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Cleaning an EOS Canon Camera

If this topic interests you, you might also like to look at "Lens repair" (EF 90-300mm). A look at disassembling my broken Canon EF 90-300 mm lens. Not for the fait hearted.

I have numerous Canon EOS cameras. My original film 3000v, then the 1D, 10D and finally a 30D. All but the film camera use CCD sensors and all the SLR units suffer from "Dust Bunnies". What you see through the view finder is not the same as what the CCD Sensor sees so keeping the view finder clean will help you compose shots, bit what do you do about the dust the CCD does see?

I have often been asked how I maintain my camera. I decided to write this after I was approached by someone whilst I was on a photo shoot up at the Mt Lofty Summit lookout in South Australia. They told me how they send their camera off to Canon once a month at the cost of shipping and $50 for cleaning. The person was not even sure if the ailment he was suffering through, was a normal thing. He felt like he was the only one with this issue.

Yes, it is normal. All SLR users suffer from this to some extent. Some of the newer EOS cameras (450D, 40D and newer) have a vibration system to flick dust from the CCD but even these can have hard to remove dust bunnies.

How ironic that I review the images I took up at the summit on that day and what do I have? Dust Bunnies.

You can usually see these marks (Dark spots) in photos of the sky and sunsets.

Sensor Dust

Some people know they have sensor dust while others only know that there are spots in their images. Some even blame the spots on their lens. This might seem logical however it takes a sizeable piece dust on/in a lens to show up as a prominent spot in a picture. This is especially if it is on the front lens element, the part facing the outside world.

If you want to protect the front of your lens, I use a polarizing filter (Screwed onto the 58 mm thread) and an EF cloth. The lenses have special coatings and the more you tough it with anything, the more chance you will damage it. Protective filters are one of the best investments you could make.

To know if your sensor is dirty, you need to know what sensor dust looks like in an image. Here is a part of my sunset photo taken from Mt Lofty on that day . (Zoomed in and cropped). This should be a solid colour, a band of brown light which makes up the sunset image. Instead, there are these small darker areas. I have shown you one in particular but when I looked the image over there were about 10. Viewing the image on the computer, at a size that fills the screen, I can just see the imperfections. They don't stand out but you know that they are there and can see them after looking at he picture for a few seconds.

So I start my favorite picture editor and use the Clone tool to blend out the dust bunnies. The photo has the same impact as the original view in the view finder, exactly how I originally intended however, I had to spent lots of time cleaning it up.

The picture below is the final result. You will note that is it hard to locate the area the above clip came from. It was from the right hand side, just above the dark area. This shows you how far I zoomed in.

 

Lets learn to avoid dust bunnies in the first place and also how to clean the CCD (If you are game) when you get a Dust bunny or two.

I reduce "dust bunnies" (The adopted name for this dust) by changing lenses when in a sheltered environment. Reduce the likelihood of dust and wind swirling dust around you and into the open camera body. You will almost certainly get dust bunnies if you change lenses on the beach or at a construction site (or other dusty site). The camera has moving parts and dust will work it's way in. I change lenses in the back seat of my car or in a room. I avoid doing it out in the open unless I really need too.

How do you detect dust bunnies ?

You will see it in photos (like the sample above) but if you are wanting to clean and test your camera, how do you do it ?

To check for dust, mount a 50mm or longer lens on your DSLR. (I use a Canon EF 90-300mm and wind out to the full 300mm). Find an evenly-light-colored, evenly-lit background for a test shot. I usually focus on clouds in the far distance (Auto focus), hold focus and swing the lens into a blue section of sky, which fills the image. You can also use a distant white wall or other single colour item.

Alternatively set the lens to manual focus and set the focus to make your selected subject completely out of focus (You want to see the dust and not the subject in the picture). Use infinity focus.

I normally leave the camera set to automatic however, some find better results setting the exposure mode to Av, ISO to 100 and set the aperture to a very narrow (f/22). You likely won't see even large pieces of dust when shooting at very wide apertures, so be sure to choose a narrow one. Take a test picture.

If your sensor is dirty, you will see spots in your test image. They are especially easy to see if you load the test shot into your computer and increase the contrast. You can review your shot on your LCD (which is faster) but I struggle with it. Zoom into 2 or 3 levels short of your maximum LCD zoom and pan through the image systematically looking for spots.

Note: the location of the dust on the sensor will be exactly opposite of where it appears in the image on the LCD (the lens flips the image, the camera de-flips it for viewing). When you turn the camera 180 degrees to look into the chamber, the spot will now be flipped up/down only.

Most people don't worry about a small sensor dust particle or two. I really worry when I start seeing lot of black spots on numerous consecutive photos. Unfortunately this can be very disheartening so try not to get to this point.

How do you handle the dust spots ?

As previously mentioned, a Canon service agent can provide sensor cleaning services for you (Other brands of DSLR's will likely also have such a service). This is the official recommendation. If you are at all worried about playing with your expensive camera, please consider this option. Nothing I write here is official. I have not found any problems cleaning my own cameras and neither have all others that have ventured into this process. You need to know the terms of your warranty and read instructions carefully with anything you buy and use to clean your camera. Consider this my disclaimer.

The Canon manual indicates using a hand held blower to blow dust out of the EOS body and away from the CCD, is as far as you should go and then refer to a service agent. Good professional service agents have been known to clean cameras far better than we, the end user can. Some have also shown they have no idea about cleaning and return cameras dirtier than when the received them.

Lets start with the blower as our first tool. To be able to do this, you need to expose the throat of the camera. You also need to flip up the mirror so that you can see the CCD sensor. (Read this section before doing this)

I have found one precaution. I have seen a clean CCD become a dirty CCD by blowing the dust off the mirror and prism, which lands on the CCD sensor. It is just as important to keep to keep the other parts of the camera clean. I use a Canon EF cleaning cloth to gently wipe the back side of the viewing prism and the internal part of the prism. It is amazing how much this can improve the image you see when you are taking a shot. Without putting pressure on the mirror, I also wipe the mirror carefully. Then turning the camera upside down so the throat is facing the floor, I use a blower to blow any loose material out of the camera. Hopefully gravity will work for heavy dust and the rest will shift with the blower. Now we will look at the CCD behind the mirror.

Blowing dust in this area can push it into the viewfinder.

To do anything that involves mirror lockup or sensor cleaning you must start with a well-charged battery in the camera. If the battery dies while you are accessing the sensor, the shutter and/or mirror could be damaged. Canon cameras will not permit access to the sensor if the battery is not adequately charged. You should also find a clean, well-lit work area. Since the camera sensor will be completely exposed, you need to avoid dust floating onto it. Perform the tasks in a still environment. I use an LED torch and an overhead lamp attached to a hat to complete the task.


To clean the sensor, you need to gain access to the sensor. You will need to remove the lens to get to the sensor. I remove the lens prior to opening the sensor up for cleaning when I want to clean above the mirror.

(Angle the camera body downward and remove the lens, quickly covering the rear lens element to prevent dust from landing there. Put a rear dust cap on the lens. Keep the camera pointed down, throat to the floor, to prevent any dust settling inside)

There is a menu option entitle "Clean Sensor" or "Sensor Cleaning" on the camera. Find it, select it and answer the prompt asking if you really want to do this. If you hear the mirror lock up, your camera is ready (Canon EOS 10D and 30D). Some cameras require the shutter release to now be pressed to supply access to the sensor (Canon EOS 1D).

Your sensor is now exposed in the throat. (The mirror is tucked away).

 

You can now follow the Canon recommended method of blowing the dust out. I use a Hurricane Blower to blow air onto the sensor.

The risk of damage from this method is light. This will only free loose dust. It is not a very effective means of removing dust bunnies.  The potential for the blower to remove a piece of grit that might later scratch the sensor during a contact cleaning method makes this step important (Contact cleaning method being the method I use, not recommended by Canon).

I typically use eight or ten good air bursts. (The release the mirror and test).

Do not touch the CCD sensor with the blower. Do not put the blower into the throat. If the mirror triggers or the shutter curtain, you can cause damage.

This air blower fills from its base and expels the air from the nozzle - It does not directly blow the same dirty air back onto the sensor.

Turn the camera's power off to end the sensor cleaning, remount the lens and run another test. If it has not worked, you might need to try and use the blower again or consider sending the camera into Canon.


Other cleaning methods

Remember: You are accepting complete liability for any damage you cause by using any of the methods I outline here. My opinion is, and my experience shows, that fear is not necessary. You will need patience and must be careful.

This process is called  "sensor cleaning", however we are actually cleaning the low-pass filter that sits on top of the sensor.

It is recommended you need to read this entire page before proceeding and have your manual handy. Make sure to read the Cameras Manual page on Sensor cleaning.

There are many sensor cleaning methods and you will find that several different ones are needed at various times. Between each cleaning method attempt, another sensor test is needed to find out if the process can be ended at this point or if you have a "stubborn bunny" and need to try another method.

 

Remember to try blowing first. Now that you have tried that, do you want to pay Canon to clean your sensor?  Are you game to continue? If so, read on.
 

Sensor brushes


Most people move on to a sensor brush. The sensor brush is more capable of cleaning than the air blower alone, but it still presents a relatively low risk of damage to the sensor (You must keep the brush clean).

 

Personally I do not use them. Having bristles near my low pass filter worries me. There are many different types of sensor brushes on the market. They all work in a similar way. The brushes are statically charged (Some use a can of compressed air to do this and clean the brush. You can also use your hand blower). Some brushes are just flat brushes,  some have battery-powered spinners for cleaning and charging the brush.

 

You hold the camera in the same way for blowing, camera angled lens mount-downward. This prevents more dust settling on the sensor and the dust falls away with gravity. Good lighting aids in this operation just as with the blower.

Start at one side of the sensor and smoothly progress to the other side. Be careful to not get the brush against any other part of the camera. After each pass clean and charge the brush and make 6 or 8 passes per cleaning attempt.

 

Follow up the brush cleaning with some bursts of air from the air blower  Turn the camera's power off to end the sensor cleaning and remount the lens as soon as possible to prevent additional dust from entering the camera.

 

Store the brush clean in a protective bag.

 

You should now have removed any loose dust. If there are still dust bunnies and you need to try the other methods, then you should have less chance of damage as most pieces of grit will be gone.

You now proceed to do a dust test. If there is till dust, continue to the next method. As I do not have a sensor brush, I go to the next method after using the blower.

Sensor cleaning pens


These devices are a small, inexpensive and easy-to-use pen-shaped device with a shaped cleaning head that is not wet and does not dry out. You simply rub the cleaning tip in a back and forth pattern over the sensor. You may need to do this a couple of times.

 

I typically place the camera lens-mount-up on a safe, clean surface under bright light when using the pens. You can sometimes see the dirt on the sensor this way and can attack it directly using the pen. As your are more likely to introduce dust this way (Camera throat up) be careful and clean surfaces.

 

Once done, use the blower to remove any loose material and test.
 

Wet Method

If the sensor is still dirty, my last method of is a wet method. I will be using a liquid cleaner on the sensor. Wet swabbing the sensor is the most intrusive cleaning method but it is also the most powerful.

 

Caution: I use Eclipse cleaning liquid. I accidentally dropped some on my nicely varnished table. It ate right through to the wood. Always clean your area and use some form of drop cloth. This liquid is flammable and will eat paints etc.

 

I use Pec Pads with the Copper Hill Method.

 

The only issue I have had with this method is some of the Pec Pad fibers coming loose and floating down onto the sensor. You really need to avoid touching the sides of the sensor chamber with any part of the swipe as the rough, non-glare sides are good at pulling fibers loose. (The camera has lined surfaces with a "felt" type of material and when a PecPad touches them, fibers may sometimes be pulled out of the pad. These surfaces also have a tendency to collect dust so when the mirror flaps and the shutter opens and closes, more of the gathered dust is released from the material which eventually finds its way to the sensor. )

The "wet" part of this method is Photographic Solutions Eclipse E2 CCD/CMOS Sensor Cleaning Solution or Photographic Solutions Eclipse Optic Lens Cleaning Solution (methanol).

 

Different size CCD's need different tools and different cameras work best with different wet solutions.

 

As a general rule, I will clean the CCD once a month. It depends on how much you are out shooting. I also try to shoot the sky on the last shot of the day to keep a daily check for dust. The swabbing procedure mentioned below takes about 1 minute to set everything up, then 15 to 20 seconds to apply the Eclipse, swab and return the lens. Try to keep to a bare minimum the time that the camera throat is open.

 

Using the Copper Hill solution

 

Take out a Pec Pad, align it half way (When you fold it) with the stylus top and 1/3 the way across. The  SensorSwipe  Stylus is manufactured to create angles in the Pec pad when you fold it back, to avoid the Pec pad frayed edges touching anything. Wrap each side of the pad around the stylus and tape it down. This is hard to explain so here are some images.

 

The Eclipse will come out of it's bottle lightning fast. So fast, in fact, that the last thing you will need to do is to squeeze the bottle. Just tip it over very gradually, and the two drops will come out on their own.

Apply 2-5 drops to the tip of your stylus and swab. Apply too much solution and you might leave a streak on the sensor (the Sensor pens can remove this). It helps to let the Eclipse solution soak into the Pec Pad or Swab for 10 or 15 seconds, but do not allow it to evaporate as it will very quickly.

The SensorSwipe and Sensor*Swab function exactly like the action of a WINDSHIELD WIPER in that they use one side of the blade to wipe on the first pass, then the opposite side on the return pass.

I suggest starting very gently, and then increase the force as you get more experienced. It doesn't matter if you go up/down, down/up, left/right or right/left, as long as you do not use the PecPad or SensorSwab more than once a side. If you do, you will be depositing the dust right back onto the CCD.

As with the pen method, I place the camera lens-mount-up on a safe, clean surface under very good light (in a dust-free environment as always) I carefully place the swab into the sensor chamber at a somewhat acute angle and until it touches one end and side of the sensor. As I swipe in one direction while applying gentle pressure, I reduce the angle of the swab until it is completely vertical at the other end of the sensor.

In more detail ..


Using pressure equal to writing with a pencil or pen, gently drag the moistened swab across the top half of the sensor, hugging the upper sidewall as you go. Complete the stroke by going as far as the sidewall will permit (those of you with sensors without sidewalls, just barely overlap the sensor's edge). This may require a little practice - bringing the tip of the swab (with the dust) all the way to where the low pass filter meets the wall. If you are getting the center clean but are leaving dust at the edges, try moving the pivot point of the swab to get a better angle at the end of the floor. In other words, as you are completing your left to right stroke, tilt your hand slightly to the left; as you complete your right to left stroke, tilt your hand slightly to the right.

You should now have some dust adhering to the first side of the pad, so after completing the first pass lift the swab up just far enough to move it into the next position. In this left/right, right/left configuration, there is no rotation of the swab as it is positioned for the second swipe; it is simply lowered to the bottom right corner of the sensor.

Starting in the lower right corner, use the same steady light pressure to drag the swab all the way to the opposite side of the sensor. This time you'll be hugging the lower sidewall as you make the trip. When I say "hugging" I actually mean getting as close to the wall without pushing on it, or, more accurately, "guiding" on it. Too much pressure against the wall may cause loose strands to come out of the PecPad.

The key to successful sensor swabbing is keeping the swab flush on the sensor surface and completing each stroke, going as far as the sidewalls permit.  

Note: Do not apply more pressure with the SensorSwipe than you would writing with a ballpoint pen or pencil. Some dust-bunnies will move around on the sensor while others will act like they're cemented to the sensor's surface. We want you to have a clean sensor but using an inordinate amount of force can lead to problems. In the beginning, if you can get down to 2 or 3 specks and they're mainly on the edges, stop your cleaning session and go out and use your camera. Come back a day or two later and you'll probably have great results.



I discard the used Pec Pad after each set of swipes - they are so cheap  that it is silly to risk damaging the sensor with a dirty pad. I usually perform at least two sets of swipes during each cleaning attempt.

As always, I blow the chamber with the air blower and retest. If the sensor is still dirty, I usually repeat the wet cleaning until I'm satisfied. I may use the pen again as well.

When the sensor cleaning is finished, clean up and reset your camera to your normal settings. Be sure to set focus to AF.

The main key to cleaning your CCD or CMOS is to relax, work quickly, but proceed methodically.  Be mindful of what you are doing, careful and patient while cleaning your sensor. You will do a better job. Relaxing will become easier after you become familiar with sensor cleaning. 

Further reading for the wet method:
http://www.pbase.com/copperhill/image/11442097
http://www.pbase.com/copperhill/image/11013788
 

How do you avoid dust bunnies ?



So how do we keep dust off of the sensor in the first place? Well, you may not be able to prevent it - DSLRs often have with dirty sensors right out of the box. But aside from that, a little care can minimally prolong a necessary sensor cleaning. I change lenses a great deal and generally need to clean my sensor every 5-10 weeks.

As mentioned at the start of this page, probably the most significant dust-prevention you can do is to change lenses quickly (but still carefully) in a dust-free environment. On a windy day outdoors, the amount of airborne dust is extremely high. Similarly, keep the rear lens element clean - use your Air Blower before installing a lens if necessary. Keep the camera body and exposed lens element pointing down as much as possible when their caps are not on. Misaligned lens and body caps can cause a small amount of material to be shaved off - align them carefully.

 

 

 

 

    

 

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