Your Step-by-Step Guide to Cleaning Your Camera and Lenses

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As expensive and fragile as cameras and lenses are, it’s no surprise that many photographers - too many of us - are terrified to clean our gear. Nevertheless, cleaning your gear is a skill every photographer needs to learn in order to preserve the functionality of your equipment and to ensure the best quality photos.

In this step-by-step guide, learn what you need to do to clean your camera and your lenses and how to do it without causing undue damage.

Step 1: Practice Prevention

The most effective way of cleaning your camera and lenses is to take preventative measures that limits their exposure to elements that cause them to get dirty in the first place. Never change lenses in windy or dusty conditions and limit the number of lens changes you make even when conditions are ideal. Always point your camera towards the ground when making a lens change so gravity will help keep dust out of your camera. Cleaning the lens caps and body caps before putting them on will keep dust to a minimum as well. A well-kept camera bag is also a must - the less dust and debris in your bag, the less there is to find its way onto your lenses and into your camera!

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Step 2: Cleaning the Camera

There are many parts of your camera that need attention. The body itself could probably use an occasional wipe down. A moist, lint free cloth should do the trick to spruce up the body.

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Inside the camera, the mirror tends to collect dust which you can easily remove with a blower like the one shown above. Be careful not to insert the blower too far into your camera! Short bursts of air onto the mirror will disrupt the dust, and if you hold the camera so it’s facing downward, the bursts of air will cause the dust to fall harmlessly out.

A word of caution: Never, ever use anything other than air to clean your mirror! The coating is extremely fragile, and the slightest contact with a cleaning tool could cause significant scratches. If your mirror is impossibly dirty, send it in for a professional cleaning.

Cleaning the sensor inside your camera is a bit more involved. First, attach a normal focal length lens to the camera, set an aperture of f/16, and pick a shutter speed that will allow you to use the lowest ISO the camera has. Then compose a shot of a white piece of paper, and import the resulting image into Photoshop (or another program of your choice).

In Photoshop, remove any saturation and boost the contrast levels. Zoom in on the image; doing so will reveal any dust or other debris on the lens. If you don’t see anything especially egregious, your sensor is clean enough that it doesn’t require cleaning. However, if you find indications of dust or debris, put your camera in mirror lockup mode and use your blower to remove the dust in the same fashion as discussed above, with the camera facing downward so any dust that’s disturbed will simply fall out. Again, use small, gentle bursts of air, being careful not to come in contact with the sensor.

If upon inspecting your work you find that the sensor is still dirty, it might be time for a more thorough cleaning. There are a couple of ways to do this yourself, including using a dust brush or a swab, but neither method is 100 percent effective and both methods require you to physically touch the sensor with a cleaning implement, something that could lead to any number of disasters, not the least of which is damaging the sensor and voiding the warranty. So, if a blower doesn’t do the trick, you might think about sending your camera in for a professional cleaning.

( Download this cheat sheet: 9 Step lens cleaning checklist. So you don't screw up your lenses. )

Step 3: Cleaning the Lens

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Just like with your camera, the first step to cleaning your lenses is to use a blower. A blower will remove most dust from your lenses, and will do so without you having to actually touch any part of the glass. This is a good thing because the more you touch the glass, the more likely it is to get dirty.

So, grab your blower, give it a few test squeezes away from the lens to ensure it’s free of debris, and then give your lens a few gentle puffs at close range to remove dust. If the blower doesn’t complete the job, move to the next step, which is to use a brush (like the one pictured above) to gently sweep the surface of the lens. Never touch the bristles of the brush with your hands - the oils in your skin will transfer to the brush and could cause smudges on the glass. Work the brush across the glass, turning your wrist in alternating directions to spin the bristles as you move them across the lens. Again, be gentle here - don’t jam the bristles into the glass in an effort to dislodge persistent gunk.

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If the blower and brush combination hasn’t quite gotten your lens spick and span, you’ll need to wash the lens with a cleaning solution and microfiber cloth. Spray the cleaning solution (use a special lens solution - not just something you find under your kitchen sink!) onto the cloth and use a circular motion to clean the glass, working from the inside out. Turn the cloth to the dry side to dry the lens, again, using circular motions. Doing so will prevent streaks.

The Final Word

Cleaning your gear is an essential part of your ability to create the photographs you want to create. While the process requires delicacy, it shouldn’t be something that you avoid for fear of damaging your gear. Just use smart preventative measures and follow the easy cleaning tips outlined above, and you should have a camera and lenses that work at their best to capture the images you want.

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