Cleaning Your Gear

In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.
In the real world of photography, lens hoods are the first line of defense against filth and damage.

I got a text from a buddy of mine asking for the best method for cleaning the surface of his lens. He said there were a “couple of water droplet stains” on the front surface, though he didn’t say if it was on the front element of the lens itself or a filter on the lens.

First things first. In the photography world we have a cute little maxim: it is better to keep your lens clean than to keep cleaning your lens.

This principle is meant for photographers working in the field day after day, not equipment fetishists who take the gear out of aluminum cases once every three months to look upon it like treasure, and its meaning is pretty plain: use a hood and a filter, and keep your fingers off the optical surfaces. That’s all.

Be aware that the number one way to put schmear on the front of your lens is by removing and replacing lens caps. I don’t even own a lens cap.

You can take my word for it. I shoot every day, often in trying weather condition of blowing dust, rain, snow, heat and cold, and I might clean my lens surfaces four times a year. They stay pretty clean.

Some items I seldom use and don't recommend: film  cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.
Some items I seldom use and don’t recommend: film cleaner, lens cleaning fluid, anti-static brush, and cleaning cloth. These items are almost always outclassed by some canned air and my shirt tail.

There’s the rub, really. If you guard your gear like a virgin and have to have it spotless and gleaming, your priority probably isn’t photography. A little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, even scratches, seldom effect the quality of your images.

On those rare occasions when I do clean my gear, I keep it simple and use…

  • Canned air on all the surfaces to remove dust.
  • A toothbrush to remove dirt in the hard-to-reach areas where canned air doesn’t work.
  • Q-Tips for glass surfaces like viewfinder eyepieces, LCD displays and monitors.
  • Clean, soft-weave cotton (like a t-shirt) for optical surfaces. If needed, I will breathe on them to create a small amount of solvent (pure water).
  • Kodak Lens Cleaner, used in very tiny amounts, is reserved for the most stubborn filth on a lens, which is almost never.

Since the inception of digital photography in 1999, a recurring problem has been the accumulation of dust on the imaging sensor. In recent years, camera makers have installed sonic “shakers” on the front surface of the sensor to remove dust, which is usually collected by a piece of sticky tape at the bottom of the sensor box. Only some of my cameras have this feature, and none of the cameras I use at work have it. Cleaning the imaging sensor follows the same principles as cleaning the lens surfaces…

  • Be gentle. The sensor is more delicate than optical surfaces.
  • I use canned air and it’s never been a problem, probably because I’ve been handling canned air for my entire career. The trick is to keep the can perfectly upright and use short bursts of air.
  • I don’t use anything that requires me to actually touch the surface of the sensor. If it’s really that dirty, it needs professional help.

After working in the rain, it’s temping to think your prized photographic possessions will be ruined by water getting inside. I’ve worked many situations in rain, blowing rain, snow, and even getting accidentally sprayed with water by firefighters.

  • Instead of plastic bags and duct tape around my gear, I have better results with keeping cameras under my rain poncho and only bringing them out to shoot.
  • I keep a small towel or wash cloth with me and wipe off rain as it accumulates.
  • Back at home or at the office, if my gear has really gotten soaked, I simply use a blow dryer set on medium to drive out any residual water.

The bottom line for any of this is to recognize that there is a big difference between “field clean” and “showroom clean,” and a little bit of dust, dirt, rain spots, and fingerprints are part of the life for anyone who actually takes pictures, and as a rule, they don’t ruin our images.

This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in "mint" condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras "lower their value," perhaps photography isn't for you.
This is the mount of my 20-year-old AF Nikkor 85mm. If you are worried about buying used equipment that is in “mint” condition, if you clean your gear obsessively, if you concern yourself with removing every speck of dust from a lens, or if you think that wear marks on cameras “lower their value,” perhaps photography isn’t for you.
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6 Comments

  1. As I was the one who asked the question that inspired your blog entry, I should let you know that I cleaned the lens (front element, no filter) as recommended, with the corner of a T-shirt and my own breath. Worked well. I adhere to the “Keep your lens” clean philosophy and do not use caps. I did need a reminder that wear-and-tear is normal if you’re doing your job. Thanks for all the tips.

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  2. Oh, and yes, I’m a huge proponent of hoods. I look at photographers who don’t use them and just wonder, “Why?????”

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  3. Since you asked (ha), most of this rings true to me. I don’t clean my lenses often, because I don’t often get them dirty enough to make any difference. (And, like you but on a shorter timeline, I shot a lot in rain, dust, smoke, etc., as part of my job.)

    Unlike you, I do use lens caps but do not use filters. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate to never get a fingerprint on the front element while removing my lens caps.

    (And I stopped using filters after doing empirical tests to show that they reduced my image quality and reduced my camera’s ability to autofocus completely accurately.)

    I do use lens hoods, mainly because I’m usually photographing toddlers; much better for me if their grimy hands grab the hood instead of the front surface. 🙂

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  4. Wil, I believe a comment you made on another of Richard’s blog entries encouraged me to rethink using filters (something to the effect of shooting through “too much glass” affecting image quality). I think your comment above just reinforced that.

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  5. Dan, just a point of clarification: If Richard and I disagree on the mechanics of photography, I’d honestly advise you to go with him unless you have an solid reason not to. 🙂

    My filter comments are based on my own tests, with an admitted lack of skill and a (by today’s standards) relatively low-quality camera, though with decent lenses. I noticed a marked increase in autofocus accuracy and image quality when I removed the filters, but others (including Richard) do not notice this, so I won’t insist on my point of view here…

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  6. Your mileage may vary, but I use multicoated filters, and don’t find that the very slight degradation in sharpness or the very slight increase in flare offsets the peace of mind of not worrying about protecting my lens. I will charge headlong into working a house fire or a ball game in driving rain, knowing that in two hours I can just throw away a ruined filter or clean it with my shirt tail.

    In those situations, minutia like sharpness and resolution definitely take a back seat to getting the image.

    Wil, autofocus performance could certainly be influenced by the presence of filters with many cameras on the market, but that has not been my experience with my gear.

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