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Nothing is more frustrating in photography than missing the perfect shot because the camera that worked perfectly yesterday suddenly malfunctions. Maybe the camera had a mishap with gravity or water, or maybe the camera came out of it's nice protected case with an unusual error.
Digital camera repair is often costly—and in the case of most point-and-shoots and many smaller models, repair costs more than the camera itself. But, there are a few things you can try before replacing your camera or sending it out for repairs.
Troubleshooting a Camera Lens Error
Lens errors are one of the most common problems with digital cameras, particularly in cameras with barrel style lenses. Typically, a lens error will occur if sand or dust gets trapped inside or if something bumps the lens slightly out of place.
If your camera gives you a lens error message, the first thing to try is to clean out the lens area. Use a can of compressed air (sold at electronics stores for this purpose) to clean out all the pieces, paying particular attention to where the lens retracts and any area where it would be easy for dirt to get stuck in. You can also use a hair dryer set to the no heat setting.
If a good cleaning doesn't work, visually inspect the camera lens. Is it tilted slightly to one side? If a camera gets dropped or bumped or the lens tries to extract with something in front of it, the lens may get tilted and no longer work properly. Fixing a titled lens yourself can cause more damage to the camera—so only try fixing it yourself if the cost of a professional repair is out of the question. Try gently pushing on the extracted lens until it's no longer crooked.
Troubleshooting a Camera Shutter Error
A camera's shutter can sometimes start to stick, either in the open or closed position. A stuck shutter will result in either overexposed images if the shutter stays open too long or black images if it doesn't open at all.
First, make sure the lens surface is clean and that there's nothing getting in the way. Use a lens brush to clean off the glass, then use a can of compressed air around the lens and shutter area.
If a good cleaning doesn't do the trick, try to interrupt the shutter. If your camera has manual modes, use shutter priority or manual to set the shutter speed to bulb or the slowest possible setting. If manual modes aren't an option, use a scene setting that's designed for low light pictures, like fireworks or sunset. Then, take a photo and while the camera is still taking the photo, take the battery out (don't turn the camera off).
If you don't have manual settings, you may need to be rather fast to take the battery out while the picture is being taken. When the shutter is interrupted, it may start to loosen. You may need to repeat this step several times.
Troubleshooting a Camera Battery Error
Battery errors can also spell trouble for a digital camera. Make sure the battery is fully charged, and check the light on the charger to make sure the charger is working. Check the camera's battery contacts and make sure they are clean by wiping with a dry cloth or using a can of compressed air.
Different types of batteries do not handle extreme temperatures well. If the camera wouldn't turn on while out in high or low temps, take the camera inside and try again after a half hour. If the camera seems fine, then the battery just couldn't handle the temperature. If the battery is old, replacing it may help. (Tip: When shooting in freezing temperatures, keep the battery in your pocket, close to your body heat, until you need it).
Often, cameras outlive their batteries. Recharging NiCd and NiMh batteries before they are fully drained will decrease their lifespan. Li-ion batteries, which are the most commonly used in newer camera models, tend to last longer and can be recharged even when only partially drained. If the battery life isn't what it used to be, or the camera won't even power up, try replacing the camera battery.
Troubleshooting an SD Card Error
Sometimes, the error isn't the camera, but within the SD card.
If the pictures won't record to the card or the camera displays a “write error” message, first check to make sure the card isn't locked. SD cards have a small switch on one side to prevent any changes to the content, including adding new photos (it's a useful tool for preventing photos from being accidentally deleted).
Different cameras require a different format on the card, so reformatting the card may also solve the issue. Make sure that all the pictures are off the card first. The “format card” option is usually listed in the menu, though different camera models vary.
Dirt, dust and grime can also cause memory card issues. Make sure the metallic parts on the card are clean my wiping it with a cloth; the microfiber cloths designed to clean camera lenses work best. You can also try using a can of air to blow out the camera's SD card slot to make sure there's nothing preventing a good contact with the card.
SD cards are inexpensive to replace, so try using a new one in the camera. If the photos seem to be recording slow, a more advanced SD card can help speed things up. If the card still contains the only copies of some images, look for a file recovery program online or take it in to a repair shop.
Troubleshooting Camera Software Issues
Sometimes, the actual hardware in the camera is working fine but the software has a bug. First, try restoring the camera to the factory settings (this option is often found in the menu, but different models vary). If that doesn't fix the issue, download the latest software update. Google “firmware updates” for your camera model. Updating the software is usually simple and involves adding a file to an SD card, then using a few menu commands from the camera. The firmware update should be accompanied with instructions.
Fixing a Wet Camera
Camera mishaps with water or other liquids are common. Depending on how much water gets inside, the camera may or may not be salvaged. First, do not turn it on. Wait at least a week to let it dry out. Open any compartments (like the battery compartment) and leave it alone. As tempting as it is to see if the camera still works, turning it on before it dries out could fry the electrical components if they were not already damaged. If the camera was doused with salt water or another liquid, wipe the camera and any compartments clean. After the camera is dry, then turn it on to assess the damage. The camera may need new batteries and an SD card.
Troubleshooting: When to Buy New
Unfortunately, not every common camera mishap is a do-it-yourself job. Some shops offer camera repair, but it is typically very expensive. In many cases, buying a new camera is a better option. Buying refurbished or the previous year's model can help you save money when upgrading. Here are a few of the scenarios where upgrading is the best option:
- When repair is more expensive than replacing. If your point-and-shoot camera is broken, chances are, fixing it will cost around the same as a replacement. Call a repair shop to be sure, but unfortunately, this is the case more often than not. More expensive cameras, like DSLRs, may be worth the repair costs, but the reality is that inexpensive cameras are seldom worth the repair fees.
- When there's an issue with the sensor. Sensor problems are difficult and expensive to fix. Again, find an estimate to be sure, but replacement is usually the best option.
- When the camera is old. If you are still shooting with a camera that has megapixels in the single digits and there's an issue with the camera, the best bet is to upgrade. Old digital cameras aren't worth much, and sometimes even the cost of a new battery is worth more than the camera itself. Digital cameras have come a long way in the last five years, you may be surprised by the improvement in quality, even with an inexpensive point-and-shoot.
Camera malfunctions are frustrating—but some of them can be fixed easily. Often, cleaning out the camera solves the issue. Other times though, the repair costs are more expensive than the camera itself and the best option is to purchase a new or refurbished model.