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Lens Cleaning 101

While many photographers upgrade their camera bodies fairly frequently, lenses are useful much longer. Some of my go-to digital lenses are more than ten years old and a few of my most cherished glass dates to the 1950s! To get the best image quality, it pays to keep your lenses in tip-top shape.

Here are a few tips to keep the optical surfaces of those beautiful works of art in pristine condition.


The best way to keep your lenses scratch-free is to limit physical contact with those delicate coatings. Photographers debate the pros and cons of using a filter and many claim sharpness can suffer by adding yet another layer of glass to the optical path. While it’s true that a filter introduces the possibility of flare in extreme backlit situations, today’s best filters are made of high-quality optical glass that reduces flare. Buy the best name-brand filters you can afford and you won’t notice any difference in image quality for general photography. If faced with shooting in extreme conditions, simply remove the filter for the shot. I find the neutral “UV Protection” filters by Tiffen, Hoya, B+W and Sigh Ray are excellent. Filters protect your lenses in ways you cannot see, especially when working in wet or dusty conditions. By the way, I never use lens caps. I let my lens filters take the abuse of the real world, clean them often, then replace them when scratches are noticeable.


You don’t have to get too fancy or pay a small fortune for high-tech cleaning gadgets. A few necessities are all you need to keep any lens in perfect shape. I have a pouch that contains a small camel hair brush, a tiny squeeze bottle of lens cleaning solution, and a soft cotton bandana. These are always in my bag as I find I clean my lenses more frequently in the field than at home! Head to your local craft store and choose a stubby camel hair artist’s brush about half an inch long. Then round up for one of those Western-styled 100-percent cotton bandanas. I’ve found a common bandana is the perfect size and becomes extremely soft and gentle the more you wash it. Make sure to wash it several times before the first use. Finally, buy or repurpose a small plastic dropper bottle that holds an ounce or less. You’ll use this to carry your lens-cleaning solution. A tiny bit goes a long way, so a small container is fine. This is all you need–forget those canned-air contraptions that are heavy and can actually damage your lenses by leaving evaporative deposits on the surfaces. You should be able to compile your kit for $5 or so.


Years ago, a photographic engineer for a well-known camera company shared with me a simple and very effective lens cleaning formula. I can make literally gallons of the stuff for the price of one of those tiny, one-ounce bottles of “official” lens cleaner. Head to a pharmacy and purchase the smallest bottle of Isopropyl “rubbing” alcohol you can find. Remember, a little goes a long way. Check the label. You’ll want to look for the fewest ingredients. Isopropyl is a mixture of methanol and water. Try to find a product without additives such as colorings or fragrances. Next, pick up a gallon of pure distilled water. Measure out an ounce of distilled water. Add half an ounce of your isopropyl alcohol. Fill your container and shake well. Voila, you just made enough lens-cleaning solution to last for several years of photo adventures.


Step one: Decide if you even need to touch the lens surface. Try not to become obsessive about every little speck of dust that find its way onto your lens. If you use a protection filter, you may go for years without cleaning the lens itself, Instead, just delicately cleans the filter and you’ll be fine.

Step two: Assess the amount of dust or dirt on the lens. If it’s only a tiny bit, a tiny swipe with your artist brush will do the trick. Resist the temptation to use your breath to blow on the lens surface. Doing so will introduce tiny saliva droplets that will dry with organic deposits left behind.

Step three: Time to get out your cotton bandana and wet a wad of material with a couple of drops of your custom lens cleaner. Wait a few seconds, then GENTLY wipe the lens surface in a circular motion. If you notice smudges, repeat with a bit more pressure. Don’t overly saturate the cloth and don’t drop the lens cleaner directly on your lens. The general idea is to first remove any abrasive bits with your brush, then follow up with lens cleaner to remove any deposits or stains.

Step four:  Wait for the lens cleaner to evaporate, which will happen quickly. Make sure to inspect the rear of your protection filter and clean if necessary. Replace the filter and then finish up by repeating the process with the filter’s front surface.

Go slow and be gentle–your optics will love you for it.

My small cleaning kit, packed and ready.