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The Auto-Focus on the lens is damaged. I have had the exact same problem with my 18-55 and I ended up buying a new one because I take shots at weddings and I can't afford to manually focus each photo. You can still use it if you switch the small knob to MF and then use the focus ring for manual focus.
The finished image looks dark or it looks dark in the viewfinder? If your question is "the image looks dark" in the viewfinder my answer is it's an F4.5 lens so letting less light into the viewfinder and it will look dark. The big difference will be seen if you are coming from lets say a Nikon 50mm F1.8 which is two stops faster then your F4.5. If it's the finished picture after you taken it I'd say you underexposed the shot.
This could be lens distortion. You didn't say what lens you were using, but when you tilt down or up and use a wide-angle lens, you're going to introduce distortion into the image. This will be particularly apparent for anything that linear. Fixes are as follows:
You can go into Photoshop or other photo editing software and correct the distortion. There are MANY free tutorials online that will give you a step-by-step how-to on doing this.
You can also use a more telephoto lens when shooting, which will cut down on the distortion when you tilt your lens.
It's very difficult to see distortion through the viewfinder. Even after many years of shooting daily, I still have trouble with it. My work around if distortion is an issue, is to shoot with a more telephoto lens.
Never touch the mirror... it will leave a mark. Is it underneath the viewfinder ? If it's not in the viewfinder, how do you know you have dirt. If there is dirt on the sensor, that's a decent pro job. Special ways to get to the sensor and cleaning is a very tricky job.
DON'T TRY TO FIX THIS YOURSELF! You will only add to the damage. If your lens is in warranty, contact Nikon for instructions to get it repaired. If it is out of warranty, I would either pay Nikon for the repair or take it to a camera repair man.
You are correct that the switch locks the aperture. In order for your camera to function correctly in the auto-focus mode you must lock the aperture to the smallest opening (largest number such as f22). The switch has two positions. The position where the switch is lined up with the orange line is the locked position. When the lens functions properly and on the camera, the lens aperture is forced wide open by a pin on the camera body pushing a lever on the lens that opens the aperture. As part of the sequence when you push the shutter button, the camera releases its pressure on the spring-loaded lever on the lens, allowing the aperture to close to the setting that the "computer" has determined as correct. You will find this lever on the outside of the black ring that surrounds the rear lens element. With the lens removed, find the lever and make sure that with the lens set to the f22, sliding the lever counter-clockwise against the slight spring tension, the aperture opens wide and returns to f22 when released. If this is not the case, the problem is in the lens. If this works, then the problem is either in your camera body or in the alignment between the body and lens. If this does not get you on the right track, let me know what you find and we will proceed from there.