How to Clean a Camera Lens Without Damaging the Glass

One of the questions I get a lot from readers is how to clean a camera lens properly. While I can't claim my method is "the way" to clean a lens, it has served me well in my career so I decided to share it with you in my first ever video post.

Holding a lens worth a couple thousand dollars in your hand and being asked to clean it can be daunting. You might be scared to scratch it or fingerprint it. Maybe you don’t have the right supplies. Or you may have no clue how to even approach cleaning a lens (Hint: using your t-shirt won’t work).

What’s in this video?

  • The best tools and supplies for cleaning lenses
  • How Rosco lens tissue can scratch a lens
  • When you should remove a lens to clean it
  • A dirty Minolta Super 8mm camera
  • And more

In the video I mention a few products that I use. Here’s where you can find more information and purchase them: Mini Maglite, Pancro, Kimwipes, Dust-Off Plus (with Nozzle).

If you all enjoy this video and find it useful, let me know in the comments and I will make more video posts.

How to Clean a Camera Lens – Transcript

For those who would rather read the info from the video rather than watch it, here is a transcript:

Today I want to go over something with you that I get a lot of requests for and that is how to clean a lens.

Maintaining equipment is one of the biggest responsibilities of any camera assistant and lenses are going to be some of the more expensive pieces of gear that you end up dealing with. So knowing how to clean one properly, and do it well, is going to be vital to your success as a camera assistant. Now this is my way of cleaning a lens — it is by no way definitive — there are certainly alternative methods. But this was taught to me on a feature film and it works for me, so I’d like to pass it on to you today.

You’re going to need a few tools to do this and I have them right here and I’m going to go over them with you right now:

The first is you’re going to want a flashlight. Preferably something small. This is a Mini Maglite that I have. You’re going to want it small so that you can either hold it in your mouth, rest it on your shoulder, or under your chin so that you can free up your other two hands to work.

The next thing you’re going to need is some lens cleaning fluid and I use Pancro. Pancro is a brand. It’s a brand that I trust, that I consider the standard, and that many other AC’s I know use. This isn’t to say you can’t use another type of lens cleaning fluid, but just make sure that you’re researching into it and finding one that is of a good quality instead of just saving a few bucks. Basically, make sure that you’re not putting something cheap on a lens that is worth a couple grand. You don’t want to be skimping in this area.

The next thing you’re going to need is some lens cleaning tissue and for that I have Kimwipes. The other major brand is Rosco and just a quick note about Rosco: it comes in this little flipbook style. The problem with that is that you can have it sitting in your ditty bag, or in your toolbag, and dirt can collect inside of the little flaps since the book is open. So make sure that if you are using Rosco lens tissue that you have it in some kind of Ziploc bag or other type of pouch sealed away. I use Kimwipes because it comes in this box and so the wipes end up being a little more sterile.

The last thing you’re going to need is some compressed air, or a bulb blower, or a brush. I like to use Dust-Off Plus with this nozzle that extends everywhere so that you don’t really ever have to be tipping the can and risk some freon coming out.

I don’t own any still lenses or cinema-style lenses, so what I’m going to show you how to clean today on is actually my father’s old Super 8 camera — the Minolta XL Sound 42. And it has a lens (fixed-lens) on the end of it that is sufficiently dirty that I think will suit our purposes today of me showing you how to clean one.

So let’s go ahead and do that.

I’m going to go ahead and take the cap off of it. This is a fixed lens camera so I can’t actually remove the lens, but I would definitely take the lens off if I was going to be cleaning it thoroughly. Now if I was just going to be spraying it or using a brush to take off a little bit of the dust, I could probably leave it on the camera. But anytime I’m using fluid, I want to take the lens off. This is why it’s best to do in the mornings or at lunch when the lenses are already off the camera.

So what you’re going to do is you’re going to take your flashlight and you’re going to set your lens up. And you’re going to just shine your flashlight at an angle so that you can see how dirty it is. What you’re looking for is whether or not there’s dirt or dust on top, or if there are smudges — basically, what is the extent of the dirtiness. Normally I would put my flashlight in my mouth or rest it on my shoulders so that I could work with both my hands, but since I’m talking I’m gonna go ahead and set my flashlight down.

The next thing that you’re going to want to do is take your compressed air (or your blower, or your brush) and we’re gonna remove that first layer of dust just resting on top. With canned air, you want to spray two quick little spurts just to make that there is no chemicals that are gonna come out. Another important thing is whenever you are removing dust from the lens, that you tilt it down so that the dust falls onto the ground or wherever instead of inside the optics of the lens where it can really do some serious damage. So I’m going to be pretty liberal with this dust-off just because I want to make sure I get all the dust off of it.

[Spraying lens with Dust-Off Plus]

Now I can set that aside and then I can take my flashlight and check to make sure that I got all the loose stuff off. If I didn’t then I would keep spraying until I did. But I did get all of it.

So next we’re going to take the Kimwipes. I’m going to take one wipe. If this has been sitting in your toolbag for awhile you maybe want to throw away the top one just because it’s gotten dirty. But I’m going to fold the wipe into quarters. Then I’m going to take my cleaning fluid and I’m going to do a downward spray — just like this.

[Sprays fluid on Kimwipe]

And that’s just to make sure that this doesn’t get too wet. Never spray your lens fluid on the lens itself; always on the tissue and never do it too much. One spray is just enough.

So then what I’m going to do is I’m going to take the wet side and go in tiny circles from the inside of the lens to the outside. I’ll do that about once or twice.  I’m going to apply a little bit of pressure, but obviously if there are more smudges you should apply more pressure.

I’m going to flip over to the dry side of the tissue and do the same thing. You never want to wipe a lens with a dry tissue, but since I did get the lens a little bit wet we’re really just drying it off.

So then you would go back to your flashlight to check the lens. If there are still smudges or dirt, repeat the steps as necessary, but this is looking pretty clean so I’m going to go ahead and put the cap on. If this lens was off I would do the rear element as needed, but since I can’t, I think were done.

I hope that was useful to you and if you have any questions feel free to contact me. Also, please sign up for the free exclusive newsletter that I send out through The Black and Blue. You’ll get some great exclusive content that I don’t give out on the blog. Lastly, if you have any tips or advice of your own on how to clean some lenses, feel free to leave a comment and let us know. You have a lot to teach the rest of us and I love reading your comments and learning from them. So thank you!

[End of video]

  • http://twitter.com/mohrhd Scott Mohrman

    Great stuff Evan. I echo the advice of not saving a few bucks on lens cleaner.

    To clean lenses I first use an air blob blower first. If the dust/dirt is still there, use a microfiber lens cloth in one motion across the lens. My Canadian DP showed me theses Microfibers Cloths. http://bit.ly/dRhoKI I would recommend them for every AC.

    If you have to use a liquid cleaner, be careful not to leave spots and streaks on the lens. Cheap lens cleaner will leave streaks. Be careful not to rub to hard on the front of the lens. Most lenses have an anti-flare coating that could come off if you rub too hard.

    • FB

      yeah, what I usually do if the lens needs to be cleaned is:
      - air. if still dirty:
      - soft brush. if still dirty:
      - microfiber/lens tissue/pancro. if still dirty:
      - I go have my eyes checked :-)

      • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

        Haha good call FB. Maybe spray some air on the eyes for a quick clean ;)

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks Scott. I have found some good microfiber cloths, but I’d rather use a brush. Just a matter of preference really.

      You make a good point about streaks and spots — easy to do if you are doing it wrong.

  • FB

    Great video, Evan, I’d say that’s really the “standard” way of doing it, and it’s safe to say it’s probably the best. I’d add just 2 things:

    - NEVER use the cleaning cloth that comes with eye/sunglasses: it contains silicon and can damage the lens by removing the coatings from the glass.

    - check the lens cap before putting it back on. Sometimes it contains even more dust than the amount you cleaned off the lens, though it’s nothing a quick dust-off burst can’t blow away.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Yes you are right. If you do end up using a cleaning cloth, purchase a microfiber cloth and one that is designed for lenses — specifically cinema lenses or nice still lenses.

      I did forget to mention the cap in my video, but that is something you shouldn’t forget. A lot of keeping a lens clean is just simple common sense checks here and there — like blowing off the dust of a cap before putting it back on the lens.

      • Adam Richlin

        And another thing I look for is dust *around* the front element (on the black metal around the glass). Often that dust is one static grounding charge away from jumping onto the lens.

        Great review by the way… I’ll be sending this to a few young ACs I know.

        • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

          Thanks Adam! Glad to hear you’ll be forwarding it along, I appreciate that.

          You’re right about dust around the element, it doesn’t take much for it to end up on the glass itself!

  • Adam Richlin

    I had an older AC teach me that microfiber cloths and lens cloths are not a good idea because they “trap dirt from the last lens and scrape it across the next lens.” That turned me off to using them, and I prefer a squeeze-rocket and lens cleaner.

    • http://twitter.com/mohrhd Scott Mohrman

      Even after a good shaking?

      • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

        It’s about minimizing risk of having dust on the cloth, I suppose. You can shake one, keep it in a plastic baggie and use it minimally, but there is still a chance it could end up with a piece of dirt or dust on it.

        I’m sure there are plenty of people who use the microfiber cloths without damaging a lens, but I would rather use something that I don’t have to worry about — no matter how small the worry is.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I don’t like microfiber cloths much either. The only time I use one is to clean monitors. I prefer a brush, but usually canned air.

  • JC

    Is there any downside to using a Lens Pen? I’ve seen those being used before and they seem to work well and never streak.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I do own a Lens Pen and keep it on me for quick cleaning though I don’t like to use it on lenses too much. It’s great for filters and I do use the brush end a lot. It’s the little tip that I’ve heard others complain about. I think the worry is that the tip could end up getting dirty itself and then you’re not really cleaning the lens. Sort of like a used eraser on the end of a pencil if you know what I mean

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7717548 Lawrence Marshall

    The only time I was taught how to clean a lens was briefly as a camera PA so this was very useful, as are the comments thus far.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks Lawrence, glad this is helpful to you! I remember the first time I printed a lens and got the quick lesson on cleaning it, but was lucky to have another AC take me step-by-step on the next show I worked on.

  • Joey

    What are your thoughts on isopropyl instead of regular lens cleaner? I’ve read a couple of people on the internet support this, even citing Nikon’s manual as recommending using this.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Joey, sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. I am not really familiar with isopropyl. Perhaps I am too trusting in brands and titles, but I would stick to something that says “lens cleaner” on it. Although, if Nikon’s manual recommends it, go for it. But I’d stick with Nikon lenses if that’s the case.

  • http://twitter.com/schreifels Michael Schreifels

    Is it expected that you bring your own lens cleaning materials to set?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      The short answer: yes.

      The long answer: On larger productions, and more commonly back in the day, you would have a complete toolkit full of all your gear including lens cleaning materials that you would get paid to bring to set. In essence, the production would pay you a rental fee for your tools. The theory behind that is your day rate is paying you for your labor, not for your gear.

      Anyway, many productions these days assume you will bring all of the stuff you need to bring to set to do your job correctly. They treat it like you would a plumber. You don’t pay the plumber then also pay to rent his tools so he can do his plumbing duties.

      So, I would say yes. You could try and claim to a production that you don’t have the necessary stuff but in the end it’ll make you look bad and the lens won’t get clean any other way.

      My take on this is to have all the tools, go above and beyond in your duties, and you’ll get enough work to cover the cost of them in the long run. And eventually you can start asking for a kit rental.

      So that’s one part of it. The other part is the supplies mentioned in the video can be considered “expendables” which most productions have a budget for to purchase or will reimburse you.

      With that said, the supplies that I mention in the video will cost you only around $30, so it’s not a huge chunk of change to front for yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/jax_rox Jaxson McLennan

    I was taught to never use Dust-Off on a lens because the chemicals and pressure can cause potential damage to a lens. I’ve always used a bulb blower.
    Was also taught to break your cleaning cloth in half, so that the part touching the lens is soft and almost brush-like, rather than a harder edge.
    Maybe we just do things differently in Australia ;)

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Different strokes for different folks! I like the breaking the cloth in half idea. As for the dust off, it depends on close you’re getting to the lens, where you’re spraying it, etc. I’ve never had any problems with it and have never had an AC/DP/Cam Op get offended over it. Bulb blowers work just as fine.

  • Techmoshaman

    Has anyone seen/used the prepackaged wipes made by Zeiss.?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I haven’t used them. Do they come prepackaged with fluid already on them or something?

  • Kevin Austin

    Is the process any different if you’re cleaning the sensor plane?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Yes it would be very different Kevin. For starters, you wouldn’t want to use any liquid on the sensor plane and you want to use a special type of brush that is anti-static like this:
      http://www.filmtools.com/visible-dust-arctic-butterfly-sd800.htmlMy rule on cleaning the sensor plane would be this: don’t unless you really have to. And if you’re careful with lens swaps and keeping portcaps on, you shouldn’t have to.

  • http://twitter.com/mikekang Michael Kang

    First off, Evan, love the site and has been an invaluable resource for my fledgling career in filmmaking. I’ve been reading for the last 6 months but this is my first time commenting.

    I’m primarily a photographer who’s getting into motion work, but I imagine the advice for cleaning lenses is much the same (especially for DSLR shooters). I see a lot more photographers talking (and blogging) about their sensors being dirty.

    99% of the time I only worry about blowing off loose dust and debris off the front element of my lenses with a blower. Any clinging particles get flicked off with the brush. I only use the lens pen (or a cleaning cloth if handy but the pen always comes with me) if there is a greasy spot on the lens and only after all the visible dust has been removed.

    To see why dust on the front element of your lens shouldn’t matter that much to you, read this interesting article: http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2008/10/front-element-scratches and this is why I never touch the rear lens element if at all possible. 

    Though this article doesn’t quote any sources I’ve read many other sources that make the same claims. Most of the exotic coatings on lens elements are used internally. The coatings that are used on the outer lenses are very durable.

    http://www.bobatkins.com/photography/tutorials/lens_filter_cleaning.html 

    There’s also good advice as to when to clean your lenses in the latter article.

    “Just when should you clean a lens or filter? Well, the short answer is as infrequently as possible. It actually takes quite a lot of dirt on an optical surface before the image quality noticeably degrades. A surface with a lot of “cleaning marks” will do more damage than one with a few specs of dust. “Cleaning marks” tend to scatter light and so lower contrast in some situations. So blow or brush loose dust off a lens when you see it there, but don’t clean it “just to make sure”. If it doesn’t look dirty, leave it alone.”

  • Elencia

    Why is dry cloth bad for a lens?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      The abrasive nature of a dry cloth. Moisture allows the cloth to be softer.

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