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The letters you're referencing is the M/A (manual / auto) focus switch. The lens has this switch and operates in Auto Focus mode when set to "A" and manual focus mode when set to "M".
You have to manually focus on the subject when in letter "M". If you do not, the result will be out of focus. From your description, it sounds like the camera / lens combination is attempting to focus and operate the shutter in auto, and focusing in manual; but due to some type of damage resulting from possible mishandling, exposure to dust, dirt or even moisture is interfering with the successful completion of the process.
You could isolate the problem to determine if the cause is in the lens or camera by simply attaching the lens to another compatible Nikon camera or placing a different auto-focus lens on your D40. The problem will either stay with your D40 or follow the lens when attached to a different camera. It is also *possible* that due to numerous attempts of auto-focusing with your D40 & lens combination, that both the lens *and* the camera have been damaged. If the problem is severe enough, the problem in the failed device could cause failure in the otherwise normally working device, too.
You might be best served by contacting Nikon Service & Support below:
1 Possiable dirty lens contact terminals
2 Auto focus motor in lens is jamed/malfuntion
3 Auto focus engagement pin on camera body is not engaging the lens
4 Correct lens,old nikon lens and some 3rd party lens wont work on the D40
I assume the lens had the impact.
The 18-55 lens has the built-in motors for auto-focus.
Try switching to manual focus (on the lens). If this works, the lens may not auto-focus anymore.
Try it and let me know.
When the camera is in auto focus mode, it will not take the picture until it locks onto a subject. If there is not enough light, the camera will "hunt" for something to focus on. Since it can't define any edges, it won't allow the shutter to release.
The D40 base model does NOT have a powered focus lever for autofocus, so if the autofocus is not working, suspect the lens.
Unfortunately, this lens is not supported by the D40 due to Nikon's unfortunate decision to leave out the autofocus motor from this camera. This is why I tell folks not to waste their money on the D40 - access to the many, many, many lenses that Nikon has made over the years, many of which are available used for a substantial savings, is lost on this camera. The only Nikon lenses that work are AF-S lenses, and some third party lenses that have their own internal motors. I got a list of Sigma lenses that are compatible with the D40 for you:
The list of compatible Sigma lenses for the Nikon D40 as of the current date is as follows:
10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC
17-35mm F2.8-4 DG
50-500mm F4-6.3 DG
APO 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC HSM
70-200mm F2.8 DG MACRO
100-300mm F4 DG
120-300mm F2.8 DG
300-800mm F5.6 DG
14mm F2.8 EX
30mm F1.4 EX DC HSM
150mm F2.8 EX DG
180mm F3.5 EX DG
300mm EX DG
500mm EX DG
800mm f5.6 EX DG
from here: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS/1177682545.html Sorry for the bad news. The cheaper thing at this point may be to sell the D40 and get a D80. I personally have a D70S, but that is no longer made.
Your camera is only compatable with AFS-type lenses because it has no screw-drive motor. You can only use AFS Nikkors and Sigma HSM lenses (the lens actually has a motor inside). You were misinformed. Bring the lens back and ask for a refund. Take that money and purchase a compatable lens somewhere else.