How To Clean Your Camera Gear
The inherent nature of what makes motorsport so appealing to photograph, also means our camera gear often ends up covered in dust, dirt, tyre debris and, on the odd occasion, champagne.
So how do we go about cleaning our camera gear? And even more importantly, stop all the dirt and debris from getting inside our camera. Because, let’s face it, there is nothing worse than getting a series of great shots, only to find sensor dust spots on every single one of them.
Let me take you through how you should clean and maintain your camera gear after each motorsport event.
Firstly – How Dirty Is Your Camera Gear?
First things first, if your camera gear is visibly covered in dust and debris, you really want to avoid opening it up, especially dismounting lenses.
Much like the rain, the weather sealing on pro-level camera bodies and lenses does a pretty good job of preventing moisture, dust and dirt from getting inside your camera. But the second you dismount your lens, that seal is broken, allowing anything on your camera to get inside.
If you’ve just shot a rally, off-road event or even speedway, I’d strongly recommend giving your camera gear a proper cleaning before you even consider taking off your lenses.
For other motorsport events, this is a little less crucial, and a simple wipe over might be all you need to do before packing up your gear for the day.
So do you need to clean your camera gear? Let’s take a look.
Camera Cleaning Tools
Something every photographer should have in their camera bag is a rocket blower.
A rocket blower is designed to allow you to direct “clean” airflow to blow away loose dust and particles from cameras, lenses, sensors, and other delicate surfaces.
The best way to use a rocket blower is to position your camera or lens so that the loose dust or particles can easily fall away when dislodged. Facing them downwards allows gravity to assist in dust removal. This is especially important when using them to help clean your camera sensor and the mounting end of your lenses.
Just be careful when using a rocket blower inside your camera. While the airflow from the rocket blower is really good at dislodging dust stuck on your sensor, make sure it does directly touch the sensor, which could damage the sensor.
I’ve got several microfiber cloths in my camera bag, just because I’ve accumulated them from camera manufacturers and other photography brands over the years, but you should always have at least one with your camera equipment.
Why? They are the only thing you should be using to wipe dust and smudges (usually fingerprints) off the delicate glass elements of your lenses and filters.
I know it’s very easy just to grab the corner of your shirt to quickly dust off the front of your lens (I’m guilty of this one, too), but the other fabrics can (and do) scratch off the element coatings that lens manufacturers use to reduce glare and reflections in your lenses. Or worse yet, properly scratch the glass.
The best way to use a microfiber cloth is to apply light pressure and move the cloth in a gentle circular motion to remove dust and smudges.
Sensor Cleaning Swabs
I want to start this one with a disclaimer – Anytime you touch your camera’s image sensor, you run the risk of damaging it. It is a very sensitive component of your camera. So, if you aren’t confident about the process, you might be better off getting your local camera store or camera manufacturer’s professional services team to clean it for you.
With that in mind, a sensor cleaning swab is a specialised tool used to clean the image sensor inside your digital camera. The electrified nature of the image sensor means that it does tend to attract and accumulate dust and other contaminants over time, leading to visible spots or blemishes in your photographs.
Sensor cleaning swabs are designed to effectively remove this debris as safely as possible.
There are several different styles of sensor cleaning swabs, most of which are fine, but I would avoid any that use a “sticky” element to remove dust and dirt, as this will leave residue on your sensor, which could either damage the sensor or make it even more likely for dust and debris to get stuck back on the sensor.
Keep in mind that sensor cleaning swabs are single-use items, so make sure you purchase a few and leave a couple in your camera bag, especially if you have multiple cameras, as most motorsport photographers do. You don’t want to remove dirt from one camera only to drag it across the sensor of your other camera.
In most instances, the rocket blower is more than enough to dislodge dust and dirt from your camera. However, for more heavy-duty cleanings, especially for rally and off-road events, a can (or two) of compressed air is very handy.
Back to my point earlier in this post, if your camera is very dirty, compressed air is a very good way to quickly remove a lot of dust quickly. That said, I only ever use compressed air on the external surfaces of my camera gear, making sure all the internals are covered, either by keeping the lens attached or using the lens caps etc.
The nature of compressed air, the air pressure, the moisture and the temperature, can damage the internals of your camera. Especially if you accidentally freeze part of your sensor.
So, while it’s not something I keep in my camera bag, I do usually have a can of compressed air in the office if I need it. And, if I know, I’m going to cover a gravel/dirt-based event, I’ll make sure I pick one up to have with me in the lead-up.
Mr Sheen and Soft Paint Brush
Full credit for this tip has to go to the team at Nikon Professional Services, who helped me out during a particularly dusty rally event, even despite using Canon gear.
Very fine dust can be super tricky to get off your camera before taking off your lenses, even with compressed air. That’s where a small amount of a multi-surface polishing agent like Mr Sheen (available in Australia, the UK and a few other countries) and a soft paintbrush come in handy.
Basically, Mr Sheen (or any other multi-surface polishing agent) helps the brush collect the fine dust, getting off the camera.
Start out by spraying a small amount of Mr Sheen on either the bottom of the camera or the grip (basically away from any of the buttons and openings), and then dab the paintbrush in it and wipe it over the areas where you are having the most issues with the dust and dirt. The brush will allow you to get the dust and dirt out from all the small gaps and seals, especially around the buttons and dials.
Just make sure you don’t get Mr Sheen on any of the glass surfaces. It can leave a streaky residue.
Anti-Bacterial Surface Wipes
I always keep a packet of anti-bacterial surface wipes in my bag because the cleanliness of cheap hotel rooms is often a little bit dodgy – especially those near race tracks.
However, where they come in handy from a motorsport photography perspective is when you are caught up in the podium celebrations – particularly the spraying of champagne.
When champagne drys, it turns into this sticky goo that is a real pain to get off your camera gear. I’ve found that these style surface wipes are really good at getting that off your camera gear.
Just don’t use them on the glass surfaces of your camera and lenses. They do leave a streaky residue.
If you do end up with champagne on your lens, a slightly damp microfiber cloth is your best option to remove it. But really, make sure you get to it before it starts to dry.
If all else fails, see a professional.
It goes without saying, that if you are working professionally as a motorsport photographer, you should probably be a member of your camera manufacturer’s professional services program.
One of the services they offer, which are often complimentary as part of your membership, is camera and sensor cleaning. I’d strongly recommend that you take advantage of that service.
At the end of each season, immediately after the last event, I basically drop off my entire camera kit with Canon Professional Services (because, for me, they are located on the way back from the airport). I get them to do a full clean and service any non-urgent issues that have popped up with my gear during the course of the year. Then I can pick it all up a week or two later, ready for the next season.
Tips For Cleaning Your Camera Gear
One of the most important things to keep in mind when cleaning your camera gear is to be conscious of how dusty/dirty the environment you are doing it in.
As with changing lenses, anytime the internals of your camera are open and exposed, there is the possibility of dust and dirt getting inside your camera, which could make the problem worse than it originally was.
Try to avoid using tissues, paper towels, or any abrasive materials when cleaning your camera gear. They will most likely damage your lens coatings.
This is more of a preventative measure, but if you are planning on storing your camera gear (especially over the off-season), use silica gel packs in your camera bag to absorb moisture and prevent mould growth, especially in humid environments. This will save you a lot of issues later.
Cleaning camera gear requires patience. Rushing through the process can lead to mistakes, which can make the issue worse and potentially damage your gear.
As motorsport photographers, our camera gear tends to end up in the harshest of conditions of any genre of photography. This makes it especially important to make sure you have good processes for cleaning your gear, if solely for the purpose of keeping dust and dirt out of our image sensors.
I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.
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