Sensor Cleaning

I rarely use an aperture smaller than f/8 for my HDR work. Every now and then for a really wide landscape I will use f/11, but on an ultra-wide lens I don’t usually have to go smaller than that. However, when I was taking the lightning photos a few nights ago I was using f/16 and I couldn’t believe the amount of sensor dust that started showing up in the clouds! I had to clone out almost a dozen noticeable dust circles out of some photos. Usually I map them out using Capture NX 2’s “image dust off” feature, but it requires a recent dust off reference photo to be taken with the camera, and one taken before the last time you ran a clean sensor command in the menu will not be recognized by Capture NX for any images taken afterward, you have to take a new one. Understandable I guess, though inconvenient, especially if you have the camera set to clean the sensor every time it is turned on and off, a great practice but–OOOPS! 🙂 So, since I didn’t have a dust off reference photo, and I couldn’t create one that would match the time in question, I had to manually remove every noticeable spec by hand in Photoshop. Wasn’t that hard really, the spot healing brush tool is near miraculous, too bad it can’t be scripted in an action that could be easily repeated on every image though, sigh… There are work arounds, I could have recorded an action using the patch tool instead, but it’s not quite as effective. And I could have removed the spots manually in Capture NX 2 first before exporting and batched that to every image. But I decided the best thing I could do in the future was just do a wet cleaning of the sensor and get rid of the dust to begin with!

After a bit of research I decided to try out a company called Copper Hill Images. They got very high recommendations from photography blogs and peers that I trust. I chose the method that uses Eclipse cleaning fluid and QuikStrips on a SensorSwipe wand. They sent me a supply that should last me a decade! After much fear and trepidation, I put my LED headlamp on and went to work. Really, it was a piece of cake and I had little to worry about. I had a couple stubborn grease spots that were not dust but likely lubricant sprayed around from taking over 42,000 photos in less than a year on my D700, and many of them at 8fps. HDR and timelapse photography is quite brutal on a camera! It took me a few QuikStrips and some persistence, but it really paid off with a shiny clean sensor when I was done. There were still a few very faint spots left when I was done that I couldn’t see even with a magnifying glass (also included by Copper Hill Images, thanks guys!), but maybe they are microscopic. At any rate, they don’t show up in normal images and I’m not worried about them. I pushed the contrast a LOT in Capture NX to get what you see just below, but otherwise I did nothing else to clean up or enhance the images, no sharpening or noise reduction. I took a picture of solid blue on my LCD screen from about half an inch away, focused on infinity at 70mm with my 24-70mm at ISO 200 and f/22 with white balance set manually set to daylight to be sure I was getting nothing but sensor dust in the photos. I also cleaned my LCD screen beforehand just in case. I took another shot after cleaning for comparison. Then I captured another dust off reference photo and took a third photo with it applied to remove the very faint dust that was still remaining. I couldn’t find ANYTHING in the last image, if you see something its likely dust on your monitor! (A quick tip: to get really good, consistent dust off reference photos, I put my ExpoDisc white balance filter over the lens and shoot something really bright and flat like the sky or a fluorescent light.)

So, while not for the faint of heart or the impulsive/impatient personality prone to accidents, if you feel up to the challenge of cleaning your own sensor I highly recommend checking out Copper Hill Images’ products.

Here are the three photos: before cleaning, afterward, and lastly with Nikon’s image dust off feature. You’ll see more details if you click on the images to open a larger version.

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