Troubleshooting your digital point-and-shoot camera

What to do when your camera craps out

There you are, on the vacation of a lifetime with an incredible view before you and BOOM, your camera decides to have an attitude problem.  Here are ten common digital camera breakdowns and how you should handle them.

Photo Illustration by Mark Lent


Camera breakdowns happen at the most inopportune times, and are never convenient. The good news though is that many of the issues that you encounter can either be fixed by you on-the-spot, or by a knowledgeable technician. The trick in these situations is to recognize your limits and know when to let the camera repair pros step in. And while every incident is unique, the following are some common situations that you may encounter if your camera malfunctions and some first aid tips you can try before boxing it up for a factory repair:


1. Non-functioning camera

You’ve recharged your battery and your camera is still unresponsive. There are several physical items that could cause this situation. When trouble shooting, the first rule is to always check the physical parts of the camera. No power can mean a faulty battery, a battery without power, a faulty charger, or dirty contacts.
•    Try replacing the battery with a known good battery. Some cameras allow you to use regular “AA” batteries. Put in a fresh set of alkaline batteries to see if they power the camera. If they don’t, take them out and use the eraser from a standard pencil and “erase” the metal contacts on the battery and in the camera to clean them and ensure that a layer of buildup hasn’t prevented good electrical contact between the camera and the battery.
•    If the known good battery works, have a battery shop check both the charger and your battery to ensure that they are working properly. Either should be replaced if the battery technician finds them defective.
•    If these fixes still don’t solve the power issue, try engaging the “reset” button located on the camera. Check your user’s manual for the exact location of the reset button, which differs from camera model to camera model. If the camera is turned on, off and on again in a quick sequence, it can often “jam” the camera’s electronics and will require a reset. If you need to turn the camera off, wait a few seconds in between each of these operations to ensure your camera doesn’t go into a protected mode.  If all of these fail, it’s time to call in the factory-trained tech.

2. Your camera goes swimming

Perhaps one of the most horrific things to witness is your camera taking the plunge into a pool, lake or ocean. If you are able to safely recover the equipment, the first thing you should do is take the memory card and battery out of the camera, says J.D. Warmack, a repair technician with the Department of Defense Information School in Ft. Meade, Maryland. Warmack has over 30 years of experience repairing both military and traditional camera equipment for the DoD and Navy and advises “If you dropped it in saltwater, submerge it in fresh water and get it to a competent repair shop as soon as possible”. 

By using fresh water, you cut down the amount of corrosion introduced into the metallic and electrical parts of the camera from the salt water. The fresh water also insulates the metal gearing from rusting as well. Warmack also explained that while repairs to the camera are an option, the cost is significant and will often match or exceed the price of replacing the camera.

3. The zoom lens is jammed

Often, when a compact digital camera’s power is turned on, the lens uncovers and telescopes outward. The lens can become “stuck” when the camera powers down, or is dropped and damaged. The obvious solution would seem to be gently “helping” the lens back into the camera by pushing downward on the lens itself. This is often the worst thing that can be done and will inflict more damage to the lens.

If the power on the camera works, try engaging the reset to bring the camera back to factory settings. Often, the lens will retract afterward. If the camera has been dropped, chances are that there is physical damage to the lens assembly and should be checked by a qualified technician. The cost of replacing a broken lens assembly might be more than the cost of a new camera, though.

4. Ensuring your sensor is working correctly

Bad chips will often produce images that have a pronounced other-worldly appearance, with a pinkish cast or contrasting stripes over the entire photo. Checking the CCD can be tricky because the defects will show in the still photos made with the camera, but you may shoot excellent video that has full color and clarity. Because video resolution is generally far less than traditional photographs, it will sometimes mask the full defects of the chip.

To check the chip, make a photo of a mid-toned area that will cover the entire frame of the image—a standard blue sky is ideal for this. Look at the image under high magnification on a computer monitor and note any “hot” or “dead” pixels. Hot pixels are very bright, and dead pixels are black. Manufacturers allow for a certain number of these on a chip, so if you see a few, it’s probably not a problem. If you see hundreds, the camera will need to be repaired by—you guessed it, a qualified technician.

Hot weather can also affect chip performance, and if you’re camera has been left in a hot automobile for an extended period of time, the chip may require some cooling time before it returns to a normal image quality.

If you are shooting with a DSLR and shoot the blue sky, you will notice black spots that show themselves consistently on every frame. These are dust spots that have work their way onto the sensor when the camera lens is being changed. Read Clean It Up!, Bob Atkins’ guide to cleaning your DSLR’s sensor. If you’re still not confident in your abilities, send the camera to a qualified technician for periodic sensor cleaning.

5. If the LCD is cracked or not working

Try resetting the camera if the screen is not physically damaged. Replacing the LCD screen is the only way to fix a broken LCD screen on a digital compact or DSLR camera. Changing this component out is not for the faint of heart, and should only be performed by a qualified technician.

6. Long shutter delays

With compact digital cameras, this can be a common occurrence. Unlike DSLR cameras, compacts have fewer chips for processing the various functions that the camera performs during the picture taking process. Other situations that can cause a lag in shooting efficiency can be the use of red eye reduction modes as well as focus and lighting situations. The camera requires two flash exposures during red eye reduction, slowing down the exposure that records the image.

Inaccurate camera focus can also cause delays in exposure while the camera searches for the focus point. This is generally caused by lack of contrasting objects within the focus area or light levels that are too low for the camera to accurately focus. Taking the camera off red eye reduction mode can help speed up shutter response and holding the shutter release button down slightly will keep the chip “hot” for the exposure. Holding the shutter release button down also pre-focuses the camera, which  should also help improve shutter release performance.


Read: "Features to look for when buying a compact digital camera"


7. No image made when shutter release is pressed

Like power issues, there are many different situations that can cause a camera to not make an image when the shutter release is depressed. Physical items should be checked first- check the shutter button and make sure that small debris hasn’t worked its way into the area between the button and the camera body. If this area is clear, one of these may be the culprit:

•    Flash is not fully recharged (wait a moment, try again)
•    Camera is still writing the file(s) (same as above)
•    Shooting in macro mode in non-macro situations (check your macro)
•    Memory card/internal memory that has reached capacity (see how many shots are left on your card, if any)

If the camera continues to be inoperable, depress the reset button on the camera or have a qualified technician check the camera.

8. Blurry images

If your images are consistently blurred, chances are that it’s more technique than a problem with the camera. A sure-fire test is to place the camera on a tripod and shoot a high-detail, stationary object. Make your image and examine it closely. If the blur is still apparent, you may have an issue with the lens, shutter or chip and a qualified technician should examine the camera. If the image is sharp and in focus, think about your lighting situations and shooting technique:

•    Shoot a camera as you would a gun- inhale, aim, and squeeze the shot off while exhaling.
•    Pay particular attention to light levels. If your camera shows you a hand with motion lines icon, it means that the shutter speed is too slow for a sharp, hand-held image. You can fix this by using more light (room light, flash or sunlight) or raising the ISO.
•    The lens may also be out of focus. Ensure that you aren’t shooting in “macro” mode for average focusing distances or that you’re not too close to the subject when you’re not in macro mode.

Read "Focus With Precision"

9. Image Quality is Lacking- too bright/dark or grainy

Brightness and darkness can be common problems with smaller point and shoot cameras that don’t have the high-powered flash units or the full range of shutter and aperture controls that are available to DSLR camera users. Because the flash is much smaller and less powerful, coverage  distance can be severely reduced. In most cases, using the flash with a camera-to-subject distance of no more than ten feet will yield the best images. If your images are too bright, consider your flash to subject distance and move back.

Grainy images are caused by noise and are mostly due to higher ISO settings and underexposure. In point and shoot cameras, the “gain” on the chip is amped-up to allows higher sensitivity settings, causing more pronounced noise levels. Grain can also be caused by an overheated chip caused by a camera sitting in a hot car for an extended period of time and will go away when it has cooled.

Read "High resolution compacts, low light don't mix"

If you’re shooting available light images, adjust the ISO to a higher setting for very dark scenes and oppositely in bright light. If your camera has manual controls, image brightness can also be adjusted with higher and lower shutter/aperture combinations.

10. Camera not recognized by computer/files won’t transfer

The best way to avoid this is by having a full-time card reader attached to your computer. If this isn’t practical, check:

•    Check all physical connections from the camera to the computer. If you have spare cables, try swapping to these and insure the original cables aren’t faulty. Extra cables and batteries are always a good idea.
•    Reboot the computer. By rebooting, you’re allowing the computer to re-sharpen its’ teeth, and many issues will resolve themselves by rebooting.
•    Try a different USB port. If the camera is recognized by the new port, suspect that the original port is not working properly.
•    Ensure that the camera has adequate power to operate. A power cable is available for most cameras and is recommended if you transfer your files directly from camera to computer.
•    Reinstall the manufacturer’s software or go to “My Computer” (“Computer” in Vista) and look for a camera listing under the “Removable Drives”. If the files show, you can simply copy (CTRL+C) and paste (CTRL+V) to a folder you designate on the hard drive.
•    If all else fails, install the software onto a different computer and attempt to detect the camera after installation. If you fail to detect the camera on the new system, have the camera checked by a qualified technician to ensure that the communications ports on the camera are working correctly.

Many of the situations outlined can be avoided by remembering that cameras are highly complex electronic devices and require delicate care and use to keep them in peak condition. By taking care of your equipment, you will not only get your money’s worth from your purchase, but know you’ll have a camera that performs properly when you’re photographing that amazing scene from that once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

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