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The camera’s broken, Part 1 (03/06/2005)
By Tom Hirsch

At an event of a lifetime, you bring the viewfinder to your eye as you've done hundreds of times before, but this time nothing happens. What should you do? No, slamming the camera to the ground is not the answer.

When the camera fails, the first thing to do is to make a few observations. Does the display panel come on? If yes, on a compact camera, is the lens cover open all the way? If yes, is there film or a digital memory card in the camera? If yes, were you focusing on a part of the subject that has lines or strong texture? If yes, does the low-battery warning signal indicate a weak or exhausted battery?

If the answer to the last question is yes, check the date on the battery. What!?! You didn't date the battery when you put it in the camera? How will you ever know how old it is? In 35mm photography, alkaline batteries will last about a year; a lithium battery could give you three years or more of service. In a digital camera, batteries wear out at a very rapid rate, so a worn out battery is the first thing to consider. The actual length of time for any camera will depend on such things as the number of camera functions, the quality of the battery, how much shooting you do, and how the camera is stored. If you don't know the age of the battery, replace it with the spare that you always carry, and mark the date on it (you do carry a spare battery, don't you?). Have the original battery checked at a later time. If it's good, you can return it to the camera, or use it as the spare.

If you determine that the battery is good and the camera still doesn't work, the problem might be the battery contacts. Remove the battery from the camera and rub the contacts with a rough cloth or pencil eraser. Do the same with the contacts inside the camera, then replace the battery. If the camera works now, fine. If it doesn't, scratch your head.

Next, turn the camera on and off a couple of times. It could be that the switch wasn't quite making contact. Nothing? Okay, if you have a single-lens reflex (SLR), remove the lens and reattach it. Still doesn't work? Then do anything you can think of. This isn't recommended, but a friend of mine bought a new camera, and on the first time out it failed to work. He threw the camera into the air and caught it. The camera functioned perfectly from then on (if you try this, the important thing is to catch the camera).

If all else fails, take it to a camera store, or a shop that specializes in camera repair. The problem could still be something minor, but the possibilities are so varied that it might take a camera expert to track it down.

Alas, there might be no getting around it, the camera is really broken. Should it be repaired? If it's still under warranty, there's no question about it. Check the warranty to find out how this should be handled. Some camera manufacturers will only honor the warranty if the camera is sent to one of their authorized repair stations. This is a legitimate request because these centers are staffed with company-trained people who are familiar with the latest repair equipment and techniques. A list of authorized repair centers usually accompanies the camera at the time of purchase.

If you are instructed to send the camera to a manufacturer's authorized repair shop, use the original box and packaging material, or make sure that the camera is wrapped in plastic and is well packed in shock-absorbing material. Also, be sure to send all requested or pertinent information, such as a copy of the sales slip as proof of purchase, the warranty card, a description of the camera's problem, and your name, mailing address and daytime phone number.

If the camera is not under warranty, whether or not it is wise to have it repaired involves a number of factors. These will be covered next time. 


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