JapanCameraHunter’s Classic Camera Cleaning Guide
Recently I saw a camera cleaning guide online and I thought to myself ‘I can definitely do better than that’ so I have decided to put together this guide to the techniques that I use when cleaning cameras. I hope you find it useful.
This is my camera. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My camera is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My camera, without me, is useless. Without my camera, I am useless. I must shoot my camera true….
Many of us consider our camera to be an extension of ourselves. Part of us that we are so used to, it becomes second nature. So is really surprises me to see people not taking care of their gear. Cleaning lenses with T-shirts, leaving a camera on the shelf for months, forgetting to take batteries out when storing, the list goes on.
Camera care is not something that should be a chore to do. In fact it should be something that relaxes you and gives you a better understanding of how your equipment works. If your camera is clean, you are going to be in a much better position to get that shot you are after.
For me, cleaning cameras is one of the reasons I got interested in photography. Many moons ago, young JCH found out his dad had a Minolta XG-1 and a barrage of lenses stashed in the wardrobe (I believe I was playing hide and seek when I found them). I was fascinated by the camera and how it could be put together and taken apart. But the damned thing was dusty and mucky. So, JCH senior told me that I may use the camera, if I could clean and care for the camera. Well, that was it, I was off. I cleaned that camera until it was gleaming and used it solidly for about 10 years. I still have this camera and it still works. This was how it started for me and it gave me a really good grounding in keeping my cameras spick and span.
Over the years I have lost count of the cameras that I have cleaned. But I still remember that feeling of making sure that this machine, this object of visual collection was free of dust, and functioning in tip top condition. I still take the time to sit down with my cameras and make sure that they are clean and working well. And you should too, so here is my guide to cleaning your camera. This guide is applicable to all classic cameras (apart from wooden ones, they are something else). And some of the tips are also good for modern digital cameras. But if you are looking for sensor cleaning tips, you are on your own, I have no idea.
This is my guide and I am not going to make claim that it is the ‘best’ or ‘definitive’ guide, it is not. This is what works for me and has given me good results.
So here are the things you will need for my guide:
A camera (duh)
Dusters. I use two different ones. One for main dust and one for pinpoint stuff. The head size is different, as is the strength of the duster. If you have one of those crappy grey ones with the brush on the end, shame on you. Don’t be tight, spend some money of getting good cleaning kit.
A soft hand towel. I use this to clean the leatherette on the camera.
Microfibre cloth (Not pictured) this is really important as the microfibre cleans without leaving dust or marks. It can be used on the lens or the body too.
Lint free cleaning tissues. These are also important. They are designed for cameras and don’t scratch lenses, like kitchen paper does.
Chamois leather. This is actually really good for the body of the camera.
Cotton ear buds. I think Americans call them cue tips. Anyway, these are great, cheap and immensely useful.
Special camera cleaning buds. You can get these in decent camera shops. They have pinpoint tips and are good for getting into the nooks and crannies.
Magic camera cleaning soup. Actually, it is soapy water. Mildly soapy water.
Lens cleaning fluid. I use alcohol and non alcohol. You will see why.
For this piece I am using a tatty QL17 that actually no longer works. It has been gathering dust, so I thought it would be the ideal candidate for showing you how I clean my cameras. This one has surface dust, years of grime and dirt on the body, stains on the metal and filthy leatherette. But that doesn’t matter, all of this can be cleaned….shame the camera can not be repaired.
So let’s get started. First things first I like to go over the camera with the larger duster and blow away as much of the surface dust as I can. Take your time and really get it off the camera. This is easier than using a cloth, because the cloth could wipe or push dust into places that will be a lot harder to clean later. If you have canned air then you can use that. But it is insanely bad for the environment and sometimes the propellant can come out and freeze the surface it is being sprayed upon. Not cool.
Now that I have blown away as much of the dirt as possible, I take out the cleaning tissues and get them top mop up the rest. I find them better than a cloth, as they will attract dust. These are tissues, not ‘cleaning papers’, there is a big difference in quality. If you are spending some decent money on a camera, you owe it to yourself and the camera to spend a bit more and get decent quality cleaning materials. You can also a microfibre cloth if you want, but I prefer the tissues.
Next up I want to get the body of the camera clean and tidy. For this I use the lens cleaner alcohol. There are tons of different brands, but they are all basically ethyl alcohol or something similar. It evaporates quickly and is very very good at cutting through grease and grime. I use cotton buds at first and wipe down the whole camera. I take special care to get into the spots and corners.
This stuff is really good and suitable for just about any camera surface. Though for plastics you should really check to make sure that it doesn’t stain or change the plastic surface. It will cut through the grime on the camera in no time. And you will be surprised at how much gunk comes off a camera. I was given a Minolta a few years back that stank of smoke. After about 4 hours it no longer smelled and looked stunning.
Now this is where it gets fiddly. All of the spaces in between things. These spots gather crud over the years and keep it there. Many people will just give a camera a cursory wipe, so the spaces keep on building up until their either stop working or shame you into cleaning them.
Fortunately, that is where these little beauties come in. They are pinpointed and made of slightly harder cotton. So you can really get into those fiddly areas and get the gunk out. If you have not got access to these, make your own. I used to use toothpicks with cleaning tissues wrapped around the end. I think this is better than using something metal, as the metal could tear through the tissue or cotton and scrape the camera.
And as you can see, they really do the job. They get in there and get it all up. Make sure that they have lens cleaning solution on them, to cut through the grease and you will soon see results.
Once all of the rubbish has been removed, a quick blast with the air cleaner and then I wipe the body of the camera with the microfibre cloth. This will clean up the stains on the body caused by the acids and grease on the hands.
If the stains are really stubborn I use the Chamois leather. It really gets into the metal and will remove even the stubborn stains. This takes time and elbow grease. Don’t expect immediate results. I generally spend at least an hour cleaning a camera this dirty, sometimes 2 hours. But if you sit there and rub away, the camera will be gleaming.
See, loads better.
The leatherette on your camera picks up grease and grime over the years, and fades. This is usually because it is under a layer of grime, which can be cleaned. Now there are a number of different schools of thought on this. Some people like to use ethyl alcohol, other use kerosene, some use water. I like to use old fashioned soap and water. I would use leather cleaner if I had it, but I don’t. Try not to use dishwashing detergent, it is too harsh and not good for the leather as it could make it crack. Just simple soap is fine.
I use a cotton bud, and take my time to lightly rub the surface of the leatherette with the soap solution. I don’t use much and I make sure not to go to the edges of the leatherette, as I don’t want water seeping underneath and damaging the glue or the camera. For really really valuable old cameras, you don’t clean the leatherette, you just don’t, because it is irreplaceable and easy to damage. But for regular cameras this method is great. Gently rub the leatherette and check to make sure you are getting the gunk out. Once you have done that area you can dry it off.
Yep, good old lint free tissues to the rescue. Slowly and firmly rub the water soap mix off the camera, making sure you get everything out of the ridges in the leatherette. Make sure it is completely dry. You should not have soaked the leatherette anyway, so this will not take long. Once you have done the whole camera you will be very happy with the results.
Now that the outside of the camera is clean, you can get on with making sure the inside of the camera is clean too.
Inside the camera
Open the camera up and get that duster blowing. Make sure you get into all of the corners. Use the pinpoint duster for the trouble spots. Some cameras have parts that can be removed, if you can, do this and make sure to get into all of the parts with that duster. There should not be any dust anywhere.
With that done, it is time to do a bit of spring cleaning. I like to get the film runners cleaned with a cotton bud and some alcohol. Same with the rear of the lens if it is a camera like this one. But we will get to that later. Can you see all of that gunk and dust below the film runner? That is particles from the light sealing foam. On this particular camera it has basically disintegrated over time, so now it is all over the inside of the camera. But this is a home repair. You can get a replacement foam kit for pocket money and replace the foam yourself. It is very easy and quite rewarding to do so. It also saves you having to clean all of that crap out every time you open the camera.
So what is left? Ah yes, the lens.
I leave the lens until last. That way I don’t have to clean it again after I have dislodged all of the other gunk from the camera. There are tons of different schools of thought on this one. But the retaining principles that are found in all are simple. Be gentle, be careful, be thorough. If you make sure you follow these rules you should have clean lenses.
For cleaning I like to use one of the fancy cotton buds, but a regular one will do. The funny thing is, I don’t use alcohol on my lenses. As I have found a really good alcohol free cleaner. Unfortunately it is not available outside of Japan. So, if you cannot get something like this, then get some decent cleaning fluid. I used to like the Kodak brand stuff, but it has become hard to find here. Just don’t get that generic crap in the red bottle, it is rubbish.
First of all I wipe the lens with the cleaning fluid on the bud. It do it slowly and carefully to make sure I get all of the lens. But don’t soak the lens. Just use enough to make the suggestion of being moist.
Next comes my lens tissue again (obviously a fresh one). I use this in a slow circular motion, being sure to get the edges and not miss anywhere. Don’t press too hard. again, you need to be gentle and patient. Take you time and make sure that you are not leaving cleaning marks. On older lenses there may be either a very old coating, or simply none at all. Many old lenses has very soft glass and are very easy to scratch, so you need to take extra care when cleaning classic glass. Take your time and don’t rush.
As a final gesture, I use the blowers to get rid of any dust particles that may tried to join the action since the cleaning. This should then leave my glass looking great. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but I like to do this once a week if possible. If you are on the move, doing this is impossible. But not having a microfibre cloth in your bag is a crime and you should definitely carry one. How would it feel to miss a shot because you have a smudge on your lens that you cannot remove?
And that is pretty much it. By now your camera should be looking spiffy and shiny. It should also be working a treat and happily clicking away.
Camera maintenance is important and part of being a photographer. You need to make sure that your machine is working at all times. Check the batteries and make sure they are good. If you are not sure, carry a spare. And always keep a cloth in the bag.
Many cameras are like handmade watches, they are precision machines and need to be re-adjusted from time to time. But you can prolong the time be keeping good care of your gear. When you are not using them, keep them in a dry box. If you have a humidity cabinet all the better. You want to keep things at around 36-44%. That stops the grease drying out and the seals deteriorating, yet keeps the lenses and parts from getting mould and haze.
A clean camera is a happy camera. And a happy camera makes for a happy you. And anyway, it is a good excuse to while away a couple of hours without anyone bothering you, plus you get to know your cameras better.
If you have any tips or comments please be sure to share them below.