Tuesday, October 21, 2008

To Clean or Not to Clean? That is the question on Lens Cleaning.

The subject of Lens Cleaning has always been controversial; Liquid or Dry, Alcohol or Detergent, Cotton or Micro-fiber, Blower or Canned Air, even Filter or No Filter! With today’s new DSLR cameras now the controversy just gets added to with the whole Sensor Cleaning thing.

Cameras have advanced a long way with all the new Digital Cameras. Technology has changed and even Lens Design has improved over the years, but what about Lens Cleaning? Most photographers, Amateur and Pro alike, continue to use the old standard alcohol based liquid with a cloth. Most have now advanced this technique by using a Micro-fiber Cloth but most still put the drops directly onto the lens; “Bad Photographer!”

Cleaning your Lens the proper way is simple and quick. The principles have not changed over the years but people do need to be reminded of the basics.

Keep your lens clean. Sounds simple, but it’s the most effective thing to do. Use covers, and lens caps and always cover you camera when it is not in use. Keep both lens surfaces (front and back) and your cameras sensor away from possible dust sources. Keep your camera body facing downward when changing your lens to keep dust off the sensor. If you must lay your lens down, do so on a dust free cloth or surface. If you need to change lens in a windy or dusty environment, do so in the plastic bag that you keep handy in your gear bag. Always use the lenses front and back caps and the cameras body cap when not using the camera or storing lenses.

Keep your camera and other photography equipment dust free. Dust on the camera body, tripod, lens cap and on other equipment is usually the greatest source of the dust that ends up on you lenses, in your camera and on sensors.

If you do get dust on your lens, clean it off as soon as possible as some contaminants may damage the lenses optical coatings. Acids from the oil on you fingers if left on the lens too long can permanently damage the fine optical coatings on your lens.

The basic technique of lens cleaning still applies but it was not long ago that you would use a simple lens cleaning solution and a cloth but is there a better way to clean your lens today?

Blow any un-attached debris away using a hand held photographer’s blower such as a Hurricane Blower or the newer (and better) Giottos AA1900 Large Rocket Blaster. Blowing with your mouth is never recommended. Caution should also be taken when using canned air which is also not recommended as the contents can be expelled onto the lens or sensor which can cause damage. The high pressure of canned air can also damage shutter mechanisms.

Use a brush such as a soft sable or camel hair brush to brush away all attached debris that could cause scratches when you wipe the lens or filter. Stuck on grime and debris is the number one source of scratches on lenses. Once the optical coating is damaged, there is nothing you can do to repair it. Very often this is all that is required to clean your lens. Finger prints and smudges on the other hand will require a little more work.

Clean the lens surface with the best cleaning option available – the LensPEN Lens Cleaning System. The LensPen also includes a built in brush. Some people may think it is gimmicky especially with such a low price. After all, LensPen’s competitors all have products, dry or liquid, that cost much more but note that Nikon sells the “Nikon Lens Pen” manufactured by the LensPen people as does Canon, Kodak, SIMA, Hama, Quataray, Hakuba, Bushnell, Targus, ScopeSmith, Sigma, Vortex, Outdoor Optix, Leupold, Barska, Adorama, DotLine, and many others. It is endorsed by the NRA for cleaning scopes and binoculars and it is the recommended tool for cleaning Hasselblad Lenses by B&H Photo. It is also used by Canon Factory Technicians for cleaning Lenses and Sensors!

A caution about the LensPen. Why a caution here if the product is so good? ANY cleaning option that requires rubbing the front element of a lens can cause damage if there is any abrasive dirt or grime on the lens to start with or if there is any abrasives in the cloth or pad that will scrub the lens. This also applies to the LensPen. The LensPen also comes with recommendations on how many times you should use it before throwing it away. Please follow these and all LensPen directions.

Pure boiled cotton, commercial lens cleaning wipes and micro-fiber clothes can all scratch a lens if there is dirt on the lens to start with. That’s why dirt and debris must be blown and dusted! Cloths can also pick up dirt and grime from just lying around or from the bottom of your gear bag. If you use cloth or micro-fiber keep them in a clean sealed bag. Use disposable wipes or regularly wash your cloths.

Over the years I have found that cloths, cotton or micro-fiber tend to pick up debris from just about everywhere. Even after washing they can contain metal fragments or wood debris. After washing several times they also become magnets for lint. Wood based paper disposable cloths and even micro-fiber cloths have been shown to scratch lens coatings after repeated use. Technically you should only use your cloth once before washing it again. This is where the greatest danger of using liquid and a cloth comes from. Micro-fiber and other cloths will also create a static charge on the lens surface that will attract more dust or lint.

The many liquids I have tested over the years from Kodak, Zeis, Eclipse, ROR, Promaster Optic Clean, iClean and others ALL leave traces and streaks and usually need to be rubbed or 'buffed' off with a good micro fiber cloth. I have usually found good old water to be just as effective. For very stubborn lens spots I have found that 100% Methyl Alcohol works well. Notes: Never pour liquids directly on the lens but rather moisten a cloth. Always check with your lens manufacturer before using ANY liquids. Never use dish soap or Windex. Very old lenses from the 50s and older may require special care and handling.

If you must use a cloth the Alpine Innovations Spudz (branded as Nikon Micro Fiber Cleaning Cloth and other names) products are great but remember to wash them regularly with very little detergent and an extra rinse cycle. The best choice of cleaning cloths though and my absolute favourite is the Microdear Microfiber Deluxe Cleaning Cloth. I love this cloth and it also works wonders on your cameras LCD Screen. *Herbert Keppler of Popular Photography Magazine has raved about this product for years.

The LensPen on the other hand uses black carbon (not graphite) as a dry cleaner. A granule of black carbon is soft and on own its own cannot scratch the optical coating of your lens. The carbon however is a great non-abrasive cleaner that can absorb oil and fingerprints. Very stubborn stains can be helped along with a little moisture from your breath (this works very well). The cap of the LensPen serves several purposes in that it will protect the cleaning pad from getting dirty but it is also the mechanism by which the black carbon is replaced after every use. Un-like a liquid bottle it will never dry out nor will it ever spill! On occasion a little loose black carbon may be left on the lens which can easily be blown off with your duster.

There are now non wipe polymer based cleaning solutions available like Dantronix Research and Technology's Opticlean and Photonic's First Contact. The polymer solution is carefully “painted” onto the lens surface and then left to dry for as long as five minutes. As the polymer cures it shrinks and absorbs any contamination on the lens surface into the polymer molecule. This includes particulates as well as fingerprints, grease, oil and atmospheric pollution. When the cured film is peeled away the polymer takes all the absorbed contaminants with it leaving a molecularly clean surface. That is the theory but even Opticlean reports that *"Opticlean cannot deal with such things as dried and hardened water spots, very old finger prints, and the like." So what's the point?

These polymer cleaners come at a cost (not just money). The whole process is time consuming and the polymer itself can damage plastic parts commonly found in new lenses! These new polymer based cleaning solutions work well but I have read several reports of problems and optical coating damage. On a price per cleaning cost they tend to be rather expensive. As a field cleaning solution they are down right impractical and are best suited for studio work on more expensive medium and large format cameras. The polymer cleaners are also highly flammable and will be taken away when going through most airports!

All in all the LensPen is much more convenient than a polymer based cleaning solution and even faster and more convenient than a liquid and cloth based cleaning solution. The Pen is small and easy to store verses a cloth that needs to be kept in a bag away from dirt and a bottle of liquid. The black carbon cleaner is safe and effective. As the LensPen comes with a brush, the only extra cleaning apparatus you will need is a blower. The cost of the LensPen is very cost effective. I now never leave home without my LensPen.

Need your sensor cleaned? LensPen also makes a great sensor cleaner that is even used by Canon Factory reps. The Lenspen Sensor Klear Pen for CCD Sensorsworks great. The story is that the Canon Factory Technicians used to purchase regular round LensPens and then cut the pads into square and triangular shapes so that they could reach the corners of the sensors. 'Voilla' the Sensor Pen was born.

The LensPen people also make other great products, check them out at www.lenspen.com.

On Cleaning Filters - Never use a liquid based cleaners on filters as many common cleaning agents can damage some filter coatings. A cleaning solution that works on a Hoya UV filter may damage a Hoya Haze filter. Always check your filter manufacturers recommendations. If in doubt, use warm clean water dropped onto a clean non-abrasive cloth. Your best bet however is to use your LensPen!

*Herbert Keppler of Popular Photography Magazine passed away in January of 2008. For more on Herbert Keppler check out PopPhoto.
As reported on Opticlean: The long-awaited review by R. Lee Hawkins of Whitin Observatory, Wellesley College.

© 2008 Francois Cleroux

(Version 1.2 October 2008)

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I value thoughtful comments and suggestions. If you like or dislike this post, please let me know. If you have any ideas or suggestion, comments or corrections (I do make mistakes) please also let me know. Thanks.

- Francois Cleroux