How to keep your camera and lenses clean for best performance
By Zachary Singer
Although many of us who shoot outdoors do so alone, we all have one constant companion—dirt. Ever present, it accumulates on our photo gear, degrading the quality of our images and interfering with the operation of our cameras. We’ll show you the trouble spots and the tools you need to fight back.
Your lenses' glass elements need the most attention. Dirt or fingerprints on the glass disrupt the flow of light through your optics, lowering image resolution and contrast. The oils in your fingerprints also can damage the coatings on your lenses, so it's best to remove the prints as soon as possible.
The inside of your SLR or D-SLR needs attention, too. Every time you switch lenses, you open your camera's interior to the environment. Inevitably, dust creeps in and settles inside your mirror box. Some of that dust will land on your reflex mirror or ground glass, causing annoying little black shadows on the image in your viewfinder.
Far worse are the other dust motes that migrate onto your film or digital image sensor. They leave shadows that show up as black spots on your photos. Unlike SLRs, whose film is advanced after every picture, D-SLRs present the image sensor's surface shot after shot. Dust easily builds up there, causing you to spend time "spotting" the dust out of your photos with image-editing software.
As much as an SLR's advancing film helps minimize the risk of dust settling there, these cameras have a vulnerability that D-SLRs don't—the opened back of the camera. Here, we find not just dust from outside the camera, but bits of debris from the film itself—tiny chips torn off during the loading or unloading process. The area around the take-up system is the worst for this, but the problem exists throughout the camera's film chamber.
If particles get trapped between the film and the pressure plate, or lodge themselves in the film can's felt-lined light trap, they can scratch your film as you wind or rewind. Somehow, these mindless bits of flotsam have a knack for getting themselves into that position, and the result is a long horizontal line across your prize picture. While digital post-processing now can remove these lines from our images, actually doing so can be tedious, especially if you've scratched several negatives. It's much better to keep your camera clean!
The outside of your camera also is important—grit can find its way into the crevices between moving parts on your camera and lens barrels. Just like the particles inside the film chamber, the grit outside your camera tends to find the vulnerable spots. On the lens, they're the focusing ring and ƒ-stop controls (if your camera still has an aperture setting ring). Foreign particles can work their way down into these mechanisms, causing their precisely machined parts to grind—or to stop working altogether.
On the body, modern electronics have eliminated the shutter speed dials, ISO-setting rings and film-advance levers of old. That's good news because these were entry points for grit, but it's still wise to keep your camera body clean. If you shoot with an older camera, then keeping your camera's exterior free of dirt is essential.
Water also is a threat for camera exteriors and lenses. Moisture from rain or splashes can find its way inside your gear at least as easily as grit—and it carries with it the potential to damage your lens elements or ruin your electronic components. At this time of the year, snow poses a threat—those graceful snowflakes wafting quietly downward onto an open field can melt quickly on your camera, leaving a threatening drop of water behind.
So, now that you understand the problem, what can be done about it? The war on dirt is won with just a few simple tools, and the first is an air blower. Looking very much like a big version of the squeeze bulb on a perfume bottle, these flexible rubber blowers use a current of air to dislodge dust and grit. Their great advantage is that they don't actually touch what you're cleaning, so there's no chance of grinding the offending particles into expensive lens elements or other delicate surfaces. Giottos' Rocket Air Blower and Hakuba's Hurricane Blower are two examples.
Anti-static brushes, such as those made by Kinetronics, can be gently used to whisk more stubborn particles off your lens elements. They'll lift the dirt without scratching and neutralize the electric charges that helped attract the dust in the first place. Camel hair and other soft brushes work well, too. (Never brush these across your skin because the brush will pick up oils.)
Keep a second brush handy for mechanical components like lens barrels or camera exteriors, where heavier dirt would otherwise contaminate the brush for your lenses. Some photographers carry a soft toothbrush or a small paintbrush for this second purpose. Toothbrushes also are useful for removing snow, as they can reach into recesses and pull out the flakes without melting them.
You'll need some sort of a wipe to clean your optical surfaces. Although many people use facial tissue to clean their eye glasses and their expensive photographic lenses, don't do it! Their fibers are much too rough for optics, and with repeated use, they can damage the surface of your lenses or the multi-coatings applied there. Even worse are the moisturizer-laden tissues, which are perfect when you've caught a cold, but leave an oily film on your lenses.
Special tissues made expressly for camera optics are the answer. Kodak Lens Cleaning Paper works very well; its inexpensive 50-sheet package fits easily into your camera bag. Many photographers prefer reusable microfiber cloths. They provide an equally scratch-proof surface for cleaning your optics. Microdear, Kalt and Samigon are among the numerous suppliers.
Finally, you may need lens-cleaning fluid on occasion to remove stubborn fingerprints or other substances from your glass. (Never drop fluid directly on the lens.) You can get cleaning fluid from many of the same companies that make cleaning tissues, including Kodak, Kinetronics and many more.
You also can get cleaning kits that offer some or all of the cleaning tools we've talked about. Schneider and Singh-Ray package a microfiber cloth with their lens cleaners, and Giottos adds a retractable brush and more; countless other choices ensure that you can find exactly what you need. The LensPen combines it all into one simple device, using a non-scratch applicator to apply its cleaning compound automatically.
If all these tools are for winning the war against dirt, then preventing your gear from getting dirty should be on the list as well. That's not to say you shouldn't go out and shoot—just keep your lens cap on when you're not actually making an exposure and keep a body cap on your SLR or D-SLR when there's no lens mounted. In wind, rain, snow or whenever the camera could be splashed, keep plastic bags or some other cover handy to keep the elements off your camera.