Fast Fixes

In his decades running a premier photo retailer in Southern California, Mark Comon has been a counselor, an advisor and chief troubleshooter for customers. He shares two of the most common problems he has heard and the fixes that take care of them.

In his years behind the counter at Paul’s Photo, Mark Comon has seen and heard it all. Among the most common problems he has helped customers trouble shoot have been issues of autofocus malfunctions and exposure difficulties. Here are some of his quick fixes.


1) Be sure the camera’s autofocus is turned on.

2) Double-check the mode dial to get the right exposure.

When you work behind the counter in a camera store for 35 years like I have, you see and hear virtually everything. I’ve seen pictures from engagements and weddings, births and baptisms, vacations and holidays. I get to know my customers through their pictures. I also see the failures with photography that can ruin a trip or cause family squabbles. In fact, behind the counter of a camera store, we often feel like your local bartender because we’re involved with your life and are part of it all.

Every day, photographers come to us for advice about cameras that won’t work and pictures that are disappointing. The two most common problems are: “My camera won’t focus properly,” and “My pictures are too light (or too dark).” Here are simple answers to remedy them. Use this checklist of what I look for when my customers and students have focus and exposure issues.

3) Auto is a good choice for many, but definitely not all, scenes.

“My camera won’t focus.”
Since the introduction of automatic focus in the 1980s, no camera issue has been more vexing or so worrisome for photographers. Try these tips if your camera won’t focus (in this order):

Turn AF on. In the camera menu, on the front of the camera body or on the lens, is a setting for manual or autofocus. Some SLRs have a switch on the front of the camera (M = manual C = continuous AF-S = single AF) or a “slider” on the lens (AF or MF). These switches easily can be bumped. I recommend flipping the camera and/or lens to Manual focus, turning the lens focus ring manually and then re-engaging the autofocus. Remember to check both switches if you have both!

Reset the lens. On SLR cameras, quite often the lens isn’t “clicked in.” Simply remove the lens and reattach it to the camera, verifying the audible click. Check to be sure the AF-MF switch didn’t get bumped.

4) and 5) Gently clean the electronic contacts to be sure your lens and camera are communicating with one another.

Clean the electrical contacts. Modern AF SLRs have a buss connector that relays data from the camera to the lens. Finger oil, dust or oxidation can spoil the electrical connection and disable the AF functions. Remove the lens from the camera. On the back of the lens and front of the camera are a number of silver- or bronze-colored electrical contacts. Using a clean microfiber cloth, gently wipe the contact points on the lens and in the camera. One quick swipe generally will do it. Also, don’t scrub or grind the contacts or use solvents or contact cleaners on your camera. Only attempt cleaning the contacts in a clean environment (not at the beach)—and only if you’re somewhat mechanically competent and can follow instructions! If you don’t have the skill or confidence, take your camera to your local camera store.

Adjust the focus points. Most SLR and pocket cameras today come out of the box with the camera automatically selecting where to focus in the frame. The cameras use sophisticated algorithms that look for faces, smiles, distance, and closest and largest items to determine on which “point” to focus. When the camera finds this, it illuminates a square or box (red, green or black) on the subject. With moving subjects, low-light pictures or complicated scenes where the camera can’t decide, it often gives up and won’t focus, or slows to a painful pace that’s quite frustrating.

To eliminate these frustrations, I often recommend the photographer to select the focus point. This assures the camera focuses on the subject of your choosing, plus the camera often will focus much quicker and accurately. In the camera’s menu or on the camera, choose to select the focus point. Use the thumb dial or control dial to move the point of focus. Remember, the center AF point on the camera generally is the most accurate, fastest reacting and best in low light.

When images are coming out too light or too dark for a particular scene, try adjusting the exposure compensation. Experiment, and you’ll see the results.

Choose AF mode. SLR cameras offer a choice of Continuous (Servo) or Single AF operation. In Continuous AF, the camera will track moving subjects and shoot when you depress the release button, whether the subject is in focus or not. Single AF mode won’t shoot until the camera is in focus. Single AF won’t track or adjust focus on rapidly moving subjects. In Continuous, the subject may be out of focus if the camera can’t focus fast enough or the focus point is mis-selected. In Single AF, the camera may not shoot if it can’t focus properly.

“My pictures are too light (or too dark).”
No other problem is more frustrating, as the answer always is a combination of technical issues and creative thought. Learning to control the exposure is at the heart of creative photography. Yes, to be a creative photographer, you need to learn ƒ-stops and shutter speeds, plus see both light and shadow.

Check the Camera mode. Where is the mode dial set? Is it “locked on” to your desired setting? Has it slipped off or in between settings? If you’re a newbie, Auto may be best, but try the Landscape, Portrait or Action scene modes. Don’t venture to the manual side of the dial (P, A, S, M) until you want to learn more and grow in your skills.

Watch for warning lights and indicators. Blinking is bad. Flashing numbers or symbols generally indicate problems in a camera or settings. Use your instruction manual to troubleshoot the issue.

Check exposure compensation. The +/- control allows you to lighten or darken a picture. Set it to 0 for normal pictures; +1 indicates your photos will be twice as bright as the camera recommends while -1 means your pictures will be twice as dark. A +/- indicator should show on the display, reminding you that exposure compensation is engaged. Remember, +/- exposure compensation remains active until you return it to the 0 position!

Check the Metering mode. Select Matrix or Evaluative light metering mode for beginners. If your dial slips to Spot or Average light metering, it may adversely affect your exposure.

What’s the right light? The greatest issues of light and dark aren’t camera settings, but an understating of light and lighting. All photographers must learn to see and read the light. If the subject is partially illuminated or under “mixed light,” the camera (and its light meter) must make a decision as to what the subject is (remember focus point) and how best to deal with the light. You may or may not agree with that decision! Your skills as a photographer allow you to partially or completely affect that decision. Remember, your camera makes pictures with shadows twice as strong as we see them with our eyes.

Change the camera setting. Metering mode and exposure compensation are the simplest ways to take control of the light and make pictures the way you see them.

Change the light on the subject. You may move the subject, light source or camera position on every picture to control the light on the subject. A uniform (even) light is easiest to control, but the least dramatic. A partially lit subject is more troublesome to expose properly, but may evoke more emotion. The photographer can change the light by moving the subject from sun to shade, looking into or away from the sun, waiting for the weather to change from sun to clouds, or choosing to shoot in the morning or afternoon. By changing the light, you’ll completely change the look and feel of your picture. Learn to see and control the light to really make better pictures, all the time!

Final Tips
The “photographer behind the counter” of your local camera store is there to help you make better pictures, print better pictures and select the right equipment. We’re a valuable resource in your community. Support us, and we’ll continue to be here for you! When you have issues with your focus or lightness and darkness, remember this checklist. Take the time to learn about your camera and its settings (a little bit at a time), and you’ll make better pictures!

Mark Comon is vice president of Paul’s Photo in Torrance, Calif. As a photographic counselor, an instructor and an artist, Comon has the knowledge and experience to solve any photographic problem. Since 1988, he has taught more than 200 students per month in his popular classes at Paul’s Photo. Visit