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Sensor Brush, Sensor Clean help keep your pictures dust-free  
Sunday, October 3, 2004 | by Rob Galbraith

Finally! A digital SLR sensor cleaner that really works.

The Sensor Brush and its companion Sensor Clean liquid/swab combo, from Canadian company Visible Dust, are the first products of their type weíve used that can remove dust, dirt and other particles effectively with little chance of either streaking or scratching of the cover glass over the image sensor.

Weíve been cleaning our arsenal of digital SLR cameras since mid-summer with Visible Dustís new products and couldnít be more pleased with the results.

Before we continue the Sensor Brush love-fest, some background: we have several cleaning kits at our disposal, including one we assembled ourselves that mirrors what several camera maker service departments use. Weíve been able to keep digital SLR models from Canon, Nikon and Kodak fairly clean using a combination of a Photographic Solutions PecPad wrapped over a carefully-sanded wooden chopstick (which is then dabbed in 99% pure isopropyl alcohol). This is a setup that we first witnessed technicians from Nikon Japan employ for sensor cover glass cleaning in 2002. So, this works, but streaking has occasionally been a problem, especially in the dry air of Calgary, Canada where we live.

Plus, weíve always worried about the possible abrasiveness of our home-grown system. Home-grown or not, however, it has been more effective than a Photographic Solutions Sensor Swab and other commercial or user-developed approaches weíve read about on the Web and tried for ourselves.

So, the troika of a PecPad, wooden chopstick and 99% pure isopropyl alcohol has been our benchmark cleaning kit for some time, despite the fact that weíve yearned for something we felt was a bit less risky for us to both use and recommend to photographers in the training and consulting side of our business.

Getting To Know Sensor Brush

Enter the Sensor Brush. The idea for Sensor Brush, says Visible Dustís Fariborz Degan, grew out of the development of a method for cleaning microscope slides - without scratching them - at Deganís day job in charge of a biochip firm in Edmonton, Canada.

As an avid amateur photographer, and regular collector of dust on the sensor of his Canon EOS-1Ds during excursions to the Canadian Rockies, he sought to apply what he had learned in the development of a microscope slide cleaner to the cleaning of the cover glass over the sensor in his digital camera (he has now sold his EOS-1Ds in favour of the smaller, lighter Sigma SD-10).

sensor_brush_all.jpg
The Sensor Brush family

The result is Sensor Brush.

sensor_brush_gold-silver.jpgActually five brushes in all, each Sensor Brush has a different-width tip, from 8mm to 24mm. Each size is composed of an unpainted wooden handle with burnished logo (to ensure no paint flecks drop into the mirror box during cleaning), aluminum ferrule (the part that holds the brush strands in place) in silver or gold colour and an ultra-thin, tapered-fibre, non-scratching brush.

Using the brush is simple: direct the narrow, straw-like nozzle of a can of compressed air at the brush end and blow out the brush fibres for 5-10 seconds or so. This both cleans out trapped particles and positively charges the brush so that itís better able to lift up dust and other guck from the sensor cover glass. Then, sweep gently across the sensor cover glass 1 time, using a continuous motion with lots of wrist action.

Clean and charge the brush again with compressed air, then repeat the procedure, sweeping horizontally across the long dimension of the sensor each time. Depending on the size of the sensor, the brush being used and how much detritus youíre trying to remove, all but the most stubborn guck will be pulled up into the fibres of the brush after a small number of passes.

sensor_brush_fibres.jpg
Sensor Brush SB-20 up close

Sound implausible? You bet. When we first learned of the Sensor Brush, and read over some of the heavy technical information about how the product worked on the Visible Dust web site earlier this year, we were skeptical. Too much discussion of charged particles to be convincing right off the bat.

But, after cleaning 10 different models of digital SLR's with a Sensor Brush initially, then subsequently cleaning the most heavily used ones around here again over time, weíre sold: the Sensor Brush is the Real Deal. It works as advertised, trapping dust and other particles and leaving the sensor remarkably free of blue sky-ruining crud. Itís as or more effective than any other cleaning approach weíve tried, with the added benefit of being safer to use on the cover glass also. In fact, itís the only sensor cleaning product we intend to use from here on in (well, in addition to Sensor Clean, which weíll describe later in this article).

Brief instructions on the use of Sensor Brush are here.

Because the Sensor Brush is available in 5 different sizes, youíll want to put some thought into which brush or kit of brushes you might select. The brushes are meant to be used as follows:

  • SB-4 (4mm brush width) For touch up of the sensor or cleaning of tight areas in the mirror box, including around the mirror mechanism. Especially when the camera is new, says Visible Dustís Degan, flecks from the mechanism can accumulate on parts of the mirror, in the mirror box itself and of course on the sensor cover glass. A touch-up brush can be used to clean out these flecks as well as scoop up stubborn particles on the cover glass. A different brush should be used for cleaning the mirror/mirror box than is used on the cover glass.

  • SB-8 (8mm brush width) Same as above, plus for the cleaning of the mount on the camera and on the lens.

  • SB-16 (16mm brush width) For 1.5x and 1.6x field-of-view magnification cameras, including all of Nikonís digital SLR cameras and Canonís EOS D30, D60, 10D, 20D and Digital Rebel/300D. The brush is roughly the vertical width of the sensor in these models.

  • SB-20 (20mm brush width) For 1.3x field-of-view magnification cameras, including the Canon EOS-1D and EOS-1D Mark II. The brush is roughly the vertical width of the sensor in these models.

  • SB-24 (24mm brush width) For digital SLR cameras whose sensors are about the same size as a 35mm film frame, including the Canon EOS-1Ds and EOS-1Ds Mark II, as well as the Kodak DCS Pro 14n, SLR/n and SLR/c. The brush is roughly the vertical width of the sensor in these models.

We have all five brushes on hand here, and we donít quite use them as Visible Dust intends. While personal preference will impact this, weíve found the thick wooden handles of both the SB-20 and SB-24 models (and especially the SB-24), combined with our hamfistedness, to be a poor combination. In short, the handles on these brushes are too big for their not to be a risk of knocking the sides of the mirror box. At least this is true when weíre piloting the brush.

As such, weíve shelved the two largest brushes in favour of the SB-16 for the cleaning of sensors from 1.3x through full frame. This means that more than one sweep of the brush is required to cover the entire cover glass area, but this is offset by the fact itís easier to maneuver the brush at the edges of the sensor.

For 1.5x and 1.6x size sensors weíve settled on the SB-8. This again means good maneuverability inside the camera but more than one sweep to cover the entire sensor area once.

In addition, we use the SB-4 to pull up stubborn bits of dust missed in the sensor sweep, and a separate SB-8 to clean the mirror mechanism. This combination of brushes seems just about ideal, though if your day job is as a heart surgeon, or youíre especially good at tying flies, you might have the hands for a brush size more closely matched to the sensorís vertical width.

Late breaking news: just as we were finalizing this article, we learned from Visible Dust's Degan that they're about to make a change to the SB-24 brush that will reduce the handle size. By using a fan brush design, as shown in the picture supplied by Visible Dust below, the diameter of the handle of the SB-24 shrinks dramatically. We haven't yet tried this brush, but it might make the SB-24 a more-viable option for 35mm frame-size cameras than the current, thick-handled version. The fan brush edition of the SB-24 is expected to begin shipping in volume the week of October 4, 2004; some customers have already received early units of this brush size, says Degan. Though we've got a pretty good groove going with the SB-16 brush for all sensor sizes, the larger brush may be preferable to some full frame camera owners.

sensor_fan_brush.jpg
Sensor Brush SB-24 with smaller handle and fan brush design

Sensor Clean for Tough Jobs

sensor_clean.jpgIn our discussions about Visible Dustís products, Degan has done his best to downplay the need for Sensor Clean. He contends that Sensor Brush, used properly, should be sufficient for most users to keep the sensor cover glass sparkly clean. And this is likely true in many cases.

But if your camera has been exposed to particularly tough environmental conditions, or youíve forgotten for the 37th time to hold your breath while cleaning the sensor and have exhaled a small droplet onto the cover glass, Sensor Brush wonít be sufficient.

Put simply, there are situations where Sensor Clean will be required. Sensor Clean is a combination of non-scratching, medical-grade cleaning swabs (100 in all are included in each Sensor Clean kit) and a cleaning fluid that is less prone to streaking and easier to work with than either isopropyl alcohol- or methanol-based solutions.

Degan hasnít revealed exactly whatís in the magic cleaning elixir, except to say that it can be shipped internationally, contains no alcohol, isnít flammable and is safe for use on the sensorís cover glass (and lenses too).

On a particular dirty Nikon D2H, one that had seen repeated afternoons of dusty rodeo duty, Sensor Brush wasnít able to pull up everything. And in the process, a drop of spit landed on the sensor (a guy can only hold his breath for so long).

We tried a couple of drops of the Sensor Clean fluid on one of the included swabs, then rolled that over the sensor as per Degan's instructions. To our pleasant surprise, not only did the guck come off, but there was almost no streaking, despite the fact we kept the swab moving around the sensor for more than a minute, thereby coaxing streaks to develop.

An additional, quicker session with a second swab and fluid removed the streaks; a third dry swab got the cover glass completely dry. We followed up with the Sensor Brush again, and the end result was a sensor cover glass that was almost completely clean. The before/after snippets of a corner of the D2Hís frame area below give an idea of the effectiveness of Sensor Clean and Sensor Brush in this instance.

sensor_brush_before-after.jpg
Before (top) and after cleaning with the Sensor Clean and Sensor Brush (Zoom)

Sensor Clean may not be required often (and in fact weíve used it no more than 2-3 times so far), but itís clearly better for the job than anything else weíve tried. The no-streak liquid in particular is a step up from cleaning solutions comprised mostly of methanol or isopropyl alcohol. The swabs we trust are non-scratching (they can only be better than abrasive Q-Tips), and certainly the packaging looks like they were lifted right from the local emergency ward.  So weíre going on the assumption that if theyíre good enough for the local ER theyíre good enough for a digital SLR.

Brief instructions on the use of Sensor Clean are here.

Preventative Maintenance with Chamber Clean

chamber_clean.jpgRounding out Visible Dustís product line is Chamber Clean. Itís also a cleaning liquid and swab kit, but both the liquid and the 10 included swabs are different than that of Sensor Clean.

Chamber Clean is meant to be used to pluck dirt, flecks and other particles from in and around the mirror box. Degan suggests that this is particularly important when the camera is new and flecks from the mirror mechanism are flying around inside (this flecking settles down once the components are broken in). Or when the camera has been through some tough weather that has included changing lenses in windy conditions.

The D2H that pulled rodeo duty was also treated to a full makeover with Chamber Clean, and given the filthiness of the swab when we were done it obviously removed a lot of foreign matter. The idea, says Degan, is that if surfaces within the mirror box are crud-free, the sensor cover glass wonít need to be cleaned as often. This is probably true for cameras that spend a lot of time nestled in a camera bag with the same lens attached, or for models like the Sigma SD-10 or older Kodak DCS digital SLR's which have an optical filter in front of the mirror. But for cameras that spend a lot of time in the great outdoors, used by photographers who change lenses frequently, regular cleaning with Chamber Clean is probably not going to yield anything other than a short-term benefit.

The choice to purchase Chamber Clean will be driven largely by how and where you use your camera. For now, we donít anticipate using Chamber Clean again until perhaps after next yearís rodeo season.

Conclusion

There are few real downsides to Visible Dustís sensor cleaning packages, but there are some points worth mentioning:

  • Visible Dustís products arenít cheap. Degan emphasizes that careful quality control means they reject a number of brushes for such things as brush fibres clumped together or other defects in workmanship, which keeps the quality of what they ship to customers high but drives the cost up too. And, that as a small company making a niche product, they donít have quantities of scale working to drive the cost of production down. Ultimately, we donít think the Sensor Brush is unreasonably priced, especially since it can be used for years, but if youíre anticipating the cost to be in line with a paint brush down at Home Depot, think again.

  • The packaging for Sensor Brush, Sensor Clean and Chamber Clean is fairly rudimentary. No 4-colour glossy box or fancy Sensor Brush holder will arrive at your doorstep. The packaging is functional, however.

  • You canít walk into your local pro photo dealer and purchase a Sensor Brush or other Visible Dust product Ė yet. For now, ordering is direct from the company only.

Our recommendation? Run donít walk to your nearest browser and get yourself fitted with a Sensor Brush kit, and probably a Sensor Clean kit too. Visible Dustís products are effective at dealing with a longstanding digital SLR problem, and they do it in a way that, in hindsight, is so obviously the right way that itís hard to believe nobody thought up Sensor Brush and Sensor Clean before now. Chamber Clean is also effective, but can probably be considered an optional extra.

For more information, see the Visible Dust web site, or contact the company directly at info@visibledust.com.

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