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Why Getting Your DSLR Sensor Cleaned is Badass!!

With any DSLR camera, the best part about owning one is the flexibility that they offer with all the different lens choices. The bad news about having lens choices is having to interchange the lenses. Any opportunity to replace the lens leaving the inside of the camera body exposed to the elements, is another opportunity for dust to get in there. The worst part is that sensors are like a dust magnet, so keeping your sensor clean and free of dust can be a real challenge. Obviously, there are steps that you can take to minimize the possibility of dust getting in there. When replacing the lens, you can turn the camera body downward, so that gravity is helping you keep some of the dust out of there. You can even take the extra step to blow off any potential dust that may be sitting on the inner element of your lens, since it gets to hang out with your lens inside your camera. But, still, you can go through serious heroics and still need to clean your sensor.

How often should you clean it? Well, that depends on how picky you are of your images. I’m sure that there are folks that could go for years looking at their images start to degrade with specks before they really notice what’s going on. Of course, some photography lends to having this stand out more than others, so it may be hard to pick out. I can even imagine having some folks convince themselves that the images are turning out as poorly as they are simply because its normal or the process of the dust accumulation is so slow that it isn’t noticeable. Then there are those that are ultra picky and would notice the first speck of dust within a few days of it attaching itself to the sensor. The good news is that there is no right or wrong answer on how often you should get your sensor cleaned.

I’ve had my Canon 1D Mark II N since the new year, so I haven’t been with it for very long. At first, I started noticing small speck on the images wherever I was photographing something very light in color, such as the sky. Or if something was intensely bright, I would usually pick it up as well. Shooting wide open at the max aperture of whatever lens I was using helped minimize the effect, so I would just spend the additional time in Photoshop using the spot healing brush to do away with the flaw in the image. I would notice the majority of the specks on the top half of the image, which happens to be the bottom of the sensor inside the camera and where the dust tends to settle most. Oh, yeah, as light comes into your camera body, the lens inverts the image and your sensor flips the image back right-side for you. Neat, huh??

Where it became most apparent to me and where I drew the line was when I was trying to photograph with a very wide depth of field, such as f/16 or higher. When shooting landscapes, sometimes you want everything in the image in focus, so you would shoot with a wide depth of field. In doing so, every single speck of dust and debris on my sensor was blacker than the rest of the image. I could have sworn that someone had sprinkled pepper inside my camera looking at those images. So, something had to be done.

Now, you have two routes that you can take on this, the DIY and the repairman. Most shops will charge in excess of $60 for sensor cleaning. Is it worth it? Absolutely, but keep in mind that if you want a clean sensor and do a lot of lens replacement, you may be in the shop every few months for exacting requirements. But, there are those of you that could incorporate the cleaning in a yearly service appointment to make sure that everything is working properly. The other option requires a little more involvement and responsibility on your part. Sure, there are plenty of sensor cleaning kits on eBay and more than a few cleaning videos on YouTube that will teach you how to do it. Do any of these options offer you the security of guaranteeing that you won’t damage your sensor? Absolutely, not!! And, most of them will issue a disclaimer that they are not responsible for any damage you cause to the camera. Does the pro in the shop guarantee his work?? Yuuuuppp!!

So, what did I do? I took my camera down to Adolf Gasser’s in San Francisco to get looked at. Scott, the head repair tech, was around and not too busy, that he was able to look at the camera while I waited. I was in and out in half an hour, and the job was fabulous. I was able to see the before and after using a loupe with LED lights that illuminates the sensor, and let me tell you that this sensor was DIRTY!!! The folks at Gasser’s are top-notch and I can’t recommend them enough. A typical sensor cleaning will run your $65 if you need it real quick, but the pricing dips quite a bit if you are willing to give them two weeks turnaround time. Then it’s only $45. Will they take two weeks to get it back to you? Nope, but it’s the point that if you need it now, you’ve gotta pay a little extra for the special attention. If you stop and think about it, a pro photographer that wants a cleaning really isn’t going to think twice about paying an extra $20 to have his/her camera serviced.

So, I was super excited today to get out and shoot a little bit to see how the images would turn out. IT TURNED OUT AWESOME!!! I specifically shot in the f/16 and higher range today to test it out and it passed with flying colors. I was able to pick out ONE little spot on one image that was a dust speck, but that goes to show you how easy you can get dust on there from one day to the next. So, instead of working on an image for almost twenty minutes to clean it all up, I was done with the image within a few seconds since I only had to process one little speck.

One question that I had for Scott was what about the camera models that offer a sensor cleaning function either at startup or shut down, or both. Don’t they advertise that your sensor will be clean? Well, his answer was very interesting and makes a LOT of sense. The probability that this sensor cleaning operation is just another marketing ploy is pretty strong. To prove my point, let’s go through an example. Let’s say that you do have dust on your sensor and the vibratory action of the function gets the dust off the sensor. Where does it go? And what keeps it from re-attaching? Well, the answer is it doesn’t go anywhere!! If the camera is sealed with a lens or lens cap attached, the dust is trapped in there along with the sensor, only to get re-attached at the next opportunity that it can. There isn’t a tiny black hole in there to swallow all the dust, so it can’t go anywhere unless you physically remove it by blowing out the cavity with air. Does it help? I’m sure it does if you follow it up with a quick blow of air to get everything out, but it definitely isn’t the end all, be all answer to why you shouldn’t have to clean the sensor.

So, here I leave with you a few images that I shot down by the Pacifica Municipal Pier this evening using a Canon 70-200mm IS f/2.8 L series lens and my Canon 1D Mark II N with the freshly cleaned sensor. This is just too awesome, folks…

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