Don’t leave just yet!!! This has nothing to do with house cleaning, or even washing the car. This is photography related, I promise!
It has been a while since I have done a product review, and I figured that it was time that I put one out. The problem is, I wasn’t really feeling up to talking about anything in particular in a critical way, so I hadn’t really put much effort in putting a review together. Not that long ago however, I had somebody message me about using a camera at the beach and how to properly protect it in the sand, wind, and salt spray. I answered him with a good overview of how to operate in that environment and how to clean up afterwards. I also realized that this could be a great topic for a Behind the Camera at some point in the future. The funny thing is, the more I thought about how I wanted to do this, the more I realized that there would be all sorts of products used that I would be talking about which kind of went outside of the scope of that particular feature. It would fit in a product review easy enough, but did I just want to handle one product at a time? That would be ridiculous to say the least. I ultimately decided that I could do a product review on the various things that I use with my own equipment to keep things functioning well.
There is a lot that goes into the physical care of a camera and while I am not an expert at how everything works, I do have a lot of years of experience being very meticulous with my camera and gear. In this review, that will be more like a “tips and tricks” piece, I will try to cover everything from your basic cleaning down to the more in depth cleaning that you should be doing with your camera every so often. Some of the items needed you should already have at home. Other items, you will need to purchase and they can range in price from free to a couple of hundred dollars. I will have links for the various products, and product types through this entry for you to check out on your own.
There are some simple things that you can do to protect the delicate parts of your camera that you should be doing as a matter of habit by this point. When not in use, your should have a lens cap on the front of your lens. That is the most basic protection you can use. It will protect from debris, rain, and impact. Use a lens hood if possible as it provides another level of protection from physical bumps to the lens, as well as it will shield it from rain and debris when you are actually shooting. I know I will get a lot of flack from this statement and there are very polarized opinions on this, so I won’t get into it too much, but it is worth mentioning. Many photographers insist on having a UV filter screwed onto their lens at all times to protect the front element. I can see the reason for that, but I don’t subscribe to the concept. if you are reasonably careful and are using a lens hood and cap you are not nearly as likely to bump the front element. However, every shot that you take will have another piece of glass in front of your front element that could be degrading your image quality with no benefit to the image. UV filters are generally cheap and the optics might be compromised. If you do want to keep a UV filter on the front of the camera, I would suggest that you go with a quality brand such as Singh-Ray which has a Hi-Lux UV filter that actually adds a slight warming characteristic to the image. Something like that is worth keeping on the lens all the time, but be sure to remove it when you are adding other filters as you will experience vignetting or unnecessary image degradation by stacking filters when you don’t have to.
What about the lens itself when you decide to change lenses? Well, the original question was about changing the lens at the beach in the sand. While this is not really recommended because it only takes a grain of sand to get in and tear up the internal workings of your camera, if you are sensible about it, and take care, you can change lenses in harsher environments with a minimal risk. For this, you will need some practice in swapping out your lenses so you can minimize the time that the lens is off the mount. Also, keep in mind that the concern here is not actually the lens, but the camera body itself. The lens is easy enough to clean, and we will get into that shortly. It is the inside of the camera that is a great deal more vulnerable and delicate.
How I would recommend that you change a lens to keep it quick, is as follows.
- Turn the camera off
- Put the lens cap on
- Remove the camera from the tripod if it is on one
- Have your next lens ready for the switch
- Tail cap should be loose and accessible
- Have it ready to grab in your bag
- Face your camera down and remove your lens with your body blocking any wind
- Place the lens next to the new lens and swap the tail cap before grabbing the new lens
- With the body still facing down, mount your new lens (practice is needed to do this quickly)
- Secure the original lens in the bag as it is suppose to be and you are back in business
By doing these steps, you are minimizing the time that the body is opened, and by keeping the body pointed down, you are letting gravity help you to keep debris out. Using your body as a shield from the wind will also minimize the chances of debris flying into the body. Now, none of this will work if you are in a dust storm or other high wind situation. for those times you could use a tent I would think, but who wants to set a tent up just to change lenses. If the wind is that bad, you need to seek some sort of shelter to change your lens. It comes down to common sense and realizing what kind of particles are in the air. To give you an idea of how effective this is, I’ve been using my current body since for nearly six years now and have only had to clean the image sensor one time.
Time to Clean Up
Now that we have done all that we can to minimize problems with the lens and the sensor, we need to talk about those times when dirt and water happens. The most typical cleaning that will need to be done is the lens itself or the filters that you use. The process is pretty much the same as are the items used. These items should be carried in your bag for use in the field depending on what types of issues you run into. The good news is that none of these items takes up much room at all. The most basic thing that you need is a lens cloth, which will fit just about anywhere. I keep about a half dozen of them in different areas of my bag for easy reach. Of course, you want to keep them out of the elements so that you don’t introduce foreign objects to your glass. A Lens Pen is also highly recommended for clearing the lens of debris and smudges. The pen is a two sided deal with a brush and a cleaning tip and stores very easily in a pocket of your bag. Finally, I would recommend a Rocket Blower which is very useful for blowing debris off of the lens without the need to touch it. Something else that should be in your bag is a washcloth. It doesn’t have to be special and I’m just using an old one that we had the closet. This is useful for wiping down the body when it gets rained on, and also is really good for a wipe down of your equipment after being in a very dirty environment. When it comes to a real in-depth cleaning for the image sensor, you will need a special tool for that which is the most expensive thing on this list. There are several sensor cleaning kits out out there in both dry and wet variations. I have found that the majority of the cleaning can be done with the dry method and there is less chance of damage that way as well.
The lens cloth is the most basic cleaning tool available to the photographer. You can get them in a multitude of styles and colors, and if you wear glasses, you will get them for free with your new glasses all the time. I like the ones that are one sided and nibbed on the back like this Sensei cloth for some added grip when wiping the lens down. The nibbs also let you fold the cloth over in the same way each time to keep the cleaning surface protected, and so you know that your fingers are touching that side too often. It is also an 18% gray color which is good for white balance and even exposure checking in certain situations. The one downside to the single sided cloths is that they don’t seem to do great for getting rain off of the lens or filters. For those times, I go with just a straightforward microfiber cloth that is two sided. These are much more absorbent and effective on a rainy day. Just make sure that your fingers are clean before handling the cloth.
To use these lens cloths, you just need to have even, and light pressure. If you put too much force on the cleaning job, you will scratch the lens or filter. The lens cloths are for very light cleaning and are great for removing haze, water, some finger prints, and some dried water spots. For lenses, you will start in the middle of the glass and use a circular motion as the circles get bigger and bigger until you are at the edge of the element. This is to minimize picking up any foreign particles and dragging them to the center of the lens which is the most used portion of the glass. Round filters are the same where you start from the middle and work your way out. For square and rectangular filters, you would start at the halfway point and work down, and then up from that point changing to a fresh section of the cloth. It is a good idea to shake these cloths out after every use, and look for any debris caught in the fibers. They can be washed in a machine, but don’t use fabric softener on them as that will leave a haze on the glass after use.
A lens pen is something else that you can use to clean a lens or filter in two different ways. As you see, the product looks very much like a pen, but there are two sides to it. On one side, you have a brush that can be extended. It is very soft with long bristles. You can use this to remove debris that is stuck to the glass and won’t blow off. It is gentle and won’t scratch the glass. The idea is to swipe just where the debris is and not drag it over the surface any more than you have to. Take your finger and rub across the bristles after the object is removed to dislodge it from the brush before retracting it back into the pen. The other side is a cleaning tip that is a dry cleaner. The tip is usually concave to help with cleaning the front elements on your lenses. This is useful for stubborn stains and smudges that a lens cloth can’t remove. To use this part of the pen, you would twist the cap a couple of times which will recharge the cleaning surface of the tip. Remove the cam and then place the tip on the area of the lens that needs to be cleaned. You would then use a circular motion making overlapping circles over the affected area. Don’t use too much pressure, but you should see the spot clearing quickly. Obviously, don’t use this with objects that can be seen on the lens or filter, as that is what the brush is there to remove first. This is just for stains and residue. You can also use the tip in the same fashion to polish the entire element or filter. I prefer not to do this as I get satisfactory results with a lens cloth, but if your glass hasn’t been cleaned in a long time, this might be your best bet after removing all foreign matter from the lens or filter. There have only been a handful of times that I have needed the cleaning tip on this lens pen, but I do use the brush quite often to get stubborn fuzzy things off of the surface, and it works fantastic for that!
A Rocket Blower is a great thing to stuff in your bag as well. It is a little more bulky than the other items, but it is malleable and can fit in smaller places than you think. I personally, use a Giottos Rocket Blower in the large size. This takes the place of using your mouth to blow on the lens or filter which if you have ever done, you know the frustration of a little bit of saliva blowing onto the surface. That will then require you to get the lens cloth out and wipe it down. That is counter productive to say the least. This particular product is just simply a hand held blower that works on the stored air that is in the bulb. When you squeeze, whoosh, a blast of clean air comes out to remove that bit of lint or dust on the glass. This isn’t a one trick pony though, you can also use it in the camera body if you are starting to see dust on the sensor. Of course, this shows up in post processing as little dots that are in the same locations time and time again. When you see that, the first thing you can consider doing is using this blower. After you remove the lens, you will face the camera down to let gravity help your along. Aim the blower into the cavity of the body and give a few shot puffs with minimal force. Keep the mirror down to help protect the sensor from a direct blast of wind. The wind movement might just dislodge the dust that is on the sensor. It is a quick way of trying to clean the sensor and it can be done in the field if needed. There are better ways of cleaning the sensor though which we will cover more shortly.
An Exterior Clean
Occasionally, it is a good idea to clean the surfaces of your camera body and lenses. This is something that you want to consider when shooting in an environment such as the coast, or in any other area where there are a lot of particles flying around in the wind or breeze. It is also beneficial when doing waterfall photography and you get muddy hands moving around which transfers to the camera and operating controls. It might not seem like much, but that grit from the dirt on your hands, or the sand flying around will eventually work into the crevices of your camera and could cause issues down the line. This is not a difficult procedure if done regularly and early enough. It is a matter of using that washcloth that you have in your camera bag along with a regular hand towel. You will wet the washcloth and wring it out. You don’t want it dripping, just nice and damp. Use that washcloth to wipe down all of the surfaces of both the body and the lens(es), drying with the towel as you go. This is not really a scrubbing affair, but you do want to get the surfaces clean and remove any contaminants from the equipment. You can always use a moistened Q-tip to get into crevices if needed, but make sure that you have just enough wetness to remove the dirt, and not enough to be forced into the internal workings of the camera.
Be sure to pay particular attention to extending lens barrels as they are always forgotten about. Extend the lens out to the maximum and wipe the extension down and dry it before returning it to the original position. Carefully use the washcloth to clean the threads of the filter ring on the lens, but don’t touch the actual glass with the washcloth. Go with the Lens Pen, and a lens cloth to clean the glass as described above. For the LCD screen on the back of the camera, you can wipe it down with the washcloth, and follow that up with a polish from the lens cloth. That will remove the nose prints and any finger prints that are on it.
This is the routine that I do after every excursion onto the beach when I am shooting coastal images. It takes me about 20 minutes to do completely, but it removes the salty residue left from the sea spray as well as any fine sand that might be on the surface of the camera. While I am working the lenses to clean them, I am paying attention to how the rings are operating to make sure that I am not feeling any roughness in the travel. If I were to feel anything in the mechanism, I would keep that lens out of service and have it professionally cleaned as they would have to break it apart to get into the mechanism. The hope is, by doing the preventative cleanings, that will not be necessary and I’ve been really fortunate over the years to not have had any issues needing that type of service.
The Interior Clean
This is where folks get really hesitant to try and do their own cleaning. I was one of them for the longest time. It wasn’t until I started getting really bad dust spots in my camera many years ago that I decided I would give it a try. The product that I used was the Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly which is a battery operated tool based on a charged brush to collect the offending dust particles from the sensor. There are a couple of different accessories that can be used with this unit like a sensor loupe magnifier to actually see the dust. I haven’t had the need for the magnifier yet as I’ve always been able to get all of the offending spots off of the sensor with a single attempt. However, for stubborn spots, or when wet cleaning the sensor, they are particularly useful. I have only done a dry clean on my sensor and that is what I am going to talk about here, but the process to get ready for the different cleanings are the same.
To start with the cleaning process, you want to make sure you have your cleaning tool ready with the brush securely fastened to the mount. Next, you want to make sure that you have fresh batteries in your camera, or it is plugged up to a power source. Remove the lens or the protective body cap to expose the mirror/sensor. For those that have a DSLR, you will need to go into the menu and find the option for sensor cleaning. On my Canon 5D Mk3 body I have the option to clean the sensor now with a vibration controlled by the camera. This is something that is done automatically at startup and when I turn the camera off. That is not what I am needing for this. There is another option for cleaning the sensor where the camera will flip the mirror out of the way and hold it there until the process is done. That is the option that you will want to use for your DSLR. Once the mirror is out of the way, you will see the sensor exposed. This is not something that you want to touch with your fingers and don’t let anything fall on it.
With the camera remaining on, and holding the mirror out of the way, you will place the camera on its back on a well lit surface. Get your sensor leaning brush, and remove the protective cap. Turn the brush on and spin the brush with the motor for approximately 10 seconds. This will clean the bristles as well as charge them to help them pull the dust off of the sensor. After that spin is done, turn the brush off, and turn on the LED lights if so equipped. Position the brush carefully so that you can use the lights and have the broad edge of the brush wiping across the sensor. You don’t need to make a lot of contact with the brush, so don’t do this like you are brushing your teeth. Just gently wipe across the sensor taking care not to touch the surrounding mechanisms as that might introduce lubricants or other bad things onto the sensor. Cropped sensors will generally take just one pass, while a full frame or larger will take a couple of passes to get the entire sensor. If you are doing multiple passes, do the 10 second spin between each pass to clean the bristles and recharge them.
Once you are satisfied that the sensor is clean, put the cap back on the brush and get the camera back in your hands. You can now release the mirror and turn the camera off. To check and make sure that you have cleaned the sensor, you can attach a lens and and take an image of a solid colored surface. Import it into your computer and start to look around for any spots that can be seen. You can always dehaze the image to really make them easy to find. Hopefully, you have gotten them all.
If not, you can repeat the process, or move to a wet cleaning of the sensor. This is a little more involved and I haven’t had the opportunity to do this yet, so I am not qualified to give you any pointers on the execution. However, there are a lot of videos out there on doing this type of cleaning. As with all other cleaning, if you stay on it and try to be proactive, you will find that the cleaning is much easier and less intrusive.
I hope that you enjoyed this product review and basic tutorial. It was a subject that is not all that glamorous and it was really more of a behind the scenes type thing, but it is very important that photographers take care of their tools. By following these tips and procedures, you will find that your images are crisper, have less flare, and much better contrast straight out of the camera. The controls will work flawlessly on the camera for a longer time as well. Also, photography gear has a good resale value if cared for, so in addition to helping you out while you are using your gear, think about the money it will help you get on a trade in when you are ready for that upgrade. Keeping your gear clean and maintained will provide so many positive outcomes it is a simple choice to make, you just need to dedicate a little time every so often to take proper care of your tools.