Don’t Fear the DLSR Sensor

I’ve never owned a piece of equipment as perfect as the Nikon D800. It is truly in a class of its own. Read the reviews on camera websites and you’ll see people rave about this rig, you’ll also see some detractors pouncing on the D800 for illegitimate reasons. One issue that kept creeping up was sensor spotting. Not to be confused with dust or other occupational debris, many D800 sensors were spotting up with what appeared to be oil. It isn’t out of the question for such a situation to occur, but the reality is that sensors get dirty. Any pro who uses their camera as a camera should be used knows that maintenance is part of the process. I’ve never owned a camera that didn’t need some type of user or professional service at some point. Cleaning a sensor is a cost of doing business.

Not overly alarmed with the issue I did call Nikon for their suggestion. They offered a free lab sensor cleaning, but the cost was shipping and being without my beloved Nikon D800 for more than a day. At that point I sought other options. A) I could pay a local camera shop to clean it 2) I could just deal with it and fix the spots in post-production. 3) I could figure out how to do it myself.

As a die hard do-it-yourselfer, I did opt for the third choice. So, I went about doing some research and I found this to be a very polarizing topic. There were two camps of people, the “You’ll ruin your camera crowd” and the other group who said they’ve done it with okay results. Fortunately the Internet is a great resource for how-to stuff. I watched a number of YouTube videos, took copious notes and then decided that sensor cleaning is no big deal if you are careful, clean and thorough. Also, proper sensor cleaning isn’t exactly cheap for the DIYers out there, you’ll need some tools.

The D800 is a full-frame (FX) camera which you probably know refers to the sensor size which is roughly equivalent to a frame of film in a traditional 35mm film camera. Though many consumer and even a few prosumer cameras use a cropped (DX) sensor, the process for cleaning is the same though some of the tools will differ.

Keep in mind, this post was written about the issue of oil spotting on the sensor, which is a bit more difficult to clean than dust. However, if you have dust only, this whole post may not be necessary.

You can shop at whatever camera store or website you’d like, but there are two essential tools you need.

1) A box of sensor cleaning swabs. There seem to be a few choices on the market and so long as you’re comfortable with the ratings and applicability, use what you prefer. I felt these were a good choice. VisibleDust DHAP-VSWABTM Sensor Cleaning Swabs 1.0X Orange – VisibleDust VD4080502. Note that they’re 1.0x size, which is a reference to the full-frame sensor of the D800. if you have a cropped sensor camera, find the swabs to use for that application. Here’s a link to the swabs on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001K9FSB6/ref=oh_details_o04_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

2) You’ll also need some cleaning solution. Again, this may be a matter of preference. For the sake of keeping things uniform you are certainly okay to use the fluid sold by Visible Dust, the same company that makes the sensor swabs. I chose Eclipse Cleaning System Solution. It is cheaper and people seemed to rave about it. It has also come in handy for cleaning optics, filters, etc. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000AUR1I/ref=oh_details_o05_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

As for cleaning, I’m going to lead you to some tutorials that I found helpful.

First is a video produced by Visible Dust, the manufacturer of the swabs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9AAhkEqZs0

I also found the following video to be helpful. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pesZUj78S6s

Look, all I’m saying is that sensor cleaning isn’t that difficult, scary or perilous. There are things you need to know, but if you educate yourself, you’ll find the process to be easy and quite rewarding.


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