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Lens Cleaning 101

by David Tong

It’s been a while and I apologize for not updating the site as often as I should. My computer died after the holidays and I’m still using a loaner right now. Anyway, I’d like to start the new year with a common question asked by new camera/lens owners – how to clean smudges and grime off lenses.

While many of you know that I’m not the obsessive-compulsive type when it comes to camera equipment, however, the lens surface is the one surface I religiously keep clean after every use. I rarely end the day not cleaning my lenses (at least blow any dust off) if I used the camera.

I’m not one of those guys who wipe their lens filters every 2 minutes, though. When I’m out shooting, I don’t clean my lenses unless they’re splattered with raindrops or someone accidentally smudged the lens. You’ll scratch your filter or lens much more easily if you keep wiping your lens down every few minutes.

What I’ll be showing will be what I do with my gear. Some of you might not agree with my choice of equipment and technique, but it has served me well the past half a decade or so and most of my cleaning routine stems from my knowledge with professional automotive car care.

Here’s what I use.

1) A decent blower – I use a Japanese U.N. brand blower that has an integrated brush. In my book, a decent blower means a blower that can generate a strong stream of air. Some folks are obsessed with having “filtered” air like those from a Rocket Blower, I think it’s overkill and not really a big issue unless you leave your blower on an extremely dusty surface all the time. I’ve seen some sites actually putting a fuel-filter at the air inlet of their blowers, goodness gracious.

2) Lens tissue, lens pen, or lens towels – Lens tissue has been around since the 70s or so, and it works pretty well with an appropriate lens cleaning solution. I’ve shunned away from lens tissue lately as I’ve found many lens tissue to be substandard in quality. I’ve moved to a more trusted material for glass cleaning – microfiber towels.

Microfiber towels are extremely efficient and requires little to no cleaning solution to clean virtually any hard surface. It’s bar-none the best glass cleaning tool you can use when cleaning automotive glass regardless of how dirty they are, without using harmful chemicals or vigorous scrubbing.

Personally, I use two towels, as I do with cars. One terry-weave (like normal bath towel weave) microfiber for the “tough” job like cleaning off smudges, and a silkier weave for polishing (most eyewear stores will have them, just like Oakley eyewear soft pouches). The terry weave usually comes in a face towel-like size, while the softer silk weave comes in a much smaller size (so it’ll fit a typical eye-glass case).

3) Cleaning solution – While there are a lot of cleaning solutions for sale at camera shops, they’re grossly overpriced and quite frankly, dated in technology. Most of them are merely 99% isoprophyl alcohol or denatured alcohol, but they’re selling it at the price of a bourbon.

The automotive glass-cleaning technology has improved leaps and bounds since the 90s and there are a lot of great glass cleaners that works extremely well.

My choice right now is Meguiar’s NXT Generation glass cleaner, it’s my trusted cleaner when I was still a detailer and I still like it today. A huge 24oz (700ml) bottle costs about S$10, compare that to S$5 for 100ml of alcohol from camera stores!

I transfer the glass cleaner to a much smaller 50ml spray bottle that I can carry anywhere when I need it. It’ll take ages to use up if you’re just using it to clean camera glass surfaces.

You can use distilled water as well if you’re using microfiber towels, but it may not clean oily smudges as easily.

That’s practically it.

Here’s how I clean my lenses. Normally, I’d be holding the lens upside down so that the surface I’m cleaning is facing the floor, so that any debris will just fall off due to gravity, but since I’m taking photos for the procedures below, I left the lens on the table.

Take a well-smudged lens and prep it for cleaning.

1) Use your blower and blow away as much solid debris as you can. Take your time with this step as this is the most important step to ensure you won’t scratch your lens surface.

If there are some stubborn dust stuck, flick it off with your blower brush. Remember to flick the dust off not rub the brush back and forth, just lightly snap the tip of the brush against the dust spec.

2) Once you’re certain that the solid debris are gone, grab your lens cleaning fluid and spray some fluid onto your cleaning towel. Don’t drench the towel, it only needs to be slightly damp on the surface so one or two spritz is sufficient.

3) Lightly and slowly wipe the glass surface in a circular motion. Note that you’re supposed to let the cleaner and towel do the work, so there’s absolutely no need to “scrub” or “rub” the glass, just glide it around the lens once or twice. Don’t worry about any fluid smears or light haze that may remain, our next step will take care of that.

4) Grab your polishing microfiber towel and use it dry. Again, wipe it around your glass surface in a circular motion with just a little more pressure than the previous step. Since you’ve already remove bulk of the dirt, you’re only polishing the surface to remove any haze or streaks that the previous step left behind.

5) Repeat on the other end of the lens (the side that enters the lens mount), if necessary.

6) When you’re done, your lens would be gleaming clean with zero streaks, haze, or dirt. A word of advice, though, if you used any cleaning liquid (even water) to clean your lens, let it air out a couple of minutes before attaching the lens caps to allow any remaining moisture to evaporate.

That’s all there is to it.

You can try fancier products like lens pens, they’re great to reach the edge between the glass and the lens rim housing as well, but I rarely found the need to do so as a good cleaning session is all you need to keep your precious lenses in great shape. However, those new lens pens are quite handy and they’re not overly expensive as well. They still use the same microfiber concept, but in a more disposable manner.

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