Defeating Dust

Copyright 1993, Tom R. Halfhill


Anti-static guns are getting hard to find, but are especially useful in dry climates. They fire streams of ions that neutralize static electricity, making it easier to remove the dust with a brush or a blower.

Shutterbug is a family magazine and we're not supposed to use four-letter words, but I'll use one anyhow: DUST.

There. I said it. To photographers—especially darkroom workers—that's just about the nastiest four-letter word we can print.

Dust is the archenemy of photographers because it foils our efforts at every turn. Quietly, insidiously, it creeps into our cameras, sneaks into our lenses, and pollutes our slides and negatives. In our SLR viewfinders, larger particles can show up as bothersome filth on the groundglass. In the backs of our cameras, tiny but sharp pieces of grit can scratch our film with the advance of every frame. Larger chunks may cast shadows which appear as black spots on our finished pictures.

In the darkroom, dust really causes havoc. Darkroom workers wage constant warfare against the annoying particles, because even the smallest bits of dust are enlarged into all-too-visible white spots when negatives are blown up to make prints. Watching a fastidious printer prepare a negative for enlarging is like observing a pagan priest conduct an ancient religious ritual; all sorts of strange rites are performed to rid the negative of the evil dust-spirits.

You'd be even more phobic about dust if you knew what it really is. (Skip this paragraph if you're squeamish.) Electron microscopes have revealed that typical household dust consists largely of human skin flakes—you shed many thousands of such flakes every minute—and millions of tiny dust mites. These insects are so incredibly small that they weren't discovered until the 1960s, and even the cleanest home has millions upon millions of them. (Two million, in fact, in the average double bed!) Luckily, the little mites are quite harmless to people and actually make themselves useful by consuming some of that dead skin we spread around.

To defend against dust, you need to arm yourself with the appropriate weapons and become something of a neatnik. Even if you're the type who lets dirty dishes stack up in the sink and laundry pile up on the floor, you've got to reform your ways where your photography is concerned. Otherwise, you'll be literally left in the dust.

The Brush-Off

The first weapon you should acquire is a good brush. This is a basic tool which you can use to clean cameras, lenses, filters, negatives, and slides. A good brush has soft, gentle hairs which don't fall out every time you clean something. Since a good brush should last a lifetime, it pays to buy a nice one from the start. Visit your local camera shop to find a wide selection.

Some brushes are designed to do double-duty. In addition to removing loose bits of dust, they neutralize the static-electric charge which helps the dust stick to things. Perhaps the best-known of these brushes is the Staticmaster, a favorite of darkroom workers for decades. Staticmaster brushes have a very small piece of radioactive material mounted behind a metal grid just below the hairs. As you move the brush over a slide or negative, the static electricity is neutralized and the dust falls free.

The Staticmaster is a longtime favorite of photographers because it neutralizes static electricity as you brush. Next to it is a rubber blower bulb with a narrow tip for reaching into small spaces.

Two tips for brushes: First, when brushing a slide or negative, don't sweep quickly in a back-and-forth motion. Instead, brush slowly in a constant direction, then flip over the film and brush the other side in the same direction. This helps prevent the build-up of static electricity. For the same reason, don't over-brush.

Second, keep your brush clean by storing it in the original plastic box. Don't casually toss it into the bottom of your camera bag, where it will soon accumulate dust and dirt. Some brushes made to be carried in camera bags are cleverly designed to retract into a small plastic case, like lipstick. If your brush does get dirty, clean it with water and let it air-dry.

The next most common anti-dust weapon is the air blower. Any well-stocked camera store sells aerosol cans which emit a dry, very powerful blast of "canned air." The metal cans come in different sizes and usually have small nozzles or plastic tubes capable of aiming the air at hard-to-reach places. For people who use a great deal of canned air—especially in commercial darkrooms—it may be cheaper in the long run to invest in an AC-powered air blower.

Canned air removes dust by shooting a very powerful blast of air at your target. But follow the directions and don't hold it too close to delicate components. Larger cans are more economical.

Canned air is an extremely effective weapon against dust, but it has some drawbacks. For one thing, it's relatively expensive, although the labor saved by not having to spot your prints almost always pays for the air. A bigger drawback is that some people claim canned air can do more harm than good if not used wisely, particularly when cleaning cameras. At close range, the very strong blast of air may damage the delicate metal blades of modern focal-plane shutters, and it may also blow some dust deeper into the camera or lens.

One alternative to canned air that's nearly as effective is the rubber blower bulb. It works on old-fashioned hand power, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger can't squeeze out a blast of air that's strong enough to cause any damage. Unlike canned air, it never runs empty, and there's no metal can to throw away. In a high-production commercial darkroom, however, a blower bulb would probably leave you at the end of the day with a painful variation of writer's cramp.

Blower bulbs are a useful addition to your arsenal of anti-dust weapons, and they're inexpensively available at many camera stores. You can also find them at drug stores, where they're sold for a somewhat different purpose. To avoid embarrassment, tell your pharmacist what you want by showing him or her a picture of the blower bulb accompanying this article.

The most effective way to clean a negative or slide with either canned air or a blower bulb is to aim the blast at the center of the image, tilting the film at a slight angle. Shoot a few blasts in different directions, always aiming from the center outward. This blows the dust off the negative or slide, rather than simply rearranging it.

The Perfect Vacuum

Another alternative—especially favored by those who object to blowing dust deeper into a camera or lens—is a miniature vacuum cleaner. These devices actually suck up the dust instead of moving it around. Of course, it goes without saying (I hope) that an ordinary household vacuum cleaner is much too large and powerful for this purpose, and that even a Black & Decker Dustbuster is a bit too big.

What you need instead is something like the Mini-Vac shown in the accompanying photo. It's just the right size, it's powerful enough to eat dust without damaging delicate components, and it comes with a few attachments and high-quality brushes. Mine runs on a nine-volt battery with an optional AC adapter available. It's very effective for cleaning cameras, lenses, filters, slides, negatives, and just about anything else that's small and collects dust.

Miniature vacuum cleaners actually remove the dust rather than simply rearranging it. They usually come with various attachments and brushes.

These miniature vacuum cleaners are sold by some camera shops, but you might have better luck at a computer store or a discount office-supply warehouse. They cost about $20 and run for quite a while on an alkaline battery. The dust is trapped in a little cloth bag that's easily emptied and cleaned.

Still another anti-dust weapon—and one that really looks like a weapon—is an anti-static gun. Although these devices don't actually remove any dust, they fire streams of positive and negative ions which neutralize static electricity and make it easier to dislodge the dust with a brusher or blower.

Unfortunately, anti-static guns are getting hard to find these days. Originally they were sold to audiophiles for neutralizing the static charges on vinyl records. Now that records have been almost entirely supplanted by cassette tapes and compact discs, it's the rare music store indeed which carries anti-static guns in stock. The gun shown in the accompanying photo, called the Zerostat, is made in England and distributed in the United States by Discwasher. It's still available, but you'll probably have to talk your local music store into ordering one from a distributor. It'll cost about $30.

The Zerostat doesn't require batteries. All you do is aim and pull the trigger. Because it was designed to neutralize static on a 12-inch vinyl record, it does a bang-up job on any size negative or transparency.

One caution, however—avoid using an anti-static gun anywhere near a device with computer chips. Years ago, in a camera store, I saw a salesman demonstrate one of these guns within a few inches of his electronic calculator. The calculator immediately went kablooey, never to be revived.

Did the powerful stream of charged ions blow a microchip? Or was it merely a coincidence? I'm not sure, but ever since then I've kept anti-static guns far away from all computing devices. Keep in mind that a great many devices have microchips these days, including almost all modern cameras, autofocus lenses, digital lightmeters, digital darkroom timers, color analyzers, and some sophisticated enlarger heads.

Hints & Tips

Because dust is a special enemy of darkroom workers, there are some other things these folks can do in addition to arming themselves with anti-dust weapons. Some of these things are common sense, but others are tips I've picked up over the years.

Tip #1: DO NOT run a household vacuum cleaner in your darkroom immediately before developing film or making prints. All you'll do is stir up more dust—which, believe it or not, can remain suspended in the air for as long as 24 to 48 hours. Clean your darkroom at least a day before.

Tip #2: Keep your enlarger clean, and keep it covered between printing sessions. I cover mine with a 30-gallon plastic garbage bag. Some people prefer cloth bags, saying that pulling a plastic bag off an enlarger builds up static electricity, but I haven't experienced that problem.

Tip #3: In very dry climates, where static electricity tends to accumulate, some people find that it helps to ground their enlarger. Do this by connecting the metal head of the enlarger to a cold water pipe with heavy-gauge wire and a clamp. This bleeds off the static electricity.

Tip #4: In home darkrooms which double as bathrooms, one old trick is to take a hot shower before processing film or prints. The steam pulls dust out of the air, and the humidity prevents the accumulation of static electricity.

Tip #5: To end up with clean slides or negatives, you should start with clean processing. If any dust or grit settles on your film while it's wet, the particles may become embedded in the soft emulsion, and no amount of brushing or blowing will remove them later. You may have to invest in a filter to remove grit from your wash water, especially if your tap water comes from a well.

As soon as the film is washed, treat it with a wetting agent (such as Kodak Photo-Flo) and hang it to dry in a dust-free place. A curtained-off shower stall is probably the most dust-free place in the average house. Stay away from the film for the first hour or so, when the wet emulsion is most vulnerable to airborne dust. If your darkroom or bathroom has an exhaust fan, DO NOT run it while the film is drying. The circulating air will dry your film faster, but will also stir up dust.

Tip #6: After processing, DO NOT wipe your film with a sponge or chamois. I know, I know, virtually every textbook recommends a final wipedown. But I've found a way to safely eliminate this step, which can irreparably scratch your film if any grit becomes lodged in your sponge.

After the final wash, fill the developing tank with distilled water and agitate briskly for at least one minute. This removes all traces of the impure tap water and also helps to float away any grit adhering to the film. Drain the tank, then soak the film in a wetting agent for 30 seconds with very gentle agitation. Important: Mix the wetting agent with distilled water, not tap water. (I mix mine by adding six capfuls of Photo-Flo 200 to a gallon jug of distilled water.) Finally, drain the tank and immediately hang up the film to dry.

Trust me. I've been doing this for years with both 35mm and 120 rollfilm, and I always get sparkling clean negatives with no water spots.

Tip #7: After your film is good and dry, take it down and either mount the slides or file the negatives in archival plastic pages. (Glassine envelopes are not archival.) For my negatives, I use the kind of pages which are punched to fit into dustproof archival binders. They remain there until ready to be printed. When you withdraw a strip of negatives from a plastic page, pull slowly to minimize the build-up of static. Return the negatives to the binder when you're done printing.

If you follow every bit of this advice to the letter—you'll still have dust problems! Dust seems almost impossible to eradicate altogether. But at least you'll minimize your problems and be one step closer to producing top-quality photographs.

NOTE: The Zerostat anti-static gun is still available! See


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