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The Best Nikon Lens Sensor Cleaning
I usually save product reviews for my newsletter, but in this case, I’ve found a product so useful that I just have to get the word out, and I thought I would post this blog on the Outdoor Photographer blog, as well. Get ready for some serious gushing because I’m going to praise this product like few others. I’d like to introduce you to the Sensor Gel Stick (see image below). Now I know sensor cleaning isn’t a very exciting topic, but for those who are serious about photography and especially for those shooting video with an HD DSLR, cleaning your sensor is a huge deal. I’ve spent way too many nights cleaning my sensor at 1 AM for the next day of shooting on an assignment. When you’re exhausted and bleary-eyed, having to do a wet cleaning several times to get your sensor clean for the next day of shooting is pretty much the last thing I want to be doing.
Before I get into reviewing the Sensor Gel Stick, let me give you some background on my experiences cleaning DSLR camera sensors. I’ve been shooting with digital cameras since 2003. I started out with a Nikon D70 and very quickly realized that I’d have to learn how to clean my camera’s sensor in the field if I wanted to continue shooting digital. The reality is that you can’t always send your camera back to the manufacturer to have them clean the sensor. My experience has been that if you do send your camera back to Nikon, Canon or whoever made your camera to have them clean the sensor, it will usually come back with just as much dust on the sensor as it did when you shipped it out. The reason for this is that there’s dust in the shutter chamber that can and will fall onto the sensor as the camera is bounced around in shipping. Aside from that scenario, I’ve had to clean my sensors while on assignment where sending it back to Nikon just wasn’t an option. Hence, I’ve been cleaning my camera sensors since 2003.
I’ve used just about every product out there. For years I used VisibleDust products like the Arctic Butterfly brush, the Sensor Brush and all of their wet cleaning solutions. While their products work well, they are quite expensive. Since I clean my camera sensors often, i.e. before every assignment, I tend to go through a lot of sensor swabs and solution. Before I got my Nikon D800 and D4, the VisibleDust products were working just fine for me. But with the D4 and D800 there seems to be a lot more oil around the edge of the sensor, which can massively complicate the cleaning process. With these new cameras, I opted to switch to Sensor Swabs and Eclipse cleaning fluid last year in order to cut down the massive expense of cleaning my cameras’ sensors.
I also had a very frustrating experience last summer cleaning my Nikon D800. While cleaning the sensor with a Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly brush, I accidentally pulled some oil from the sensor’s edge onto the sensor. This had happened to me before, so I just grabbed my wet cleaning kit and used some swabs and Visible Dust’s Smear Away solution to remove the oil. After a few tries with the Smear Away and some other solutions, I couldn’t get the sensor completely clean. I tried everything I knew, and the oil just kept moving around on the sensor. I tried cleaning the sensor over 20 times, and I used up over $200 worth of sensor cleaning supplies. To say I was frustrated would be a major understatement. And this wasn’t my first rodeo cleaning sensors. I had never had anything like this happen while cleaning camera sensors, and I had done hundreds of sessions cleaning my camera sensors. After hours of working on the camera, I ended up sending it back to Nikon to have them clean it. Mind you, this was before a major trip that I wanted to take that D800 on. I ended up taking just my Nikon D4 and no backup camera, which was not optimal. Luckily, it was a personal trip, but still, I wish I would have had the D800 on that trip.
[Note: Nikon did do a great job cleaning the D800 sensor and the entire camera. It did come back with a bit of dust on the sensor, but I have since learned to live with a bit more dust on my sensor than I used to with my older-model cameras. I must say that it seems Nikon has put more oils around the sensor on the D800 and the D4 than they have with past camera models. I don’t think it’s as bad as the stories I’ve heard with the Nikon D600, but as my experience above might indicate, it’s an issue with these new cameras. I never had any issues with oil on the sensor with my Nikon D2x or D700s.]
Getting back to the Sensor Gel Stick, when I saw the blog post about the Sensor Gel Stick on the F-Stoppers website, I was very much intrigued. I had never heard about a sticky gel “sensor stick” before, and trust me I had done some serious research after my epic sensor-cleaning session with the D800. Seeing that Nikon, Canon, Leica, Pentax and many other manufacturers use this same product to clean sensors when you send the camera back to them was all I needed to hear to give it a try. I watched the video on the Photography Life website before I ordered the gel stick, and I watched it again before using it on my own cameras. I will say that pressing a sticky gel stick to my camera’s sensor seemed a bit sketchy at first, but seeing a Leica technician do it in the video on the F-stoppers’ blog helped me get over my reluctance.
My first test was to clean my Nikon D4 sensor. As you can see in the image below, my camera sensor was quite dirty. Before this cleaning, I had just returned from a big Red Bull assignment, and apparently the sensor got quite dusty while changing lenses in the windy conditions and mounting the camera on the helmet of a skydiver. Click on the images below to see larger resolution versions.
Above is an image of my Nikon D4 sensor before it was cleaned with the Sensor Gel Stick. As you can see, it was quite dirty. There are huge chunks of dust on the sensor and some of these were also oil spots. Click on this image to see a larger high-resolution version. For a note on how I created these images showing the dust spots on the sensor, please read the last few paragraphs of this blog post.
As you can see in the above image, after one cleaning, 99% of the dust was removed from the D4’s sensor. There are still a few dust spots on the sensor, but for a 20-second cleaning this is phenomenal. The last few remaining dust spots were removed with a second targeted cleaning with the Sensor Gel Stick. Click on the image to see a higher-resolution version of this image. For a note on how I created these images showing the dust spots on the sensor, please read the last few paragraphs of this blog post.
As you can see, with one 20-second cleaning, the Sensor Gel Stick removed almost all of the dust spots (that were huge I might add) on my Nikon D4’s sensor. There were still a few small dust spots on the sensor after this first cleaning, but those were easily removed with another cleaning where I targeted those areas specifically. Just to be clear here, the cleaning time to get my sensor this clean was less than one minute. With previous dry or wet cleaning options (as described above) it would easily take 15 minutes or longer to clean my sensor, and that’s the best case scenario. With the D4 and D800, I’d rarely get the sensor clean with one cleaning using my old wet and dry methods. Another great thing about the Sensor Gel Stick, aside from how well it works, is that it’s very difficult to drag oils out onto the sensor because it can’t really get into those areas in the first place. It can also remove oils, as well as dust, so it has you covered even if you do somehow get oil on your sensor.
So, I am obviously smitten with this product. Is it the perfect solution? Well, it’s a great solution, but it isn’t perfect. When I cleaned my D800’s sensor, it did a similarly awesome job, but I did have to do a wet cleaning to get the sensor fully clean. So, don’t throw out your old methods of cleaning your sensors, but I do highly recommend this product, and it will save me a truckload of money when it comes to cleaning my camera sensors. At $44.99 per Sensor Gel Stick, this is a hell of a deal. They will last quite a while from what Nasim at Photography Life says, and since it was $45 per box of 12 Sensor Swabs, $45 for the Sensor Gel Stick is looking mighty cheap. My thanks to Nasim and Photography Life for bringing this product to the USA. When I ordered my Sensor Gel Stick a few weeks ago, they had over 900 in stock. Now there’s a note on their website saying that they are out of stock on this product, so it’s obviously popular. You can watch a video of Nasim talking about the Sensor Gel Stick and demonstrating in a video on YouTube.
As this product is highly popular, I’d suggest putting an order in right now on the Photography Life website. You won’t regret it. This is now my go-to sensor cleaning tool, and I’m overjoyed that we now have a decent way to clean our sensors that’s quick and easy. This might just be the best tool to come on the market since the digital camera. I know that’s a big statement, but it’s ridiculous that we have to go to these lengths just to clean our camera sensors. In this day and age of high-tech gadgets, Nikon and Canon should have a wiper blade or some such device built into every DSLR that automatically swipes across the sensor and cleans it perfectly with the push of a button. Until that happens, the Sensor Gel Stick is the best tool I’ve yet found to get your sensor clean.
Before I wind up this blog post, I also want to detail how to check and see if your sensor has dust issues. First, set your camera to aperture priority at the lowest ISO setting possible. Then, set the aperture on the lens to the lowest setting, i.e. f/22. Take a photo of a white piece of paper filling the entire frame with the paper. Note that the camera doesn’t have to focus here since we are imaging the sensor, not the paper. I usually turn the autofocus off. You’ll end up with a gray image since the camera’s exposure meter will make the white paper gray. Now, take that image and download it to a computer, open it in Photoshop and select Image > Auto Tone from the top file menu. Selecting Auto Tone in Photoshop will automatically adjust the levels so you can more accurately see what is on your sensor. This is the technique I use and have been using for 10 years or more to see what is on the sensor. The Auto Tone will show you way more dust spots than you can see on just that gray image. I will say that the demonstration shown in the above video and on the F-Stoppers’ website is sub-optimal for checking your sensor and how much dust is on your sensor. You really need to use the Auto Tone feature in Photoshop to see everything on your sensor when cleaning it.