When Disaster Strikes

In the field, things can happen that will leave you unable to photograph. Cameras dropped from a height. Cameras dipped in salt water. Bears. Or maybe you’re trying to protect your camera from a fall or a dipping (or bears) and end up breaking something on you instead.

While these occurrences are rare, things can and do go wrong in the field; things that will make you panic and swear at your camera. You may even have a mysterious camera death on your hands. But the overwhelming majority of apparent camera disasters aren’t really disastrous at all. Usually it’s nothing more than a switch improperly switched or a setting improperly set.

So to help quell that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach whenever the camera isn’t working like you’d expect, here’s a list of symptoms and possible cures to check out before a panicked trip to the repair shop.

When the camera won't fire

This is probably the most common problem I see at workshops and it can have several causes. So here are a few things to check.

  • Check the auto focus setting on the camera body. On most cameras, when you’ve set the auto focus for Single Servo, or S Mode, something has to be in focus before the shutter can be tripped. This is called focus priority. If the active AF point isn’t over something in focus (say you’ve focused on a subject and then moved the composition) and the camera is in the S AF mode, then the shutter may not fire.
    Simple solution: put the camera in Manual Focus mode. Also be sure to read up in your manual about custom settings for auto focus modes.
  • Are you using a remote cable release? There are a couple of possibilities here. First, is it plugged in all the way? If the remote release isn’t working but the shutter release is, then the cable release may not be completely plugged in.
    If the cable release is plugged in and you can’t fire the camera, check to see if the release is in the locked mode. There is usually a slider on the release that holds it in the closed (activated) position. Unlock it and try again. (If you’ve set the motor drive to continuous, the camera will just keep firing until the buffer is filled or you run out of film.)
  • Is the camera turned on? (Maybe this should be number one…)
  • Check your memory card. Is it full? Is there one in the camera?
  • Check your batteries. A low battery can prevent the shutter from firing.
  • Is the self-timer set? On some cameras it can be easy to inadvertently engage the self timer. If it happens to be set for 10 or 20 seconds or more it may seem as if the camera isn’t working at all.
  • Is mirror lock up set? On many cameras, when mirror lock up is chosen, you need to press the shutter button once to lock up the mirror and again to take the picture (you really should be using a cable release here—it’s one of those image quality things). If you have mirror lock up activated and only hit the shutter release once it will seem as if the camera isn’t working right.
  • Do you get any error codes on the camera? Try taking the batteries out and reinstalling.
  • Are you using a vertical grip/battery pack? Check the contacts and clean and reseat if necessary.

When auto focus isn’t working right or at all

This is probably the second most common problem.

  • If AF isn’t working at all be sure to first check all the settings on the camera and lens. Are you even in AF mode on the camera? Is the switch on the lens set to AF?
  • Still no AF? Try cleaning the contacts on the lens. The best thing to use is a lint free cloth and isopropyl alcohol. Not many of us carry those items with us in the field. I’ll often us a lens cloth or my shirt.
    [Note: some cameras (cough, cough, Canon, cough) seem to be more susceptible to moist conditions than others. If it’s rainy or even foggy, moisture can get on the lens contacts and affect functionality of the lens.]
  • Check to see if the lens is properly seated on the mount. Take it off and put it on again, making sure it mounts all the way and you hear the click.
  • If AF is sort of working, that is, the lens is focusing on some things. Check to see if your lens has a limit switch. If it’s in the “on” position this will limit the range of auto focusing. It’s there to improve AF speed when you know the subject is going to be a certain distance away. Basically, it keeps the lens from having to search through its entire range to obtain focus. But if accidentally set, this feature can also keep the lens from focusing where you need it. This happens a lot because it’s usually pretty easy to move the switch by taking the lens in and out of the camera pack.
  • Are you too close to the subject? All lenses have a minimum focusing distance. Inside of that the lens won’t focus.
  • Do you have an extension tube on? Extension tubes allow you to focus closer but at the expense of distance focusing.
  • Check batteries. Low batteries can hinder AF performance.

Miscellaneous confusions and conundrums

  • Can’t adjust the aperture (or shutter). On Canon cameras make sure that the camera is not only on, but that the on/off switch is in the upper position that activates the Quick Control Dial (what I call the “On with Benefits” setting). That allows you to make settings adjustments.
  • Meter isn’t showing in viewfinder. Check your metering mode. On some cameras, when you’re in an auto exposure mode the analog meter in the viewfinder won’t show. You may need to go to manual exposure mode.
  • Can’t make the analog meter change. This usually appears to happen when the meter is pegged to either side: under or over exposed. You need to make sure you’re making your setting corrections in the right direction. Let’s say the meter is pegged on the under exposed side (meaning it’s showing you’re underexposed by more than two or three stops). If you change the shutter to faster and faster speeds then you’re just increasing the under exposure and you won’t see the meter move. Move the dial the other way until you get movement in the analog meter.

Those are the main mysterious maladies I encounter on workshops. I’m sure there are more. The thing to remember is that the vast majority of seemingly disastrous problems actually aren’t. They usually can be attributed to pilot error, an accidentally flipped switch, or a low battery.

Feel better now?

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