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How should a digital camera be cleaned?

Sensor-ship I: Scratching the Surface (Without Scratching the Surface)
Hmmm, should I give this new-fangled gizmo a cleaning?
Hmmm, should I give this new-fangled gizmo a cleaning?
Diane Collins and Jordan Hollender/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Getting a sensor clean is tricky business. Without patience, care and dexterity, you risk making matters worse, either by pulling in external crud, like camera lubricants and ambient dust, or by gouging costly scratches into the surface [sources: Breen; McHugh]. If you make a shambles of it, you could void your warranty. Your safest bet? Send your camera off to the manufacturer or drop it at a camera shop -- one that insures against damage caused by its staff.

Cleaning services charge in the range of $30-$50, which will dent your wallet less than the individual tools you need for doing the job yourself but will leave you sans camera for a few weeks [source: Atkins; Breen]. If that doesn't work for you, or if you're a dyed-in-the-wool DIY-er, you have your choice of gadgets, which we'll dive into in the next section.

A few more caveats: When cleaning your sensor, plug the camera into an outlet or, lacking an AC adaptor, charge your batteries fully. If your camera's battery dies before you have finished cleaning, the mirror might shut and, with your hand or cleaning tool in the way, you could damage the mirror or scratch the sensor [sources: Breen; McHugh; Stern].

Also, it's a good idea to clean the camera body, lens and lens mounts with a damp cloth before you start so that no crud from the camera ends up on the parts you're trying to clean. Think of it as sweeping before you mop. Some camera cleaning kits include swabs and a solution for washing the interior chamber -- another good first step [source: McHugh; Stern].

If possible, work in a controlled area with still air. Don't clean the sensor if you're in the field -- at most, give it few puffs from a blower [source: McHugh; Stern].

Some cameras feature a self-cleaning mode, which makes for a handy gizmo but is not a true cleaner. Speaking of preventative maintenance, here are a few tips for saving your sensor: Keep your lenses and chamber capped, protect your lens with a hood and filter and switch lenses as quickly and cleanly as you can. If possible, point your camera down when switching lenses. To avoid fungus, keep your equipment moisture-free and consider storing it with a drying agent, or desiccant, such as silica gel [source: Kelly]. Also, stop carrying your photo rig in your gym bag.

Whatever else you do, consult your owner's manual before tackling any cleaning or maintenance. If your manual offers little on the topic of cleaning, track down a good third-party book that covers your model. Then you'll be ready to break out the tools and start cleaning.