel. You would paint it on your lens, wait for it to slightly harden, and then peel it off taking any dust and smears with it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track it down online anywhere, the website of the company is gone, and no one has been talking about it for years. The closest I could find is a product specially for telescopes called First Contact, which costs hundreds of bucks for a small vial. Not worth it.

A regimen of blower, Lenspen, then lens tissue and cleaner fluid is enough for almost all situations, and should get your front element shiny and new looking.

Cleaning The Sensor

Unfortunately, despite your best intentions, sometimes something gets inside your camera, and lands on the sensor (technically the filter in front of the sensor, but that’s an unnecessary detail). A bit of dust falls in, and every photo you take has a piece of grime in exactly the same place — you can see a particularly nasty one that I had in the image above. It’s probably safest to send off your camera to a pro to handle this, but that can be pricey, and you’re without a camera while it’s being fixed. The alternative is to tackle it yourself, which is totally doable, if you’re very careful.

Sensor cleaning is a tricky business, and much higher stakes than cleaning lenses. If something goes wrong, you could do some permanent damage to the internals of your camera, which is more than a little scary. Again, Bob Atkins’ guides (1, 2) on how to approach cleaning your sensor are very useful.

The first step should be using your camera’s sensor cleaner, if there is one built-in. These vibrate the sensors extremely fast, knocking any loose dust off of them. After that, reach for your blower again, to try clearing off dust that way. If that fails, it’s time to try and clean the sensor directly. DigitalCameraInfo’s Ben Keough told me that “I always try to use a Giottos rocket blower on a lens or sensor before moving on to a wet cleaning. Most of the time this takes care of the issue, particularly with sensors.” But if you do opt to go for a wet cleaning, you need to lock-up the mirror of your DSLR (check your manual to see how to do that on your particular model) and use something to clean the sensor itself.

We recommend buying a pack of dedicated Sensor Swabs specifically for this. These things are a bit more expensive, but each individually packed swab is assembled and packaged in a clean room, so there’s no chance of their being any dust on them to scratch the sensor. You moisten them with the cleaning fluid we recommended above, and then follow the included directions for how to use them properly.

Photo credit: Flickr user jamesbrobinson via Creative Commons.

Some folks argue that you don’t need to use something disposable for cleaning the sensor. Bob Atkins uses a delicate brush. But if you’re hyper-paranoid about damaging an incredibly sensitive part of your camera, I think it’s worth dropping the bit of extra money on getting a tool you know will be clean.

Or you could just give it to a professional to look at.

What About The Rest of The Camera?

That deals with the super sensitive areas of the camera, but what about the rest of it? Grime on the LCD, dirt on the buttons? There you can be a bit more cavalier. Chamois and microfiber cloths work well. A soft toothbrush for getting into cracks. Basic, gentle cleaners. You can even get special Lenspens specifically for the viewfinder. Generally speaking, straightforward and easy stuff, and shouldn’t provide nearly as much trouble as the more delicate parts.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 5/2/2013 and reprinted with permission.