Sensor Cleaning

Whilst away in Tenerife recently I managed to get something on the sensor of my X-T1.  I thought I was reasonably careful when changing lenses but I might have become a little complacent.  I always leave my Fujifilm cameras set to clean the sensor on both startup and shutdown and up until now that had been good enough.  I do remember my Canon 5D MKI sucking in more dust than a Dyson and gluing it firmly to the sensor, maybe I was a little obsessive about it back then but it was definitely a much bigger problem than with modern Fuji cameras.

Options for Cleaning

First there is the good old rocket blower, every self respecting photographer has one of these is his/her bag, they are a great all purpose tool.  However, when it comes to cleaning the sensor on Fujifilm cameras I have found them to be next to useless.  If the dirt/dust/debris won’t shift when the sensor is vibrated by the self cleaning mechanism, a puff of air won’t help either.  It certainly never has for me.

After you’ve wasted 30 seconds of your life with a rocket blower it’s time to move on to the more serious methods of sensor cleaning.  These basically run from dry to wet and I’ve tried them all.

Before you begin and actually touch your sensor, try and identify what and where the dirt is, shooting an out of focus shot of the sky at F22 will help as will a sensor loupe.  You really need to know what you’re dealing with and actually looking at the sensor is the first step, knowledge is power after all.  If you have something oily on the sensor (I’m looking at you Nikon) no amount of dry brushing is going to help, in fact you’re going to make the situation a whole lot worse.

First up, there’s the brush method using an Arctic Butterfly or one of the many copies out there.  You switch the brush on and it rotates to pick up an electrostatic charge – just like rubbing a balloon on your sweater.  You then switch the brush off and very gently pass it over the sensor, the idea being any loose dust/dirt/debris will cling to the bristles of the brush in the same the balloon sticks to the wall.  This method works brilliantly *if* the dust is loose enough, again with Fujifilm cameras and their self cleaning mechanism all the loose stuff seems to be off already.  In my case this didn’t help, it used to clean the sensors on my Nikon cameras flawlessly.

Next up is the Sensor Pen, initially these terrified me, those lens pen things?  On your sensor?  Well yes actually, but you can only really use them once, once they’ve picked up the dirt and dust you don’t want to go brushing it back over the sensor.  You do passes across the sensor in one direction and that’s it, definitely don’t scrub your sensor with them.  Again they are more effective than the rocket blower and better at removing stuff the Arctic Butterfly can’t touch but in my case it wasn’t able to clean my sensor.

A more recent answer to the sensor cleaning conundrum is the sticky pad on a stick.  Using the supplied sticky paper to make sure the soft pad is spotless clean and slighty tacky beforehand is essential, you then gently dab the sticky pad across the sensor.  Effectively this is a similar idea to the Arctic Butterfly brush, use something more sticky than the sensor to pick up and hold the dust particles.  I quite like this method, it can move stuff that the camera can’t shake off itself, however I have known the pads to leave a residue on the sensor.

If you have any sort of liquid based residue on your sensor, the only solution is a wet clean.  Back in the day this was called the “Copperhill Method” and involved wrapping pecpads around filed off plastic knives and dripping on some eclipse solution, happily now there are several ready made kits that make the whole thing much simpler. You take your swab from it’s packaging, drip on a couple of drops of the supplied solution and make a single steady pass across the sensor, the liquid dissolves the bonds holding the dust to the sensor and the swab picks it up.  This is the most extreme form of sensor cleaning but for me the most effective.  Inevitably it’s what you turn to when all of the prior methods have failed anyway, so you might aswell start with this solution.  Needless to say this is the one that worked for me this time, it was also the only way I could get oil spots off my D750 sensor a few years back.