Lenses are complex and intricate pieces of technology and have the power to make or break your photography – learning how to clean a camera lens the right way will get you better quality shots and longer lives from your lenses.
Cleaning is tricky because not all lenses are the same.
Some have more switches than others, focus and aperture rings, the special coating on the lens glass, and much more.
Learning how to deal with this and the best way to approach cleaning each part of your lens will save you time and stop you from doing any unnecessary damage to your lens.
They’re expensive and delicate, so they need a careful touch and regular cleaning.
If you get careless with it, you could end up scratching your lens glass and removing some of the multi-layered coatings.
Hapless cleaning can also push dirt into the finely tuned focus rings, dials and buttons – making them less responsive and tactile in the long run.
Developing good cleaning habits from the start will help you to get more value from your lens and more consistent results for your photography.
We’ll look at some things to avoid doing when cleaning, the best products or items to use, cleaning the different parts of the lens and good cleaning habits.
By the end of the guide, you’ll be well-equipped and confident enough to take on cleaning your lenses regularly – as easily and effectively as possible.
It’s one of the more overlooked skills that well-rounded photographers need to have; so well done for taking your gear maintenance seriously!
Let’s get into the guide.
What Do Lenses Need to Be Protected From?
I’m not talking about accidentally dropping your lens off the side of a cliff while trying to get your next profile picture.
I’m talking about everyday things that’ll get your camera and lens filthy.
There are tons of possibilities here, so let’s be reasonable and stick to the most important ones:
Lenses are dust and smudge magnets.
The oil from your skin will smudge the lens super easily. All it takes is one smudge to ruin the shot and drain the quality out of it.
Your lenses will pick up dust ferociously. It’ll get into places you didn’t even think were reachable.
Every time you change lenses dust will find its way into little nooks and crannies – and it’s a pain to get it out.
Dust will also build up over time and from normal use, especially if you do more outdoor photography.
Grime and oil will usually come from where you hand the camera, your kit bag and your hands.
This can get pretty tiresome to clean out as it often builds up in and on the focus rings and dials.
How to Protect Against Dirt and Dust Beforehand
There are some things that you can do beforehand to slow down how fast your lens picks up dirt.
I don’t think it’s possible to stop all dirt, as loads of dust is carried by the wind and your hands – but their tips will help you tone it down and save yourself some time:
- Wash your hands before you use your camera or change lenses – use soap and warm water
- Use a dust and moisture resistant lens if possible
- Only change lenses in a clean and windless place
- Keep your camera and gear bag clean and sheltered
- Use lens caps as often as you can
- Clean any filters and attachments before putting them on your lens
These tips are self-explanatory and pretty simple, though often overlooked.
Taking some time to do these things before you use your gear will go a long way.
What Parts of the Lens Need to Be Cleaned?
Some parts of the lens are harder to clean than others, and they need different tools to get it done.
Here are the most common parts of the lens that need to be cleaned:
- The lens elements – there’s a front and rear element, they’re probably the most important because they make the main optical unit of your lens and will affect the quality of your shots the most
- The outside of the lens – it doesn’t need to be cleaned as much as the rest of the lens, but you need to make sure you do it right
- The contacts on newer lenses – these are what allow driving of the focusing motor and image stabilization
- Focus rings, dials and buttons – it’s easy for dirt and grime to get wedged in there so it needs special attention
How to Clean the Different Parts of the Lens
It’s not a good idea to grab a piece of cloth and run over all the parts of your lens.
You might scratch the lens element and jam even more dirt into hard to reach places.
Here we’ll take a look at how to properly and safely clean the important parts of the lens.
Cleaning the Front and Rear Lens Elements
The lens elements have the biggest effect on the quality of your shots.
Dirt build-up and smudges will affect your image sharpness and overall quality.
The first thing you need to do is get a bulb air blower to blow the dust off the surface of the glass.
We do this so that when we use cloth it doesn’t cause any scratches on the glass.
Once you’ve blown all the dust off, take a microfiber cloth and some cleaning solution and gently work your way through the 2 elements.
Don’t press too hard and make certain you use a microfiber cloth that is safe for cleaning glass without scratching it.
Keep a section of the cloth dry so that you can get all the streaks off the glass after cleaning.
Even a small streak can mess with the quality of your shots.
Cleaning the Outside of the Lens
You won’t need to clean this too often and it’s actually really easy to do.
Make sure you get all the dirt because any remaining dirt can get into the buttons and dials.
Use a microfiber cloth and give the whole outside of the lens a wipe down.
If the dirt and dust are wedged a little tighter then grab a toothbrush.
That should help get all the stubborn dirt and grime off. It’ll also be able to clean out the dials, buttons and focus rings.
How to Clean Camera Lens Contacts
These are important to clean if you want the autofocus and stabilization to work at their best.
Only use the blower here as the contacts are made from pretty sensitive materials and are prone to damage.
If you really need to, use a microfiber cloth and make absolutely sure that no cloth fragments or moisture are left behind inside.
How to Clean a DSLR Lens Inside
It’s important to keep this as clean as possible.
It’s pretty simple and you won’t need much to get it done.
Detach your lens from your camera and put a clean cloth over the camera body to stop any dust or anything from getting into the exposed internal parts.
Use a can of compressed air to blow away all the dust and dirt out of the internal surface of the lens.
Use a proper lens cleaning cloth (you’ll find them at most photography stores – or it came with your lens) and some lens cleaning solution.
Slightly dampen the cloth so that there isn’t any water or moisture left on the surface.
Only use this to clean the inside of the lens. Don’t touch the actual lens element at all – water can easily get inside and fog up the lens.
How to Clean a Camera Lens Without Lens Cleaner
If you accidentally touch your lens elements, it’s hard to get it clean without smudges, even if you use the wipe that comes with the lens.
A great – and cheap – substitute for lens cleaner is some dishwashing liquid.
It’s fantastic for removing grease and oil from our fingers.
Put some onto a lightly damp cloth.
Be absolutely sure not to get any of the liquid under the edges of the lens element. It can be a total headache to get it out.
The best way to stop this from happening is to not over-dampen the cloth you use. This will stop extra liquid leaking to the sides.
P.S. If you’d like to know how to clean camera lens fungus then dishwashing liquid is really good at removing bacteria and fungus.
Everything You Need in Your Camera Lens Cleaning Kit
Lens cleaning kits are simple and easy kits that you can keep with you when you’re on the go.
Having a complete kit will help you give your lens a thorough cleaning when needed.
It’s all about having the right tools and keeping them in good order.
Here’s everything you need:
- Lens cleaning pen system
- Good quality lens brushes
- Handheld air blower or a can of compressed air
- A pack of 50 lens cleaning tissues
- Small spray bottle
- At least 3 microfiber cleaning cloths
If you can get all these together, you’ll have no trouble giving your lens a high quality clean.
Make sure to keep the kit in good order and replace items when they get a little worn out or damaged.
It’s better to replace a kit that an expensive lens.
Here Are Some Things to Avoid Doing When Cleaning Your Lens
You need to be careful when cleaning and using your lens.
- Don’t tilt the camera upwards when changing the lens – instead of face it down to reduce the amount of dust blowing inside
- Be careful not to let any cleaning liquid leak off the sides of the lens elements when cleaning – it’s really hard to get out of the edges once it’s in there
- Avoid using the wrong microfiber cloth when cleaning the lens glass
- Always use the air blower first to get all the larger grains and chunkier dirt out – wiping these with a cloth will probably grind them against the glass and scratch it
- Don’t use overly damp cloths as the extra water can easily seep into the lens and fog it up
- It’s generally better to avoid using microfiber cloths on optical surfaces altogether – they hold dirt and cause scratches more easily. Use the lens brush instead
- You should do a basic cleaning daily, and a thorough cleaning once a week
Keep these in mind when you clean your lens and you’ll be far less likely to damage your lens.
You might think that daily cleaning is too much but it’s necessary if you use the camera every day.
Remember that dirt can be easily cleaned off, but scratches are there to stay – better to be safe than sorry.
Our Final Thoughts
That everything you need to know about keeping your lens clean and doing it safely.
Getting into the habit of cleaning your lens each day you use it will take some patience – but it’ll be well rewarded.
It’s much better to grind now and save yourself costly repairs or even having to replace a damaged lens.
I can tell you from experience that it’s horrible losing a lens to a preventable error.
By now you should feel confident to clean and maintain your lens like a pro.
Go out and put together a good quality lens cleaning kit and take it everywhere with you.
All it takes is one scratch in the wrong place to ruin a lens forever.
Take your new knowledge on how to clean a camera lens and build some good habits that will keep your gear in excellent condition for longer.