Troubleshooting and Prevention

18

One of the nice things about modern electronic cameras is that they have fewer mechanical moving parts to fail, so they are less likely to “wear out.” No film transport mechanism, no wind lever or motor drive, and no complicated mechanical linkages from camera to lens to physically stop down the lens aperture. Instead, tiny, reliable motors are built into each lens (and you lose the use of only that lens should something fail), and the camera dispenses with one of the few major moving parts that digital SLRs have—the mirror that flips up and down with each shot not taken using live view.

Of course, the camera also has a moving shutter that can fail, but the shutter is built rugged enough that you can expect it to last 100,000 shutter cycles or more. Unless you’re shooting sports in continuous mode day in and day out, the shutter on your camera is likely to last as long as you expect to use the camera.

The only other things on the camera that move are switches, dials, buttons, the LCD screen, and the door that slides open to allow you to remove and insert the memory card. Unless you’re extraordinarily clumsy or unlucky, there’s not a lot that can go wrong mechanically with your camera.

There are numerous other electrical and electronic connections (many connected to those mechanical switches and dials), and components like the color LCD and top-panel status LCD that can potentially fail or suffer damage. The camera also relies on its “operating system,” or firmware, which can be plagued by bugs that cause unexpected behavior. Luckily, electronic components are generally more reliable and trouble-free, especially when compared to their mechanical counterparts from the pre-electronic film camera days. Digital cameras have problems unique to their breed, too; the most troublesome being the need to clean the sensor of dust and grime periodically. This chapter will show you how to diagnose more frequent problems, fix many common ills, and, importantly, learn how to avoid them, when possible, in the future.

Updating Your Firmware

As I said, the firmware in your camera is the camera’s operating system, which handles everything from menu display (including fonts, colors, and the actual entries themselves), what languages are available, and even support for specific devices and features. Upgrading the firmware to a new version makes it possible to add new features while fixing some of the bugs that sneak in.

Official Firmware

Official firmware for your camera is given a version number that you can view by turning the power on, pressing the MENU button, and scrolling to Firmware Ver. x.x.x in the Set-up 5 menu. The first number in the version string represents the major release number, while the second and third represent less significant upgrades and minor tweaks, respectively. Theoretically, a camera should have a firmware version number of 1.0.0 when it is introduced, but vendors have been known to do some minor fixes during testing and unveil a camera with a 1.0.1 firmware designation. It’s likely, however, that any camera you buy new will have the latest firmware, or lag only one release behind. Most updating is done for currently owned cameras that need to keep pace with progress. Firmware upgrades are used most frequently to fix bugs in the software, and much less frequently to add or enhance features. Some of the bug fixes can affect only a tiny number of users or applications.

The exact changes made to the firmware are generally spelled out in the firmware release announcement. My recommendation is always to examine the remedies provided and decide if a given firmware patch is important to you. If not, you can usually safely wait a while before going through the bother of upgrading your firmware—at least long enough for the early adopters to report whether the bug fixes have introduced new bugs of their own. Check with the camera forums to see if the firmware caused more problems than it fixed before proceeding. Each new firmware release incorporates the changes from previous releases, so if you skip a minor upgrade you should have no problems.

The most recent significant firmware update for the cameras was 1.3.0 (R5) and 1.3.1 (R6), which added Canon Log 3 settings and IPB (Light) to 4K shooting for both cameras, along with Electronic Full Time manual focus. The R5 also gained some additional movie-making features and enhanced FTP capabilities. Some bugs were fixed with both models. Note that any time Canon offers a significant firmware update, you may also need to download a new, revised copy of your camera’s Advanced Manual in PDF form, as well as updated software that supports the new features. As I write this, the latest versions are Camera Connect 2.7.30 (for your smart device), EOS Utility 3.13.20, and Digital Photo Professional 4.14.0.

Upgrading Your Firmware

If you’re computer savvy, you might wonder how your camera can overwrite its own operating system—that is, how can the existing firmware be used to load the new version on top of itself? It’s a little like lifting yourself by reaching down and pulling up on your bootstraps. Not ironically, that’s almost exactly what happens: At your command (when you start the upgrade process), the camera shifts into a special mode in which it is no longer operating from its firmware but, rather, from a small piece of software called a bootstrap loader, a separate, protected software program that functions only at startup or when upgrading firmware. The loader’s function is to look for firmware to launch or, when directed, to copy new firmware from a memory card or your computer to the internal memory space where the old firmware is located. Once the new firmware has replaced the old, you can turn your camera off and then on again, and the updated operating system will be loaded.

Because the loader software is small in size and limited in function, there are some restrictions on what it can do. For example, the loader software isn’t set up to go hunting through your memory card for the firmware file. It looks only in the top or root directory of your card, so that’s where you must copy the firmware you download. Once you’ve determined that a new firmware update is available for your camera and that you want to install it, just follow these steps. (If you chicken out, any Canon service center can install the firmware upgrade for you.)

Using a Card Reader

Note that, from time to time, Canon changes the firmware updating procedure. The Canon website will always provide directions for the latest method. Follow those directions if the steps below are slightly different.

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WARNING Use a fully charged battery or Canon’s optional ACK-E6N AC adapter kit to ensure that you’ll have enough power to operate the camera for the entire upgrade. Moreover, you should not turn off the camera while your old firmware is being overwritten. Don’t open the memory card door or do anything else that might disrupt operation of the camera while the firmware is being installed.

  1. 1. Download the firmware from Canon (you’ll find it in the Downloads section of the Support portion of Canon’s website) and place it on your computer’s hard drive. The firmware is contained in a self-extracting file for either Windows or Mac OS. It will have a name such as EOSR5130.fir.
  2. 2. In your camera, format a memory card. Choose Format from the Set-up menu, and initialize the card (make sure you don’t have images you want to keep before you do this!).
  3. 3. You can copy the upgrade software to the card using a card reader.
  4. 4. Insert the card in the camera. With the camera set to P, turn the camera on, press MENU and scroll to Firmware Ver. x.x.x at the bottom of the Set-up 6 menu and press the SET button. The camera displays a message listing the current firmware version, and offering to update. Select OK, and it will check to see if there is a firmware file on the card.
  5. 5. If a firmware file is found, you’ll see the current firmware version, and an option to update. Choose OK and press the SET button to begin loading the update program.
  6. 6. A confirmation screen will appear. Select OK and press SET to continue. As the Firmware Update Program loads, you’ll see a progress screen.
  7. 7. Next, you’ll get the opportunity to confirm that the version you’re upgrading to is the one you want. You can press the MENU button to cancel. (Yes, I know there are a lot of confirmation screens; Canon wants to make sure you don’t upgrade your firmware by accident, or, possibly, intentionally.)
  8. 8. Finally, the very last confirmation screen. Select OK, and press SET, and, I promise, the actual firmware update will really begin.
  9. 9. While the firmware updates, you’ll be warned not to turn off the power switch or touch any of the camera’s buttons.
  10. 10. When the update complete screen appears, you can turn off the camera, remove the AC adapter, if used, and reinsert the battery. Then turn the camera on to boot up your camera with the new firmware update.
  11. 11. Be sure to reformat the card before returning it to regular use to remove the firmware software.
Using Direct Camera USB Link to Copy the Software

The procedure is slightly different (and a little more automated) if you choose to transfer the firmware software to the camera through a USB linkup. Follow these instructions to get started:

  1. 1. Connect the camera (with a freshly charged battery or attached to an AC Adapter) to the computer using the USB cable and turn it on.
  2. 2. Set the Mode Dial to P mode.
  3. 3. Insert an SD card that has been formatted in the camera.
  4. 4. Load the EOS Utility.
  5. 5. Click the Camera/Settings/Remote Shooting button.
  6. 6. Select the firmware update option. When the Update Firmware window appears at the bottom of the EOS Utility, choose OK.
  7. 7. Click Yes in the confirmation screen.
  8. 8. Follow the instructions in the dialog boxes that pop up next by pressing the SET button on the camera.

Protecting Your LCD

The color LCD screen on the back of your camera almost seems like a target for banging, scratching, and other abuse. Fortunately, it’s quite rugged, and a few errant knocks are unlikely to shatter the protective cover over the LCD, and scratches won’t easily mar its surface. However, if you want to be on the safe side, there are several protective products you can purchase to keep your LCD safe—and, in some cases, make it a little easier to view.

As I’ve noted before, placing a protector on your screen can reduce the sensitivity of the touch screen. However, I have not had any problems with the plastic overlays and GGS glass shields I’ve used. Keep in mind that the screen detects capacitance changes, so pressing the touch screen with a stylus or other tool instead of your finger is not going to work very well. Here’s a quick overview of your options.

  • Plastic overlays. The simplest solution (although not always the cheapest) is to apply a plastic overlay sheet or “skin” cut to fit your LCD. These adhere either by static electricity or through a light adhesive coating that’s even less clingy than stick-it notes. You can cut down overlays made for PDAs (although these can be pricey at up to $19.95 for a set of several sheets), or purchase overlays sold specifically for digital cameras. These products will do a good job of shielding your camera’s LCD screen from scratches and minor impacts, but will not offer much protection from a good whack.

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Figure 18.1 A tough glass shield can protect your LCD from scratches.

  • Acrylic/glass shields. These scratch-resistant panels, laser cut to fit your camera perfectly, are my choice as the best protection solution, and what I use on my own camera. A company called GGS/Larmour makes some nice glass protectors (see Figure 18.1); they’re available for about $12–$20 from eBay, Amazon, and other online vendors. The ones I’ve tested do not interfere with the camera’s capacitive touch screen.

Troubleshooting Memory Cards

Sometimes good memory cards go bad. Sometimes good photographers can treat their memory cards badly. It’s possible that a memory card that works fine in one camera won’t be recognized when inserted into another. In the worst case, you can have a card full of important photos and find that the card seems to be corrupted and you can’t access any of them. Don’t panic! If these scenarios sound horrific to you, there are lots of things you can do to prevent them from happening, and a variety of remedies available if they do occur. You’ll want to take some time—before disaster strikes—to consider your options.

All Your Eggs in One Basket?

The debate about whether it’s better to use one large memory card or several smaller ones has been going on since even before there were memory cards. I can remember when computer users wondered whether it was smarter to install a pair of 200MB (not gigabyte) hard drives in their computer, or if they should go for one of those new-fangled 500MB models. By the same token, a few years ago, the user groups were full of proponents who insisted that you ought to use 128MB memory cards rather than the huge 512MB versions. Today, most of the arguments involve 32GB cards versus 64GB or 128GB cards, and I expect that as prices for 256GB and the still-scarce 512GB memory cards continue to drop, they’ll eventually find their way into the debate as well.

Why all the fuss? Are 64GB memory cards more likely to fail than 32GB cards? Are you risking all your photos if you trust your images to a larger card? Isn’t it better to use several smaller cards, so that if one fails you lose only half as many photos? Or, isn’t it wiser to put all your photos onto one larger card, because the more cards you use, the better your odds of misplacing or damaging one and losing at least some pictures?

In the end, the “eggs in one basket” argument boils down to statistics, and how you happen to use your camera. The rationales can go both ways. If you have multiple smaller cards, you do increase your chances of something happening to one of them, so, arguably, you might be boosting the odds of losing some pictures. If all your images are important, the fact that you’ve lost 100 rather than 200 pictures isn’t very comforting.

Also, consider that the eggs/basket scenario assumes that the cards that are lost or damaged are always full. It’s actually likely that a 32GB card might suffer a mishap when it’s less than half-full (indeed, it’s more likely that a large card won’t be filled before it’s offloaded to a computer), so you really might not lose any more shots with a single 64GB card than with multiple 32GB cards.

If you shoot photojournalist-type pictures, you probably change memory cards when they’re less than completely full in order to avoid the need to do so at a crucial moment. (When I shoot sports, my cards rarely reach 80 to 90 percent of capacity before I change them.) Using multiple smaller cards means you must change them that more often, which can be a real pain when you’re taking a lot of photos.

There are only two good reasons to justify limiting yourself to smaller memory cards when larger ones can be purchased at the same cost per-gigabyte. One of them is when every single picture is precious to you and the loss of any of them would be a disaster. If you’re a wedding photographer, for example, and unlikely to be able to restage the nuptials if a memory card goes bad, you might even have an assistant ready to copy each card removed from the camera onto a backup hard drive.

To be even safer, you’d want to alternate cameras or have a second photographer at least partially duplicating your coverage so your shots are distributed over several memory cards simultaneously. (Strictly speaking, the safest route of all is to backup as you shoot to an on-site external drive through Wi-Fi in tethered shooting mode.)

If you deem none of these options sufficient, consider interleaving your shots. Say you don’t shoot weddings, but you do go on vacation from time to time. Take 250 or so pictures on one card, or whatever number of images might fill about 25 percent of its capacity. Then, replace it with a different card and shoot about 25 percent of that card’s available space. Repeat these steps with diligence (you’d have to be determined to go through this inconvenience), and, if you use four or more memory cards, you’ll find your pictures from each location scattered among the different memory cards. If you lose or damage one, you’ll still have some pictures from all the various stops on your trip on the other cards. That’s more work than I like to do (I usually tote around a portable hard disk and copy the files to the drive as I go), but it’s an option.

What Can Go Wrong?

There are lots of things that can go wrong with your memory card, but the ones that aren’t caused by human stupidity are statistically very rare. Yes, a memory card’s internal bit bin or controller can suddenly fail due to a manufacturing error or some inexplicable event caused by old age. However, if your card works for the first week or two that you own it, it should work forever. There’s not a lot that can wear out.

The typical memory card is rated for a Mean Time Between Failures of 1,000,000 hours of use. That’s constant use 24/7 for more than 100 years! Per the manufacturers, they are good for 10,000 insertions in your camera, and should be able to retain their data (and that’s without an external power source) for something on the order of 11 years. Of course, with the millions of memory cards in use, there are bound to be a few lemons here or there.

Given the reliability of solid-state memory, compared to magnetic memory, though, it’s more likely that your memory problems will stem from something that you do. Memory cards, particularly the SD variety, are small and easy to misplace if you’re not careful. For that reason, it’s a good idea to keep them in their original cases or a “card safe” offered by Gepe (https://www.gepe.com/products/card-safe/), Pelican, and others. Always placing your memory card in a case can provide protection from the second-most common mishap that befalls memory cards: the common household laundry. If you slip a memory card in a pocket, rather than a case or your camera bag, often enough, sooner or later it’s going to end up in the washing machine and probably the clothes dryer, too. There are plenty of reports of relieved digital camera owners who’ve laundered their memory cards and found they still worked fine, but it’s not uncommon for such mistreatment to do some damage.

Memory cards can also be stomped on, accidentally bent, dropped into the ocean, chewed by pets, and otherwise rendered unusable in myriad ways. It’s also possible to force a card into your camera’s memory card slot incorrectly if you’re diligent enough. Or, if the card is formatted in your computer with a memory card reader, your camera may fail to recognize it. Occasionally, I’ve found that a memory card used in one camera would fail if used in a different camera (until I reformatted it in Windows, and then again in the camera). Every once in a while, a card goes completely bad and—seemingly—can’t be salvaged.

Another way to lose images is to do commonplace things with your memory card at an inopportune time. If you remove the card from the camera while the camera is writing images to the card, you’ll lose any photos in the buffer and may damage the file structure of the card, making it difficult or impossible to retrieve the other pictures you’ve taken. The same thing can happen if you remove the memory card from your computer’s card reader while the computer is writing to the card (say, to erase files you’ve already moved to your computer). You can avoid this by not using your computer to erase files on a memory card but, instead, always reformatting the card in your camera before you use it again.

What Can You Do?

Pay attention: If you’re having problems, the first thing you should do is stop using that memory card. Don’t take any more pictures. Don’t do anything with the card until you’ve figured out what’s wrong. Your second line of defense (your first line is to be sufficiently careful with your cards that you avoid problems in the first place) is to do no harm that hasn’t already been done. Read the rest of this section and then, if necessary, decide on a course of action (such as using a data recovery service or software described later) before you risk damaging the data on your card further.

Now that you’ve calmed down, the first thing to check is whether you’ve actually inserted a card in the camera. If you’ve set the camera in the Shooting menu so that Shoot w/o Card has been turned on, it’s entirely possible (although not particularly plausible) that you’ve been snapping away with no memory card to store the pictures to, which can lead to massive disappointment later. Of course, the No Card Message appears on the LCD when the camera is powered up, and it is superimposed on the review image after every shot, but maybe you’re inattentive, or aren’t using picture review.

Things get more exciting when the card itself is put in jeopardy. If you lose a card, there’s not a lot you can do other than take a picture of a similar card and print up some Have You Seen This Lost Flash Memory? flyers to post on utility poles all around town.

If all you care about is reusing the card, and have resigned yourself to losing the pictures, try reformatting the card in your camera. You may find that reformatting removes the corrupted data and restores your card to health. Sometimes I’ve had success reformatting a card in my computer using a memory card reader (this is normally a no-no because your operating system doesn’t understand the needs of your camera), and then reformatting again in the camera.

If your memory card is not behaving properly, and you do want to recover your images, things get a little more complicated. If your pictures are very valuable, either to you or to others, you can always turn to professional data recovery firms. Be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars to get your pictures back, but these pros often do an amazing job. You wouldn’t want them working on your memory card on behalf of the police if you’d tried to erase some incriminating pictures. There are many firms of this type, and I’ve never used them myself, so I can’t offer a recommendation. Use a Google search to turn up a ton of them.

A more reasonable approach is to try special data recovery software you can install on your computer and use to attempt to resurrect your “lost” images yourself. They may not actually be gone completely. Perhaps your card’s “table of contents” is jumbled, or only a few pictures are damaged in such a way that your camera and computer can’t read some or any of the pictures on the card. Some of the available software was written specifically to reconstruct lost pictures, while other utilities are more general-purpose applications that can be used with any media, including floppy disks and hard disk drives. They have names like OnTrack, Photo Rescue 2, Digital Image Recovery, MediaRecover, Image Recall, and the aptly named Recover My Photos.

DIMINISHING RETURNS

Usually, once you’ve recovered any images on a memory card, reformatted it, and returned it to service, it will function reliably for the rest of its useful life. However, if you find a card going bad more than once, you’ll almost certainly want to stop using it forever. See if you can get it replaced by the manufacturer, if you can, but, in the case of card failures, the third time is never the charm.

Cleaning Your Sensor

There’s no avoiding dust. No matter how careful you are, some of it is going to settle on your camera and on the mounts of your lenses, eventually making its way inside your camera. Fortunately, the camera’s shutter is normally closed when the camera is powered off, so when you remove a lens, the sensor is protected somewhat. But as you take photos, the shutter opening and closing causes the dust to become airborne and eventually make its way past the shutter curtain to come to rest on the anti-aliasing filter atop your sensor. There, dust and particles can show up in every single picture you take at a small enough aperture to bring the foreign matter into sharp focus. No matter how careful you are and how cleanly you work, eventually you will get some of this dust on your camera’s sensor. But even the cleanest-working photographers using Canon cameras are far from immune.

Fortunately, one of the camera’s most useful features is the automatic sensor cleaning system that reduces or eliminates the need to clean your camera’s sensor manually. Canon has applied anti-static coatings to the sensor and other portions of the camera body interior to counter charge build-ups that attract dust. A separate filter over the sensor vibrates ultrasonically each time the camera is powered on or off, shaking loose any dust.

Although the automatic sensor cleaning feature operates when you power the camera up or turn it off, you can activate it at any time. Choose Sensor Cleaning from the Set-up 3 menu, and select Clean Now. If you’d rather turn the feature on or off, choose Auto Cleaning instead, and then choose either Enable or Disable with the Quick Control Dial 1. Press SET, then press the MENU button to return to the Set-up 3 menu.

If some dust does collect on your sensor, you can often map it out of your images (making it invisible) using software techniques with the Dust Delete Data feature in the Shooting 5 menu. Operation of this feature is described in Chapter 11. Of course, even with the camera’s automatic sensor cleaning/dust-resistance features, you may still be required to manually clean your sensor from time to time. This section explains the phenomenon and provides some tips on minimizing dust and eliminating it when it begins to affect your shots.

Dust the FAQs, Ma’am

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about sensor dust issues.

Q. I see tiny specks in my viewfinder. Do I have dust on my sensor?

A. If you see sharp, well-defined specks, they are clinging to the underside of your focus screen and not on your sensor. They have absolutely no effect on your photographs, and are merely annoying or distracting.

Q. I see a bright spot in the same place in all of my photos. Is that sensor dust?

A. You’ve probably got either a “hot” pixel or one that is permanently “stuck” due to a defect in the sensor. A hot pixel is one that shows up as a bright spot only during long exposures as the sensor warms. A pixel stuck in the “on” position always appears in the image. Both show up as bright red, green, or blue pixels, usually surrounded by a small cluster of other improperly illuminated pixels, caused by the camera’s interpolating the hot or stuck pixel into its surroundings, as shown in Figure 18.2. A stuck pixel can also be permanently dark. Either kind is likely to show up when they contrast with plain, evenly colored areas of your image.

Finding one or two hot or stuck pixels in your sensor is unfortunately fairly common. They can be “removed” by telling the camera to ignore them through a simple process called pixel mapping. If the bad pixels become bothersome, Canon can remap your sensor’s pixels with a quick trip to a service center.

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Figure 18.2 A stuck pixel is surrounded by improperly interpolated pixels created by the camera’s demosaicing algorithm.

Bad pixels can also show up on your camera’s color LCD panel, but, unless they are abundant, the wisest course is to just ignore them.

Q. I see an irregular out-of-focus blob in the same place in my photos. Is that sensor dust?

A. Yes. Sensor contaminants can take the form of tiny spots, larger blobs, or even curvy lines if they are caused by minuscule fibers that have settled on the sensor. They’ll appear out of focus because they aren’t on the sensor surface but, rather, a fraction of a millimeter above it on the filter that covers the sensor. The smaller the f/stop used, the more in-focus the dust becomes. At large apertures, it may not be visible at all.

Q. I never see any dust on my sensor. What’s all the fuss about?

A. Those who never have dust problems with their camera fall into one of four categories: those for whom the camera’s automatic dust removal features are working well; those who seldom change their lenses and have clean working habits that minimize the amount of dust that invades their cameras in the first place; those who simply don’t notice the dust (often because they don’t shoot many macro photos or other pictures using the small f/stops that makes dust evident in their images); and those who are very, very lucky.

Identifying and Dealing with Dust

Sensor dust is less of a problem than it might be because it shows up only under certain circumstances. Indeed, you might have dust on your sensor right now and not be aware of it. The dust doesn’t settle on the sensor itself, but, rather, on a protective filter a very tiny distance above the sensor, subjecting it to the phenomenon of depth-of-focus. Depth-of-focus is the distance the focal plane can be moved and still render an object in sharp focus. At f/2.8 to f/5.6 or even smaller, sensor dust, particularly if small, is likely to be outside the range of depth-of-focus and blur into an unnoticeable dot.

However, if you’re shooting at f/16 to f/22 or smaller, those dust motes suddenly pop into focus. Forget about trying to spot them by peering directly at your sensor with the shutter open and the lens removed. The period at the end of this sentence, about .33mm in diameter, could block a group of pixels measuring 40 × 40 pixels (160 pixels in all!). Dust spots that are even smaller than that can easily show up in your images if you’re shooting large, empty areas that are light colored. Dust motes are most likely to show up in the sky, as in Figure 18.3, or in white backgrounds of your seamless product shots and are less likely to be a problem in images that contain lots of dark areas and detail.

To see if you have dust on your sensor, take a few test shots of a plain, blank surface (such as a piece of paper or a cloudless sky) at small f/stops, such as f/22, and a few wide open. Open Photoshop, copy several shots into a single document in separate layers, then flip back and forth between layers to see if any spots you see are present in all layers. You may have to boost contrast and sharpness to make the dust easier to spot.

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Figure 18.3 Only the dust spots in the sky are apparent in this shot.

Avoiding Dust

Of course, the easiest way to protect your sensor from dust is to prevent it from settling on the sensor in the first place. Some Canon lenses come with rubberized seals around the lens mounts that help keep dust from infiltrating, but you’ll find that dust will still find a way to get inside. Here are my tips for eliminating the problem before it begins.

  • Clean environment. Avoid working in dusty areas if you can do so. Hah! Serious photographers will take this suggestion with a grain of salt because it usually makes sense to go where the pictures are. Only a few of us are so paranoid about sensor dust (considering that it is so easily removed) that we’ll avoid moderately grimy locations just to protect something that is, when you get down to it, just a tool. If you find a great picture opportunity at a raging fire, during a sandstorm, or while surrounded by dust clouds, you might hesitate to take the picture, but, with a little caution (don’t remove your lens in these situations, and clean the camera afterwards!) you can still shoot. However, it still makes sense to store your camera in a clean environment. One place cameras and lenses pick up a lot of dust is inside a camera bag. Clean your bag from time to time, and you can avoid problems.
  • Clean lenses. There are a few paranoid types that avoid swapping lenses to minimize the chance of dust getting inside their cameras. It makes more sense just to use a blower or brush to dust off the rear lens mount of the replacement lens first, so you won’t be introducing dust into your camera simply by attaching a new, dusty lens. Do this before you remove the lens from your camera, and then avoid stirring up dust before making the exchange.
  • Work fast. Minimize the time your camera is lensless and exposed to dust. That means having your replacement lens ready and dusted off, and a place to set down the old lens as soon as it is removed, so you can quickly attach the new lens.
  • Let gravity help you. Face the camera downward when the lens is detached so any dust in the camera will tend to fall away from the sensor. Turn your back to any breezes, indoor forced air vents, fans, or other sources of dust to minimize infiltration.
  • Protect the lens you just removed. Once you’ve attached the new lens, quickly put the end cap on the one you just removed to reduce the dust that might fall on it.
  • Clean out the vestibule. From time to time, remove the lens while in a relatively dust-free environment and use a blower bulb like the one shown in Figure 18.4 (not compressed air or a vacuum hose) to clean out the area behind the lens mount. A blower bulb is generally safer than a can of compressed air, or a strong positive/negative airflow, which can tend to drive dust further into nooks and crannies.
  • Be prepared. If you’re embarking on an important shooting session, it’s a good idea to clean your sensor now, rather than come home with hundreds or thousands of images with dust spots caused by flecks that were sitting on your sensor before you even started. Before I left on my most recent trip to Spain, I put both cameras I was taking through a rigid cleaning regimen, figuring they could remain dust-free for a measly 10 days. I even left my bulky blower bulb at home. It was a big mistake, but my intentions were good.

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Figure 18.4 Use a robust air bulb for cleaning your sensor.

  • Clone out existing spots in your image editor. Photoshop and other editors have a clone tool or healing brush you can use to copy pixels from surrounding areas over the dust spot or dead pixel. This process can be tedious, especially if you have lots of dust spots and/or lots of images to be corrected. The advantage is that this sort of manual fix-it probably will do the least damage to the rest of your photo. Only the cloned pixels will be affected.
  • Use filtration in your image editor. A semi-smart filter like Photoshop’s Dust & Scratches filter can remove dust and other artifacts by selectively blurring areas that the plug-in decides represent dust spots. This method can work well if you have many dust spots, because you won’t need to patch them manually. However, any automated method like this has the possibility of blurring areas of your image that you didn’t intend to soften.

Sensor Cleaning

Those new to the concept of sensor dust actually hesitate before deciding to clean their camera themselves. Isn’t it a better idea to pack up your camera and send it to a Canon service center so their crack technical staff can do the job for you? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t you let the friendly folks at your local camera store do it?

Of course, if you choose to let someone else clean your sensor, they will be using methods that are more or less identical to the techniques you would use yourself. None of these techniques are difficult, and the only difference between their cleaning and your cleaning is that they might have done it dozens or hundreds of times. If you’re careful, you can do just as good a job.

Of course, vendors like Canon won’t tell you this, but it’s not because they don’t trust you. It’s not that difficult for a real goofball to mess up his camera by hurrying or taking a shortcut. Perhaps the person uses the “Bulb” method of holding the shutter open and a finger slips, allowing the shutter curtain to close on top of a sensor cleaning brush. Or, someone tries to clean the sensor using masking tape, and ends up with goo all over its surface. If Canon recommended any method that’s mildly risky, someone would do it wrong, and then the company would face lawsuits from those who’d contend they did it exactly in the way the vendor suggested, so the ruined camera is not their fault. If you visit Canon’s website, you’ll find this recommendation: “If the image sensor needs cleaning, we recommend having it cleaned at a Canon service center, as it is a very delicate component.”

You can see that vendors like Canon tend to be conservative in their recommendations, and, in doing so, make it seem as if sensor cleaning is more daunting and dangerous than it really is. Some vendors recommend only dust-off cleaning, using reasonably gentle blasts of air, while condemning more serious scrubbing with swabs and cleaning fluids. However, these cleaning kits for the exact types of cleaning they recommended against are for sale in Japan only, where, apparently, your average photographer is more dexterous than those of us in the rest of the world. These kits are like those used by official repair staff to clean your sensor if you decide to send your camera in for a dust-up.

As I noted, sensors can be affected by dust particles that are much smaller than you might be able to spot visually on the surface of your lens. The filters that cover sensors tend to be hard compared to optical glass. Cleaning the 24mm × 36mm sensor in your camera within the tight confines of the body call for a steady hand and careful touch. If your sensor’s filter becomes scratched through inept cleaning, you can’t simply remove it yourself and replace it with a new one.

There are three basic kinds of cleaning processes that can be used to remove dusty and sticky stuff that settles on your camera’s sensor. All of these must be performed with the shutter locked open.

  • Air cleaning. This process involves squirting blasts of air inside your camera with the shutter locked open. This works well for dust that’s not clinging stubbornly to your sensor.
  • Brushing. A soft, very fine brush is passed across the surface of the sensor’s filter, dislodging mildly persistent dust particles and sweeping them off the imager.
  • Liquid cleaning. A soft swab dipped in a cleaning solution such as ethanol is used to wipe the sensor filter, removing more obstinate particles.
Placing the Shutter in the Locked and Fully Upright Position for Landing

Make sure you’re using a fully charged battery or the optional AC Adapter Kit ACK-E6N.

  1. 1. Remove the lens from the camera and then turn the camera on.
  2. 2. Set the camera to any one of the non-fully automatic modes. The shutter cannot be locked open in Auto.
  3. 3. You’ll find the Clean Manually menu choice in the Set-up 3 menu under Sensor Cleaning. Press the SET button.
  4. 4. Select OK and press SET again. The shutter will open (see Figure 18.5).
  5. 5. Use one of the methods described below to remove dust and grime from your sensor. Be careful not to accidentally switch the power off or open the memory card or battery compartment doors as you work. If that happens, the shutter may be damaged if it closes onto your cleaning tool.
  6. 6. When you’re finished, turn the power off, replace your lens, and switch your camera back on.

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Figure 18.5 With the shutter open, you can commence cleaning the exposed sensor.

Air Cleaning

Your first attempts at cleaning your sensor should always involve gentle blasts of air. Many times, you’ll be able to dislodge dust spots, which will fall off the sensor and, with luck, out of the vestibule. Attempt one of the other methods only when you’ve already tried air cleaning and it didn’t remove all the dust.

Here are some tips for air cleaning:

  • Use a clean, powerful air bulb. Your best bet is bulb cleaners designed for the job, like the Giottos Rocket. Smaller bulbs, like those air bulbs with a brush attached sometimes sold for lens cleaning or weak nasal aspirators, may not provide sufficient air or a strong enough blast to do much good.
  • Hold the camera upside down. Then look up into the body cavity as you squirt your air blasts, increasing the odds that gravity will help pull the expelled dust downward, away from the sensor. You may have to use some imagination in positioning yourself. (See Figure 18.6.)
  • Never use air canisters. The propellant inside these cans can permanently coat your sensor if you tilt the can while spraying. It’s not worth taking a chance.
  • Avoid air compressors. Super-strong blasts of air are likely to force dust under the sensor filter.

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Figure 18.6 Hold the camera upside down when cleaning to allow dust to fall out.

Brush Cleaning

If your dust is a little more stubborn and can’t be dislodged by air alone, you may want to try a brush, charged with static electricity that can pick off dust spots by electrical attraction. One good, but expensive, option is the Sensor Brush sold at www.visibledust.com. You need one like the Artic Butterfly shown in Figure 18.7, that can be stroked across the short dimension of your camera’s sensor.

Ordinary artist’s brushes are much too coarse and stiff and have fibers that are tangled or can come loose and settle on your sensor. A good sensor brush’s fibers are resilient and described as “thinner than a human hair.” Moreover, the brush has a non-conducting handle that reduces the risk of static sparks.

Brush cleaning is done with a dry brush by gently swiping the surface of the sensor filter with the tip. The dust particles are attracted to the brush particles and cling to them. You should clean the brush with compressed air before and after each use, and store it in an appropriate air-tight container between applications to keep it clean and dust-free. Although these special brushes are expensive, one should last you a long time.

Liquid Cleaning

Unfortunately, you’ll often encounter stubborn dust spots that can’t be removed with a blast of air or flick of a brush. These spots may be combined with some grease or a liquid that causes them to stick to the sensor filter’s surface. In such cases, liquid cleaning with a swab may be necessary. During my first clumsy attempts to clean my own sensor, I accidentally got my blower bulb tip too close to the sensor, and some sort of deposit from the tip of the bulb ended up on the sensor. I panicked until I discovered that liquid cleaning did a good job of removing whatever it was that took up residence on my sensor.

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Figure 18.7 The motor in the Arctic Butterfly flutters the brush tips for a few minutes to charge them for picking up dust (left). Then, turn off the power and flick the tip above the surface of the sensor (right).

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Figure 18.8 You can make your own sensor swab from a plastic knife that’s been truncated.

You can make your own swabs out of pieces of plastic (some use fast-food restaurant knives, with the tip cut at an angle to the proper size) covered with a soft cloth or Pec-Pad, as shown in Figure 18.8. However, if you’ve got the bucks to spend, you can’t go wrong with good-quality commercial sensor cleaning swabs, such as those sold by Photographic Solutions, Inc. (www.photosol.com).

You want a sturdy swab that won’t bend or break so you can apply gentle pressure to the swab as you wipe the sensor surface. Use the swab with methanol (as pure as you can get it, particularly medical grade; other ingredients can leave a residue), or the Eclipse solution also sold by Photographic Solutions. Eclipse is quite a bit purer than even medical-grade methanol. A couple drops of solution should be enough, unless you have a spot that’s extremely difficult to remove. In that case, you may need to use extra solution on the swab to help “soak” the dirt off.

Once you overcome your nervousness at touching your camera’s sensor, the process is easy. You’ll wipe continuously with the swab in one direction, then flip it over and wipe in the other direction. You need to completely wipe the entire surface; otherwise, you may end up depositing the dust you collect at the far end of your stroke. Wipe; don’t rub.

If you want a close-up look at your sensor to make sure the dust has been removed, you can pay $50–$100 for a special sensor “microscope” with an illuminator. Or, you can do like I do and work with a plain old Carson MiniBrite PO-55 illuminated 5X magnifier, as seen in Figure 18.9. It has a built-in LED and, held a few inches from the lens mount with the lens removed from your camera, provides a sharp, close-up view of the sensor, with enough contrast to reveal any dust that remains. If you’d like to buy one for less than $10, I provide a link at my website, www.dslrguides.com/carson.

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Figure 18.9 An illuminated magnifier like this Carson MiniBrite PO-55 can be used as a ‘scope to view your sensor.

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