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.
How To Clean Your Lenses, Filters And Camera Eyepiece
1 Use the blower to propel dust and particles off the glass surfaces.
2 If the dirt won't come off, use your brush to remove it.
3 If the glass has fingerprints, first remove dust as above, then breathe lightly on the glass surface and use a cleaning cloth or tissue to wipe it. Work from the center to the edges with a circular motion.
4 If the fingerprints or other marks won't come off, put a drop of cleaning fluid on the cloth, and repeat the wiping process. Never use cleaning fluid directly on your lens.
5 Don't forget to clean both surfaces of your filters. On SLRs and D-SLRs, it's important to keep the rear lens elements clean, too. Although they don't get dirty as often as the front elements, the rear elements play a more critical role in forming images. Dust also could find its way from the rear elements to your D-SLR's image sensor.
How To Clean Your Mirror Box
After you've removed the lens, use the air stream from your blower to gently remove the dust inside. Make sure to get the dust hiding in the light baffles along the sides and bottom of the mirror box. Hold the camera above you and blow upward so that freed dust will fall down out of the open lens mount and away from the film or sensor. Be careful not to touch any part of the camera's interior with the blower's tip.
How To Clean The Film Chamber
Open the back of the camera and blow out the entire area. Take special care to get rid of film chips hiding on the take-up side, and don't forget to blow out the trough that forms a light trap for the back. Make sure to clean the pressure plate also. It's okay to use a brush for stubborn particles, but keep the brush and the air stream away from the shutter blades.
How To Clean A D-SLR's Image Sensor
In order to clean the sensor, the mirror has to be up and the shutter has to be open. Many D-SLRs have special settings for cleaning in their menus; alternatively, you can set a time exposure of 30 seconds or so to uncover the sensor. The latter method has the disadvantage of keeping the sensor "live" so that the electrical current running through the chip may attract the dust back again during cleaning.
Either way, once the sensor is out in the open, use your blower very gently to dislodge the dust. Don't touch the sensor surface—it's very easily damaged.
When cleaning your sensor, make sure your camera's battery has a full charge, or that the camera is plugged into an electrical outlet, so that it doesn't run out of juice and lower the mirror onto your air blower unexpectedly.
Cleaning The Outside Of Your Camera
Get rid of dirt with a spare brush, using it gently to whisk the offending material away. Be careful to avoid pushing visible particles inside crevices farther into your camera. Don't forget to brush out your hot-shoe, PC flash contact (if your camera has one) or other electrical connection points. For tough areas, a lightly moistened soft cloth will help; never use liquids directly on the camera body.
Carry a small pack towel in the field to dry your camera quickly if it gets wet. Snowflakes will melt onto (or into) your camera if you touch them with your fingers—always use a brush.
Air blowers, cleaning kits