You’re in the middle of a photoshoot and suddenly nothing is in focus. The camera viewfinder looks blurry, and every time you try to half-press the shutter button, you get no response. You know that your Nikon autofocus system isn’t working, but you don’t have the time or money to send your camera in for repairs – so what do you do?
Nikon autofocusing problems are tricky, but you’re in luck: I’ve run into AF issues on a handful of occasions, and thanks to my experiences, I’ve developed a system to quickly troubleshoot cameras on the spot.
In this article, I explain my step-by-step process so you can have your AF system up and running ASAP. And while I do cater to Nikon users (because I own a Nikon camera myself), these troubleshooting steps should work for cameras of pretty much any brand: Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, and more.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Make sure you’re using autofocus
It might seem silly, but it’s surprisingly easy to accidentally set your equipment to focus manually instead of automatically (especially if you’re not paying attention, if you’re gripping your setup tight due to windy conditions, or if you’re in a rush to change lenses).
Most lenses include an AF/MF toggle, and if you bump the switch without noticing, your lens’s AF system will suddenly be unresponsive. Some cameras also allow you to activate and deactivate the AF system using the menu, and a few camera models even include an AF switch on the front of the body.
So check that both the lens and the camera switches are set to autofocus, not manual focus. Your lens toggle should be set to M/A, A, or AF:
And your camera switch should be set to A or AF:
2. Make sure the back dial is not locked
Some Nikon cameras feature a back dial that encircles the multi-selector; as you can see in the image below, this can toggle between a dot and an L:
It’s known as the Focus Selector Lock switch, and it lets you determine whether you can select AF points using the multi-selector. The single dot allows you to actively select AF points, while the L will prevent the multi-selector from working.
Check that the switch is pointed toward the dot, not the L setting. It’s easy to flick this dial, especially if you frequently use back-button focusing.
Note, however, that the Focus Selector Lock won’t stop your lens from actually focusing. Focusing will still work – you just won’t be able to switch focus points.
3. Make sure you haven’t locked the focus
Nikon cameras often feature an AE-L/AF-L option (which stands for “Autoexposure Lock” and “Autofocus Lock”):
The AE-L/AF-L button can be configured in various ways, so depending on your camera and your custom settings, it may or may not be capable of locking your Nikon autofocus system.
Check to be sure that your thumb is not pressing the button while shooting. And to be extra safe, give the button a quick press and fire your camera shutter; that way, you can cancel out potential autofocus lock settings.
4. Check your lens for problems
No one ever wants to have a problem with their lens – but if your lens is broken, at least you can quickly switch to an alternative and continue shooting.
Remove your lens from your camera. Inspect the front and rear elements for smudges or dirt. Check that no part of the lens is damaged. And if you have filters on your lens, be sure that they are clear and have no cracks. If you do notice any issues, replace the broken filters, and clean off dirt and smudges with a lens cloth.
Note: Lens cloths are usually lint-free and should be used with a special lens cleaning solution. Do not blow on the lens; this can contribute to lens damage since breath can contain harmful acids. If you need to blow away dust or debris, use a rocket blower or a brush.
Then re-attach the lens, listening carefully for the click that indicates it’s in position.
5. Make sure your viewfinder is sharp
If your viewfinder is dirty, your lens will focus but the viewfinder image will still look blurry. (Note that this can be an issue with both optical and electronic viewfinders.)
So try taking a picture, then zoom in on your camera LCD to check for sharpness. You might also check your viewfinder for oils, smudges, and dirt. (I often run into this issue; somehow, my sunscreen always seems to find its way onto the viewfinder element!)
If you are having viewfinder issues, you can clean the glass the same way you clean your lens: using a lens cloth and a special cleaning solution.
By the way, viewfinder blurriness isn’t only caused by dirt and grime. Cameras also have a diopter control, which lets you adjust the viewfinder’s sharpness. The idea here is to compensate for vision problems – and carefully adjusting your diopter control will let you see clearly without glasses even if your vision is poor – but if you accidentally adjust the diopter, your viewfinder will instantly turn blurry.
As with the viewfinder issues discussed above, an accidental diopter adjustment won’t affect your images. It’ll only defocus the viewfinder, and you can quickly refocus it by moving the dial in the other direction.
Bonus: Turn your camera off and on
If you try all the steps I shared above and your Nikon autofocus still isn’t working, then it’s worth simply turning your camera off, waiting for a few seconds, then turning it back on again.
This is basically a camera reboot, and it will sometimes fix the issue. If it doesn’t work, you can also try removing the battery for a minute or two (remember to turn the camera off before removing the battery). And as a final option, you could try resetting the camera to the factory default.
One more thing: Before you give up, test your camera with another lens. If the second lens works just fine, then you’ve got a lens problem, not a camera problem, and you should probably take your lens in to be repaired.
Nikon autofocus problems: final words
Hopefully, now that you’ve finished this article, you’ve fixed your Nikon autofocus issue.
I encourage you to write down these troubleshooting steps and keep the paper in your camera bag. That way, if the issue crops up again during a shoot, you’ll immediately know what to do.
Do you have any Nikon AF troubleshooting tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!