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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Camera Care 101
by Chuck McKern

At least once a month I get an email from someone asking about sending their camera to a service center for cleaning. This can be more expensive than people realize. Most service centers define a cleaning as a "Clean, Lube, and Adjust". This involves dismantling the camera and cleaning all gears and moving parts as well as adjusting the light meter and timing of the shutter. The cost for most SLRs starts in excess of $100 and increases depending on model and complexity. 

In fact most manufacturers and reputable service centers do not recommend this kind of service. Most of the cleaning that people really want is external and you can do this easily yourself. Lets take a look at what you can do to clean and maintain your equipment.

Lenses and Filters

Probably the most important part of your equipment to keep clean is the lens. Any dirt, film, or fingerprints that get on the lens can degrade the quality of the image. All you need to properly clean your lens is a blower brush, lens cleaner, and a lens cloth. There are two basic types of cloths available today: traditional lens tissues and micro-fiber cloths. I prefer micro-fiber cloths since they don't leave lint behind like lens tissues will. Micro-fiber cloths are washable so they can be reused - hand wash only, no detergent.

To clean your lens, use the blower brush to remove any large particles of dirt or loose dust. With the micro-fiber cloth, wipe off any "fresh" fingerprints or smudges. Be sure to wipe gently in a circular motion. For older, more stubborn smudges, put a drop or two of lens cleaning fluid on the cloth and wipe in a gentle, circular motion.

It's also a good idea to check the rear element of the lens. If needed, you can clean it in the same manner. And don't forget your filters. They should be cleaned the same way.

To help keep your lenses clean when not in use be sure keep the front and rear lens caps on. For filters use those plastic holders that came with them to keep them protected when not in use. You can also get filter wallets that hold several filters safely in one handy case.


The mirror of the camera is not as critical to keep clean, but it will make viewing and manual focusing more comfortable. Dirt on the mirror will not show up in photographs but can be distracting. Be very careful when cleaning the mirror. This is a delicate area in your camera. After removing the lens, use a blower brush to gently brush off the mirror. You can also clean the under side of the focusing screen while you are doing the mirror. Don't use a liquid cleaner in this area and don't put any pressure on the mirror whatsoever.

When storing a camera without a lens mounted be sure to use a body cap (which came with the camera) to close the opening.

Focusing Screens and Prisms

On cameras with removable focusing screens, you can remove the screen and dust it off with the blower brush. After you have the screen out, be sure to use the blower brush to dust off any of the glass at the bottom of the prism that you can get to. 

You can also clean the viewfinder eyepiece using a lens cloth and lens cleaning fluid. It may be difficult to get into the corners of some rectangular viewfinders. If so, use cotton swabs with lens fluid to clean out the corners.

Film Chamber

Although it is not often that the film chamber needs to be cleaned, it is important to discuss how to safely clean this area due to the delicate nature of most shutters. 

If you get some loose dust/dirt in the camera, use a blower brush to brush out the section were the film cartridge sits and also brush off the take up spool. Very carefully brush off the sides of the shutter box with your blower brush, especially in the areas where the film travels across the shutter. Be sure not to touch or brush the shutter curtain itself. The shutters in most cameras are very delicate and can be extremely expensive to repair. 

While you're checking out your camera, check the pressure plate on the film door. This is the flat piece on the inside of the film door that keeps pressure on the film to keep it flat across the shutter opening. Besides making sure it is free of build up, check the edges of the pressure plate for any kind of nicks. If a nick occurs on the edges of the plate, it could easily scratch the film as it is pulled across it. If you find damage, pressure plates are relatively inexpensive to replace.

Digital Image Sensors

Dust on the image sensor of a digital camera will show up as a dark spot in the same location of every frame. The sensor is a delicate piece of equipment and cleaning instructions vary from camera to camera. Refer to the owners manual for your camera for the proper cleaning procedure.

Battery Chamber

The battery compartment typically doesn't need a lot of maintenance. Periodically check the contacts to make sure they don't have a build up and check for any signs of battery leakage. If you find a small amount of build up, a standard pencil eraser will remove small amounts of film from the battery contacts. Heavier build up or corrosion can be removed by gently rubbing the contact with a very fine sand paper or emery board. After cleaning the contacts be sure to blow out any debris left behind with a can of compressed air, available from any camera or computer store.

Camera Body

The external body of the camera is pretty easy to clean. Use a couple of drops of lens cleaner on a cleaning cloth and wipe down the body. Do not pour lens cleaner, or any other liquid, directly on the camera body. This could allow the liquid to run into the body and get into the camera's electronics. Do not use the liquid cleaner on the hot shoe as you could inadvertently short the contacts. 

Hot Shoe

The hot shoe is an area that causes more problems as a camera gets older. A common problem is flash units that fire intermittently or not at all. This is often caused by a build-up of corrosion on the contact of the shoe. You can keep the contacts clean by gently rubbing them with a pencil eraser, very fine sand paper or an emery board. This should only be done when years of build up interferes with the flash function. Contact cleaner (available at Radio Shack) on a soft cloth can remove light deposits and should be tried before any abrasive cleaning.

Flash Body

Flash units are pretty easy to take care of. The battery contacts can be checked and cleaned in the same manner as the contacts in your camera. Check the contacts on the bottom of the flash shoe and make sure they are clean. If they need to be polished-up clean them in the same way as the flash shoe contacts. To clean the flash body wipe it down with a little lens cleaner on a lens cloth.

Following these easy steps will help keep your camera in top shape without breaking the bank. The supplies needed to clean and maintain your camera properly can be purchased for under $20 and it takes only a few minutes to do. If you're not already doing it give it a try. Your camera will be grateful.

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