The Big Q – Dust and Grime

In The Big Q by David25 Comments


The Big Q
With all the traveling you do, you must get a lot of crud on your gear. What would be your gear cleaning routine? I’m often troubled from shooting at family dinners (kids spit, pets lick, food splatter…), and also blown dirt from coastal areas. Often a big air blower bulb doesn’t dislodge anything that’s been wet, but i hate to wipe filters and bare glass (often forced to take filters off at night) from fear of scratching the coating, even with 3M micro fibre cloths. What should I be doing? What would you do?

The Big A
Well, first of all, what I do and what you (or I) should do, are two different things. Some of you aren’t going to like this. In fact it reminds me of a conversation I had with Karl Grobl recently. We were laughing about the difference in ways that hobbyist and professionals treat their gear and this exact thing came up. Truth is, we generally don’t treat our gear so well. We protect it, but we don’t baby it. When I’m at home I clean my gear with canned air, inside and out. I know, I know. Some of you are gasping, muttering oaths and curses. But my gear is to be used and I use it well. I don’t own a lens pen or lens brush. I own several lint-free cloths, a rocket blower and an Arctic Butterfly sensor brush, and that’s it. Can’t even tell you when the last time I used the Arctic Butterfly was.  Of course looking at one of my 5D sensors you can tell that this is the case and prompted by this question I’ll dig it out and give it a proper cleaning, might even pack it up and send it to Canon for a fill cleaning and lube.

Don’t get bent out of shape about this sensor stuff. I’m sure if you try really hard you could damage the thing, and I don’t suggest you lick off the grime, but photographers have been fighting dust forever and we’ll keep fighting it. Get too bent out of shape about it and you’re really fussing about the wrong thing. Blow it out, swab it off, move along. I wipe my lenses with a cloth but have wiped them with everything from a t-shirt to a kleenex. Again, I know, and I’ll probably get kicked out of NAPP for saying so, but I have yet to scratch a coating. I put the highest quality B+W filters on the front of my lenses when it’s really crappy out, and that helps.

The Visible Dust products work well and there’s a new one I want to try called Dust-Aid.


  1. The Dust-Aid works pretty well. I’ve got the Dust-Aid Platinum and the Dust-Wand Kit. I use the Platinum first, and if that doesn’t get all the sticky dust devils off of it, I use the Wand Kit.

    The last one takes a bit of practice but with their instructional vids it’s fairly easy to do. And cheap as well.

    However, I’m pretty sure the Arctic Butterfly is a lot easier to use.

  2. David, could you clarify something you said… When it’s NOT really crappy out, do you NOT put any filters on your lenses?

  3. Thanks David!

    Just wondering, what’s so bad about canned air? Petroleum by-products blown along with it? Otherwise I should get those 3 out of 4 cans I bought from BestBuy years ago out from the basement and put them to use…

    Also on lint-free clothes, I know they should be pretty basic/cheap stuff, but I’m at a loss to where to get them. Like “lint-free” lens tissue you can find in electronics stores with visibly free-hanging fibres attached that might do more harm than good to your lens.

    Where do you get cloths to wipe glass anyway? It seems silly to order them online…

  4. @ Joe,

    I buy 12-packs of microfiber cloths at Walmart for about $10/pk. They work great on my lenses. I have them everywhere, car, camera bag, garage, work, etc.

    David, thanks for the info.

  5. @ Mike,
    Yes, I was wondering, too bad I live in Australia now =P
    Was wondering what sort of microfibre cloths though, as I’ve seen various types. The 3M one I’m still using, has lots of bumps made up of the fibre/threads, and is starting to collect more fine dust again.

    Yes, maybe I should find the cheap ones in a pack and just throw them out as they suck up dust… Afterall, the last time I actually got affected by dirty lenses was by passing a pocket camera to an oily-fingered friend with the lens open, and that was caught by seeing the blurriness in LCD.

  6. @ Anyone

    Got a question about the lint free cloths… The more you handle them, the more you get body oils on them, as well as other contaminants, that you can inadvertently be putting back ONTO the lens. If you wash then, they’re no longer lint free. Anyone use lens paper? Anyone use the lint-free cloths as disposables? Anyone ever use solutions on your lenses? The Man at Calumet Photo, here in Cambridge, said they use the Eclipse solution (not the E2) with lens paper to clean their lenses.

    And maybe I’m nuts, but it seems like the more I clean my lens the more easily it picks up dust.

  7. I use the lint free cloths to clean lenses and Arctic Butterfly brushes to clean sensors. I used to clean the sensors on my original 5D bodies quite often, maybe once a week. But the sensor cleaning on the 5D Mark II works so well I haven’t had to clean those sensors once yet. This after 4 months of daily use, including a week in Laos where ash was in the air as thick as snow because of fires burning in the mountains.


  8. I was an avid user of the Dust-Aid for a long time. When I switched to using 5D’s early last year, I was still using my old Dust-Aid product that didn’t have the revised 5D sensor sticky pad. As a result, I tore of the low-pass filter and it required a number of shipments back and forth to Canon before the issue was resolved. I don’t blame Dust-Aid as their new products available on the market had the appropriate amendment, but it was an annoyance nonetheless.

    I had previously used some wet-cleaning systems (copperhill, eclipse solutions, etc.), but was never that big of a fan. Now I have switched to a 5D Mark II and the built-in sensor cleaner is a wonderful feature to have. I really don’t even think about cleaning the sensor, except for running the cleaning system manually every other week.

  9. You have to be careful with canned air as it sometimes blows moisture (from condensation) onto your sensor filter.

    I totally agree with you about the whole babying thing. These machines are pretty darn well built (even the lown end dSLRs). In fact I have a propensity to drop cameras in the water (I also like to swim with them), and both cameras – an entry level D70 and a more pro D200- have survived perfectly. If that ever happens to you, check this :

  10. Author

    @ Ron – I use the filters much of the time, but pull them when shooting at night, in studio, or anywhere I feel the conditions simply don’t warrant them. I’m sure that they don’t normally affect the image quality, but for example shooting at night can cause light points to create ghost images, and this is not usually an effect I’m looking for in my image.

    As for the cloths, I just throw them in the laundry or handwash them in the sink. If it gets a little lint on the lens I blow it off. But remember, you’re talking to the guy who without hesitation wipes his lens down with a t-shirt. I just don’t worry about it. Truth is, the dust on a lens would have to me MASSIVE to adversely affect image quality. And lens coatings are pretty darn durable.

    @ Joe – The general concensis is that canned air can contain particulates that might damage your sensor. I use a blower first and if it’s really dirty/dusty, I carefully, slowly, and without too much force, use the canned air. Again, the current of wisdom/paranoia is against me and I’m not saying you should do it, but i do.

  11. I take things less seriously now than I used to – though nastyness on my sensor does get to me – though I rarely shoot above f/8 recently with some Macro photography, I’ve been in the f/twenties and it’s like polka-dots on my images.

    I’ve been giving the copper-hill sensor swab method a try; pec-pads, Eclipse, sensor swab – and I’ve been doing “okay” still need to get better in the corners of the sensor on one swipe. It doesn’t freak me out – maybe I just don’t overthink it – but I’ll give it another go until it’s gone – hasn’t F’d anything up yet.

    For my lenses I do my best to switch fast, but I do what it takes to get the shot too – if I have to put the lens down without putting a cap on it so be it. I avoid UV filters, just another piece of glass as I see it and my lens hoods hold the burden of smashing distance – plus I think they throw some of my AF off – tried a quick test with my 24-70 f/2.8 and UV off yielded MUCH sharper results in random, unscientific empirical testing.

  12. I confess to having used the shirt covering my torso to clean a lenses. The fancy stuff is nice, but it’s rarely where I need it when I need it.

    @ Ron, I don’t have filters on my lenses. I paid a lot of money for my lenses; so I’m not sure that I want to add more glass to them – not even quality glass. I don’t even have this option with the 14-24. However, if I were going to be shooting in a sandstorm, then I’d invest in quality filters first.

  13. Re filters: I don’t use any either. It just doesn’t make sense putting a 50-100$ piece in front of a $1000 lens. I think also most people don’t know that it actually costs less to replace a front element than to buy a good UV filter.
    Never shot in a sandstorm and am curious if anyone has ever done it with the Nikon 14-24.

  14. On my 40D I use the DustAid on the sensor when it needs it (not too often thanks to the sensor cleaning feature,) and a Lenspen on my lenses. If a lens gets really gunky I use liquid lens cleaner and lens paper. Just remember if you use this lens cleaning method, NEVER squirt the liquid on the lens, always on the paper. And make sure you blow the lens off good with a rocket blower prior to liquid cleaning to ensure that you don’t scratch the lens with a hunk of dust.

  15. Should I be ashamed – last week in New Orleans I grabbed the shoeshine cloth from the hotel bathroom amenities and threw it in my bag – as my “just in case” cloth (along with the shower cap for the camera, not me as there was a threat of rain.) I hadn’t brought my whole gear bag on that trip so otherwise pretty much only had my breath and an elbow to clean the lens. Sometimes I guess you just have to be practical and work with what’s available.

  16. as far as lens cleaning i’ve found that a lens pen is a handy thing to keep in my bag, its small and easy to carry and incorporates both a brush and felt tip to get the job done

  17. I employ a few methods.
    1) Compressed air.
    2) Monster cleaner w/dust/lint free cloth that comes with the cleaner
    3) Blower bulb
    4) Good UV filter
    5) If needed – a tshirt (sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do to get the grime off of the lens.

  18. One way that’s worked well for me is to use an actual air compressor – not canned air. Set at relatively low pressure, it’s great for getting a lot of fine material out of just about anywhere. I use the Giottos Rocket Blower for inside the camera body itself – they also pack a lot of punch.

    I think the “fears” over cleaning your “sensor” (or more accurately the filter on top of your sensor) are pretty overblown. Just do it. I use Eclipse with swabs – but I tend to avoid the pricey swabs in place of a less expensive solution – like Pec Pads from Copper Hill ( I think David is probably right about most of this – but I still cringe when I have to go to my shirt to clean my lens. But the lens pen is usually in the car and the lens is usually a few miles from the car so you curse and do with what you have to do.

  19. Sexy!
    And I thought my F70 & F80 were beat up… but then, they didn’t have metallic metal under the black paint to show =D

    Nice trick with the toothpicks, I should do that next time I borrow my friend’s VR teles!

  20. I’m with you on this one David. They’re just tools of the trade.

    I’m always using my t-shirt to clean my glass, possibly a bad habit, but just oh so convenient!

  21. Re: cloths, I get a few when I need them from my optician. If those little lint-free cloths work on my glasses, they have to be at least as good as a t-shirt on my camera lenses.

    Re: photo at the top of the post… I LOVE this. So neat to see the making of one of my favourite images.

  22. LOL………….This post is perfectly timed. I just looked at my len today and realized it needed a cleaning. Of course, that was after I was trying to take a picture of the ocean waves coming on the beach while on my knees in the sand.

    A friend who was with me shouted, “Watch out!!” and sure enough, I was about to be caught in knee high water. I missed it this time, but I do have to watch out.

  23. If you have ever walked into a good auto mechanic, you will all the tools in their proper locations, clean and ready to use. But you will also see that those tools have been used a lot, they will have nicks and dents and wear and tear.
    I treat my cameras the same way. I shoot in some pretty unsavory places, the worst being in the middle of a crowd at a concert. I don’t even want to think about the beer and other liquids that have been splashed and dropped on m gear, but at the end of the night, I take it home and clean it off and put it away so its ready to go the next time. And it hasn’t failed me yet.

    Alan Hess

  24. i love this list of t shirt using lens cleaners.. haha. it makes me feel a little more normal when all my photog friends yell at me as i grab my pashmenia scarf and dust of my uv filter (nevermind my lens of all things!!!) a daily fashion accessory of mine that has since turned to an incredibly accessible lens cloth!!! i love it!

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