When I teach workshops I often find students who have cameras that are somewhat neglected. Like your car needs the occasional detail, your camera needs the occasional clean up. Anything mechanical needs maintenance and care, but for some reason, some photographers just leave their gear in the bag and forget about it unless they need to shoot.
It is a good idea to have a once-a-year routine where you clean your camera. During this period of social distancing, while many of us are hunkered down at home, you might find this is a great time to do the camera cleaning yourself.
For those of you who shoot with cameras that have service departments working during the current crisis, one very simple way to handle this is to pay the manufacturer to do a clean and check. I recommend this for all cameras you own and all lenses you own. This is the most surefire way to make sure your gear is in the shape it was the day you bought it.
Some things that can go wrong are not things that it would easy or even possible for you to repair. The two biggest problems that require professionals to do the job is re-aligning the camera’s onboard exposure meter and removing dust and mold from inside lenses.
But just about everything else that needs to be done can be done by the photographer.
Where to begin?
Simple – start with your camera bag (or if you are like me – bags) and empty everything (and I mean everything) out of the bag. You could double down on your effectiveness here by making a quick inventory of what you have for insurance purposes. Write down brand, model, serial number, etc.
Then get your vacuum out and go to work on that bag. Dig deep into all the little pockets and crevices and vacuum as much of the dirt as you can. Some bags can even be washed. Carefully read your instructions that came with the bag and if it is washable, follow those directions and you’ll be working with the cleanest bag you can be. Just make sure you let the bag completely dry out before putting gear into it again.
Next up – Clean Your Camera Sensor
I am lucky to shoot with Olympus cameras. I have very rarely needed to clean my sensors. The Olympus sensors just don’t seem to attract dust like other cameras do. But that said, once a year, I clean my sensors just to make sure I am getting any of the stuff that the camera’s internal electronic sensor cleaning method doesn’t catch.
Get yourself a big air blower, remove your lens, turn the camera upside down and, holding the tip of the blower just outside the camera body, GENTLY blow some air onto the sensor to blow dirt and dust off the sensor. DO NOT used canned spray air. It has accelerants that may harm your camera.
After using the air blower, use a liquid cleaner with sensor swabs. Use VERY LITTLE of the liquid. Place it on the swab, NOT the sensor and gently move the swab across the surface of the sensor from one side to the other. Flip the swab over and repeat going back the other way.
This sounds way more scary than it is. And there are tons of YouTube videos that will teach you the proper technique.
After the sensor, don’t forget everything else. Your camera body and lenses need to be cleaned as well. Once again, using swabs (either the same ones you use for cleaning sensors or just plain old cotton swabs that you wet with rubbing alcohol. Go over every surface. Don’t let liquid drip into places where there are buttons or ports on the camera. Just have the swab somewhat damp and lightly go over each surface. After you do this, wipe the camera body down with a micro fiber cloth. Make sure to let the camera dry completely before use.
NOTE: Never put the alcohol or other cleaning solution ON the camera body. Put it on the swab and use it sparingly.
Don’t forget to clean the camera lens mount and any other electronic contacts on the camera. Again, use the alcohol on a swab and if your electronic contacts are particularly dirty, use an OLDGUYSKNOWSTUFF.com trick and use a clean pencil eraser to rub off the grime.
Check and Clean Your Lenses & Filters
Every year you should clean and inspect all your lenses and filters. Inspect the lenses for dust or mold inside the lens. This is a very serious problem that requires a professional to attend to. Anything else can usually be done by the average photographer. Inspect your filters for scratches or warped filter housings. These may be signs that you need new filters and if you do, I highly recommend Breakthrough Photography filters which are sold with a 25-year warranty.
Clean each of your lenses and filters with cleaning fluid and a cleaning cloth or lens tissue, making sure to get deep into the corners along the filter ring with a cotton swab. Once clean, hold each lens and filter up toward a bright light source to see if there has been any buildup of tiny scratches or other blemishes that might affect image quality. You should also check the lens mount and looking at your filters, check the filter threads. If they are damaged, replace the filter before it screws up your lens.
Check your lens mounting contacts and use the method described above (including pencil eraser) to remove gunk from them if you are getting errors when you mount the lens to a camera body. Also inspect things like wobbly mounts, loose screws (particularly on lens collars) and see what you can do to fix these items.
Things You Might Not Think About
Clean the materials you use to clean your cameras! Some people use lens tissues and those do a great job. That said, I just prefer microfiber lens-cleaning cloths because they are a more eco-friendly solution (no refuse) and I just think they are easy to work with. If you do use microfiber cloths, remember that they too need to be cleaned. This is something you should actually do monthly rather than yearly. If you let dirt build up on these cloths they just end up transferring the dirt back to your glass surfaces.
Some microfiber cloths be cleaned in your normal washer/dryer modes but do not use fabric softener. The safest cleaning method is to wash them by hand with warm soapy water and rinse them out thoroughly before laying them out to air dry.
Just to be safe, I replace all my microfiber cloths every two years. They are inexpensive and it’s easier to keep them in tip-top condition. I don’t throw away the old cloths. I use them as packing material between lenses in my camera bag to add extra protection from scratches.
Check Your Batteries
Over time, batteries lose their capacity to hold a charge, which translates into fewer exposures per charge. If your batteries seem to be expiring sooner than they used to, perhaps it’s time to tag them as backups and invest in a fresh battery or two. While many photographers successfully use third-party, off-brand batteries in their cameras I recommend against that. As a best-practice, I use only the manufacturer’s batteries in my cameras. I have seen too many fires and other failures due to third-party batteries to be tempted to save the few dollars difference between the real deal and a substitute.
Check Your Meter
Light meters in today’s cameras are better than ever. But in the old days they, well they sucked. I was always taught to send my camera in once a year to get my meter recalibrated. While it’s probably not necessary today, I still consider it a best practice. They do go out of alignment. If the pictures you are taking don’t seem to add up exposure-wise, I suggest you consider sending your camera in for a clean and check with a note to check the meter.
There’s an old saying that I live by. “Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.” With the forced hiatus we’re all taking, this is the perfect time to address cleaning your camera. Before you know it you’ll be out shooting again and it’s one thing you can knock off the list while you wait.
I am rooting for you.
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