Lesson from the Shot: Six Steps to Banish Dust from Your Digital Images

Dust has been a source of frustration for digital SLR users from the beginning. Those little specks are like blood clots in the digital workflow — slowing you down or even ruining your best work. Sure, you can remove imperfections in Photoshop, but when those specks get on your sensor, every single photo will need to be fixed until the problem is addressed.
You’re much better off preparing on the front end. Here are six steps to ensure a dust-free photo shoot:
1. Keep the body cap or a lens on your camera at all times. Having an SLR camera dangling around your neck without a lens is the No. 1 reason that photographers end up spending hours using the cloning tool or healing brush in Photoshop to remove dust from their images.
2. Don’t mess around when changing lenses. Keep the new lens close by and ready to switch out.
3. Clean your camera bag. Any dust in your bag will eventually end up on your SLR, so make sure it’s as clean as you want your images to be.
4. Check your sensor for dust. Your camera is not airtight. Just zooming a lens can create a suction that pulls dust into the camera and onto the sensor. It is inevitable dust will get onto a sensor.
Here is how to check it:
- Attach a telephoto lens or zoom and set it at the longest focal length and smallest aperture.
- Manually focus on the closest setting on the lens.
- Using the manual setting, set the exposure to one stop over the normal exposure.
- Photograph clear sky, white wall or white paper. Camera shake will not affect this at all; it will still reveal the specs of dust.
- Ingest into your computer and increase the contrast to the highest — it will help reveal the dust.
- View the image at 100 percent and review the entire image.
5. Use a hand blower to clear out the dust you find. Do not use compressed air as it can damage the sensor or camera. Read your camera manual on how to lock up the mirror and keep the shutter open to reveal the sensor. After this step, check your sensor for dust again.
6. Use a brush or swab to remove any remaining specks. If you’re not experienced in cleaning your camera and are unable to remove all the dust with a hand blower, you may wish to turn the job over to a professional at this point. But if you want to clean it yourself, you will need special brushes like those at VisibleDust or Copper Hill Images.
Using a swab, which uses methanol, is another way to get rid of stubborn dust; you can find one at Photographic Solutions. The methanol will clean the sensor and not leave streaks like water or other products often do.
If you follow these steps at least every few weeks, you can avoid the computer cloning and healing that can slow your workflow to a crawl. This will help you focus on the subject and not the speck in your camera’s eye.