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SLR changing to DSLR? read this first!

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Initial post: 14 May 2012 14:06:25 BDT
I don't want to send mixed messages or confuse anybody by starting off this discussion in saying that I'm very happy with the images I am seeing with my Nikon D5100. Recently I upgraded to this camera from the previous Nikon D 5000. Prior to this my digital cameras have been progressively point-and-shoot graduating to high end bridge cameras (similar with a fixed lens, but generally a wide to super telephoto lens). These limited me to JPEG only, although things are moving on and I believe some bridge cameras are offering Camera Raw as the file format option.

When I got my original Nikon D 5000, it came with a mid-range wide to telephoto zoom. During 18 months of ownership I bought a longer reach telephoto, which I then sold for a slightly more powerful alternative, plus the super wide-angle zoom, 10 to 20 mm from Sigma.

I got on superbly with this camera, taking all kinds of photography, including close-up, landscape, sports and architecture. These images frequently included large areas of sky or light plain backgrounds. Not once ever, when reviewing images on a very large computer monitor, using photo shop, and Adobe camera raw, did I see any sign of trouble. Then I changed my camera! I kept all lenses to use with it.

For the first five weeks everything was great. Images were sharper due to higher resolution at a given magnification, and exposure, colour balance, and everything else associated with the image produced superior results, although the larger file sizes did slow things down on the computer. Nevertheless I was very happy.

The Nikon D 5100 is undoubtedly a good camera. So what is the problem?

If you have, like me, come from a 35 mm single lens reflex camera, then you will know the importance of keeping your lenses clean. That's fair enough. However DSLR cameras don't have film, what they do have is a rectangular sensor inside the back of the camera, facing the rear of the lens. When you take an exposure, there is a mirror in front of it directing the image from the lens up into the prism situated behind the "Nikon" legend, and then back into the viewfinder. This mirror, just as in traditional film SLR cameras, flicks up out of the way, the shutter opens exposing light onto the sensor (instead of 35mm film), and then the shutter closes, the mirror comes down, and the camera electronically records that image to the memory card of the camera.

All perfectly understandable, and you would think it is just a matter of occasionally changing the lens to suit the subject you are shooting -- which is HOW IT SHOULD BE!

However, after five weeks, and despite having no such problems on the previous DSLR, I noticed a small out of focus spot on one of my images. It happened to be a landscape shot taken at a small aperture, F 19. I checked images taken at the same time, and over previous days, and then I took a test photograph out of the window. All of these images possessed the same spot!

I took the camera to my dealer, who seemed amused by the fact I was unaware that dust could accumulate on the sensor surface inside the camera, and provide evidence of its presence on all your images!

As I had travelled abroad to take many of these shots, finding that the dust spot appeared approximately halfway through the batch of photographs, I was very disappointed. It seems an easy problem to solve. I was told that Nikon technicians do not recommend that you use anything to physically touch the sensor. This leaves you only with the option of blowing air at the sensor, which "will usually remove anything" -- Yeah! Right!

Whatever is stuck on my sensor has been described as "welded dust". Apparently, in use, taking photographs, the sensor becomes warm then hot. Any dust which may have settled on the surface will then fry, and bond itself firmly to the surface. This means the camera has to go back to Nikon to have the dust professionally removed. Although I haven't checked this myself, I have read several forum posts elsewhere which indicate the cost of this is approximately 60 Great British Pounds.

I have also read cases where professional photographic dealers offer the service, and have inadvertently damaged sensors by attempting to clean them with a recognised "swab" method, where a thin plastic paddle, square ended and coated with factory sealed cleaning material, is impregnated with a few drops of chemical, and then wiped across the sensor in one action, just like a windscreen wiper on a car. Reports I have read, indicate that two kinds of damage can occur. Physical damage to the surface of the sensor, where dust particles are actually slightly on the gritty side, and wiping them across the surface of the entire sensor from one side to the other has produced a lovely scratch right across the sensor, in the same way a gritty stone dragged across a varnished coffeetable would leave a mark. This would leave a terrible mark on all images, and would also cause diffraction, if you like, a slight rainbow effect along both edges of the scratch, one edge red, the other edge green, especially in bright light, which, on enlargement would render the image unusable without cropping it out completely.

The second problem I've seen reported related to some of the cleaning fluid getting past the edge of the sensor being cleaned, and filling up the tiny space between the actual sensor surface, and a very thin anti-aliasing filter which is fitted onto the surface of DSLR sensors. This cannot be resolved easily, therefore an expensive trip to the factory for the camera would be required, to remove the anti-aliasing filter, clean the sensor properly, and replace the anti-aliasing filter again, in clean room conditions.

Although I have read countless forum postings elsewhere, where contributors have cleaned their own sensors many times, with great success, you have to ask yourself why, so many years after we were putting men on the moon, responsible camera manufacturers are putting products out there with such inherent vulnerabilities, or if you like, defects.

I can't explain why, in 18 months of ownership of the D 5000, I never saw the slightest problem, but in just five weeks using the D 5100 I am in this situation. If anything, I "learned my craft" on the D 5000, which would have made that camera far more susceptible to these problems. I have been far more careful with the new camera because firstly I've become more aware of the problem, through careful reading, and secondly my regime whenever changing lenses is always very strict. The new lens is prepared resting on its endcap which is unscrewed so that it can be lifted vertically from the desk. The camera lens release button is pressed and the lens rotated a fraction to unlock it, then the camera is pointed towards the ground, the lens fully removed, and the lens on the desk fitted as quickly as possible. The lens which was just removed gets a blast of air from a Giottos rocket blower, before the small end cap is fitted.

Therefore, if you are still shooting 35mm film using an SLR camera, thinking about the inevitable change to a DSLR, be prepared for this very serious problem. There is, if you are professional, a very good argument to choose your lenses first, and then purchase a camera body for each of the lenses, so that you never have to switch them round. Expensive? Very! but if you end up with a damaged sensor on your main camera body, it's a total disaster.

I don't mean to put you off completely. But this is serious design problem, and there is no excuse for it. This fault is potential in every DSLR camera, so don't go away thinking that the D 5100 is particularly vulnerable, they all are!

Good luck, I hope I've given you something to think about. If anyone out there has had "disasters" with dirty sensors, I'd like to hear your story if you'd be kind enough to post.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 14:29:51 BDT
I found blobs on my pics - and hence on the sensor after about a year. They appeared whilst on holiday in France. I took the camera to a local shop (Halesowen) and it was cleaned in a jiffy. It has put me off changing lenses somewhat. I wonder if the problem was just due to changing lenses in a dusty environment without noticing? It mean't I had an awful lot of cloning to do to get rid of them.
Film SLRs aren't completely immune from problems - the foam seals break up, for instance.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 14:55:46 BDT
Hi Dr G Austin, I fully agree that a camera shop 'should' sort this out easily, but the fact is, some dirt is grit, and there is a danger of gouging a line into the Anti-Aliasing filter surface by swab cleaning. I found the blower method next to completely useless. There is dust everywhere, that is the point of the post, to be honest. The design is all wrong, when you can get this problem without realising it. It is made worse by the fact that it frequently only shows up from f16 - f32 or even smaller apertures. When using the viewfinder the lens is wide open, so any problems are completely invisible. It is only later, when reviewing them in magnified view on the camera, or, in Adobe Camera Raw, that the stopped down version of the view reveals all those horrible blobs!

I won't argue that SLR's also had their own problems, but at least with this one, any dust would land on the negative and be wound away after one exposure. The DSLR design means that same spec of dust remains in place and hits every shot you take, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent upon aperture in use at the time - which is clearly terrible, as is having to tip toe around being obsessively careful about a simple thing like changing a lens. The dust specs, for those who don't yet know, are virtually invisible. One website I checked out mentioned that 20 small specs of dust could fit across a small 'full stop' on the web page, yet each one would show up with smaller apertures.

The method of lens connection and sensor protection is clearly wrong. No doubt cameras of the future will feature an alternative arrangement. I would favour something along the lines of a slim 'teleconverter' with a plain optical glass surface, onto which you mount the lens, as an intermediary between body and lens, so that NO dust can pass.

On the positive side, the images are superb, but stopped being superb when dust specs appeared! Grrr.

I want my Canon A1 back (no I don't, but you get what I am saying, I'm sure!).

Regards Ross

Posted on 14 May 2012 15:29:20 BDT
X says:
Buy a camera body with a built-in dust removal system, which often goes with a sensor movement image stabiliser in the body... Subject covered to death, and back to life, sadly...

Perfidious question: Which brands of body come with a sensor shaker to get rid of dust and a sensor movement IS system?

Posted on 14 May 2012 15:33:31 BDT
X says:
Read this and weep:

I neither read nor wept, but now I have read my tears are not of sadness.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 15:35:28 BDT
Hi Ross,
I can well understand your chagrin - I was not best pleased myself. There has been so little written about sensor cleaning that I wonder just how big a problem it is though? That's why I wondered whether I had been somewhere particularly dusty. You reminded me that the blobs show up mostly at small apertures - and it was very sunny in France, so I may have had the problem before I went but failed to notice.
It just shows that digital interchangeable lens cameras are no panacea. I have already had a £300 Canon bridge camera go dead after 20 months - it was a total loss because it wasn't worth the cost of repair!
Why can't the mirror on a dSLR be made to close off the sensor so not allowing dust to contact it directly?
I should have thought that EVILs are even more susceptible.
I hope you have better luck in future.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 15:45:09 BDT
Hi 'X' - the D5100 has a built in dust removal system and a vibrating sensor to combat dust! grrr!

Posted on 14 May 2012 15:49:57 BDT
Canon's SLRs all include a sensor cleaning mechanisim that effectively vibrates the "AA" filter infront of the lens and shakes off any dust particles. It runs every time the camera is switched on and off or can be run manually, which also has some benefits such as mapping out "stuck pixels". Even if the dust isn't gone after a single clean, it moves on its way after a few cycles.

As for what Autofocus Ross says, the dust would never be visible through the viewfinder, as the viewfinder looks through the lens via the reflex mirror and completely avoids the sensor entirely. With diffraction setting in at greater than f11 (significant reduction in sharpness), why anyone not shooting macro would use those apatures instead of hyperfocals is a little beyond me.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 15:50:40 BDT
Hi again 'X' - thanks for the heads up, but I have Nikon lenses now, and they dont fit an Olympus (LOL) anyway, I am very sceptical that their claims are met with reality, after Nikon's 'self cleaning' sensor etc etc.

The camera chamber should be completely sealed if dust is such a potential disaster - an arrangement with an optical glass frame (filter) in the throat of the lens mount would do it, and then you could use lenspens and other normal products to keep that glass clean, and no worries about sensor dust, ever!

Like I say, it's a long time since Apollo 11 touched down, what are Nikon / Canon / Pentax et al playing at!

Dr, thanks for your encouraging words, trouble is, the moment your sensor is clean, it could instantly attract another chunk of invisible dust. I was reading somewhere before I posted my original message, that indoors is actually dustier than outdoors - so I am going to have words with Mrs Ross, it's probably her fault after all!

Posted on 14 May 2012 15:52:58 BDT
Surely optical glass between the lens and the sensor would have all the problems of the glass filter that is already over the lens?

I will confess I'm speaking as someone who never had a problem with dust in images. I guess Canon's sensor cleaning is much better than Nikon's?

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 15:55:35 BDT
Hi Andrew, brief answer for you, Macro is another area completely, but landscape in bright light calls for a smaller aperture than you would normally plump for, to give sharpness. True, stopping down too much can and will trigger the dreaded diffraction problem in all lenses, but nonetheless, inadequate design of sensor is no excuse. By the way, my Nikon D5100 has a similar vibrating surface over the sensor, just like your Canon, but, I have two specs now which will not shift. One of them is visible even with the lens wide open.

Point taken about not seeing them in the viewfinder, as you rightly say, the image is diverted by the mirror until exposure is made, so the dust is not 'in the path'.



In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 15:58:09 BDT
Hi Andrew, yes and no - some kind of filter...optical glass... something to seal the chamber between the lens and the mirror, would, of course, be exposed to the environment and gather dust like there is no tomorrow - but - it would be away from the sensor, not risky to keep clean, and protect the innards fully. In addition, it would also be much much MUCH cheaper to replace than an anti alias filter mounted ON the sensor, as we have now.

Posted on 14 May 2012 15:59:35 BDT
If the spec is visible wide open, check the rear element of the lens as well as the sensor.

When doing landscapes I often go for an apature of f11, not much more is required. Look into "hyperfocal" focusing, as this can dramatically increase your depth of field without having to choose a wide apature. I've only ever used f16-f32 when I need slow shutter speeds and don't have ND filters avaliable.

If you honestly think that there is a fault with your camera or Nikon's design, I suggest you return it to the manufacturer/dealer for cleaning or replacement.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 16:06:16 BDT
Hi Andrew, thanks again, much appreciated. In short, I have the same problem with any of my lenses, so it is not the rear element on one of them, sadly. I have a regime anyway, I always use a Giottos rocket blower on the rear elements before fitting, and after removing a lens, to be safe.

I don't think its a fault, it is definitely dust - so it's not a warranty issue.

The hyperfocal thing, what is that? My usual practice is to focus about 1/3 into the depth of field as from my film days, we were taught that focus on lenses at around f8 - f11 extended about two thirds behind the focus point, and about one third in front of it. Same applies to a telephoto but of course with much shallower depth of field. I never focus on infinity, hope that cheers you up :-)

Regards, Ross

Posted on 14 May 2012 16:17:32 BDT
The hyperfocal is effectively a numerical version of your focusing 1/3 of the way into the scene. There is a focus distance, for any combination of focal length and apature that means everything from a certain distance all the way to infinity is in focus. This lets you get greater depth of field without having to stop down further. On your D5100 with a 24mm lens at f8, everything from 2.1m to infinity should be in focus if you set the focus distance to 4m, and going to f11 only gets an extra 0.5m infront of the "focus point". While at f8 the combination should be sharper and less susceptible to dust.

This page is very helpful:

If you're saying that the dust is due to a faulty design then I think you'd definately have a chance to claim on the warranty, certainly if it is visible wide open it sounds like maybe the sensor cleaning mechanisim has failed. You also said the sensor on the D5000 never gave you these problems which implies something is going on. Send some samples to Nikon customer service wide open and stopped down and ask for comments.

Posted on 14 May 2012 16:25:59 BDT
Andrew, it may be worth a punt, but, when I use the self cleaning option off the menu, or, set it to operate on 'power up' or 'power down' I can hear the sensor vibration, so it is definitely working, even if it's not stopping the dust. I think what's happened in my case is dust settled while I was away from home, so I didn't see it. I continued to use the camera, making the sensor get hot, and I think the dust has 'welded' itself onto the sensor.

That being the case, I doubt Nikon would accept it as a defect, even though I am shocked at the ease with which this problem arose. Thing is, which was the point of my post really, no matter how clean the sensor is, or who cleans it, five mins after starting to use the camera, I could have another one land right on it. Totally destroyed my confidence in DSLR's - reading around this on the web, it seems this has been a perrenial problem since DSLR's first appeared ten years ago.

Quite shocking that they haven't nailed this problem completely.

Appreciate your help, greatly, thanks.

On the hyperfocal thing, seems I was already doing it, from my SLR habits of old. At least my old A1 had aperture range markings on the lens, plus a stop down lever, though I must admit, after f8 it got very dark in that viewfinder :-)



Posted on 14 May 2012 16:40:56 BDT
Its always worth asking, to my mind the way you describe this "welded dust" makes it sound like a fault in the cleaning system. Dust shouldn't be that much of a problem and never wide open.

Plenty of people make huge sums of money from digital photography and its best to remember that any negative issue recieves disproportionate coverage on the internet. If you genuinely believe that the camera design is at fault then the consumer laws protect you. If it isn't faulty then get on and take photos!

Oh, and your current camera probably has a Depth of Field preview button that replicates the function of the stop down lever.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 16:41:18 BDT
Hi Ross,
My Sony also has a dust removal system.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 18:26:58 BDT
Hi Andrew, thanks again.

My reference to 'welded' dust in simpler terms meant dust that cannot be blown off with the large rocket blower. Nikon themselves ADVISE never to touch the sensor, so ANY other cleaning method would negate warranty.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon, and it is mentioned in the book I bought for this camera, David Busch's guide to the Nikon D5100.

Per se, it is poor camera design, but what consumer law will protect me from this situation? Nikon have only to allege that I changed lenses in a dusty location (even a bathroom is dusty) and any claim of poor design goes out the window. I was only harking back to the fact that, a camera costing half a grand, in 2012, should, in any way, shape or form, not permit dust to easily locate itself on the most sensitive area of the camera, but rather, that sensitive area should be fully protected, factory sealed, with access to cleaning only 'safe to touch' areas.

Unfortunately, there is NO stop down mode on this model, in the good old days, my Canon f1.4 lens posessed depth of field markers so that, if, for example, you wanted to use it for landscape at f11, you could put the 'infinity' symbol against the f11 marker on one side of the lens, and glance at the f11 marker on the opposite side to 'see' exactly what the d.o.f. was going to be (5ft to infinity etc etc).

Back then, if Canon, Nikon or anyone else fielded cameras that suffered with dust ingress like this, there would have been a riot at Amateur Photographer with Victor Blackman (God rest his soul) leading the protests.

I remain completely floored at this ridiculous problem, moreso because it is not a specific camera model that has it, but ALL of them, as far as i can tell.

Looks like I cant pass f8 ever again, someone pass me a ND filter quick!

Seriously, you know where I am coming from, and, lets hope a new generation of stay clean cameras will emerge, which will work with our present lenses.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 18:31:24 BDT
Great cameras Dr Austin, but it seems even Sony's dust removal system let you down, its staggering isn't it?

I can't leave the camera in this state, I have ordered the best quality sensor cleaning paddles and fluid and will have to try this myself. Sending it out to Nikon every month seems a bit silly, at £60 a go, I wonder, what did they charge you at your camera shop in Halesowen, I may try my local Jessops, or Swansea Camera Centre, they're very good.

Since you had it cleaned (when was this?) have you had a recurrance of dust on there? Do you change lenses often?

Appreciate further guidance on this if you have time?

Regards, Ross.

Posted on 14 May 2012 19:25:10 BDT
A couple of things and then I'm off out to take some photographs (perish the thought!)...

To a certain extent, dust is a fact of life with digital photography. Film was intrinsically self cleaning and regardless was never viewed with the same scrutiny as digital images. However, since the earliest days of digital imaging things certainly have moved on and all the major manufacturers have dust removal systems of some sort. This is not the dark ages as you imply.

With regard to consumer protection, a product must be fit for purpose and if it is not, then you are entitled to a free repair or replacement (my words). You are alleging (whether you intend to or not) that Nikon's dust removal system makes the camera not fit for purpose. In my opinion (as an Engineer and as a Photographer) there is a good chance that the dust removal mechanism is faulty.

I am advising you for a final time to contact Nikon's customer service and the customer service at the place you bought the camera of the problem and strongly advise them that you'd like the problem investigated.

What you are describing is not the level of dust that should be expected and it certainly should not be possible for it to become welded or stuck on. Nikon cannot accuse you of changing lenses in a dusty bathroom as that should not cause the problems that you are describing to us here! An SLR is an interchangable lens camera and should be (and is) designed to cope with that, within reason.

Bear in mind that cleaning your sensor will remove any last chance of having your camera repaired by the factory and while I am advised it is technically easy (I've never had the need to do it myself) it is possible to further damage your camera. CONTACT NIKON FIRST! The worst they can do is say its not their problem and that you'd have to pay to have it repaired, and then you're no worse off. But there is a good chance that they'll offer you a free cleaning or make a recommendation.

Best of luck!

Posted on 14 May 2012 20:57:28 BDT
Last edited by the author on 14 May 2012 21:17:36 BDT
Graham H says:
I've never had a problem with my Nikon D90. But then I always blow out the cavity in the body with a rocket blower (Body facing downwards) when I change a lens.
But you're perfectly correct - when I use my F90X or F100 (35mm) SLRs I never give it a second thought and I've never had a problem. Except one time when I stupidly took some film straight from the 'fridge and loaded it without giving it a few hours still in the plastic pot to reach room temperature. There were some tiny 'blobs' caused by condensation. These looked exactly like DSLR sensor dust.

Hope you get the problem resolved. Things like this are one of the reasons I always buy from my favourite Nikon specialist in London. Because they'll do all they can to sort it out. Good luck with yours. I hope you arrive at a satisfactory solution ere long.

Posted on 14 May 2012 23:13:30 BDT
X says:
Long live blowers! They make the sight of a numpty blowing his lenses clean with his mouth and inevitable ready-to-rock and roll spores so much more fun. I am a sad old man, but a happy one...

In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 23:53:37 BDT
Hi Andrew,

Thanks again for your insights. I am not alleging that this exact model has been designed poorly - I am simply re-stating the fact that a sensor is a charged device, negative I believe, while dust particles can be either positive or negative, and the positive particles are attracted to the sensor, simple law of physics. My contention therefore is that the design of ALL DSLR's in their present configuration, is sub-standard, as they have no dust prevention systems, only dust removal systems, which, as I have repeatedly told you, have failed to remove particular dust particles on my own sensor.

To contend this as a principle would entail me taking on Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Panasonic and the rest - but - facts are facts, and however it is spun by anyone else, THERE IS ONE LARGE AND ONE SMALLER permanent speck on my sensor, which hopefully will go when I deliberately invalidate my warranty by either self cleaning or using a dealer for same.

That is the beginning and the end of the matter, it really is.

I am very surprised that you have never experienced this problem. Let me quote David Busch's words P.406 'Unfortunately, you'll often encounter really stubborn dust spots that can't be removed with a blast of air, or flick of a (visible dust static) brush. These spots may be combined with some grease or a liquid that causes them to stick to the sensor filter's surface.' and P.398 'Indeed there's no avoiding dust. No matter how careful you are, som of it is going to settle on your camera and on the mounts of its lenses, eventually making its way inside the camera to settle in the mirror chamber. As you take photos, the mirror flipping up and down causes the dust to become airborne and eventually make it's way past the shutter curtain to come to rest on the anti-aliasing filter atop your sensor.'

(c) David Busch's Nikon D5100 Guide to Digital SLR Photography

Hence, there is no avoiding this problem, while Nikon say 'don't touch the sensor'

Tricky situation, so it seems camera buyers have to either live with the spots in their images, send their cameras in to the manufacturers service centre on a pay basis, or, invalidate warranty with self cleaning (diy or local dealer, same principle).

Maybe we'll have to wait unti they get men to Mars for a solution to this one, but thanks for all your advice, I do appreciate it.


In reply to an earlier post on 14 May 2012 23:56:03 BDT
Thank you Mr Hearne,

If you read my opening statement you'll see that I too, never had this happen with the D5000 - so it's a great angst that 5 weeks into owning a new 5100 I have this trouble. Looks like it's going to be a frequent problem so I'll have to get used to regularly cleaning the sensor myself when needed.
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