Repair: Fungus Cleaning

Hello, everybody! I was a bit busy with a wedding yesterday (photographer#2) so I did not have the time to prepare for a full lens teardown post so I decide to write something else instead this time. It also dawned to me that in order to keep this blog alive, I should not post a lens teardown every week because I will quickly run out of lenses to write about! A balance has to be struck so I will write filler posts like these in between the teardown posts so I hope that you don’t mind.

I will promise that I will make these filler posts as educational as possible and with the same standards as my teardown posts so that you, my readers will not get bored reading my blog. Nikon has made a lot of lenses but I can only afford a few to feature on the blog.

I have some people ask me about how to remove fungus from a lens. This is also a niche topic that is not commonly discussed and even if you found one on the internet or other media, the information that is being presented is usually sparse and scattered all over the net so you will have to hunt for them and decide which one works and which one doesn’t. For this reason, I will share to you my fungus removal routine. This is something that I have been doing to any lens that I bought that has fungus in it. It has worked so far and the lenses stay clean and clear. Let’s start!

Introduction:

IMG_2208.JPG

Fungus in a lens is something that all photographers try to avoid as much as possible. This is something that is impossible to avoid because the tiny fungal spores responsible for this is everywhere, from the air we breath to every surface that we touch. The only measure to prevent this from ever happening is not to provide the spores any chance to germinate at all by depriving them of nutrients and other variable essential for them to thrive.

These fungus spores are microscopic so what you are seeing are it’s tendrils. The tendrils spread out to gather nutrients back to fungal growth and when the source of the nutrients are exhausted the fungus dies, leaving behind the etchings made by the tendrils. When the fungus has not exhausted the nutrient source before it expires, it is going to spore the next generation of fungi and so the cycle goes on.

Factors that promote fungal growth are:

  • Lack of direct sunlight.
  • A source of nutrients.
  • Humidity.

Sources of nutrients can come from a multitude of sources, from the minerals used to on the lens to contaminants like finger print, dead organic material and organic fibres. These are difficult to avoid and some may even come with the lens itself. Trying to prevent these foreign objects from settling inside your lens is futile. While we are on the topic, it is also very important to mention that different species of fungus will thrive on different sources of nutrition so what you are seeing might be a mix of multiple species fungi/mould.

Humidity is also something that is difficult to avoid because one way to get humidity and other foreign contaminants into your lens is by cleaning it. By rubbing the lens surface or blowing air to it’s surface, you are leaving behind nutrients and humidity on the surface and if the burst of air (psi) is strong enough, you may deposit these things further into the corners of the lens and into the inner parts of it. Zooming in and out also pumps air in and out of a lens and this is also unavoidable.

Finally, storing your lens inside a dark box or cabinet for a long period of time without any preventative measures will give the fungus a great environment to thrive because the light from the sun and the radiation that comes with it kills fungi.

Specimen:

I will now show you some of the worst cases of lens fungus that I have personally handled and fixed. These are disgusting and I would never buy anything like this unless they sold it really cheap for people to fix or for parts.

Damage like this does not occur overnight as far as I know and these specimens are more indicating that these lenses were left in a dark and damp place over a period of months to years (even decades) as far as the climate of Eastern Japan is concerned.

IMG_2183Check this Zoom-Nikkor 43-86mm f/3.5 Ai out, this is probably the worst lens that I ever took apart. Not only were the lens elements heavily infested with fungal growth but some of the metal parts were also affected by it.

IMG_2195It seems that the ones that affected the metal parts were feeding off from the lubricant. Thankfully, the fungal growth did not leave any permanent damage to the lens or coatings (nothing major, at least).

IMG_2382I got this Auto-Nikkor-Q 200mm f/4 for the price of 3 cans of Coke! This lens was heavily infested with fungal growth but as you can see in this blog post, the damage was repaired and the lens never looked as good as this for many years.

Having shown you these two cases, I will tell you that there is still hope for these lenses as you will see later. Luckily, the fungi have not etched the surface and left any damage that is deep enough for my fingernails to feel. If that is the case then it might affect the optical performance of these lenses.

Prevention:

You can prevent any fungus from germinating and ruining your lens by depriving it of the things that it needs to grow.

  • Always store your lenses in a dry box or dry cabinet and make sure that the humidity is very low when you check the hygrometer.
  • Avoid using canned air to blow your front or rear lens elements because this is strong enough to send contaminants inside of your lens. A good generic bulb blower is more than adequate so long as the pressure (psi) is strong enough. Canned air is also not a good choice in the long run since it is a consumable, it’s just additional cost.
  • After shooting outside in the rain or any harsh wet environment like the sea, be sure to dry your setup up properly before you store it. Wipe the excess moisture with a dry clean towel and leave it on a zip-lock bag with plenty of desiccant like silica gel.
  • Make sure that your desiccant (silica gel) is dry or charged. Leaving several bags of retardants is also a good idea. Here in Japan, α-Bromocinnamaldehyde can be easily bought from camera stores and it is a known fungal growth retardant. Just refill or buy new ones every year, they are cheap anyway.
  • make sure that you use your lenses from time to time in great sunny weather, take it for a walk. The sun’s radiation is powerful and will help prevent it from growing.

IMG_2236.JPGAlpha bromo cinnamic aldehyde(α-Bromocinnamaldehyde) is effective for preventing fungus from going out of control and they are cheap,too. Contrary to what is printed on the packets (fungicide), these things will not kill fungi, they only keep their growth in check.

15993621946_9a224b906f_zHere is an example of a lens that was blown directly with canned air. This is my best 50mm lens, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART lens. The lens is not sold as a  weather sealed lens, but I do expect more from Sigma. They could have simply applied some glue or sealant to seal the front element like what Tamron did on the 70-300 VC lens. The moisture that you see came from my lens cleaning solution by the way so it’s just alcohol.

Repair Tools:

You do not need any specialised equipment to clean fungus from your lens. Most if not all of the items that you need can be bought from the pharmacy and your local camera store and they are relatively cheap as well.

Cleaning fungus form your lens is easy but you will need to be experienced or comfortable enough at opening lenses because in order to get to the deepest of the lens elements, you need to be able to dismantle the lens to access some of them.

Cleaning solution. The one that I use is an equal mix of ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and sometimes when I feel like it, a strong and concentrated vinegar. These are all known to kill fungi. These are used to treat dogs with fungal infection on the skin to your own case of athlete’s foot! These will melt fungi with ease and help prevent them from returning. (pictures from Yodobashi Camera)

WARNING: As with all chemicals, use common sense when handling and mixing them as this is a very potent mix! If you have athlete’s foot this will cure it in one application! I will not be held responsible for anything that will happen to you. Always use protection when handling them and work in a well ventilated place. Exercise caution!

IMG_2631Lens Tissue. These are different from your usual Kleenex tissues in that it has not a lot of lint and this will not tear. These tissues are also soft and will not abrade with the surface of your lens elements.

These are also great for wet cleaning of general camera parts, just put a couple of drops of lighter fluid or denatured alcohol on it and use it to wipe away oil and dirt from any hard surfaces like metal and plastic.

Always remember NEVER to use a tissue that has been used to wipe a dirty surface and use it for your lens elements. Always use a clean tissue to wipe your lens element!

IMG_2635Lens cleaning fluid. These are basically just some kind of alcohol and other solvents mixed with distilled water and sold at a high price. These are great for cleaning fingerprints and other stuff off from your lens elements because they evaporate really quick and will never leave a puddle unless you use too much of it.

A good alternative to this is to just use your breath to fog up your lens’ surface and wipe it off before it evaporates. While this will work and has served many people well, I would not use it if I have a bottle of fluid available. Your breath is basically just water vapour but you might contaminate the lens with your spittle and that tiny droplet of your spittle is a good enough source of nutrients for fungus to germinate and thrive.

IMG_2632Latex gloves. Use these on one of your hands when you are cleaning your lens elements so that you will not contaminate them with your finger oils or leave a finger print. These are also great for protecting yourself from the chemicals that you are going to use for fungus removal as some people might be allergic or sensitive to them.

IMG_2633Lens cloth/chamois. Use these for the wiping the lens elements before you install them on the lens so that it will wipe away/absorb any left over oils and dirt. Never use these to wipe anything else and keep them clean. I always store them inside a zip lock bag to keep them as clean as possible.

IMG_2636Bulb blower. Go ahead and buy the expensive ones, you only need to buy it once anyway. A good one will not only give you a more powerful burst of air each time you squeeze it, it is also going to be one of your best investments since these usually last a lifetime and even the cheap ones will last a long time even with regular use.

IMG_2637Cotton buds. These are used for cleaning inaccessible corners of the lens elements such as when it is glued inside a deep metal barrel. Using your fingers to clean these parts can be a an annoying task but with these things, you can clean those hard to reach parts easily.

I use the regular ones that are being sold over-the-counter but I make sure that the cotton is thick enough so that the plastic handle will not scratch the glass when I use them. This is important because the handle will sometimes poke thru when the cotton is wet.

I used to buy the special ones that are made specifically for cleaning precision devices like cameras and binoculars. These come with pointed ends and the handles and tips are made of paper. These are a bit expensive and I find that wrapping a toothpick with a clean sheet of lens cleaning paper is just as good.

IMG_2638Solvent. This one in the picture is a blend of methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and acetone. This one came in a branded bottle so it’s a bit pricey but I have no choice since this is the only option available to me here in Tokyo.

I use this to soften up any adhesives or thread-locks that Nikon has used to secure their lens elements. Adhesives are used to lock the threads of any retention ring, collar and the like so that the lens elements are securely mounted in place. If the ring won’t budge the first time you try to unscrew it, put a drop of solvent into the threads and let the capillary force spread the fluid into the rest of the thread. Do not drown it with solvent as you might soak more things than you originally intended to and that is dangerous!

I used to borrow my wife’s nail polish remover (acetone) but somebody recommended that I use MEK instead because it is more potent that acetone. Back in my home country, I could buy chloroform, benzine and other stronger stuff.

IMG_2634Lamp. I use this lamp to illuminate the surfaces that I am working on. The lamp that you see in the picture is special in that it has a loupe built in with the lamp housing. Any lamp will do so long as it is bright enough.

If you do not have a lamp, a bright LED torch is also great in fact it shows anything on the surface of the lens elements better since LED torches emit concentrated cones of light.

Before We Begin:

If this is the first attempt at opening a lens then I suggest that you read my previous posts regarding screws & driversgrease and other things. Also read regarding the tools that you will need in order to fix your Nikkors.

I highly suggest that you read these primers before you begin (for beginners):

Reading these primers should lessen the chance of ruining your lens if you are a beginner. Also before opening up any lens, always look for other people who have done so in Youtube and the internet. Information is scarce, vague and scattered (that is why I started this) but you can still find some information if you search carefully.

Repair Procedure:

First, work in a dry, ventilated and dust free place. The fumes alone can make some people sick but good thing for me, I am used to the scents and fumes of a workshop. Growing up in a watch repair shop and having scale modelling as a hobby and job has it’s merits,too!

Always work with a clean and dry towel underneath what you are doing. This will prevent any serious damage to the lens elements when you accidentally drop one. I personally use kitchen towels so that I can use it to wipe the table off and discard them.

This section will not have pictures in it since it is difficult to take pictures of the steps when both or your hands are occupied. The steps are easy enough to illustrate without pictures anyway so it should be fine if you just pay attention.

  1. Remove the affected elements and store them in a safe place. Be sure to mark which direction the element should face. I usually mark the front edge of a lens so that I will know which face should face forward later on when I re-assemble them. I use a soft pencil for this since it can erased by your thumb easily. A simple dot from a Sharpie is also good.

  2. Blow away any debris from the surface of the lens using your lens blower. Be sure not to leave anything hard like sand or bits of paint because wiping the lens with those in it will scratch the coatings of your lens, leaving swirl marks.

  3. Prepare your solution and soak the lens elements in it for a few minutes to half an hour or until the fungus softens enough for you to simply wipe it clear from the lens. Most of the time, the fungus can simply be wiped off without the need to soak it but soaking the lens in the solution makes sure that you give the solution some time to work and kill whatever is in there. Be careful not to leave any lenses with compound elements (glued elements) in the solution for too long. The solution will eat away at the glass cement (Canadian balsam) and this will give you even more trouble and will be impossible to fix economically.

  4. Remove each element at a time and place them on top of a clean kitchen towel. Wipe each one of them using a clean lens tissue while it is still wet with the solution. The fungus should lift away easily. If it is still there, soak it again until it is soft enough. I rarely need to soak it for more than 1o minutes so take this as a clue.

  5. Always wipe in a circular motion while applying gentle pressure against the lens and never wipe a lens’ surface with dry lens tissue. Always use a different part or corner of the tissue so you always use a clean part to wipe the lens

  6. Once the lens element is clear from any visible fungus marks, use a blower to blast away excess moisture. You may also want to wear a glove on one of your hands so that you will not leave any finger oils as you handle each lens element.

  7. Get a fresh lens tissue and place a drop of lens cleaning fluid on one of the corners. Be sure not to put too much of it, you only want a moist tissue and not something that is dripping wet. Wipe the surfaces of the lens elements with a circular motion until it is clean and clear. The lens cleaning fluid will dry up really quick so wipe it fast so that it will not leave any marks as it evaporates.

  8. Get your lens cloth/chamois and wipe each surface of the lens elements so that it is free from lint and oil. Carefully inspect each surface under the lamp or shine a bright LED light under it to see if you have left any fibres on it. It is important not to leave any big fibres or lint. Do not take too much time as there will be times when you will leave small debris on the surface that is too small to see with the naked eye without using a LED light. It is unavoidable and even new lenses will have them sometimes.

  9. Carefully mount it to where it should be. Take care not to scratch or chip the corners of the lens elements while doing so. When the lens element is secure, blow it some more with your bulb blower and make sure that you do not leave anything there that is big enough to see with your naked eyes under the lamp. Set the assembly aside and cover it with a clean plastic card.

  10. Repeat the steps until you have completely reassembled your lens’ objective.

It is also important to note that you should also clean the parts where the lens elements are mounted to so that you are sure that you have cleaned and removed whatever you can before you seal the lens for good. What I do is I wipe it of with the same solution that I use to soak and clean the lens elements with. You can also prepare a solution specially for it and soak them in a separate container.

From my Dear Readers:

This section is where I put what some of my readers have to say on the topic.

This is from a certain “Andrea B.”:

Disinfection, Sterilization and Preservation, 5th Edition, 2001
edited by Seymour Stanton Block
published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

See:  Page 1076, Figure 54.4 Microorganisms ranked according to their relative susceptibility to chemical disinfectants.

There are 5 susceptibility levels: highly susceptible, susceptible, resistant, highly resistant and extremely resistant.

Fortunately for us, fungal spores are listed as Susceptible to the following disinfectants: some alcohols, aldehydes, biguanides, ethylene oxide, halogens, peroxygen compounds, some phenols.

Now, Mr. “Toby F.” has this to say:

I’ve had good luck with Hydrogen peroxide. I’ve also used 50/50 water/bleach.  Always make sure to clean well with water the final clean with 99% isopropyl alcohol to get rid of whatever you use..

From the comment box, “Lloyd” is concerned that MEK is too strong a solvent.

Conclusion:

Cleaning lens fungus is a chore and is something that I would avoid if I can. The only cases where buying a lens with fungus is acceptable for me is when it is being sold dirt cheap and if the lens has no scratches on the coating or cleaning marks. This gives me the chance to own these lenses while paying a fraction of the price. I can even sell them for 2x the profit if I wanted to.

IMG_2235.JPGThis lens has no trace of any fungus problem now. The fogging that you see on the middle element is a result of trapped moisture and it was gone after a few hours. Seeing this result is scary because you will never know if a lens was cleaned before you bought it! Just look at the picture in the introduction and you see get what I mean.

IMG_2427.JPGThe Auto-Nikkor-Q 200mm f/4‘s glass elements look really clean as if the fungus problem was never even there! I was lucky that the fungus did not leave anything that is too deep to feel with my fingernails.

I hope that you have learned from this blog post so that you can start removing any fungus from your lens. Even if you do not have anything to clean, knowing how to clean it before it happens is a good thing since it will arm you with enough knowledge to judge wether a lens is a fixable case or not.

Please enjoy the coming week and as always, if you benefitted or learned something from this post please feel free to share this. Love, Ric.

Help Support this Blog:

Maintaining this blog requires money to operate. If you think that this site has helped you or you want to show your support by helping with the upkeep of this site, you can simple make a small donation to my paypal.com account (richardHaw888@gmail.com). Money is not my prime motivation for this blog and I believe that I have enough to run this but you can help me make this site (and the companion facebook page) grow.

Helping support this site will ensure that this will be kept going as long as I have the time and energy for this. I would appreciate it if you just leave out your name or details like your country and other information so that the donations will totally be anonymous it is at all possible. This is a labor of love and I intend to keep it that way for as long as I can. Ric.

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62 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lloydy53
    Mar 27, 2016 @ 17:34:28

    Excellent article, but I would make a couple of points. MEK is a very potent solvent, it’s used to dissolve the surface of certain plastics when they are glued together, and it will dissolve many paint finishes. It will certainly dissolve the thread lock adhesives, but neat MEK could do damage to the materials and paint finish. Acetone is much less likely to do any damage, and in my experience is strong enough to dissolve thread lock.
    Another safe product for removing fungus is cold cream, the stuff ladies use for cleaning cosmetics from their skin. I apply a layer on the affected lens, let it sit for maybe 30 minutes, then wash it off with a light soap + water. If it needs cleaning after I use the cleaning fluid as you recommend. The cold cream is non solvent and I use it as the first try to remove fungus just incase a solvent damages the lens coatings.

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Mar 28, 2016 @ 00:13:48

      Hi!!! Thanks for dropping by. Yes, MEK is sometimes too aggressive! it works a lot faster than acetone which I like. the one that you see in the blog is a mix of acetone and MEK so it’s a bit gentler. i used chloroform before. that thing is dangerous. i used it as plastic cement and overall solvent.

      Reply

  2. T. Davies-Patrick
    Mar 28, 2016 @ 19:22:45

    Very informative article, Rick.
    Best regards
    Tony
    http://www.GLOBETROTTER.CO

    Reply

  3. Ron V.
    Mar 30, 2016 @ 22:32:03

    Another superb source of info.
    Thanks Rick.

    Reply

  4. drarsalansaeed
    Apr 30, 2016 @ 12:56:04

    Excellent article. In fact your whole site is brilliant and much needed. I had been looking for something like this last year but could not find this detailed information online.

    Question: I have a eseries 100mm f2.8 lens. I have opened it a number of times. It has got some fungus/haze inside the backside of front element. However the inner side is a sealed block. Can you guide how to open that sealed block?

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Apr 30, 2016 @ 14:39:48

      Thanks!!! I am thinking of overhauling a 100mm but i still cannot find a cheap specimen from the junk boxes. many of the E lenses have sealed elements like the case of the 70-210E where copious amounts of rubber cement was used to entomb the front element. i have removed a lot of the rubber cement but i still cannot unthread the thing!

      Reply

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  38. Norman Vickers
    Jan 07, 2017 @ 19:58:54

    Hi
    Can I comment on the fungus removal chemicals etc. Just about everyone on the Net gets carried away with vile brews for cleaning. Which seems OK but really only applies to porous materials e.g. wood, bricks & plaster but definitely NOT for totally impervious glass. Even when fungus causes damage it remains superficial and can be removed easily and completely with a strong solution of washing up liquid. This also the perfect degreaser!

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Jan 14, 2017 @ 14:08:41

      Hello, Norman! Sorry for the late reply. Some people just use naphta or alcohol for that. Ric.

      Reply

      • Norman Vickers
        Jan 17, 2017 @ 22:24:07

        As do I as the need arises, I was a bit sceptical until I tried it but it works a treat. Your fingers/rubber gloves are totally degreased at the same time so no problems with fingerprints and it seems to cut down on dust (and static?). I just make up a solution in a bowl and rub the surfaces with my fingers, rinse, dry, a puff of air and drop back in the lens – job done!
        If you haven’t tried it its well worth a go!

        Brilliant site by the way some money on its way.

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  40. Paul
    Jan 25, 2017 @ 11:27:08

    Hi,
    Need to help to understand that whether i can dip a fungus infected glued lens element in 50-50 hydrogen peroxide and ammonia solution? Fungus has grown inside the two glued elements.
    Thanks

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Jan 25, 2017 @ 11:33:48

      Hello,Paul!
      Thanks for asking that. If the fungus is in between the elemwnts and is embedded in the glue then I would not risk it because it may dissolve the glue. I personally haven’t tried this but this sounds scary enough! Best is to kill the fungus by sunlight but do not get the elememts too warm because the glue (canada balsam) is a resin of some kind and it is known to fail when heated. Ric.

      Reply

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  43. Nassim
    Feb 28, 2017 @ 23:36:43

    Excellent article I have also a 50mm sigma art and I have the same problem I dont know hwo i can take off the front element to clean it I really love this lens it’s my favorite one .

    Reply

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  45. Peter
    Mar 09, 2017 @ 00:20:40

    I have a Nikon 300mm f4ed lens with fungus in the front glass is this a sealed unit and can it be opened.

    Reply

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