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VisibleDust updates Arctic Butterfly, adds new swabs, liquid to lineup  
Friday, May 12, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

VisibleDust this week has unveiled a retooled version of its Arctic Butterfly digital SLR sensor cleaning brush, as well as a new line of wet-clean sensor swabs and companion cleaning liquid. The Arctic Butterfly 724, VDust Formula liquid, Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs join the company's already impressive range of sensor cleaning tools for the digital SLR photographer. Here's a first look at VisibleDust's latest, based on our use of the new products over the last several weeks.

The Arctic Butterfly 724

Like the original Arctic Butterfly, the Arctic Butterfly 724 is a sensor cleaning brush that's able to rid itself of accumulated debris through an aggressive spinning action; that spinning action simultaneously charges the brush for another round of dry dust extraction. The new version, which began to ship in limited quantities earlier this week and replaces the original Arctic Butterfly in Visible Dust's product line, is comprised of a 16mm wide fine-filament brush, non-conductive metal ferrule, rotating/vibrating DC motor and a plastic housing + cap. As before, it's powered by two AAA batteries.

Also like the Arctic Butterfly, the Arctic Butterfly 724's main advantage relative to the company's mainstay product, the Sensor Brush, is its compactness for transport, since the Sensor Brush requires either a can of compressed air or a Sensor Brush SD as a constant companion.

Since we first discovered VisibleDust's charged brush cleaning approach, back in mid-2004, it has become THE way we clean the sensor cover glass inside both Canon and Nikon digital SLR cameras. Why? Because it works better than any other method we've tried, and the company appears to be performing the necessary quality control steps to ensure that their brush fibres ship free of adhesives or other abrasive guck that could scratch the cover glass. With the introduction of the Arctic Butterfly late last year, we were pleased to see the company evolving their original concept into something more travel-friendly and convenient to use, by eliminating the need to schlep around compressed air for maximum filament cleaning and charging effectiveness.

And while the Arctic Butterfly is entirely usable, it's not perfect. There are several minor design flaws, including a battery door and brush/ferrule cap that slide off too easily as well as an on/off switch that can be engaged accidentally. These product eccentricities are exacerbated by the mesh fabric pouch that houses the Arctic Butterfly, since the cap always falls off when inside it. Until we laid down strips of gaffer tape to hold the battery door in place and to secure the cap, and we located some hard-sided travel cases, the Arctic Butterfly didn't really become practical to tote and use. In addition, the brush head is made up of fewer total filaments than our favourite Sensor Brush, and we're simply better at cleaning a sensor in any digital camera when the brush head is made up of a slightly-thicker bundle of filaments.

In other words, the Arctic Butterfly was a solid first try, but clearly there was room for improvement.

VisibleDust's Fariborz Degan thought so too. As such, the President and lead designer at the Edmonton, Canada-based company, and the brainchild behind all of VisibleDust's products to date, has spent the last several months reworking the Arctic Butterfly to eliminate its shortcomings. The result is the Arctic Butterfly 724. This is a new-from-the-ground-up unit that improves on almost all aspects of the original. In the new model the battery door snaps snugly into place, the cap twist-locks securely, the on/off switch is now a slider instead of a press-to-engage type and the contoured grip itself, as well as the new fitted hard case, have a really nice, non-plasticky smoothness to them.

If Ricardo Montalban were describing the Arctic Butterfly 724, he would say that it's swathed in rich Corinthian leather. Unlike the leather upholstery of yesteryear's Chrysler Cordoba, however, the Arctic Butterfly 724 will soon be available in three colours: Aqua-Turquoise, Sedona-Orange and Warm-Green.

 arctic_butterfly_724_01.jpg
Triple Threat: The three colours of the Arctic Butterfly 724. (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

All kidding aside, the rough-and-ready approach of the first Arctic Butterfly has given way to smart industrial design, and the result is a much-improved product. One for which a patent is pending, and is in fact already past the provisional stage in the patent paperwork we examined. The motor inside is also beefier (the company claims it's 30% more powerful), to inject a bit more dust-dislodging shake and twirl into each self-cleaning rotation.

We've been using an early unit of the 724 since last month, and can attest to all the improvements described above: the Arctic Butterfly 724 is the real thing. If you've been holding off from purchasing the original model because you've heard gaffer tape stories like ours, you needn't hold off any longer. Conversely, if you have an original Arctic Butterfly and have already given it a gaffer tape makeover, stepping up to the new model is probably not necessary: the original model was and still is an effective sensor cleaning tool.

What hasn't changed is the thickness of the bundle of filaments in the brush head, which is about the same in the Arctic Butterfly 724 as it is in the Arctic Butterfly (which in turn is similar to the 16mm SBF-style Sensor Brush). While this hasn't prevented us from using the Arctic Butterfly 724 to get the sensor squeaky clean in several Canon and Nikon digital SLRs, it does mean we've already started to press VisibleDust for an Arctic Butterfly 724 version that has the same brush density as the bushier of the two 16mm Sensor Brush models. A thicker brush head would not only be better-suited to our ham-fisted cleaning style, but should also show less of the temporary splaying of the filaments immediately after being spun.

While the company doesn't intend to expand the range of 724 models anytime soon, says Degan in response, they are working on an accessory brush head for the current model. The head will incorporate more bristles - which should make it more to our liking - in a ferrule that will insert in place of the easily-removed standard head. The accessory head will come with a twist cap molded for the thicker brush bundle as well. No release date or price has been set for the accessory head, though Degan expects it will be out sometime in the next few months. Until this option appears, we've gone ahead and replaced the Arctic Butterfly with the Arctic Butterfly 724 in two road kits, since it does work very well in its current form. And we'll almost certainly opt for the accessory head once it's released.

 arctic_butterfly_724_03.jpg  arctic_butterfly_724_05.jpg
arctic_butterfly_724_02.jpg  arctic_butterfly_724_04.jpg
Clean Sweep: Views of the Arctic Butterfly 724, including its hard case. (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Arctic Butterfly 724 is available now direct from VisibleDust. Supply is expected to be tight in the first few weeks of availability, with most or all units shipping with Aqua-Turquoise bodies and cases. The cost is CDN$99.95 (about US$90 as of this writing). Retailers of VisibleDust products will begin to see stock of the Arctic Butterfly 724 by early June 2006, at which time the other two Arctic Butterfly 724 colours should also be available.

The Sensor Brush SD, which is comprised of the grip portion of the original Arctic Butterfly plus several inserts to hold and spin different Sensor Brush models, continues to be available. It will remain a key component in our sensor cleaning kit for the office. That's because it provides a combination of the optimum Sensor Brush head thickness with the convenience of cleaning/charging the brush by spinning it. But for travel, the two together in a kit, while not that bulky, gobble up more camera bag space than the Arctic Butterfly 724.

Our sensor cleaning regimen for the foreseeable future will include use of the Arctic Butterfly 724 in the field, while the Sensor Brush SD + Sensor Brush will stay at home. VisibleDust's Degan says they're evaluating whether to convert the Sensor Brush SD to the new handle design of the Arctic Butterfly 724, but no decision has been made. For our purposes, the eventual release of an accessory head with a thicker brush for the Arctic Butterfly 724 should obviate the need for the Sensor Brush SD and Sensor Brush altogether.

DHAP, Ultra MXD-100 and VDust Formula

From its inception, VisibleDust's primary focus has been on methods for cleaning a camera's sensor without the use of liquid, though they've had several wet-clean solutions built around medical-grade applicators too. Ongoing feedback from photographers and retailers, says Degan, pointed to an opportunity to improve upon the company's existing wet options for situations where stubborn guck won't brush off the sensor, as well as to better meet the needs of photographers who simply prefer cleaning with swabs and liquid.

Enter the Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs, known as the Green Series and Orange Series, respectively. Each is available in three widths, which are manufactured to precisely fit three of the four most popular sensor sizes: 1.6X, 1.3X and 1.0X (Degan says that the internal layout of Nikon digital SLRs makes the 1.6X swabs a good fit, even though the cropping factor for all Nikons is about 1.5X).

At a glance, there doesn't appear to be much difference between the two swabs, other than the green and orange handles. Also at a glance, there doesn't appear to be much difference between either swab and swabs from other companies. Closer inspection of VisibleDust's new swabs, however, reveals the same kind of design thoroughness found in the Arctic Butterfly 724.

First, both the Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs are sealed along the sides, rather than at the bottom edge that touches the sensor cover glass. This translates into a smoother edge contacting an expensive part of the camera. After Degan pointed this feature out, we went back and looked at various swab samples of similar design we've amassed over time: every last one of them is heat-sealed along the bottom. One, from a recent entrant in the sensor cleaning game, is downright rough to the touch.

Second, the fabrics in the Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs are wrapped around a perforated plastic paddle which, says Degan, is designed to aid absorbency. This in turn helps minimize pooling and streaking of cleaning fluid on the sensor. Especially if too many drops of fluid are applied to the swab.

 dhap_01.jpg
Exposed Swab: A 1.6X-size Orange Series DHAP swab and the perforated paddle that lies underneath the fabric. (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

In addition, Degan notes that the manufacturing and packaging of the swabs is done in a manner that ensures no contaminants end up on the swab surface. For competitive reasons, the company is not revealing what fabric is used in each swab. (Visible Dust has also secured a provisional patent on certain aspects of the new swabs' design.)

Why two swab types? For compatibility with VisibleDust's various cleaning fluids, including a new one called VDust Formula. The double-layered DHAP swabs are made for use only with VDust Formula (a new multi-ingredient liquid that VisibleDust also introduced this week), while the single-layer Ultra MXD-100 can be used with VDust Formula, Sensor Clean and Smear Away.

VisibleDust has published a Wet Cleaning Guide showing the characteristics of various swab/liquid combinations. The Guide, while helpful, may make it seem more complicated than it actually is to choose the right swab for a particular cleaning task. As Degan explained to us, the Orange Series DHAP swabs, because of the fabric used and the fact there are two layers wrapped around the paddle, are particularly absorbent. Combine this swab with VDust Formula, he says, and you should have the most potent VisibleDust combination for typical wet-cleaning jobs aimed at removing stubborn but non-oily guck.

On the other hand, if you've resorted to wet cleaning to get rid of oily marks from the sensor cover glass, Degan indicates that the DHAP swab isn't the right choice and in fact will do nothing more than reposition the oil stain, not remove it. Instead, he says, a combination of a Green Series Ultra MXD-100 swab and an appropriate liquid will be required to lift up the grease. For a nasty cleaning job like this, Degan recommends first getting rid of the major problem - the oily residue - with the combination of an Ultra MXD-100 swab and Smear Away. With that problem solved, finish the wet-cleaning job with the more-absorbent DHAP swab and VDust Formula, he says.

And while this may sound like a plot to sell more swabs, Degan was able to make a believer of us by restoring the sensor in a Canon EOS 5D using the progression of swabs and liquids outlined in the previous paragraph. Earlier this spring, we botched the cleaning of this camera with an Arctic Butterfly, by accidentally dragging greasy goo from the edge of the chamber across the sensor. Using Smear Away and a bundled applicator, we only managed to distribute the goo more evenly, because there was simply too much of it. To make a long story short, Degan used early samples of the new 1.0X-size Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs, plus Smear Away and VDust Formula, to undo the sticky mess inside the 5D.

The contrast-boosted photo below shows the state of the camera's sensor before the cleaning; roll your cursor over the photo to see the cleaned result. This before/after comparison is a bit rough, but it does show how the sensor's cover glass was transformed from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan.

 canon_5d_sensor_before.jpg
Before the Cleaning: Move your cursor over the photo to see a different frame, taken with the Canon EOS 5D after its cleaning makeover.

If you own a full-frame Canon digital SLR, you might get spanked by the same oily problem we encountered; otherwise, it's unlikely that attempting a brush cleaning of a smaller-sensor Canon or Nikon digital camera will lead to the same gooey outcome. Therefore, as noted earlier, most wet cleaning operations where oil isn't a factor are probably best handled by a DHAP swab and VDust Formula.

Our experience with more pedestrian wet cleaning, using VisibleDust's new swabs, is limited but positive. Based on a test cleaning of a Canon EOS D60, however, one whose sensor was infused with what looked like dried saliva spots, we can say that a 1.6X DHAP swab and VDust Formula conspired to completely rid the camera of those spots. Even more impressively, the cover glass was entirely free of streaks afterwards, and it's always a battle to avoid cleaning streaks here in dry-as-toast Calgary, Canada.

Compared to the simplicity of brush cleaning, working with swabs and liquid is nerve-racking and just no fun. But at times, it's also the only way to get rid of picture-ruining material from a sensor's cover glass. Based on the results we've seen with VisibleDust's new swabs so far (when combined with their cleaning liquids both old and new), the company looks to have hit a home run. Ultra MXD-100, DHAP, VDust Formula, Smear Away: this stuff works.

To summarize:

  • To clean a sensor with marks that appear oily or greasy: Start with Smear Away on a Green Series Ultra MXD-100 swab. Once the oil or grease has been removed, complete the cleaning job with an Orange Series DHAP swab and VDust Formula.

  • To clean a sensor with stubborn-to-remove guck that appears dry or water-based: Use an Orange Series DHAP swab and VDust Formula.

Both the Green Series Ultra MXD-100 and Orange Series DHAP swabs will ship in three different sizes - 1.0X, 1.3X and 1.6X - and will have 12 same-size swabs per package. Both series and all sizes are CDN$37.95 (about US$34.25 as of this writing) per package when purchased direct from VisibleDust. The company sells a bottle of VDust Formula (sufficient for 55 to 110 swab dousings) for CDN$14.95 (about US$13.50 as of this writing).

The new swabs and liquid aren't yet available for purchase, though they will be soon. VDust Formula is to ship the week of May 15, 2006 direct from VisibleDust; retailers should have stock by the end of the month. All sizes and types of swabs are slated to ship direct from Visible Dust the week of May 22, 2006, with retailer availability likely by the end of the month or early June 2006. 

Conclusion

In a market segment that's filled with downright odd or even harmful sensor cleaning tools and techniques, VisibleDust seems to be one of the very few outfits attempting to make truly useful sensor cleaning tools for digital SLR photographers. With the introduction of the Arctic Butterfly last year, and now the Arctic Butterfly 724, VDust Formula, Ultra MXD-100 and DHAP swabs, the company is also bringing some real innovation to what they do. If crud on the sensor is fouling up your pictures, get some VisibleDust. If you're struggling to decide which products of theirs to buy, feel free to pick and choose from what we're selecting for our 2006 cleaning kits.

  • In the Office Sensor Brush 16mm (we use this on all sensor sizes), Sensor Brush SD, Green Series Ultra MXD-100 swabs, Smear Away, Orange Series DHAP swabs and VDust Formula. When VisibleDust releases their accessory head with more bristles for the Arctic Butterfly 724, we will probably be prepared to give up the Sensor Brush + Sensor Brush SD combination at that time. VisibleDust makes a lot of other products now, but these ones should cover practically any cleaning job we're likely to face.

  • In the Field Arctic Butterfly 724, upgraded to the accessory head with more bristles when that ships later this year. We won't attempt a swab cleaning at an assignment unless desperate, so the company's wet clean products will stay at home most of the time.

Revision History
 Added product recommendations (May 14, 2006)

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