Sensor Cleaning

Langdale Pikes. Captured using the Sony A7R.
Langdale Pikes. Captured using the Sony A7R.

To be quite honest I had almost forgotten about the problem of sensor dust and dirt until recently. Since I began using the Olympus EM5 in April 2013, I have cleaned my camera sensor a grand total of 0 times. Yes that’s ZERO times. It has never shown a single spot on any of the images. I don’t know how Olympus has managed to create such wizardry but they I wish they would sell the secret to some of the other camera manufacturers. Allow me to share some of my other experiences in trying to keep my camera sensors clean.

If I go back to my main camera prior to the EM5, it was a Canon 5D MKII. This did suffer from a few dust spots and required a clean every few months. The method I used at the time was a sensor pen that was very similar to the lens pens you see on sale now. It was sold for a few pounds from 7 day shop and was good for multiple cleans. This was an incredibly effective cleaning method and I always ended up with a spotless sensor that seemed to hold off becoming dirty for a reasonable duration.

Unfortunately these pens went out of production and I needed something else. I turned to the Arctic Butterfly brush. This seemed quite effective when used with the Canon and life seemed simple. Shoot for a few months watching out for the return of dust spots then clean with the Arctic Butterfly and start shooting again.

But life became frustrating again when I bought the Nikon D800. This seemed to be prone to a rapid build-up of spots on the sensor that seemed very stubborn. The once effective Arctic Butterfly seemed shift only about half of the spots. After only a few weeks with that camera I decided I needed to use a different cleaning method and turned to VisibleDust green sensor swabs. The swabs came with different cleaning fluids for different forms of sensor dirt. I chose a cleaner called Smear Away that was supposed to clean any oil spots that might have been created by the mirror mechanism. I have to say that these worked well for the short time I had the camera but they are possibly the least economical solution I have ever used, especially given how quickly the sensor became dirty.

Now I have moved on to the Sony A7R and I am finding the sensor also accumulates dirt quite quickly. After a few outings I have seen the return of the sensor spots. My solution was to turn to the Arctic Butterfly again. All seemed well until I returned from my last trip to find some very strange marks on my images. You can see an example below.

You can clearly see the oil smear in the sky
You can clearly see the oil smear in the sky

On closer inspection I have found this to be oil. My suspicion is that its oil left over from cleaning the Nikon D800.

It’s a little annoying as I now have quite a few images from my last trip to clean up. I also needed to return to the Green sensor swabs to clean off the oil, which they did very effectively although I have noticed a further problem with the Green swabs. They don’t clean around the edges of the sensor very well. My suspicion is that the ends of the swab are actually quite soft and this prevents you being able to clean the edges well.

But fear not I have found a new alternative on Amazon

This is the “XCSOURCE 10pcs Sensor Cleaner Cleaning Swab Kit”. Given I was paying £16 for 4 green swabs, 10 swabs for £9 seems like a bargain. I can still use the sensor cleaning fluid I used before but it’s the construction of the swabs that I like most. The cleaning material is pulled tight over the swab which means it’s quite ridged on the corners allowing you to clean right up to the edges of the sensor. You can see a picture of the two swabs side by side below.

New swab on the left and one of the old green swabs on the right.
New swab on the left and one of the old green swabs on the right.

I’m impressed and my sensor is now spotless.

And one added bonus is that the full frame swabs that I’m using are also compatible with Micro 43. If the Olympus EM5 ever dust get a dust spot on it I now have the means to clean it.

13 thoughts on “Sensor Cleaning

  1. Is it better to use the swap dry or with the cleaning fluid? There were different opinions at the Amazon link. I had experienced streaks when I used cleaning fluid on lens filters and LCD screens, never attempted to clean my camera sensor yet. But it could have been due to an inferior product.

    1. It depends what type of stain or dirt you have on your sensor. Personally I prefer a dry clean but whan oil or water stains are present you probably need some sort of fluid cleaner. Even then these can leave streaks. When I first cleaned this sensor I could see where theswab had cleaned but a couple of hours later the sensor was spotless.

  2. I second you re the Olympus and never having dust spots, its sensor cleaning is the dogs, I had a moment of madness some while ago and bought the Pentax K5 great camera which had supposedly sensor cleaning, yep it was shite, the olympus I had used on beaches, woods, hillsides, in all weathers rain and shine not a dust spot to be seen. Needless to say I ditched the K5 and returned to the Olympus I have no idea why there system is so good and the competition a poor second, but it is light years ahead. Great shot by the way.

  3. I have m5 omd, I just recently came back from from a trip to south America, I had was continously changing lenses (4 to choose from) at all my locations and all types of weather, from the amazon jungle to the Andes, wind, rain, humidity, mud, and my sensor stayed clean. I did read sometime ago somewhere that Olympus has some special coating on its sensor so it best not to clean it yourself as the coating will be removed. Not sure if anyone can confirm this. Great write up. Thanks

    1. It’s like magic isn’t it. Sounds like you had a great trip – I’m very jealous. I love South America.
      I hadn’t heard of the special coating rumour but they must be doing something different to other manufacturers. Having said that, My Panasonic GX1 never needed cleaning either.

  4. Nice post. I have an annoying mark on my GX8 sensor that I cannot shift with an air rocket or with the VisibleDust orange swabs. I am amazed at how many products are out there for this and also how much conflicting information. Some say start with dry clean then go to wet; others say never dry clean; yet others say use lens cleaning fluid or even just your breath. It’s a bit of a minefield out there.

    1. Thanks. I would certainly try the combination I mention in the blog post. The green swabs didn’t shift the oily mess on my sensor but the new (cheaper) swabs did a great job. Interestingly the sensor is still clean despite a good few outings.

      1. Yes, I am half way through the process as Visual Dust system that I bought (extremely overpriced in my opinion) didn’t work. Those cheaper (relatively!) ones aren’t available in the US so I am going to make up something by reusing the swab handle with a Pec Pad and some Eclipse liquid to see if that works (waiting for Amazon to deliver)

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