D800 sensor cleaning

I have cleaned my digital camera sensors for the longest time, beginning with the D70, then the Fuji S5pro (the hybrid of Nikon D200 body and mechanics, with part Fuji electronics and sensor), and the venerable D700 that is still our main portrait camera. It has always been a relatively easy, fast and painless effort.

My cleaning process was mostly a combination of dry cleaning (with an Arctic Butterfly nylon brush) and wet cleaning (using the inexpensive “Eclipse” cleaning fluid, and Visible Dust’s green “Ultra MXD-100” swabs). It always worked, flawlessly. Sometimes it took 2-3 swabs to get the sensor clean, but it was still very economical.

Not so with the D800. I found tiny little streaks on the sensor after the wet cleaning. Residue from the cleaning fluid. This is what it looks like:

(click to enlarge — this has been edited to the extreme to make the streaks more visible; the problem is that with some long exposure black & white photography, it’s not unlikely to use such strong edits)

At first I thought my cleaning fluid had expired – well, not expired, but absorbed too much water: these highly concentrated alcohols are all hygroscopic, and the bottle of Eclipse that I had was about 2 years old.

So I bought a new bottle of “Eclipse” (~$10 at nearby Calumet). It didn’t change anything. Still got the streaks. The next step was to try Visible Dust’s recommended cleaning fluid, the “VDust Plus”, with the blue cap. The tiny bottle costs ~$25 – way, way overpriced if you ask me. Especially after the first cleaning attempts, which left me with the same streaks on the D800 sensor.

Frustrated, I wrote an email to the Visible Dust support, asking for advice. It took them a day or two to reply, and they told me that the recommended swab for cleaning the D800 is their orange colored “DHAP-Vswab®” type (I challenge you to find that information on their website, which still talks of the D3 and D700 as “new” Nikon sensors). They also told me that I maybe needed the “Smear Away” cleaning fluid instead, with the red cap.

Since I had just wasted my remaining green swabs, I thought I’d try the recommended orange swabs first, and ordered a 12-pack of them (~$45). And while the texture of the fabric on the swab certainly is different, you may have already guessed it: no change, and more streaks. I tried using the cleaning fluid very sparingly so that it wouldn’t be too much, but allowing it to slowly spread over the swab. It was no use.

I was then looking at the “Smear Away” cleaning fluid (again, ~$25 for the tiny bottle), to find in the description that for this one, VD recommended to use the green swabs! (~$45 for the 12-pack). Which would have meant $25+$45 = another $70 for the eventuality of then, maybe, getting rid of the streaks on my sensor that would move and shift from here to there with each new cleaning attempt (and $3 per swab that went into the trashcan after each swipe).

That was the point where I gave up. I’m not saying that Visible Dust’s products don’t work. They didn’t work for me though, and I haven’t tried the “Smear Away” – maybe I had some special contamination on the sensor, who knows. It was just too much of a gamble at this point for me.

So, I decided to let the professionals at Kurt’s Camera Repair on Mission Gorge Road do their job. I’ve only had the best experiences with Kurt’s in the past. After explaining the problem they asked me what particular cleaning fluid and swabs I had used, and then told me it would perhaps take 2 days for the cleaning. The next morning already though, they called me that my camera was ready for pick-up. I did not only have a super clean sensor (yay!!!) – they also cleaned the mirror chamber, focusing screen and mirror as far as possible, and the camera exteriors as well. I’m a fan! 🙂

Needless to say also that the clean sensor lasted a little less than a week. One trip into the desert was enough to have at least one dust spot on the sensor again. 😛 But those are easy to remove in post, and just something digital photographers have to live and deal with. The streaks were FAR worse, and a nightmare to fix in post.

I’m looking into different new approaches to cleaning the sensor myself now. When I find something that works, I’ll write about it here.

UPDATE 2014-04-30: A friend told me to do to a search for “D800 oil spots”, and I did. I’m not convinced that the D800 has an oil/dust issue like the D600 had (too few and inconclusive search results if you ask me), but if it did, that could be an explanation for the streaks that I saw as a result of my cleaning efforts: the normal cleaning fluids are not meant to clean oily smear, and the aforementioned “Smear Away” by Visible Dust may have done the job. I won’t investigate this, as I don’t have that problem anymore after having the sensor cleaning professionally (once more after the repair of the 10-pin connector, which is a far bigger issue if you ask me).

I may pick up writing about certain photo/tech related topics here on my personal blog again more often. I gave up this type of blogging about 1.5 years ago, but there are certain experiences that I find worth sharing, but too technical for the general audience on my photography website. Feel free to browse the articles in the Photo/Tech category.

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5 Comments

  1. I have always cleaned my sensors on my Sony Alpha cameras with just the Eclipse products and it was always fine. Kurt’s had no recommendation for you? They fixed up the slow speeds on the shutter of my Zeiss Nettar, works great now.

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    1. I didn’t ask for a recommendation. I’ll try to stick with dry cleaning (blower and brush) for now. I used Eclipse swabs in the past but they always left some lint on the sensor. If everything else fails I can still switch back to film. 😉

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      1. You actually made me laugh on that last part…haha…I think it would just be cheaper to have Kurt’s clean the thing each time vs buying/developing film…but it is fun!

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  2. I’ve had stubborn cleanings just with my 700. But it was just the “welded” on stuff, and never a result from the cleaning process itself. Could it be the 800 is so much more sensitive (pixel-intense) that it just reads more?…Interesting
    Now if only the Nikon reps could explain how they do it…oh yeah..that’s not gonna happen.

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    1. I think it must have to do with a different coating of the filter, something like that. The higher pixel pitch could be an explanation too, but then again, the D7000 has the same pixel pitch, and the D7100’s is even higher…

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