Equipment review: Arctic Butterfly sensor-cleaning brush

A few weeks ago I received an unexpected Royal Mail package from Tom Sheppard. Inside was an orange case the right size to contain a pen or a watch. 

Hmm . . . Had Tom decided to pass on to me his GMT Master?

Probably not.

What Tom had sent me was not a Rolex, but something nearly as useful if one were on a trip of a lifetime and interested in bringing home digital images free of those nasty little dark blots caused by dust on the camera’s sensor. The amusingly named Arctic Butterfly sensor brush, from a company called Visible Dust, uses the principles of static charging to enhance the ability of its bristles to lift off minute debris from a digital camera’s sensor (or, more correctly, the filter that covers the actual sensor).

Many cameras these days are equipped with so-called self-cleaning sensors, which use vibration to literally shake dust particles off the surface. But those particles are obviously still in the camera—one can almost imagine a tiny dust dune growing slowly under the sensor on a long off-pavement journey. Unlikely perhaps; nevertheless, while self-cleaning sensors help, they don’t remove dust from the sensor chamber, and they don’t shake off the more stubborn particles. 

For those clingy bits, and for all our cameras that don’t have the self-cleaning feature, the standard approach of a filtered bulb blower followed by a sensor swab moistened with cleaning solution works superbly. However, if the blower misses a hard bit which subsequently gets trapped under the edge of the swab, the result can be a scratched sensor. I’ve also used the Delkin Sensor Vac—literally a miniature Hoover—with very good results, but even it usually required followup with a swab for complete cleaning.

Operation of the Arctic Butterfly brush is simple. Set your camera on ‘sensor clean’ to lock up the mirror. Hold the brush away from the camera and hit the power button three times for a few seconds each time. This spins the brush rapidly, ejecting any debris in the bristles and enhancing their static attractiveness. Switch off, then gently swipe the brush just once across the sensor, trying hard not to brush the sensor chamber or other parts of the camera, which could have lubricant residue on them. Do not spin the brush while it’s in contact with the sensor (I wonder how many males who don’t read instructions have assumed the wrong thing here?).

That’s it. You can check the sensor for dust by pointing your camera at a white wall, stopping down the lens all the way, making sure the wall is out of focus, then taking a shot. Camera shake won’t affect the results, since what you’re looking for is moving with the camera. Examine the image in Photoshop or another program. Or use a commercially available optic such as Visible Dust’s ‘Quasar’ sensor loupe, or Delkin’s SensorScope, to examine the sensor directly.

I found the Arctic Butterfly to be very effective, as evidenced by pre- and post-brush inspection, and it’s probably more so in a dry environment such as our southwestern deserts or Tom’s Sahara. In fact, combined with a good, filter-equipped bulb blower, I think this is all one would need to guarantee virtually spot-free images for the duration of most trips. Eliminating the swabs means you don’t have to worry about sourcing sensor-cleaning fluid at your destination (since it’s generally prohibited on airlines). In its padded case the brush weighs just 4.8 ounces; on its own it’s only 2.1 ounces. Cheap, lightweight trip insurance for your images. Thanks to Tom Sheppard for alerting me to a good product I’d somehow missed.

Now, Tom—about that beat-up old watch of yours . . .