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What to Do
When Your Lens Quits
Jim Doty, Jr.


Levers and Pins of an Older Mechanical L:ens

Levers and Pins of an Older Mechanical Lens
(Canon FD 80-200 f4L)

Mechanical Lenses

In the good old days lenses and cameras talked to each other via mechanical levers and pins (see the photo above). If a lens quit working properly, some lever was probably bent. This usually happened when a lens was dropped and landed on its levers (it takes a lot of force to bend these levers). Really bold (or desperate) photographers would sometimes try to bend the lever back into place with needle nose pliers. Timid (or sensible) photographers would send the lens in to be repaired.

If a lens was left in a hot car or other hot place, lubricants could ooze out between the aperture blades, making them stick to each other. The blades wouldn't close down quickly enough to the desired aperture (see Story 1 below), resulting in overexposed photos. The repair shop was the only option for the vast majority of photographers.

Mechanical LEns Connections of an Older Model Camera

Mechanical Lens Connections in an Older Model Camera
(Canon F-1N)

Sand on a windy day can work its way into a lens and wreak havoc with all the moving parts. If you've had a recent sandy shoot and you start to hear things grinding inside the lens, send it to the repair shop before the sand does any further damage. If you are shooting on a sandy beach or sand dunes on a windy day, protect your lens and camera with a large Ziploc bag. Take off the lens hood, punch a hole in a corner (opposite the unzipped opening), stretch the hole around the lens opening, and put the lens hood back in place.  Put your hand in the unzipped opening to operate the camera.  The same goes for shooting on a windy day at the ocean. Salty spray can ruin a lens and camera. Try the Ziploc bag trick or use a commercial protective cover for your gear.

Sometimes the moving cams that shift the lens elements back and forth inside the lens (as you focus and zoom) can develop problems. These are problems for the repair shop too.

Fortunately, mechanical lenses usually function for decades without any problems, provided you don't drop them, dunk them, bake them, or get sand inside of them.


Electronic Contacts on a Recent Model Lens

Electronic Contacts on a Recent Model Lens
(Canon EF 17-40mm f4L)

Electronic Lenses

Today, most lenses are electronic marvels that talk to the camera via a series of electronic contacts on the back of the lens.

Many of the mechanical parts are still there, and it is still a bad idea to leave your lens in a place where it will get too hot. Sand and salt can still wreak havoc with an electronic lens (although some of the expensive lenses with "weather seals" are more resistant but not totally immune). It's still a good idea not to drop them, dunk them, bake them, or get sand inside of them.

Electronic lenses have electronic contacts, circuit boards, and motors that can develop problems. If a circuit board or motor goes belly up, the repair shop is the way to go.

Most commonly, electronic lenses usually act up when the camera and the lens can't communicate accurately. With Canon cameras, this is often accompanied by the dreaded err99 (Error 99) message on the camera (see Story 2 below). This is something you can usually deal with in the field. Sometimes the contacts in the camera and lens aren't connecting properly. Sometimes the camera's computer brain needs to be reset. Here are some simple steps to take, in order of time and complexity.

1. Turn of the camera, remove the lens, put the lens back on the camera, and turn on the camera. Quick and simple when you are in the midst of a shoot. If the lens is now working correctly, you are good to go.

2. If you still have problems with the lens (and you have an error message on the body), turn off the camera, remove the lens, remove the battery from the camera for 30 seconds, put the battery back in the camera, put on the lens, and turn on the camera. This resets the camera. If your lens is now working correctly, good for you.

3. If you are still having problems, the contacts themselves may be dirty. Repeat step 2, but clean the contacts on the lens (they are gold rectangles in the photo above) on the lens while it is off the camera. With a clean, soft, dry, lint free piece of cloth, gently rub the contacts. Put the lens on the camera and try again.  If things still aren't working, try a little isopropyl alcohol on your clean, soft cloth.

Contrary to popular opinion do NOT use an eraser to clean the contacts. Note this warning from the Canon web site.

4. If none of the above restores your lens to normal functioning, try one or more different lenses on your camera to see if they work. If your other lenses work, the problem is with your non-working lens. If the other lenses don't work either, the problem is most likely with your camera.

5. The contacts in your camera that connect with the lens may not be clean. Very gently try rubbing the contacts in the camera (in some cameras they are retractable gold pins, see the photo below) with your clean, soft, dry, lint free piece of cloth. You do this at your own risk! Don't damage or bend the electrical pins inside your camera, and don't touch anything else inside the throat of the lens mount (like the very vulnerable reflex mirror). If you are lucky, your lenses will now work. If not, and the problem is with your camera (none of your lenses work) send the camera to the repair shop.


Gold Pins in a Recent Model Electronic Camera That Make Contact with the Lens Connections

Gold Pins in a Recent Model Electronic Camera
That Make Contact with the Lens Connections
(Canon 7D)

The good news is that steps 1-3 will usually get your lens working again. Step 4 will tell you if the problem is actually your camera, and step 5 will sometimes work if the contacts in the camera have gotten dirty.

If nothing else works, send your lens to the manufacturer to get it fixed.

Two Lens Repair Stories

Story 1

In over 25 years of working with mechanical lenses, I've only had one problem, and that was with an aftermarket 80-200mm lens. I won't mention the brand name (which I will call brand X) since I don't want to prejudice you against the company (and I have one other lens from the same company that has always worked just fine). 

I picked up my processed slides from a photo trip, and all of the slides from the brand X 80-200mm lens were overexposed unless I was shooting wide open (at the maximum aperture). I put the 80-200mm lens on the camera, set the aperture to 16, and the shutter speed to 1 second. I opened the back of the camera (no film in it of course), pushed the shutter, and watched what happened. The shutter opened normally and I watched the aperture blades slowly ooze into place, then the shutter closed. I tried doing the same thing with several other lenses. As I expected, the apertures blades were stopped down to f/16 before the shutter opened. They were working just fine so it wasn't a problem with the camera. The problem was the aperture blades with just the 80-200 lens. Lubricants in the lens had seeped out between the aperture blades, making them move like they were in thick molasses. Off to the repair shop.

As a side note:  The camera store where I bought the brand X 80-200 lens loaned me (at no charge) a used Tamron 80-200mm lens while my lens was in for repair. The first thing I noticed about the Tamron lens was that it was sharper than my brand X lens. I had a favorite test scene with a digital clock on a bank sign a half mile away from my camera location. With my brand X lens, I couldn't make out the time on the bank's clock. With the Tamron lens, the numbers were fuzzy but still clearly readable.

Yukon Gold, my favorite test scene in Yukon OK

"Yukon Gold" My favorite lens testing scene in Yukon, OK
Note the area I marked with a small white rectangle.

When I got the lens back, I tested it out before using it for any serious shooting.  It now had a new problem. No matter what aperture I chose, it stopped all the way down to something like f/22. Not good. I sent it back in for repair again.  A note came back from the repair shop: "The lens is fine, please send us your camera body." Absolutely not! My other lenses all worked fine on my Canon F-1 camera body. No way was I sending my camera in to the lens company's repair shop.

The camera store gave me a full refund on the brand X lens, which I applied to a Canon FD 70-210mm (non-L) zoom lens.  I tested it out at my favorite test scene and I couldn't read the time on the bank's clock. Back to the camera store. I returned the lens, and this time I bought a Canon 80-200mm f4L lens and tested it out. I could read the time! The numbers were fuzzy, but readable, just like with the Tamron lens. The 80-200 served me well and it was one of my favorite lenses before switching to cameras with Canon's EF lens mount.

"Yukon Gold". This is the area inside the small white rectangle
in the photo above. The bank clock clearly reads 6:24.


Story 2

The first time I had a lens quit working and an error 99 message popped up on the camera, it was very disconcerting. I did some reading and learned about the steps above. Step 1 above almost always cleared the problem, and if it didn't, Steps 2 and 3 did the trick. I would go on for months before another error 99 problem would occur.

Then the fateful day came when it was hard to solve the problem. My beloved Canon EF 100-400mm lens quit working. Steps 1 and 2 cleared the problem, but it came back the next day. Steps 1 - 3 did the trick, but a few hours later it was back again. After 3-4 days of struggling with the lens, nothing would bring it back to life.  Off to the repair shop it went.  When it came back from the Canon repair shop (with a new electronic circuit board of some sort), it worked just great. That was about 7 or 8 years ago and it has been working well ever since.

The new is mostly good.  I usually go for months or longer without an error 99/lens  problem. Steps 1-3 have always cleared the problem (with the exception of the 3-4 days struggling with the 100-400mm lens). In the hurry of a sporting event and changing lenses in a rush, it is possible to mount a lens and turn it just far enough but not all the way to the final click so the contacts aren't making really good contact. In a noisy event you can't hear that click and you may not get the lens seated all the way and the lens works intermittently or not at all.

If your lens quits working, try the steps above. Usually it will come back to life. If it doesn't, send it to a first class repair shop. Send it to the manufacturer's official repair center, or to an independent repair shop with an excellent reputation. Don't cheap out when it come to camera and lens repair.


March 13, 2011
Updated July 8, 2015

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