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Cleaning Lenses and Keeping Them Clean

On its way to the sensor in your expensive camera, light has to pass through the lens in front. And keeping that lens clean involves a lot more than slapping a filter on top.

With all the money most of us spend on our gear, it's the camera that gets the most attention. Camera bodies have all the fancy controls and megapixels. They're delicate, electronic wonders. Lenses can almost seem like necessary evils since a camera won't focus without one. Many beginners skimp on budgeting for lenses to get the best camera possible. But the image produced by that camera can be no better than the quality of the light focused. It's hard to make a cheap lens any better. But no matter what lens you have, it's your responsibility to keep it clean so that it can live up to its potential. You at least want to get your money's worth from it. And that means keeping it clean.

When most photographers buy a new lens, they naturally have at least some trepidation about the exposed glass in front. It's so clean and shiny. It sure would be nice to keep it that way. One school of thought is to put a "protective" filter on it as the first order of business, so it never gets dirty. But all that does is shift the problem to a different layer of glass. Instead of worrying about fingerprints on the lens element, they can now obsess over keeping the filter clean.

Sometimes it is a good idea to put a filter on your lens for protection, but "always" isn't one of them. Granted, you could drop your lens, causing the filter to break, and be glad it was there. But filters are made of much thinner glass than lens elements and are inherently fragile. Now, short of a side-by-side showdown, there's no way to know if the lens might have been damaged without the filter. But the presumption that it was saved isn't as sure as some internet posts imply.

But regardless of which piece of glass you decide to defend, it helps to enter the battle prepared. You don't want to wait until you notice spots on your lens to figure out how to deal with it.

Your best strategy is defense. If you can avoid the battle altogether, you'll find less need for first-aid skills. Yes, you might say your filter is playing defense, but it does so at the expense of an extra layer of glass to shoot through. And if many photographers skimp on their lens budget to save up for a better camera, more still short change their budget for filters. Put a cheap filter on a mid-priced lens atop a top-of-the-line camera, and I'll give you one guess which one is limiting you. And you will have done nothing to address the fingerprint issue.

No, I'm talking about defenses that might even help image quality. When not using a lens, protect it with a lens cap. That will keep both fingers and braches off your glass. Only take the lens cap off when using that lens. Try to resist the temptation of leaving it off if you think you'll be using a lens further down the trail, anyway. You want it on there, doing its job for as much time as is practical. And when you take it off, be sure to put a lens hood on. Lens hoods help prevent lens flare and improve contrast. But they also provide an offset and cushion should a lens take an unexpected tumble.

With a reasonable amount of attention, habits such as these will go a long way. But eventually, you will discover that your lens is dirty. Despite your best efforts, you will get a fingerprint sooner or later. If it's a minor smudge, don't go reaching for the bottle of cleaner fluid. Many lens cleaners can leave streaks of their own if not wiped off with care and precision. It's not easy using some of them despite what the marketing material claimed. Your own hot breath makes an excellent lens cleaner and is hard to overuse. Unless you just finished a plate of killer nachos, your breath is not corrosive. If it were, the inside of your mouth would hurt a lot more. Just breathe hard on the lens front and wipe it away with a clean cloth. If you need a cleaning fluid, put a few drops on a cloth. Never drip cleaning liquid directly on the lens. And a tiny bit goes a very long way. You only need to get things damp, not soggy.

Do your best to keep the lens barrel clean, too. A high percentage of lens dirt got there from somewhere nearby. Now and then, take some extra time and detail clean the outsides of your lenses. Again, this is not like washing your dinner dishes. But it helps to keep the sunscreen and grease off the barrel to prevent attracting dust. It's also a good idea to keep your camera bag clean. Where do you think all that dust comes from, anyway?

All this leaves me with one last point regarding cleanliness. Wash your hands. It's not always easy when you're out in the field, but try to make clean hands a priority. Bring a bit more drinking water than you think you'll need. It's a good idea for general preparedness, but you'll be able to afford a small amount to clean your hands in a pinch.

Date posted: December 19, 2021


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It's Lens Cleaning Time
Another Good Way to Clean Your Lenses, and Several Ways Not To
Clean Your Camera Bag!

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