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Clean Up Your Act

Cameras (and lenses) get dirty—not so good for them or for your photos. Get expert tips on the tricks and tools you need to keep your equipment free of debris.

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Cary Wolinsky and Bob Caputo have a combined 64 years of experience photographing stories for National Geographic and other publications. Along the way, they learned a thing or two about making photographs. In 2010, they launched, which, through videos and illustrated text, imparts photo-making tips with insight, humor, and varying degrees of success.

Ever hear that crunching sound when you zoom or focus your lens? Ever see the little speck or wavy thingy that appears in the same place on every frame? Ever notice that things don’t look so crisp through the viewfinder? Welcome to the world of dirt, lint, hair, and smudges. They are inevitable, but they don’t do much good for your gear or your photos.

So keep it clean. You’ve probably already discovered that dust finds camera equipment incredibly attractive, sand likes to get into any little crevice it can find, fingerprints think they look good on glass. It takes diligence to keep these pesky intruders at bay, but it’s necessary if you don’t want them to show up in your photos.

A few simple items can do the job:

  • A paintbrush to get dust off the non-glass surf
  • A lens cloth (very soft) or camel-hair brush (also very soft) to wipe lenses
  • A rubber blower to blow dust and grit away
  • Lens-cleaning fluid and tissue to clean smudges

If you’re working where it’s dusty, on a beach, or any place where there’s likely to be stuff blowing around, it’s worth checking the front of your lens often just to be sure. If you have to change lenses, try to do so out of the wind and where there’s little chance of dust or sand getting onto the rear element or into the camera. Cleanliness of the rear element of a lens is more important than of the front element because it’s closer to the sensor. Make sure it’s clean. And do not wipe sand off of lenses. Use the blower.

When the day’s shoot is done and you’re at home, in your hotel room, or sitting by the campfire, it’s a good idea to clean camera bodies and lenses before putting them away for the night. Brush, blow, and wipe—and be especially diligent if you’ve been shooting where there’s sand, which is much easier to get rid of before it works its way into the barrel of a lens and starts to produce that grinding noise.

Most artifacts created by dirt can be fairly easily removed from still photos using Photoshop. But it’s even easier if they’re not there in the first place. And if you’re shooting video with your still camera, as I’ve been doing recently, these artifacts are a nightmare. I once had several hours of work spoiled by a tiny little hair that got stuck inside the camera behind the lens. It looked like someone was waving a flag.

So be diligent. Take a moment to check your lens every once in a while. If you see any dust or smudges, blow or clean. Change lenses and cards out of the wind. And don’t be fooled by your viewfinder. Sometimes all is well with the lens—it’s the viewfinder that needs a good cleaning.

And don’t try Cary's faucet and clothes dryer method (watch video here). Sure, his camera was really clean at the end of all that, but it wasn’t all that useful anymore.

Text by Robert Caputo,

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