"Sweet barking cheese!" I said, "this is the filthiest camcorder I've ever seen!" Jennifer may have been a hotshot producer with six Emmys, but she didn't take care of her equipment.
"Hey, it's a tool," she replied, "it's not a countertop."
There were fingerprints all over the lens, dust encrusted in every nook and cranny. I turned it over.
"Is this beach sand?! Jennifer! Is this beach sand falling out of your camera?! What will I find next, a hermit crab? Seaweed?"
"Now that you mention it," she remarked, "I think that's where it started eating tapes."
"Look, Jennifer," I said sternly, "you really must clean your camera. At least a little."
Cleanliness and your Camera's Physical Well-being
While your camera may be digital, there are parts of it which are entirely mechanical. Your tape transport mechanism is still pretty much the same as it was in an old cassette player. The tape is pulled from its case, and exposed in the innards of your camcorder, where it passes over the heads and the little ones and zeros are written to read off it. If your camcorder has particle matter inside, specifically things like dust or sand, it can not only damage your tape, but also more importantly, the sensitive read/write heads. For this reason, it's of the utmost importance that you keep the inside of your camera as clean as you possibly can.
Tape Head Cleaners
Though the jury is still out on "dry" head cleaning tapes, we have never seen a camera die from them. These special cassettes contain either microscopically coarse fabric, or standard tape impregnated with somewhat-abrasive materials. Played in your camcorder for about five seconds, they gently abrade the head, like a pot-scrubber, scraping away accumulated muck. Follow the directions, and never overuse them (although extra cleaning is sometimes needed for really dirty heads.)
Swab the Deck!
You can also clean your tape heads with swabs and a mixture of 50% Tetrafluorothane 50% Isopropyl alcohol. And don't think you can use a Q-Tip, that would leave a mess of cotton fibers in your camcorder. You need to use a specially designed foam swab, available at your camera store. Follow the instructions that come with the cleaning solution.
It's very important to keep the lens clean. A small scratch on your lens element is actually pretty insignificant, it might account for a fraction of 1% of the lens' surface area, but a thumb print affects a much greater area, causing flare and hazy images. Lose the temptation to "clean" your lens by wiping it with your shirttail. Most artificial fibers make terrible lens cloths and they also have oil on them from your body. If you absolutely have to use some article of clothing, make sure it's a natural fiber, like cotton. What you really want is a microfiber lens cloth, or a lens pen. Both are specifically designed for cleaning lenses.
While Windex cleans glass, solvents can damage the coating on your lens. You can use a mild solution of lukewarm soapy water. Just be sure that you wipe the soap off with clean water and make sure that moisture doesn't get inside your camera.
You can clean the exterior of your camera as you would any plastic surface, just use a damp cloth. You can use cotton swabs to get in the small spaces; here it doesn't really matter so much if tiny bits of cotton come off. Just wipe it down with a damp cloth when you're done.
Cleaning the LCD Screen
The LCD screen may or may not have a glass cover. In any event, just wipe it down with a damp, not wet, cloth. Your camera's functionality won't really be affected by a dust-encrusted LCD screen but it can be distracting to look at and dust on the LCD screen can be dislodged into the camera while changing tapes, so it's just as well to wipe it down while you're cleaning the important parts. If you really need that out-of-the-box squeaky-clean-look, try special screen cleaning products like Klear Screen or iKlear.
Should I use Compressed Air?
While it's okay to use compressed air on the exterior of your camera, it may not be the best thing to use inside your camera. There are two types of compressed air, difluoroethane, the most common variety, which can possibly leave a film, and tetraflouroethane, which doesn't leave any dross but doesn't have as high a pressure.
Blower brushes (rubber bulbs with brushes on the end, squeezing the bulb blows air from a small nozzle) and compressed air will certainly get some amount of the dust out of your camera's guts, but they do it by blowing it around, which just redistributes part of it. To be safe when using compressed air to blow dust out of your cameras guts, don't tilt or shake the can while you're spraying, don't shake the can before spraying (this can cause "spitting") and don't get the nozzle too close to your sensitive bits. You may want to try a small electronics vacuum (often called a "keyboard vacuum") to get the cracker crumbs out.
Often overlooked, the battery contacts, the metal where your camera's battery passes electricity to the camera, can get clogged with dust and, to use the scientific word, gunk. You can clean these with a pencil eraser or a piece of cloth wrapped around a semi-sharp object (like a pencil point).
Keep it Clean
One way to be sure your camera stays clean is to keep it in its case. The best cases are hard shell ones with custom foam cut outs, such as those made by Pelican. If you use a soft case, keep the camera alone in it's own compartment where batteries, pens, change, and soft drink bottles don't bounce and rub up against it. One problem with bags is that they seem to be magnets for lint. Occasionally empty out your bag, turn it upside down, shake it out, and, if you have the opportunity, run your vacuum cleaner's hose attachment through it. When not in use, store your camera in its bag.
The lens cap protects your lens from scratches, fingerprints, splashed soup, and a host of other things. If your have a threaded lens, you can put a screw mount clear filter over the front to protect the lens from fingerprints.
Your camera's innards are delicate and important. Keeping dust and dirt out is your first step in keeping it clean. When it does get dirty, there are plenty of commercial products available at your camera store for cleaning every part of it, from the lens element, to the video heads. Keep your camera safe when you store it, and be mindful of its environment.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a video artist and network engineer and co-author of Enterprise Internetworking and Security.