It could be that the autofocus switch has become unglued from the frame and so it doesn't ever switch on. If your camera doesn't indicate that autofocus is on, but you're not getting an error message, then this might be the problem. Unscrew the two screws that hold the AF switch onto the lens, and see if the underlying PCB upon which the switch is mounted has come loose. If you, take the lens apart from the back and use double-sided tape to re-adhere.
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You may just have the left auto focus points selected. You don't say which camera model you have. If on the back of your camera you can see a button with an icon showing 5 small white blocks in a plus sign in a white box press this to select the auto focus points. It should show the available auto focus points and then use the left/right (wheel) button to change the selection
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.
It is because the lense is only an AF lense. The d40x doesn't have an on-body auto focus motor so that needs to be on the lense. I have a d60 and have the same problems. You can use the manual focus on the AF lenses; however, to use auto focus, you need to buy an AF-S lense. It's disappointing I know, but that's the price we must pay for saving on our body lol
Also set the focus range in the camera to average both vertically and horizontally. That is when you press the shutter button thos red squares in the look through a;; ;light up rather than just the centre square.
I suspect it is getting feedback from something on the lens that it reads and tries to focus on that is closer than the object you want to photograph. Make sure there is no mold growth inside lens as that will do it too
Check to make sure the manual focus/auto focus switch on the lens is set to A. Make sure the lens is completely mounted to the camera and locks securely. If this does not help, or if the lens was dropped, then you should consider buying a new lens. the cost of fixing the old lens may be at least half of the cost of buying a new one.
My lens is also doing that same thing... and I just posted pretty much the exact thing you said...Mine squeaks and goes in and out really fast.. I do know that you can put the camera on manual mode and focus manually on mine, but would like to have the auto focus sometimes too. If I dont get an answer soon, I may send it in... I believe its a motor problem in the lens....