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D300 and D3 Sensor Cleaning Warning

Like most of you, I occasionally have to clean dust from my camera sensor. And like at least some of you, that sensor will now be the one on a new Nikon D300 digital SLR. But the D300 sensor has a key difference with earlier Nikon sensors that you should be aware of before cleaning it.

You may have thought that by getting a D300 your problems with cleaning off dust would be a thing of the past. After all, the camera features a new "sensor shake" mechanism built in. Go to the Setup menu, select "Clean image sensor" and press the button. All the hard work is then automatic. You can even set the camera to automatically clean the sensor this way at startup or at shutdown. Or both. That should do the trick, right?

Unfortunately, no.

It likely will help to a reasonable degree, but dust and particularly pollen grains have an amazing ability to "fuse" to your sensor and no amount of shaking (or brushing) will get rid of it. It's stuck and will need swabbing with an appropriate cleaning solution.

There have been other solutions offered for sale, but the only one trusted by most photographers has been Eclipse made by Photographic Solutions. Earlier this year though, this same company released a new cleaning solution called E2 for cameras featuring something known as an Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) coated sensor. ITO is used in the coating since in addition to being optically clean it is also electrically conductive. As such, it helps prevent the static buildup that can attract dust to your sensor in the first place. Unfortunately, it is also potentially affected by the methanol used in regular Eclipse fluid. Hence, they came out with E2. You use it the same way as regular Eclipse, but it is safe for use on the D3, D300 and other cameras featuring tin oxide coatings.

There are some rumors out there that Eclipse actually works just fine and that Photographic Solutions just wants the chance to sell you both it and the new E2 solution. Don't fall for this. It's not worth experimenting with since both mixtures cost the same and a small bottle will last a long time in regular use. Of course it's not really your expensive sensor that's getting cleaned anyway; it's the low-pass filter in front of it. I'd still recommend not risking damage to it by using an inappropriate cleaning solution. You can get E2 along with other cleaning products and a lot of great cleaning information from Copper Hill Images online. Other retailers also carry Eclipse and E2 of course, but Nicholas at Copper Hill is a source I trust for anything related to sensor cleaning.

Photographic Solutions recommends the use of E2 rather than Eclipse not only on the D2 and D300, but also on the D70, D70s, D80, D2Xs, D40 and D40X. Since E2 has been out now for less than a year, this recommendation may come as news to those who have any of the older models on this list, but better late than never I guess. Digital photography is based on a number of rapidly changing technologies and Photographic Solutions deserves credit for coming up with a better mixture for cleaning newer sensors, even if it did take them a while.

Those of you who shoot brands other than Nikon may have already found out about Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) sensors since they have been used in such popular models as the Canon 400D/XTi and the Sony Alpha A100. I would expect this technology to be used on even more cameras in the future as well. Photographic Solutions E2 can be used on non-ITO sensors as well so if you have more than one camera you can safely use E2 on both.

Update 12/12/2007 - This article has created a great deal of commotion on some websites so I wanted to add a few additional points of clarification:

The sensor itself is not exposed. You are cleaning the front of the filter in front of the sensor. The coatings are the surface of that filter and are applied in order to minimize the tendency for it to attract dust.

No, the user's manual from Nikon doesn't have any warnings about indium tin oxide. In fact, it instructs you not to clean the sensor yourself at all but to instead have Nikon clean it when needed. Given that, why would they add a caveat that, if you violate their warning, not to do so with a particular fluid?

In reality, many digital photographers have and will clean their own sensors. Sending a camera to Nikon and waiting for it to come back is really just not an efficient means of getting the job done if there is a good alternative. And any number of home cleaning methods have been developed, some of which have excellent track records when employed with a bit of care and attention.

Some people never or rarely have problems with dust spots. A lot depends on what you shoot and how, and in what sort of environment. If you've never needed to clean your sensor, then relax and count yourself among the fortunate, but those who do aren't necessarily doing anything wrong to cause it. Yes, the problem can be minimized by developing good work habits and by keeping your gear clean. But you can't avoid changing lenses forever, and sooner or later dust can get into your camera and land on your sensor. And sooner or later you will need to clean it.

The ITO coating issue is not a major one, but it is a real one. You could likely clean your sensor with regular Eclipse a fair number of times before having any problems and perhaps not even then. But since the cost of E2 is the same as regular Eclipse, why risk it?

To put things fully in context though, it's worth stopping for a moment and considering what having a problem with the ITO coating coming off would look like. How would you know? After all, in the thickness used in the coatings, indium tin oxide is optically transparent. If you managed somehow to wipe it off part of your sensor filter, you wouldn't see it, since you also wouldn't see it if it were there (it's transparent). At high magnification, there could be some diffraction effects along edges where the coating was now uneven, but no worse than that. But over time you would probably notice the lack of the effect it is intended to provide. In addition to being optically transparent, ITO is also electrically conductive and as such helps dissipate static charge that can attract dust like a magnet.

In other words, at worst, losing the indium tin oxide coating might mean your sensor was a bit more fond of dust spots than it would have been with the coating still there. This means you might need to clean it more often, what having the coating there in the first place was intended to prevent.

But this whole issue won't ruin your sensor, so if you can't afford an $8 bottle of E2 and would prefer to buy an $8 bottle of Eclipse instead (remember, they are the same price), your choice.

If you have leftover Eclipse by the way, do not throw it away since it is toxic. Instead, keep it as it makes a perfect lens cleaning fluid.

Date posted: December 9, 2007 (updated December 13, 2007)


Copyright © 2007 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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