How to clean your DSLR sensor with a gel stick (and check it in Lightroom)

It’s highly likely that the sensor of your DSLR will get dirt on it after some time of use. It doesn’t matter how careful you have been when using it, dust always gets a way to get inside the camera and you will reach a point when you can’t put up anymore with the spots that this dust leaves on your images. On a Nikon DSLR you just get into MENU> SETUP MENU> Clean image sensor. It’ll take 5 seconds, and there is also an option to automatically clean in at startup/shutdown.

However, depending on the brand and model of your camera you will have to deal with something more scary, oil spots on the sensor. As weird as it sounds this is possible. Every time you take a photo with your DSLR the mirror goes up and this mechanism can spit oil on the sensor. This is a well known problem on some Nikon cameras and other brands too. Oil inside your camera isn’t endless and with the pass of time the quantity of oil that falls on the sensor will reduce, but the damage is done already. Can you see small circular black dots on your images often when using small apertures? Is the majority of these spots in the area around the sides and/or corners of your photos? If the answer is yes, you are probably like me one of the unlucky ones. I own a Nikon D800E which is unfortunately amongst the affected camera models.

You can fix this issue by using the appropriated removal tools on Photoshop or Lightroom. It certainly is a nice solution if you need to get rid of a couple of spots on your images, — this one on the sky…and that one on the green field –. That’s it, handy. But when there are lots of spots I don’t recommend using these tools because as good as they are it takes too long to do that job and you can spoil the image when you overuse them.

So when everything directs you to having to clean the sensor the problem is that this process seems scary, obviously no one wants to damage their camera. But the good news is that it hasn’t to be that way. There are ways to clean the sensor with special liquids, personally I don’t recommend them. Electronics and liquids don’t mix quite well, and the idea of using them inside the camera doesn’t appeal to me, and some liquids will leave a thin layer on the sensor even after being removed.

What I do recommend is using a sensor cleaning kit with a gel stick. The one I use is from ‘eyelead’ but there are others too. This is how it works: any dust and oil spots adhere to the gel, and then you pass them on to a viscous cleaning paper (the eyelead comes with 10 of these, but you can buy more if you need them). If done properly this method is effective, simple, noninvasive and the whole process will take you 10 minutes. I’ve cleaned my camera this way several times so let me describe it below.

DSLR sensor gel stick clean

First thing I do is to make sure that I have a full battery in the camera. During the cleaning the mirror is locked up, and some cameras won’t let you do this if the battery isn’t above a certain charge. Also, I avoid touching the gel or the sticky paper with the hands so grease won’t end up on the sensor.

I start pressing the gel stick against the sensor but try not to put too much pressure or it wouldn’t be possible to separate the gel from the sensor (that gel is really sticky). After every press on the sensor you just have to do the same with the stick against the sticky paper, leaving any dust and oil on it (don’t use the same spot on the paper twice or some dust and oil will stick to the gel again). I make sure that I cover the whole area of the sensor and that the gel doesn’t touch any other part of the inside of the camera.

gel stick sensor clean DSLR

Taking some test photos

Some of the oil spots are so thick that you will be able to see them with the naked eye, but for the ones that you can’t see a good practice is taking a photo, even one photo before the whole cleaning process to compare the before/after. To avoid mixing possible dust on the glass of the lens you can take the photo with no lens attached to the DSLR. Usually I take the photos with a lens attached so I take advantage and clean the lens too, in my case normally the 24-70mm. If you do it this way, set the smallest aperture of the lens with a low ISO to reduce noise and a potential long shutter. Usually I point the camera against a white wall in dark conditions and move the camera while the shutter is opened so any texture of the wall is ‘smoothed’ and it doesn’t interfere with the spots.

The two photos below show the before and after the cleaning.

before cleaning camera sensor
After cleaning camera sensor

To see more clear the spots I converted the image to black and white and did some adjustments in Lightroom. Increasing the contrast and clarity usually will do the job, but this time I also played with the whites, blacks and exposure to get more contrast. You can notice some of the spots have prevailed the cleaning but I’m happy with this result. Some oil spots are so dry and thick that you will be lucky if they just dim a bit. What’s life without some oil spots in your pictures?

Another tip that will help you to see better the spots is to press ‘Q’ to enable the spot removal tool and then click on ‘Visualize Spots’ and play with the slider (if you can’t see these press ‘T’ to enable the toolbar). This tool will show you even the tiniest mark so don’t try to get a 100% clean area, or you will get crazy in the process of removing eeeeeverything.

spot removal tool lightroom

Below again same before/after photos but this time with the spot removal enabled. The before photo could pass for a starry night picture…

Lightroom spot removal
Lightroom spot removal

Some people prefer to avoid this hassle and send their cameras to a professional sensor cleaning service which isn’t cheap. Fair enough, the sensor cleaning kit isn’t cheap either, but if you are careful it’s a reasonable way to clean your camera. I’ve used my kit three times in a year period and I’m quite happy with it.

Just one more thing, be careful if you have used liquids to clean the sensor previously and now want to use the gel stick. As I said before some liquids could remain as a thin layer on some parts of the sensor, and using the gel stick will only get things worse.

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