Lens cloths are the photographer's best friend—after all, provide a safe way to clean the critical lens of the camera without potentially damaging it. This article covers what they are, whether you should use cleaning fluid with them, how to clean with a lens cloth, and where you can purchase them.
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What Is A Lens Cloth?
Squint at a lens cloth: as you can see, they are made of millions of tiny fibers, hence the name of the material, microfiber cloth. This makes them not only soft and silky smooth to the touch, but also very good at capturing fine particulates and oils from surfaces, perfect for cleaning delicate equipment—such as your digital camera lens.
They are also suited to cleaning a number of other objects, from your grandma's heirloom gold jewellery to your plasma screen TV to your glasses. Anything delicate—anything that simply can't afford to be scratched—is perfectly suited for cleaning by lens cloths.
There really isn't any substitute for microfiber lens cloth. Cotton swabs will do in a pinch, but they simply can't clean as well. Most tissues have oil in them that can further filthy your lens. Cleaning them with stray bits of random cloth is more likely to get more dirt on them--and potentially scratch your lens.
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Cleaning Fluid, Y/N?
Cleaning fluid for digital cameras is often advertised right next to lens cloths in many stores. But what's the point?
Cleaning fluid consists basically of a 50/50 mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. That's it. You can also just mix it yourself, and for quite a bit cheaper than they sell in the store. It works to make cleaning the surface much more effective than doing it dry, especially for dried-on substances like greasy fingerprints or a dirty raindrop.
Normal water will certainly do just as well in a pinch, as long as it has no particulates in it that could potentially damage the lens. However, cleaning fluid, with that magic ingredient isopropyl alcohol, is more effective.
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How To Use
Lens cloths are straightforward enough to use. Prior to use, gently shake both the camera and the lens cloth to free any loose particulates from it. If you have cleaning fluid or water, either dampen the lens cloth with it or carefully spray a small amount on the surface you'll be cleaning—do not put much directly on the lens itself, as the liquid could easily seep into the rest of your camera and cause damage.
Now, proceed to rub the surface in small, circular movements without pressing hard. To get into crannies, try using the tip of a nail covered in lens cloth. Failing that, a cotton swab might be of aid. Continue until either all the cleaning fluid is gone or the camera is clean.
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As you might imagine, it's imperative that you keep your lens cloth as clean as possible. Keeping them in a separate, sealable pouch is probably your best bet, somewhere in your camera case. Many lens cloths are prone to gathering static charge. While it's a small likelihood that this could build up high enough to the point where it could damage your camera, it's best not to risk it. Try not to keep your lens cloths in static-prone materials such as fiber or thin plastic.
Once you've dirtied part of the lens cloth, you don't need to throw it away. Keep using it until the whole lens cloth has dirt on it—it's still good! Lens cloths can be cleaned like any other cloth in the washing machine, but don't mix them in with exceptionally dirty materials. Let the lens cloth dry in the air and not in a machine, as otherwise it will shrink and degrade. Depending on the quality of your lens cloth, they should last several washes.
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Where To Purchase
You can buy lens cloths from a number of sources—after all, they have many applications! I find that digital camera stores tend to be the most expensive, and large electronic stores more on the cheap side.
My personal recommendation is to purchase them in bulk from a site like eBay or Amazon. You'll probably go through many throughout your lifetime, and it's important to always have them on hand. You also avoid the relatively steep markups that third party stores will be slapping on them. For example, I recently bought set of 48 fine lens cloths for under 10$, including shipping and handling, off of eBay—enough to last my friends and I quite a long time!