Nikon D800 Camera Menu Settings – With Info For All Cameras

I get a lot of questions about camera settings for photography, particularly night photography. It’s to be expected, given that we no longer take pictures with cameras. My first camera had one dial, which let me set the ASA and shutter speed. That’s it; that was all I could set on the camera. (Aperture was set on the lens.) I learned how to be a photographer, not a computer programmer, so it’s tough navigating through the maze of ones and zeros on my current picture-taking device.

But you can’t be a good photographer without learning a little bit about how your camera works. There’s no getting around it. If you don’t know how to set up the camera, any good shots you make will be a result of happenstance, not your ability as a photographer. Like any type of art, producing quality images consistently requires a synergy between the mechanical aspects of the medium and artsy-fartsy side.

So with this in mind, I present a detailed treatment of how I use the menu settings of the Nikon D800, which is my primary camera. (I use the Nikon D700 as a backup and when I set up a second camera for meteors, star trails, or time lapses.) But just because I’m talking about a Nikon here, it doesn’t mean that Canon, Sony, or other shooters won’t get anything out of it. For most items, I don’t just list them, I explain what they do and why you would want to choose one over another. This applies to any camera. You just need to figure out how to cross-reference the items here to your camera.

No person can, or even should, know everything about all cameras. Even among camera models from the same brand, you’ll find differences. I know my D800 and D700 pretty well, but some of the menu items are Greek to me. I know nothing about the retouch settings, for instance. I know a .little about the video settings, but I’m not qualified to teach them.

I’m not going to explain HOW to make most of the settings. You need to learn how to navigate the menus and choose a setting. All that stuff is in your manual. (You do know how to read the manual, right?) I understand that a camera manual doesn’t rank up there with Fifty Shades of Grey on the excitement list, but it’s good for telling you how to find something in the camera and how to change it. It might not explain the why’s, but it’s good for the how’s.

I’ll make one note about the how’s. With many menu settings in Nikon cameras, to save your selections you must scroll to the top of the menu and make sure Done is highlighted and then click OK. Anytime you discover that a setting you thought you had enabled is not, this is likely the culprit.

QUICK TIP: Anytime you are deep within a menu item and just want to get the heck out, simply press the Menu button. No need to backtrack through the jungle.

Please do us a both a big favor and don’t take my opinions too seriously. Even though my wording might suggest otherwise, I’m never suggesting that my way is the best way. It’s just my way. Find your own way and don’t let anybody run you off the road.

PLAYBACK MENU

Delete

What it does: Provides options for deleting photos from the memory cards.

Selected lets you choose a specific photo to delete. All lets you choose all of the photos to delete at once. You can delete from either the SD or CF card, or both.

How I use it: I don’t. I edit photos in the computer. The only time I delete a photo in the camera is right after I take the shot and I’m certain it is trash. Then I delete it with the trash can (delete) button on the camera body. Even if I had time to fuss with this in the camera, I wouldn’t do it for fear of deleting something by mistake. It is far easier to see what you’re doing on a computer screen.

Playback Folder

What it does: Determines whether or not you can view photos shot on another camera, or in different folders.

ND800 means you can only view images that were captured in the D800. All means you can view images in all folders and shot in any camera. Current means you can only view images that are located within the current folder.

If you stick in a memory card and the camera says “Folder contains no images,” even though you know there are photos on it, you’ve got the playback folder set to ND800. Change it to All and you can view the pics.

It’s not a good idea to switch memory cards back and forth between cameras because it increases the possibility of making a mistake when downloading. However, with ALL, if you do insert a card that has images on it from another camera, at least you can see them in the D800 and won’t make the mistake of formatting the card.

How I use it: I keep mine set to All.

Hide Image

What it does: Allows you to select images so they will not show during playback.

This would be useful if, say, you’re on vacation with your wife and you take some shots of scantily clad women amongst all the other stuff and you don’t want your wife to see them when you show her all the great shots you took. Of course, a better option would be not to take those shots in the first place.

How I use it: When I take photos of scantily clad women during…uh, never mind. Actually, I can’t imagine ever having or taking the time to fiddle with something like this, nor can I think of any reason why I would need to.

Playback Display Options

What it does: Allows you to select the type of information that is displayed during image playback.

Focus point superimposes little red boxes on the screen to indicate the focus point, but it doesn’t work with some modes and settings and you need to be a Nikon engineer to keep it all straight.
None means all you see is the photo.
Highlights causes overexposed elements in the photo to blink.
RGB histogram displays a histogram for all three color channels, in addition to the collective RGB histogram.
Shooting data displays a lot of information about the settings used to capture the photo. On the D800, the data occupies three screens that you must cycle through.
Overview shows an abbreviated list of capture data, including exposure mode, shutter, aperture, image quality, ISO, focal length, exposure compensation, and color space. Being able to see certain capture information can be extremely helpful, but you must understand what you are seeing and use it properly. If you select all of the options, you’re liable to waste time scrolling through all the screens after each capture.
Highlights tends to stir debate. Some say it is worthless because it is based on the combined color channels and therefore you can’t tell if one color is off. They say it is better to use the RGB histogram and evaluate the individual channels. The truth is that neither method provides a true assessment of the exposure data because they both are based on a JPEG interpretation of the RAW data. In other words, you’re seeing the exposure values of the processed file.

Yes, even the combined histogram provides a more accurate assessment of exposure than the preview image, but it’s important to understand that it could be off a little. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to bracket exposures until you learn the idiosyncrasies of your camera. For instance, I’ve learned that with my D800 I can push the histogram into “overexposure” on the right side and the image is not actually overexposed when I bring it up in Photoshop.

The RGB histogram is very helpful when shooting subjects that have prominent colors. A good example is a closeup of a rose. You want to make sure you don’t blow out the red channel. It’s okay if the blue and green channel are overexposed as long as the rose is the dominant subject, but if the red channel is blown, the photo is ruined.

How I use it: Highlights, RGB histogram, and Overview. I do not use Focus point, as I see no use for that information, even if it did display in all scenarios. I do not use Shooting data because I don’t like scrolling through three screens of info that I really don’t need in the field. Overview  provides all of the info I need. I use Highlights as a sort of warning system, rather than as a serious indicator of exposure. If large areas of the photo are blinking, it sends a red flag that makes me pay careful attention. It’s also very helpful when I bracket exposures for HDR. When The Blinkies stop, I know I’ve shot the final exposure for the highlights in the scene.

Oh, yeah, the official term for blinking highlights is “The Blinkies.” Okay, it’s not official.

Copy Image(s)

What it does: Allows you to copy images from one media card to the other. If you do not have both an SD card and a Compact Flash card installed, this option will be greyed out.

How I use it: I’ve never used this, but I can see how it might be useful for backing up images in the field if you don’t have a computer or other backup device.

Image Review

What it does: When On is selected, every photo is displayed on the LCD screen immediately after capture.

How I use it: I have mine set to Off. I cannot imagine looking at every image I take on the screen. I usually need to look at only the first couple of a setup to get the settings right, and after that there is no need to waste the time or battery power. It’s really no big deal to push the button when I need to look a shot.

As a night photographer, I especially don’t want every shot to come up after capture. It disturbs night vision and wastes battery power. And there is absolute no reason for it in some scenarios, such as time lapses and star trails.

After Delete

What it does: Let’s you choose what image will appear next after you delete one.

Show next brings up the next image based on file number.
Show previous brings up the previous image based on file number.
Continue as before brings up the next image in the direction you were going, either forward or backward.

How I use it: Since I don’t delete images in camera, I don’t care how this is set. But for those who do, I don’t understand why you would choose anything other than Continue as before. I mean, if you’re scrolling through images and delete one, why would you want for one you’ve already looked at to come back up?

Rotate Tall

What it does: Determines how a vertical image is displayed on the LCD screen.

When On is selected, vertical images will be oriented vertically on the screen as you hold the camera normally. (The top of the image points to the hotshoe and the bottom of the image points to the bottom of the camera.) When Off is selected, vertical images are oriented vertically as the camera is held in a vertical position. (The top of the image points to the grip and the bottom points to the external connector ports, assuming you twist the camera counterclockwise and look through the viewfinder with your right eye, as most do.)

SETTINGS NOTE: For the On option to work, you must have Auto image rotation set to On in the Setup Menu.

How I use it:  I want my images to show as large as possible on the screen, so I set this to Off. If you’re shooting from a tripod, you definitely want to choose Off, otherwise you’ll get a crick in your neck trying to review your images.

Slide Show

What it does: Let’s you view your images (or video) as a slide show with intervals of 2,3,5, or 10 seconds. When a show is running, you can pause and restart using the OK button.

How I use it: Does anybody use it? I sure don’t. I had never even opened the menu before I sat down to write this.

DPOF Print Order

What it does: Digital Print Order Format allows you to select images for sending directly to a printer that is connected to the camera. The printer must feature PictBridge, which is the standard format that allows this type of sharing.

SETTINGS NOTE: You can’t print RAW files directly from your camera. If you only have RAW files on your card, the DPOF print order option is greyed out.

How I use it: Seriously? As far as I’m concerned, this must be the most worthless option on the camera.

SHOOTING MENU

Shooting Menu Bank

What it does: Let’s you store camera settings in one of four “banks” so you can recall them as needed. Sort of.

The idea is that you store all of your settings for a particular type of shooting so you don’t have to go through the camera constantly and reset them. For example, you might store the settings you use for portrait photography in Bank A and settings for nature photography in Bank B. So, if you are currently shooting in Bank B and switch to A, you instantly have all the settings you need for portraits.

A great idea, right? Yes, it is, so naturally Nikon is going to screw it up. The problem is that you can’t save the settings in a bank and lock them in because whenever you make any changes, those changes also occur in the bank. For example, let’s say you are shooting in Bank A, which you have named “Portraits.” (You can give each bank your own name.) The light is low, so you bump the ISO from 400 to 800. Now you visit a garden and switch to Bank B, which you have named “Nature.” After you leave the garden, you switch the camera back to Bank A Portrait, because that’s your most-used bank and you want to have it at the ready. The problem is that now Bank A has the ISO at 800 instead of 400.

That’s right. Every change you make is also recorded in the bank settings. There is no way to lock them. Whenever you go to a certain bank, the settings in that bank will be whatever they were the last time you used that bank, not what they were when you first set it up. This is ridiculous.

From what I understand, Canon and some Nikon cameras do allow you to lock the settings. I think the Nikon D7000 and D600 allow it. But the nearly-at-the-top-of-the-line D800 does not.

So, should you even use the Shooting menu banks? Yes and no. They can be useful as long as you remain aware of their limitations and always remember to switch banks when your shooting scenario changes. Otherwise, you’ll be changing everything around and the banks will no longer be specific for that particular scenario.

How I use it: I don’t. The way I shoot and the way my mind works, menu banks on the D800 are useless at best, and could contribute to further loss of hair and might even have the potential for losing a few shots. If I could lock the settings, I’m sure I’d set up all four banks, but as it is, what’s the point?

Extended Menu Banks

What it does: When On is selected, the Shooting Menu Banks (see above) will store certain exposure settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and exposure mode.

Most likely, you’ll be changing exposure settings on the fly, so there is no need to have this information recorded in the menu banks.

How I use it: I don’t use Shooting Menu Banks, so I definitely don’t care to extend them. I keep this set to Off.

Storage Folder

What it does: Lets you create new folders for storing your photos.

If you choose Select folder by number, you are not  choosing an existing folder, but rather given the options for creating a new folder and numbering it as you wish. It automatically shows you the next available number. For example, if you are using the default storage folder of 100 and you select Select folder by number, the number displayed on the screen will be 101. You can change this to any number that hasn’t already been used. If you change it to a used folder number, it will bring up a silly icon that shows you how many images are in that folder—partially full, half full, or full.

If you choose Select  folder from list, it will bring up all of the current folders residing on the card. You can choose which folder to store the next shot in.

How I use it: I suppose I can see how it could be useful for some photographers to have a folder system on their media cards, but for me this  is a waste of time. A complex, confusing, and frustrating waste of time. I store all my captures in the default folder and do the organizing on the computer after download.

File Naming

What it does: Lets you choose the first three letters in the file name. You can use any combination of letters or numbers.

Default for images shot in sRGB color space is DSC_ and for Adobe RGB color space is _DSC. Have no idea why they are different. You can change the three-letter portion, but not the underscore. So, if you change DSC to ZEN and shoot a photo using Adobe RGB color space, the file name will begin with _ZEN.

SETTINGS NOTE: The file name you choose is recorded into the Shooting Menu Bank that you are in at the time. If you change memory banks, the file name won’t carry over.

How I use it: I do all my file naming and organizing in the computer, so I leave this at default. However, I can see how this might be useful for some photographers, particularly if more than one person uses the camera. You could change the file name to match the photographer. Another scenario is to change the file name to match different clients or shoots. For some, this might make it easier to organize the images later on. For me, it’s easier to dump everything into one download folder on the computer and sort it at that point.

Primary Slot Selection

What it does: Lets you choose whether the CompactFlash card (CF card slot) or the Secure Digital card (SD card slot) is used as the primary photo storage device when both cards are installed.

If you have CF card slot chosen as the primary, but you only have an SD card installed, the camera will still save the photos to the SD card. And vice versa.

How I use it: Most of my cards are CompactFlash, so I choose that as the primary. But it really makes no difference.

Secondary Slot Function

What it does: Lets you choose the role of the media card you you’ve chosen as secondary under Primary Slot Selection.

With Overflow, once the primary card is full, the camera starts saving files to the secondary card.

With Backup, the camera saves the photo to both cards.

With RAW primary, JPEG secondary, RAW files are saved to the primary card and JPEG files are saved to the second card.

How I use it: The best choice here is purely  a matter of individual workflow practices. I usually have mine set to Overflow.

Image Quality

What it does: In addition to causing heated arguments among passionate photographers, it allows you to choose whether you shoot your photos as RAW files, Tiffs, or JPEGs, and what the quality settings are for the JPEGs.

I’m not about to submerse myself deeply into the fray here. A meaningful discussion of file types deserves much more space than I can provide in this treatment. I’ll just touch on a few basics and ask that when you do your own research, make sure you have a large grain of salt nearby. And if you run across anybody who says you should ALWAYS shoot one way or the other, don’t walk away. Run like hell!

NEF (RAW) is not real a photo, but rather a collection of the image data. RAW files take up a lot more space than JPEG and you need software to convert that file to an image, such as Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom. The advantage of RAW is that it contains ALL of the image data and gives you the choices on how it is processed. If you want maximum image quality and flexibility with post processing, you should shoot in RAW.

JPEG is the finished photo. The camera software takes the RAW file and processes it based on the settings you’ve chosen in the menus. In the process, it discards some of the image data, which makes the file size smaller. If you don’t wish to do any post processing yourself, you should shoot in JPEG. Some pros use JPEG for everything. Wedding photographers in particular are fond of JPEG because they can provide photos much more quickly to their clients. Same for photojournalists and sports photographers, who need to get their shots out immediately.

You have three choices for image quality under JPEG: fine, normal, and basic. The difference is the amount of compression applied to the file. So JPEG fine produces much larger files than JPEG basic. For some photos, you might not be able to tell any difference, but the compression acts differently for each photo and some could have noticeable image degradation at the basic setting. With the low prices of today’s large media cards, I don’t understand why anyone would want to shoot anything but JPEG fine.

We can think of a RAW file as an unchiseled block of granite and a JPEG file as the finished sculpture. The camera did the chiseling for you to create that sculpture, and if it looks good to you, all is well. But suppose you want to tweak it. Suppose you don’t like the position of the arm and want to raise it a little. Well, you can’t, because all the granite above the arm has already been chiseled away. You could lower it, but then you might have to make the arm smaller because there isn’t any granite left below it. With the RAW granite, you can place the arm anywhere you like, but you’re going to have to do ALL the chiseling yourself.

TIFF. You’ll hear few absolutes from me, but here’s one. Do not use TIFF. Ever. I don’t know why that’s even an option. (Oh, that comment above about running away from anyone who says you should always do something doesn’t apply to me. J) Tiff files created by the camera are larger than RAW files and take longer to write and read. Like JPEG, they are processed by the camera, but they are not compressed, so you don’t lose as much in terms of image quality. But, a JPEG fine is going to be nearly indistinguishable from a TIFF, so if you want your camera to do the processing for you, JPEG is the better option. If you want to do your own processing, go with RAW so you’ll be starting out with a smaller file size and have all your image data intact when you begin.

How I use it: I shoot 99% of my photos in NEF (RAW). The other 1% is JPEG fine. I switch to the JPEGs for family vacations, get togethers with friends, and any situation where it is more important to deliver finished photos quickly than to have the best image quality. For some events, I may shoot NEF (RAW) + JPEG fine, so I can deliver the JPEGs right away and still have the RAW files to go back to when I have time. I do this for all wedding shoots.

Image Size

What it does: It allows you to choose between three different image sizes for JPEG and TIFF photos. Large is 36.2 megapixels, Medium is 20.3, and Small is 9.0.

SETTINGS NOTE: You must have TIFF or JPEG selected under Image Quality for this menu to be active. With only RAW, it is greyed out.

How I use it: I keep it set to Large. If I need a smaller size file, I’ll resize it myself. For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would buy a 36-megapixel camera sand then set the image size to Small, but some people do.

Image Area

What it does: Lets you choose the crop mode and whether or not the camera automatically crops the image when you use a DX lens.

When Auto DX crop is selected, the camera automatically switches to the DX(24×16)1.5x mode. Many DX lenses will vignette when you mount them on an FX camera, so you have to watch this. If Auto DX crop is selected, you won’t get the vignetting, but you also might lose some focal length on the wide end for certain lenses that don’t vignette.

Choose image area is where you pick the crop. Default is the full-size FX (36×24) 1.0x, just like in the old film cameras. You can also choose 1.2x (30 x20) 1.2x, DX(24×16)1.5x, and 5:4 30×24. This is for the D800. Other Nikon cameras and Canon cameras will likely have different options.

The crop mode generates almost as much argument as Image Quality. A huge argument for it is that by using the DX mode, you increase the image magnification just as if you shot with a DX camera, which is great for wildlife. All of a sudden your 300mm lens becomes a 450mm lens. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it works. The only thing the camera does is crop out a central area of the FX frame to match the DX aspect ratio. Yes, this has the effect of using a longer lens, but you must magnify that image to the same as the FX sensor to realize that effect. And when you do that, you lose image quality.

Remember, when you shoot in DX mode, the camera isn’t taking all of its 36 megapixels and cramming them into the DX crop. Those pixels are spread over the FX frame. With DX, it’s just a crop out of the middle, so you’re eliminating all the pixels surrounding it.

How I use it: I have no need for this function. I shoot everything full frame and then crop it later if I need to. The end result is exactly the same. Some shooters choose the crop mode because it saves time, but not for me. It would just add another menu item I have to fuss with. Besides, when I crop later in the computer, I can get the crop precisely as I want it, rather than letting the camera choose for me.

JPEG Compression

What it does: Lets you tell the camera whether you want JPEGs saved at the highest quality or at a consistent file size.

Size priority makes the files all the same size, but it could cause a slight loss of quality. The JPEG compression algorithm works differently according to the type of image. A photo with large expanse of non-detailed subject matter, such as a lot of black in a night scene or a lot of blue sky in day scene, can be compressed a lot more than a subject with a lot of detail throughout. With Size priority, the resulting images are all the same size, so images that have a lot of detail could potentially suffer.
Optimal quality allows the compression algorithm to do its thing and not worry about what the final image size will be. (It does still work based on the parameters you set in Image Quality.) So a photo of a white wall will have a very small file size, while a jungle scene will be much larger.

How I use it: If you’ve been following along, you already know that I use Optimal quality. I don’t want my cameras doing  anything that will cause a loss of image quality.

NEF (RAW) Recording

What it does: Lets you choose the bit depth and compression settings of RAW (NEF) photos.

Under Type, you have three options: Lossless compressed, Compressed, and Uncompressed. Lossless compressed is truly lossless, so there’s no harm in choosing it. Compressed lowers the file size, but as with anything like this, it has the potential for lowering image quality. Uncompressed shouldn’t even be an option. It doesn’t provide any benefit, but it increases the file size. Nothing for something.

Under NEF (RAW) bit depth, you have the option for choosing 12 bit or 14 bit. If you want to start a fight, get in the middle of a group of photographers and shout, “12-bit sucks.” Or shout, “14-bit sucks.” Doesn’t matter; you’ll hear passionate arguments on both sides.

So what’s the truth? Well, that’s the problem. There is no truth, only a bunch of “it all depends.” For most images, there probably won’t be any noticeable difference between the two. But if you do a lot of post processing, during which data loss and image posterization are always a possibility, it’s much better to start out with as much data as possible. 14-bit gives you that.

How I use it: Lossless compressed and 14-bit. Surprised?

White Balance

What it does: Let’s you match the white balance of the photo to the light source. In theory.

The term “White balance” is confusing. I’ve always thought it should be called “color balance,” since the White Balance (WB) settings affect the overall color balance of the scene. WB only affects JPEG and TIFF files. It has zero effect on RAW files. When you shoot RAW, you can adjust the color temperature to your heart’s content AFTER you shoot it. You do this in a RAW convertor, such as Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom.

White balance does affect TIFF and JPEG files, so if you shoot in those formats, you need to take it into consideration. But the problem is that there are so many variables involved, not only in the menu choices, but more importantly in the infinite range of lighting conditions you shoot in. It’s literally impossible to get it right every time.

So what’s the solution? Here’s one of the few cases where I’m perfectly happy letting the camera make the decision for me. I keep the white balance set to Auto at all times. In fact, since I switched to digital nearly 10 years ago, my camera has never been off Auto in a real shoot. I did take it off once and shoot a series of exposures at the different WB settings just so I could prove to the naysayers that it had no effect on RAW files.

Yes, I shoot mostly RAW, and the WB setting has no effect on that, but even if I shot everything in JPEG, I’d probably use Auto most of the time. I have enough to worry about when I’m trying to get a shot. Analyzing the lighting and fiddling with WB settings is not something I want to add to the list. Auto does a great job most of the time and even when it’s off, it’s usually not that bad. If I were to set the WB manually, I have no doubt that I’d get it wrong far more often than the camera does.

SETTINGS NOTE: Even when you shoot RAW, the LCD preview image is based on a JPEG rendering of the RAW file, and as such, it is affected by the WB setting you choose. So you wouldn’t want to choose some odd WB setting, thinking it won’t make any difference. If the preview images look too far off base, you might be tempted to alter other settings to compensate. Best bet is always to use Auto unless you have a good reason not to.

How I use it: Auto all the way!

Here’s a blog post with more info about White balance.

Set Picture Control

What it does: Lets you choose how the camera processes JPEG and TIFF files. It has no effect on RAW files.

I know there are some photographers who do all their image processing in their cameras, but I have to admit that I don’t understand it. As far as I’m concerned, the camera is for CAPTURING the image. Post processing is better performed in the computer, with software designed specifically for the purpose.

Since I don’t let my camera process images for me, I know very little about the menu settings related to it. In fact, the only thing I know is what the camera tells me when I push the question mark button. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go elsewhere for more info here.

How I use it: I do occasionally shoot in JPEG and I like for the LCD preview image to be somewhat close to a reasonable rendering of the RAW file. I keep Set picture control set to Standard, with all of the tweaking adjustments zeroed out.

Manage Picture Control

What it does: Lets you save Picture Control settings to the camera or a media card.

I suppose if you’re letting the camera process your images for you, you might find a use for this function. I swear, though, if you can figure out all this stuff in the camera and actually put it to good use, you’d be a whiz with real image-processing software. And you’d have a lot more control and create better images.

How I use it: I don’t.

Color Space

What it does: You can choose between sRGB and Adobe RGB 1998 color spaces.

Here’s another one that can cause grown photographers to come to blows. Besides the fact that nothing about a camera should be cause for hitting someone, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter which one you choose.

sRGB is the industry standard for displaying images on electronic viewing devices such as computer screens, smart phones, and digital projectors. It’s also an accepted standard for commercial printing firms.
Adobe RGB 1998 has a wider gamut (range of colors) than sRGB and is the better choice when you need to do moderate- to-extensive post processing. Also, some publishing firms prefer this color space.

If you are shooting RAW, it makes little difference which one you choose because it won’t affect the RAW file. It will affect the LCD preview image, but I doubt you’d be able to tell any difference. As with many other menu settings, when you shoot in RAW, the camera will tag the image file with whatever color space you have set. Then, when you open the RAW file in a convertor such as Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, the software reads this tag and opens the image in that color space. But—this is a BIG but, so listen up—you can change the color space if you want. Only when you save the RAW file as say, a PSD, JPEG, or TIFF, does the color space (and so many other menu settings) actually write to the image file.

If you shoot mostly JPEG and don’t do a lot of post processing, sRGB is the way to go. If you shoot mostly RAW and you understand when and how to convert to sRGB as needed later on, I recommend Adobe RGB 1998 since you’ll be tagging the file with the widest color space from the outset. If you tag it with sRGB, you have to make sure you change it before converting the RAW file for extensive post processing.

All this said, again, the differences between the two color spaces are so minor in the real world, it really doesn’t matter. Probably the safest approach for most photographers is sRGB.

How I use it:  I use Adobe RGB 1998 color space, but I have my RAW convertor set to open RAW files in Pro Photo color space, which has an even wider gamut. I do all post processing in the Pro Photo color space. I convert the processed photos to sRGB before uploading to the Internet or sending to someone for viewing. For a few editorial publishers, I convert the files to Adobe RGB 1998. When I sent a file to my fine-art printer, I leave them in the Pro Photo color space.

Active D-Lighting

What it does: Attempts to preserve detail in the shadows and highlights.

Here’s where things get tricky. I’m not really sure what goes on in the camera when you have Active D-Lighting (ADL) enabled. I’ve performed a lot of tests, but I’m still very confused. Supposedly, with ADL, the camera modifies the exposure when you shoot and then applies software to the file in order to lessen the contrast. With D-Lighting (not Active D-Lighting), in the Retouch menu, the camera uses its software on images already captured.

My tests indicate that when you are shooting in Manual Mode with ADL, the camera does not alter the exposure from what you have set. (It does in the auto modes.) However, the software application is performed. So, when shooting in Manual Mode, you are getting only D-Lighting, not ADL.

Confused? Well let’s see if I can make it even more confusing. When you shoot in RAW and Manual Mode, none of this matters. ADL will not affect the RAW file in any manner. It will tag the RAW file, and if you open the file in Nikon’s Capture NX software, which can read the tag, you can choose to have the ADL applied to the image. Of course, no other software can read the tag. That would require Nikon to share some its information. If you shoot JPEG or TIFF, ADL is applied to the photo. It’s also applied to the LCD preview image for RAW photos, but only the preview, not the file itself.

So does it work? Yes and no. It’s just like any other application. Sometimes it works beautifully and sometimes not so great. And it has a lot to do with how well you adjust all the settings. If you only shoot JPEG and don’t do any post processing, it might be something worth playing with. RAW shooters can, and should, ignore it.

If you’re still on the fence, consider this. Since ADL only uses one image capture, it works purely by software. You take the picture and the camera processes it for you. Yes, with auto exposure modes, the camera adjusts the exposure as well, but it’s still applying the ADL magic to a single capture. You can do the same thing in your own post-processing software and do it much better. You’ll have a lot more flexibility and you’ll be able to see what you’re doing on a big computer screen, not the back of the camera.

How I use it: I don’t.

HDR (High Dynamic Range)

What it does: When HDR is enabled, the camera takes two exposures, one for the highlights and one for the shadows, and combines them into a single image that is supposed to have detail throughout.

Since the camera takes two separate exposures, it has a lot more material to work with and should do a better job preserving detail than with Active D-Lighting. However, two exposures is often not enough to compensate for the contrast in a scene. Even if you have the Exposure differential set to 3EV, the camera won’t capture enough detail in those two shots. For those who only shoot JPEG and don’t do any post processing, HDR might be worth playing around with. The rest of us would be better off bracketing exposures and performing the HDR blending in Photoshop or another software such as Photomatix or Nik’s HDR Efex Pro.

SETTINGS NOTE: HDR does not work with RAW files, so the menu is greyed out when you shoot only RAW. That’s okay. If you’re shooting RAW, you probably know enough about post processing to realize that you can do a much better job controlling the contrast in your photos than the camera can.

SHOOTING NOTE: Since the camera takes two exposure, it’s best to have it mounted on a tripod so both shots register perfectly. If the shutter is very short and you’re using a wide-angle lens, you might be okay handholding.

How I use it: I don’t. When I want to maintain detail in very high contrast scenes, I bracket exposures  and blend them in either Photoshop, Photomatix, or Nik’s HDR Efex Pro.

Vignette Control

What it does: Automatically compensates for vignetting in photos shot with most modern lenses. Doesn’t work with DX lenses and older lenses that don’t have electronic guts.

Vignette control does not affect RAW files, only TIFFs and JPEGs. If you shoot one of those, and you don’t do much post processing yourself, it’s probably a good idea to enable it. Even if you do, there is no harm in enabling it at the Normal setting. It’s probably not going to go too far, and you can always compensate more if you need to.

How I use it: I leave it on the Normal setting.

Auto Distortion Control

What it does: Attempts to correct for barrel distortion and pin-cushion distortion in photos taken with most modern lenses.

As with most image-correction and fine-tuning features of the D800, Auto Distortion Control does not affect RAW files. Even if it did, I wouldn’t recommend using it because you can correct for the distortions in post-processing software where you have greater control. In the camera, your options are On and Off. In Photoshop or Lightroom, or most other software, you can fine-tune the correction, or even purposely make it more pronounced for a graphic effect.

If you shoot JPEG and don’t do any post processing, you might wish to enable Auto Distortion Control. I suppose it can’t hurt. But understand that it will only correct for barrel and pincushion distortion. It won’t do anything for vertical perspective distortion that comes from tilting a wide-angle lens upward or downward.

How I use it: I don’t. I make all lens corrections in Photoshop.

Long Exposure NR

What it does: Reduces noise in photos taken at long shutter speeds.

LENR is based on the fact that two identical exposures that are shot successively will display the same noise characteristics. As long as the shutter speed, ISO, and temperature are the same, and as long as there has not been a long interval between the shots (noise increases as the camera gets older), each photo will have almost precisely the same noise. And here’s the important part: The noise records regardless of whether there is any light coming through the lens. In other words, you could put the lens cap on for one of the exposures and both photos will still display the same noise.

This is important because it gives the camera a way not only to measure the noise, but also to remove it. With LENR enabled, you shoot the photo just as you normally would, but after the exposure is finished, the camera takes a second exposure, using the same settings, but without allowing any light to reach the sensor. This second exposure records only the noise, the same noise that recorded on the first shot. So now the camera has two photos to work with, one with the picture you shot, which we call the “light frame” and one that shows only the noise. The second frame is referred to as a “dark frame” because it did not record any light.

The camera software looks at the dark frame, measures all the noise, and determines precisely where it is located on the frame. Then it goes back to the light frame and plucks away all the noise that it measured. The process is called “dark frame subtraction.” There are different kinds of noise and the camera can’t get rid of all them. It does a good job of removing “hot” or “stuck” pixels—those tiny blue, red, or green squares or rectangles—and it will remove “amp glow”—the purple or pinkish color that shows on the corners of the frame when the sensor heats up. But it won’t remove “random noise,” which makes up the bulk of what we perceive as noise in an image. Random noise can be reduced using post-processing software, although with an unavoidable loss of sharpness.

Although LENR won’t remove all the noise, it stills removes enough to make it very beneficial in some shooting situations. The problem with it is that it doubles the exposure time. A 30-second exposure becomes a 60-second exposure. So it’s not practical in situations where you need the shortest interval between shots or when the subject matter is changing quickly.

When to use Long Exposure NR.

  • Photos where the light or other elements in the scene are not changing quickly.
  • Photos that do not require brief intervals between subsequent shots.

When not to use Long Exposure NR.

  • When shooting star trails or any other situation where you need the shortest interval possible between shots.
  • When shooting time lapses, unless your timer system happens to work with LENR enabled and the interval between shots is longer than the shutter speed.
  • When you don’t have a lot of time and need to get as many shots as quickly as you can.
  • When the only portion of the photo you’ll be using is a bright light source, as when shooting multiple exposures of car light streaks for layer stacking using the Lighten blend mode.

Some random tidbits about Long Exposure NR.

  • The shutter speed at which the camera performs LENR varies. With the D800, LENR is active with any exposure longer than 1 second, but this may be different for other cameras.
  • While LENR is being performed, the camera will display an indication in the viewfinder. Nikon cameras flash “Job nr.” Don’t know what the other brands do.
  • LENR affects both RAW and JPEG files.
  • The noise characteristics of a camera are not fixed. The number of hot pixels on the sensor increases as the camera is used, making it even more important to enable LENR for older cameras.

More info about Long Exposure Noise Reduction

How I use it:  I’ve spent many tedious hours with the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools in Photoshop removing hot pixels and I’m telling you it ain’t any fun. So, when practical, I shoot with LENR enabled.

High ISO NR

What it does: Reduces noise in images taken at high ISO settings.

You can choose High, Normal, Low, or Off. At High, you get more noise reduction, but you lose sharpness. That’s a tradeoff with any noise-reduction software, but at least when you do the noise reduction in post processing, you get a lot more control over the process. In the camera, it’s either on or it’s off. Actually, that’s not true. In the D800, at ISOs of 1600 and above, it’s ALWAYS on. Yep, that’s right. The Nikon D800 (And I presume other Nikon cameras as well) performs a little bit of high ISO noise reduction even when you have Off selected. Nikon says the amount is less than the amount the Low setting performs.

Unlike Long Exposure NR, High ISO NR does not affect RAW files. It only works on TIFFs, JPEGs, and the LCD preview image. If you process your RAW files with Nikon software, it will read the tag that the camera embeds with the file and apply the noise reduction to the converted photo. Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom, and other non-Nikon software cannot read this file, so the High ISO NR has no affect.

How I use it: Even if the RAW convertor I use could read the tag, I wouldn’t use High ISO NR. With High ISO NR enabled, the camera isn’t doing anything special when you take the photo. All it does is apply software to the photo AFTER you shoot it. I prefer to use my own software in the computer, where I have  much more control over it.

Of course, since High ISO NR has no effect on RAW files, it really doesn’t matter whether I have it enabled or not, since I shoot mostly in RAW. But I do occasionally shoot JPEG and I typically do very little post processing to JPEG files, so I keep High ISO NR set to Normal.

ISO Sensitivity Settings

What it does: Let’s you choose the ISO setting and whether or not you give the camera permission to choose the ISO for you.

You can choose the ISO here in the menu, or by pressing ISO button on the top of the camera and rotating the main command dial, which is MUCH easier and faster.

Auto ISO sensitivity control might seem like a good idea, since you don’t have to fuss with changing the ISO manually as the shooting conditions change. However, ISO is an extremely important component of the exposure and not something you should let the camera decide for you. The camera will change ISO purely as a result of light level changes. It has no idea what you’re trying to achieve. You do have a little bit of control with the Maximum sensitivity and Minimum shutter speed parameters, but you are still essentially turning over creative control to the camera.

How I use it: I don’t. I change ISO using the ISO button on the top of the camera and I NEVER allow the camera to make the choice for me. As for what ISO I use, of course it depends. I use everything, from the lowest to the highest, depending on the shooting conditions. I shoot most photos using ISOs between 100 and 3200, but I certainly will push it farther if I need to.

Multiple Exposure

What it does: Let’s you shoot between 2 and 10 exposures for the camera to merge into a single image.

For years, automatic in-camera multiple exposure was the domain of Nikon, contributing to much Canon bashing. Canon finally wised up and added the feature to their newest cameras. Multiple Exposure is purely for fun, creating images that are abstract and impressionistic. You can also create wild images where the same subject is in many different parts of the photo or parts from different subjects overlap in the image. Fun!

There is no right or wrong way to do multiple exposures. You just need to play and explore the possibilities. The settings are pretty easy to get used to.

Under Multiple exposure mode, if you choose On (series), the camera keeps shooting multiple exposures until you disable it. On (single photo) lets you shoot one multiple exposure series and then the camera goes back to regular shooting. Number of shots is self-explanatory. On the D800 you can choose between 2 and 10.

Auto gain needs a little explaining. If you have it enabled, the camera will adjust the exposure of each frame so that when all of them are combined the image is not overexposed. You’ll want to use this for most situations. You’ll need to disable it when you are shooting subjects isolated against a dark background, when those subjects will appear by themselves in the image. If two or more subjects will be superimposed, you need Auto gain enable, but if those two subjects will be in different parts of the image, and the background is dark enough that it won’t adversely affect the final image, you need to disable Auto gain.

How I use it: In-camera Multiple Exposure is a lot of fun and I like to play around with it. However, for serious layer stacking, where I need to have precise control, or anytime I need to stack more than 10 shots, I turn to Photoshop.

Interval Timer Shooting

What it does: You can program the camera to take photos automatically, beginning at a preset time and with preset intervals between shots.

The D800’s Interval Timer is a complex, powerful tool. Nikon should have included this feature years ago, instead of forcing us to buy their ridiculously expensive Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote Cord. (Fortunately, there are a number reasonably priced knockoffs.)

The problem with the built-in timer is that it won’t allow you to shoot shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. This is my biggest gripe with Nikon. Why won’t they let us shoot a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds without having to go to bulb? The Interval Timer won’t work in bulb, and the longest shutter speed you can select 30 seconds. I am not happy about this.

So, while you can do a lot of stuff with the built-in timer, you can’t do all those things where you would choose a long shutter speed, such as star trails and nighttime time lapses. Since I do so much of this kind of photography, I’ve never used the camera’s timer. I have experimented with it, though, and for those of you who have no need for the longer shutter speeds, I definitely recommend using it before you buy an external device.

The built-in timer has one feature that the external models don’t have, or at least the ones I have don’t have it. With the built-in timer, you can choose not only the interval between shots, but also how many shots the camera takes in between intervals. You could, for instance, program it to take 10 shots in a row, then go 60 seconds, then take 10 more shots in a row, and so on. With an external timer, you only get one shot in between the intervals.

The D800 timer is a little hard to get used to if you aren’t familiar with using intervalometers. And it’s not something you can learn by reading about it. You just need to play with it. Surprisingly, the instructions in the D800 User’s Manual cover it pretty well and are easy to follow. Dig out the manual and start playing around.

SETTINGS NOTE: To save battery power, disable Image Review under the PLAYBACK MENU. There is no need to have the image pop up after each shot when you’re doing timed shots.

How I use it: I don’t. I have two external intervalometers that I’ve been using for years and that allow me to shoot shutter speeds of ANY length. And while the built-in timer is reasonably easy to set up, I find the external timers simpler. However, if you don’t already own an external intervalometer and you don’t need to shoot shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds, I recommend using the built-in Interval Timer.

Time-Lapse Photography

What it does: You program the camera to take a series of photos  and the camera automatically assembles them into a movie that you can play back on the LCD.

I’m not qualified to talk much about the built-in time-lapse feature of the D800 since I’ve never used it to make a movie. I’m sure that some photographers will love it once they figure out all the settings and the Dos and Don’ts. Those who are into shooting time lapses seriously will ignore it altogether and use the built-in Interval Timer or an external intervalometer to program the exposures. If you want to do any post processing on the captures, add music, etc., you’ll want to take control away from the camera and assemble the movie yourself.

How I use it: I don’t do much with time lapses at present. I have captured a lot of photos for time-lapse sequences, but haven’t gotten around to assembling any of them yet. When I do, I’ll probably use Apple QuickTime Pro. I might even use that as an excuse to figure out Adobe Premiere Pro, which is currently taking a nap on my computer.

Movie Settings

I’m shooting a fair amount of video now, but it’s going to be a while before I feel qualified to talk about it and offer any advice. I’m skipping all discussion of video in this guide.

CUSTOM SETTING MENU

As you read through this, keep in mind the definition of the word “custom.” In this menu, you’ll change the default settings based on how YOU photograph, not how I photograph. You should apply this thought process to ALL camera settings, but Custom Settings is even more relevant because so much of it is purely subjective. It’s just a matter of what you like and don’t like.

a1 – a8 Autofocus

a1 AF-C priority selection

What it does: Choose if the cameras fires when subjects are not in focus when using AF-C mode (Continuous-servo autofocus).

Release: The shutter will fire at any time.
Release + focus: The shutter will fire at any time. When shooting with the frame advance set to a continuous mode, the frame rate slows down to allow the autofocus system time to catch up.
Focus: The shutter will fire only when the subject is in focus. At first glance, it might seem that the smart choice here would be Focus, so you don’t have to worry about out-of-focus pictures. However, you might lose some good shots this way. When you’re shooting bursts of people or wildlife, some of the out-of-focus shots might actually look good—you know, creative blurs. I’d rather be able to continue taking pictures, rather than having to wait for the camera to catch up with me. And I don’t want the frame rate to slow down, either.

All this said, the right choice here is really a matter of matching it to your style of shooting.

SETTINGS NOTE: The D800 has a bug that disables the Focus setting when you also choose AF-ON only under a4. It doesn’t matter whether you are in AF-C or AF-S mode. If you have AF-ON enabled, as I do, the shutter will fire even if you have Focus enabled here and in a2. Supposedly, Nikon knows about this and has chosen to do nothing about it. From what I understand, there has been a firmware update since they learned about the issue, but didn’t resolve it in the new firmware. Way to go, Nikon.

How I use it: Release.

a2 AF-S priority selection

What it does: Choose if the cameras fires when subjects are not in focus when using AF-S mode (Single-servo autofocus).

Release: The shutter will fire any time.
Focus: The shutter will fire only when the subject is in focus.

In AF-S mode, I can see how it would make more sense to choose Focus, since you are probably focusing your photos one at a time. However, I can also think of situations where you’d want to be able to fire the shutter when the subject is not in focus, such as when shooting creative blurs. As I said above, the right choice here is a matter of matching it to your style of shooting.

SETTINGS NOTES: The autofocus beep (d1) does not work when you have AF-S priority selection set to Release. Also, See SETTINGS NOTE for a1, above.

How I use it: Focus. I like the beep.

a3 Focus tracking with lock-on

What it does: Controls how the autofocusing system reacts to subject movement when you are in AF-C mode.

You have six choices here. Five of them let you tell the autofocus how long to wait before refocusing when the subject distance changes abruptly and causes the subject to go out of focus. If you choose a short setting of 1 or 2, the focusing could get a little jumpy, but if you choose a long setting of 4 or 5, you might miss some shots because the camera is waiting to refocus.

If you choose to enable this and you don’t have a good reason for choosing one setting over another, you should go with 3(Normal). Of course, if you don’t have a good reason for choosing one of the settings, maybe you should choose Off instead. With Off, the camera will instantly try to refocus when it loses a subject.

The best course of action here is to pay attention to what’s going on with the system when you are shooting, changing the settings around and experimenting, so you can determine which option is best for your style of shooting.

How I use it: Off.

a4 AF activation

What it does: Choose between focusing with both the shutter button and AF-ON button, or with just the AF-On button.

Shutter/AF-ON: If you press the shutter button halfway, the camera focuses and if you press the AF-On button, the camera focuses.
AF-On only: You can focus only by pressing the AF-ON button.

This might seem odd at first. I mean, why would you not want to use the shutter button for focusing? That’s how we’ve always done it. Either that or we focus manually by turning the focus ring on the lens. Well, stay with me here.

The problem with using the shutter button is that it can lead to missed shots and unwanted shots. You press the button halfway down and the camera autofocuses. But sometimes you press too hard and the camera takes a picture you didn’t want.

Worse is when you press the shutter button to focus on something and then change the composition slightly. You want the camera to remain focused on your subject; all you did was fine-tune the composition. So you move just enough that the focus point is no longer on the subject. Now, when you try to take the picture, the camera tries to refocus, ruining the sharp focus you had on the subject. And if you have Focus enabled for a1 or a2, the camera won’t even fire because it’s no longer in focus.

If you’re shooting in AF-C mode (continuous servo), this isn’t as much an issue. The reason for being in that mode to begin with is so that you can move the camera around and the autofocus moves with you. But in AF-S, or when shooting from a tripod, you generally want to get the focus set and have it stay there until you fire the shutter.

This is a HUGE issue for me. As a night photographer, I often get the focus set by focusing on something else besides the main subject, especially if it’s infinity focus I’m after. If I’m shooting a night sky scene and the moon or Venus is in the sky, I’m going to autofocus on one of those and then recompose the shot. If I have the shutter button enabled to perform focus, as soon as I press the cable release the take the picture, the camera tries to refocus. Only it can’t, because it’s looking at a dark sky. So I have to take the camera back off the tripod and focus again. It’s a problem.

Up until a year or so ago, I solved the problem by turning autofocus off as soon as I got the focus set. That way, the camera wouldn’t try to refocus on me. It worked, but it was a pain to keep flipping the focusing lever back and forth. And then one day, like a bolt of lightning from the sky, my friend Jack Webb told me that he had set his camera to focus only with the AF-On button and didn’t need to switch autofocus on and off. Really? How could I have missed that? Thank you, Jack!

So you disable the shutter button by choosing AF-ON only. Now, the only way the camera will autofocus is by pressing this button. Once focus is achieved, you removed your finger and the focus remains locked until you press it again. Ssssswwwweeeeeet!

At first I thought I’d only use this for still shots, when I’m shooting from a tripod. However, I’ve found that I prefer using the AF-ON button even with action and event photography. If you keep the button pressed, it acts just like the shutter button in that the camera will continue focusing in AF-C mode. You can fire the shutter at any point, even while the button is held down. I’ve yet to find a reason to take my camera off AF-ON only.

Of course, everything I’m talking about here is autofocus, where we’re letting the camera focus for us. I know a lot of people focus manually and if that’s you, you can ignore most of what I’m saying. Except the part about the camera trying to refocus after you get focus set. You’ll want to make sure you turn off the camera’s autofocus system when you focus manually so it won’t try to outdo you.

How I use it: AF-On only baby!

a5 AF point illumination

What it does: You can choose to have the focus point light in red or black.

Auto: The focus point highlights in red when the camera decides it needs to.
On: The focus point is always red.
Off: the focus point is always black.

For me, this is a no brainer. I want the focus point to be as visible as possible at all times, so I choose On. But for some photographers, that might not be the best option. For some stupid reason, with Auto or On enabled and you choose a crop mode other than FX, the area outside of the crop zone remains lit up, with only red overlay lines to tell you where the crop is. If you use different crops often, you’ll probably want to disable AF point illumination so the dead area outside of the crop is greyed out. I never let the camera do my cropping for me, so this is not an issue for me.

How I use it: On.

a6 Focus point wrap-around

What it does: Determines what the focus point does when it reaches the edge of the viewfinder.

Wrap: When the focus point gets to the edge, it “wraps” around to the other side of the viewfinder. So if you hold the multiselector down, the focus point will continue scrolling across the viewfinder until you let go.
No wrap: When the focus point reaches the edge, it stops. You have to press the other side of the multiselector to get it to move.

This may seem like a “who cares” setting, but for me, it’s a biggie. I want full control over the focus point. I don’t want the camera swinging it around all over the place.

How I use it: No wrap.

a7 Number of focus points

What it does: Lets you choose between 11 and 51 focus points.

Supposedly, the choice here only affects manual focus, so if you choose 11 points, the camera will not be restricted to this in AF-C mode. That said, I don’t know why you would want to restrict yourself to only 11 points for anything.

How I use it: 51 points.

a8 Built-in AF-assist illuminator

What it does: Enables or disables the focus-assist light.

If you choose On, in certain conditions the camera shines a light on the subject to aid in focusing. If you want everyone to know you’re about to take their picture, you’ll want to enable this.

How I use it: This was one of the first things I turned off when I got the camera.

More about focusing:

With the D800, you have a choice between Manual, AF-C (continuous), and AF-S (single). A little switch (on the front of the camera below the lens-release button) lets you switch between manual and autofocus. When you have it in autofocus, you can press the center button on the switch to set more controls. While holding down the button, rotate the main (rear) command dial to cycle between AF-C and AF-S.

When you are in AF-C mode, rotate the sub (front) command dial to cycle between the following modes. (The “d” stands for Dynamic.)

Auto: The camera choose which of the 51 focus points to use.
S: You choose the focus point.
d9: The camera use a block of 9 focus points.
d21: The camera uses a block of 21 focus points.
d51: The camera uses all 51 focus points.
3d: You choose the starting point and the camera tracks it all over the place.

When you are in AF-S, the only modes available are Auto and S.

Which one should you choose? Good question. Ask 10 photographers and you’ll get 15 answers. Obviously, S is for static subjects, where you have the time to work. The other modes are for moving subjects. Typically, you’d choose a mode that uses fewer sensors (d9) for subjects that move slowly or predictably and more sensors (d51) for erratic subjects that are moving all over the place. Some shooters choose d21 as a compromise. Some shooters swear by 3d tracking, while others swear at it.

As with so many things about photography, the right choice here is not a black and white issue. Regardless of which mode you’re in, something’s going to happen that will make you wish you were in another one. Anytime you’re shooting in AF-C mode, it’s because you’re shooting some sort of action and you need to react quickly and have your camera react quickly. If you spend all your time pondering and switching back and forth between modes, you’re going to miss shots.

Take your camera out and play with it. Practice shooting in all modes and in all conditions. Figure out which mode works best for what you’re doing. When you get in a real shoot, set the camera and leave it alone.

SETTINGS NOTE: There is a glitch with the AF-C/AF-S settings. You cannot set the AF-C mode to Auto and the AF-S mode to S, or vice versa. With either S or Auto, both the AF-C and AF-S modes have to be the same. So, I can’t choose S for AF-S and Auto for AF-C and have it remain that way when I cycle between the modes. However, I can set AF-S to S and AF-C to any other mode besides S or Auto and have it remain that way as I cycle back and forth.

Get that? Me neither. Just play with it. You’ll see what I mean.

b1 –b6 Metering/Exposure

b1 ISO sensitivity step value  (In this context, “step” and “stop” are the same thing)

What it does: Lets you change the ISO sensitivity between 1/3 stop, 1/2  stop, and 1 stop.

For most photographers, 1/2 stop increments are probably ideal. It’s a compromise between having so many clicks to scroll through at 1/3 stop and losing so much control over the exposure at 1 stop.

How I use it: As with shutter speed and aperture (b2), I have this set to 1/3 stop. I know photographers who have this set to 1 stop, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to give up so much control. Perhaps it seems more critical to me because I change the ISO so much in my night photography.

b2 EV steps for exposure cntrl (In this context, “step” and “stop” are the same thing)

What it does: Lets you change the exposure control sensitivity between 1/3 stop, 1/2  stop, and 1 stop.

For most photographers, 1/2 stop increments are probably ideal. It’s a compromise between having so many clicks to scroll through at 1/3 stop and losing so much control over the exposure at 1 stop.

How I use it: As with ISO sensitivity (b1), I have this set to 1/3 stop. I know photographers who have this set to 1 stop, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to give up some much control. Back before we had electronic cameras and lenses, I would shift the aperture ring (remember those?) between the click stops in order to get exposure control in less than 1 stop increments. It was crude and I could only change the aperture this way, but at least it gave me a little more control with exposure. Now that I can set ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in precise 1/3 increments, I’m happier than a camel on Wednesdays.

b3 Exp./flash comp. step value (In this context, “step” and “stop” are the same thing)

What it does: Lets you change the exposure and flash compensation sensitivity between 1/3 stop, 1/2  stop, and 1 stop.

Regardless of how you set b1 and b2, it makes sense to keep this one at 1/3 stop. After all, the whole idea behind exposure compensation is so you can fine-tune the exposure. You can’t fine-tune in one-stop increments!

How I use it: 1/3 stop.

b4Easy exposure compensation

What it does: Makes my life much simpler! It lets you make exposure compensations by rotating the main command dial without having to press the exposure compensation button.

I think the F100 was the first camera I had that offered easy exposure compensation and ever since it has been a must-have feature for me. I would not buy a new camera that didn’t have it. Fortunately, all of today’s pro cameras do.

Why do I love it so much? Without it, when you are shooting in any auto mode, such as aperture priority or shutter priority, you have to press and hold the exposure compensation button at the same time you rotate the main command dial. I don’t know about you, but I never could do this without moving my eye away from the viewfinder to make sure I pressed the right button, not to mention that it was cumbersome to do while handholding the camera. With easy exposure compensation, I can set the camera to aperture priority (my preferred auto setting) and very quickly and easily adjust the exposure compensation without removing my eye from the viewfinder. Anytime I’m shooting handheld, I find this to be a terrific way to work.

The biggest argument I’ve heard against it is that it’s too easy to turn the dial by mistake. I’ll admit that this can be a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. When you rotate the dial, the amount of compensation you choose shows up in the viewfinder on the bar graph, so if you are shooting in an auto mode and the graph is not zeroed out, you know that compensation has been set. In manual, the dial functions as it normally does, allowing you to set the shutter speed or aperture manually.

Here’s another reason why I love easy exposure compensation, or rather why I don’t like using the exposure compensation button. When you press the exposure compensation button and rotate the command dial, the value you set remains until you remove it. If you set the dial to +5 and turn the camera off, when you turn the camera back on, the exposure compensation is still set to +5. This is an exposure disaster waiting to happen for me. No thanks! With easy exposure compensation, you can set it to reset every time you turn the camera off and when the exposure meter turns off. Much better!

On (Auto reset): Easy exposure compensation is enabled, but every time you turn the camera off or whenever the exposure meter turns off, the compensation is reset to zero. This is what you want. Okay, this is what I want.
On: Exposure compensation does not reset when you turn the camera off or when the meter turns off.
Off: Easy exposure compensation is disabled.

How I use it: On (Auto reset).

b5 Center-weighted area

What it does: Lets you choose the area of importance for center-weighted metering.

Default is 12mm, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to change it. Actually, I don’t understand why anyone would want to use center weighted metering in the first place. When I first got into photography, that was all we had, but as soon I got a camera that had Matrix metering, I set it at that have never looked back.

How I use it: Mine’s at the default, but it doesn’t matter. I NEVER use center-weighted metering.

b6 Fine-tune optimal exposure

What it does: Lets you calibrate the exposure, if you’re crazy enough to do it.

I have no idea why Nikon gives us this option. This is the same company that for years would not let us clean our own digital sensors without forcing us to buy an expensive AC adapter so our mirrors wouldn’t come crashing down on us and the same company that still won’t give us shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds because, so I’ve heard, our photos might come out too noisy. But they’ll give us all an option that could seriously screw up the exposure in our photos from now on.

Exposure calibration should only be performed by qualified technicians. The reason is because most of us aren’t qualified to tell the difference between under- or over-exposure caused by the meter not reading the scene correctly or that by a defect in the exposure calculation system. And by most of us, I really mean to say all of us.

If your exposures aren’t coming out looking the way you think they should, use exposure compensation to get them there. Don’t go messing with the guts of the camera, where the changes you make are there to stay without even a notice included on the screen to remind you.

How I use it: I don’t.

c1 – c4 Timers/AE lock

c1 Shutter-release button AE-L

What it does: When enabled, pressing the shutter release button halfway will lock the exposure.

I can’t think of a good reason to enable this. If you need to lock exposure, you can press the dedicated AE-L button. Locking exposure through the shutter button seems like a recipe for confusion.

How I use it: Off.

c2 Auto meter-off delay

What it does: Let’s you choose how long the meter remains active after you press the shutter button.

Here’s another one where I diverge from most photographers I know. The meter drains battery power, so most people use the default setting of 6 seconds or thereabouts. If I had mine set to 6 seconds, I’d end up wearing a straight jacket. I hate having to push the shutter button constantly to bring the meter screen back up again and I’m perfectly willing to sacrifice a little battery power to keep from having to.

How I use it: Mine’s set to 1 minute

c3 Self-timer

What it does: Lets you choose how long before the shutter fires after you press the button, the total number of shots taken, and the interval between the shots.

Everyone has used the self timer at some point, but most people don’t realize that you can program it to shoot to shoot between 1 and 9 shots all by itself (on the D800; other cameras may be different). So, once you get everyone set up for that group shot, you don’t have to keep running back and forth to press the shutter to make sure you get a shot with everyone’s eyes open. Simply program 4 or 5 shots with a second delay and tell everyone to keep posing until all the shots are done.

The self timer also works okay as an emergency cable release. For that, you would set the timer delay to 2 seconds.

The maximum time you can set for the delay is 20 seconds, but you can use the Mirror Up feature on the Release Mode Dial as an effective 30-second shutter delay. When you press the shutter button while Mup is selected on the dial, the mirror raises, but the shutter doesn’t fire until you press the shutter button again. But if you don’t press the shutter again within 30 seconds, the shutter will fire by itself. Automatic 30-second self timer!

How I use it: As needed.

c4 Monitor off delay

What it does: Lets you choose how long the rear LCD monitor remains on for various purposes.

As with the setting under c2, the settings I choose here are longer than most people choose. I just don’t like having to keep pressing the dang button to bring the monitor back up all the time.

How I use it: Playback: 20 seconds, Menus: 1 minute, Information display: 1 minute, Image review: 20 seconds, Live view: 10 minutes.

d1 – d12 Shooting/Display

d1 Beep

What it does: Produces an audible beep to verify focus and for a few other functions.

I know I’m in the minority here, but I love the beep. I even have mine set to the highest volume level to make sure I can hear it. The way I work, the beep makes perfect sense. It allows me to verify focus very quickly before shooting. My eyes are poor, so I shoot everything using autofocus, but I don’t want to take the time to keep  looking at the little dot in the viewfinder that verifies focus. With the beep, I don’t have look at anything. When I hear the beep, I’m in focus. No beep means fuzzy pictures. Easy!

SETTINGS NOTE: The beep is disabled when Custom Setting a2 is set to Release and when in AF-C focus mode.

How I use it: Beep enabled at the highest volume for most shooting. When I work in a crowd environment, such as a wedding or party, I turn the volume down to its lowest setting so no one else will hear it.

d2 CL mode shooting speed

What it does: Sets the maximum number of shots you can shoot per second when the frame advance is set to Continuous Low (CL).

When the frame advance is set to Continuous High (CH), the maximum rate is 4FPS. You should set the CL mode to whatever you think makes sense.

How I use it: 2 FPS

d3 Max. continuous release

What it does: Lets you set the maximum number of shots you can take when you hold the shutter button down in CL or CH frame advance mode.

The maximum number allowed is 100. You can set it lower, but I don’t know why you would want to. Actually, I wish Nikon would stop making our decisions for us and give us more control with things like this. Instead of 100 shots as the max, it shoot be at least 999.

How I use it: Maxed out at 100. I use this all the time for shooting meteors and other situations where I want the camera to run continuously at a shutter speed of 30 seconds or less. It’s much easier to just lock the shutter down with a cable release and let it rip than to program an intervalometer. Of course, after 100 shots, I have to start all over again, which can be a pain. However, since I’m usually using shutter speeds around 20 or 30 seconds, it takes between 30 and 50 minutes to run the course.

d4 Exposure delay mode

What it does: After you press the shutter, the camera waits between 1 and 3 seconds before it takes the picture.

Exposure delay is similar to the Mirror up mode on the Frame Advance Dial. When you press the shutter, the mirror flips up, but the camera waits 1, 2, or 3 seconds before it takes the photo. This prevents the possibility of vibrations cause by mirror slap. I suggest choosing 2 or 3 seconds to make sure the camera has enough time to settle down from the slap.

Anytime you are shooting with the camera on a tripod, it’s a good idea to employ either the Exposure delay mode or the Mirror up mode to prevent vibrations. Both work equally well, but one issue with Exposure delay is that, when enabled, it is always on. You have to manually turn it off when you don’t want it, such as when handholding.

How I use it: I don’t. I prefer the Mirror up mode on the Frame Advance Dial because it is much quicker to switch back and forth between modes. When I don’t need to lock up the mirror, I simply rotate the dial back to Single, Continuous Low, or Continuous High. No need to go into the menu.

d5 File number sequence

What it does: Lets you choose how the camera applies file numbers to new shots.

On: The next photo is assigned a new number, one digit higher than the previous photo. This applies regardless of whether you have a new card inserted. With On, every photo you make has a different number.
Off: Numbering starts over when you insert a new card or choose a different folder on an existing card. This is the “disaster waiting to happen” mode.
Reset: Starts the sequential numbering all over again.

Take my word for it and set this to On. If you don’t, you’ll end up with photos having the same file names. Not good.

How I use it: On.

d6 Viewfinder grid display

What it does: Displays horizontal and vertical lines in the viewfinder.

Grid lines are an extremely helpful compositional aid, particularly for architecture shots where you need to align horizontal and vertical lines. I recommend leaving the grid on at all times, but for some types of photography, such as  portraits and wildlife, it might be helpful to have the screen as clear as possible.

How I use it: On all the time.

d7 ISO display and adjustment

What it does: Choose between displaying ISO or frame count in the top LCD display.

Show ISO sensitivity: ISO is displayed in the top LCD instead of frame count.
Show ISO/Easy ISO: ISO is displayed in the top LCD. You can change ISO by rotating the rear command dial when in Aperture Priority and the front command dial when in Shutter Priority or Program.
Show frame count: The frame count is displayed in the top LCD instead of ISO.

How I use it: Show ISO sensitivity. I change ISO quite often, so I like being able to see the ISO without having to look through the viewfinder.

d8 Screen tips

What it does: Displays a brief description of the items you highlight on the rear Information Display.

There is no reason I can think of to disable this, unless it just annoys you to see those tips light up. Actually, they aren’t even tips. They’re just the names of the items selected.

How I use it: On.

d9 Information display

What it does: Controls the lighting on the rear Information Display.

Auto: The coloring of the letters and background change automatically according to the ambient light level. When it’s dark, the display has light letters on a dark background. When it’s light, the display has dark letters on a white background.
Manual: You choose which display you want to show at all times.

How I use it: Auto.

d10 LCD illumination

What it does: Let’s you choose between auto and manual control of the top LCD display backlight.

On: The backlight comes on whenever the meter is active. This is the juice-sucker mode.
Off: The backlight comes on only when you twist the camera power switch clockwise. Choose this setting to save battery life.

How I use it: Off.

d11 MB-D12 battery type

What it does: Tells the camera the type of batteries you’re using in the optional MB-D12 battery grip.

If you don’t use the MB-D12, you can ignore this. If you do use it, you should choose the right battery type so the camera will be able to judge remaining juice accurately.

How I use it: I don’t use the MB-D12, so I ignore this setting.

d12 Battery order

What it does: When you use the MB-D12 battery grip, this setting lets you choose whether the grip’s batteries or the camera battery is used first.

I can think of no reason why you’d want the camera battery to run down before the battery grip does. If the camera battery conks out, you have to remove the grip to replace it.

How I use it: I don’t use the MB-D12, but if I did, I would definitely choose to have the camera use its batteries first.

e1 – e7 Bracketing/Flash

e1 Flash sync speed

What it does: Lets you choose the fastest shutter available when using a flash.

You can choose from 1/60 through 1/250 second, plus 1/25s (Auto FP) and 1/320s (Auto FP). “FP” is Nikon’s terminology for high-speed sync. With that enabled, when you use a flash that is compatible with FP (the built-in flash is not), the camera will use it automatically. High speed sync is useful in certain situations, such as in bright sun where you want to use a wide aperture for decreased depth of field.

For general shooting, it’s a good idea to keep this setting at the highest sync speed below FP, which is 1/250s and switch to FP if you need it.

How I use it: 1/250s.

e2 Flash shutter speed

What it does: Choose the slowest shutter speed at which you can use flash when in Program or Aperture Priority mode.

This option is for making sure your pictures are sharp when handholding the camera. You can choose most any speed you want from 1/60 sec down to 30 seconds, but you can’t handhold the camera with slow shutter speeds without having blurring pictures. (Yes, if the flash is totally illuminating the entire subject and there is no ambient light, the flash itself will freeze the subject.) If you have the camera mounted on a tripod, you can switch it back to a long speed.

How I use it: 1/15s.

e3 Flash control for built-in flash

What it does: Controls the operation of the built-in flash.

There are four options here: TTL, Manual, Repeating flash, and Commander mode. All four are probably useful to some photographers at one time or another. With TTL, you set it and forget it. On Manual, you have to set the power level yourself. With Repeating flash, the flash acts like a disco ball. And then there’s Commander mode. Good luck figuring that one out!

Actually, I know a lot of people who use the built-in flash as a commander (trigger) for remote flashes. They have my sympathy and my admiration. Somehow, they have figured out all the settings and actually are able to get their remotes positioned properly to make everything work. Way to go!

Personally, if I’m doing serious flash photography, I’m connecting my off-camera flashes via Pocket Wizards or Cactus V5s, and not worrying about any line of sight issues. I have other things to worry about, and yes, there is a learning curve with my approach, but for me, that curve is a lot less and I have far fewer headaches in the process.

How I use it: Since I only use the built-in flash for grab shots at parties and such, I don’t bother with anything besides TTL, although I might switch it to Manual on occasion when I need to throw a little fill light as long as precise aiming is not required.

e4 Modeling flash

What it does: Fires a modeling flash when the depth-of-field preview button is pressed when using the built-in flash or most newer Nikon flashes.

I suspect I’m in the minority here, but I like this feature. As long as you don’t use it on an unsuspecting subject, I find it helpful sometimes to judge what the light is doing. Of course, with digital cameras, it’s a piece of cake to take as many test shots as you need, but I find that using the modeling light can make the setup a little faster.

How I use it: On.

e5 Auto bracketing set

What it does: Lets you choose what happens when you use Auto bracketing.

There are a number of choices here, but as far as I’m concerned, only one of them is worth choosing: AE only. In this mode, when the camera goes through its bracketing sequence (using parameters you set when you press the Bracket (BKT) button, the only thing that changes between the exposures is the exposure. Any of the other settings is just asking for trouble.

Really, the only reason you should be using Auto bracketing anyway is to make very quick exposures for combining into HDRs, such a s when handholding or when the subject is changing and you don’t have time to do it manually. If you’re using Auto bracketing just to make sure you get the right exposure, you really need to learn a little more about talking pictures first. Bracketing is fine in some circumstances, as long as you do it intelligently. Auto bracketing a burst of photos in hopes that somewhere in there will be a good one is just plain sloppy.

How I use it: I have it set to AE only, but I have never used Auto bracketing. When I need to shoot bracketed exposures for HDR, I change the exposure manually and shoot them one at a time.

e6 Auto bracketing (Mode M)

What it does: Controls how the camera changes the exposure and flash level when you have AE & flash or AE only set in e5 and are shooting in Manual exposure mode.

If you’re going to use Auto bracketing, this is an important menu. It lets you tell the camera whether you want it to change aperture or shutter speed to vary the exposures. For most subjects, you’ll probably want to have the aperture remain constant, so you’ll want to choose Flash/speed. Hopefully, you didn’t choose any options under e5 for the flash, and if that’s the case, you can ignore the word “Flash” in all of these choices. If for some reason you’d rather the camera change the aperture when bracketing, choose Flash/aperture. Do not choose Flash/speed/aperture because you won’t know what the camera is doing.

How I use it: Flash/speed. But as I stated in e5, I never use Auto bracketing.

e7 Bracketing order

What it does: Sets the order in which the exposures are shot when using Auto bracketing.

“MTR” stands for meter. Take your pick.

How I use it: I choose MTR>under>over, but only because there is no option for “I don’t give a flying flip.”

f1 – f13 Controls

f1 (Light bulb) Switch

What it does: Lets you choose what happens when you rotate the power switch towards the light bulb icon.

LCD backlight: When you rotate the switch, the backlight on the top LCD lights.
Info and information display: When you rotate the switch, the backlight on the top LCD lights up and the rear Information Display comes on.

How I use it: Info and information display.

f2 Multi selector center button

What it does: Lets you choose what happens when you press the center button on the rear multiselector when you are in shooting mode, playback mode, or live view.

There are several options here for each of the three modes. You should choose the ones that make the most sense  for the way you shoot.

How I use it: For Shooting mode, I choose Select center focus point. I find it very helpful to move the focus point to the center by simply pressing the button, rather than having to scroll it around. For Playback Mode, I choose Zoom on/off at High magnification. One press of the button and I can tell if my stars are sharp! For Live view, I choose Zoom on/off at Medium magnification.

f3 Multi selector

What it does: Enables the rear multiselector to activate the metering system.

If you have this enabled, you can fire the meter back up by pressing the multiselector. I can’t think of any advantages or disadvantages either way.

How I use it: I have it disabled (Do nothing).

f4 Assign Fn button

What it does: Lets you choose the function of the Function button (Fn) on the front of the camera.

Here’s where things get messy. There are too many options! I’m not really complaining, as I’d certainly rather have more choices than fewer ones, but with so many options it’s hard to remember what you have set. And to make it even more complicated, you can choose what happens when you press the Function button and rotate either of the control dials as a separate function from what happens if you only press the Function button.

Note that most of these functions are selectable in other ways on the camera, so you don’t have to make any compromises. Your choice here should be one that you need to access most often.

Here are the choices if you press the Function button WITHOUT rotating a command dial:

Preview: Depth-of-field preview.
FV lock: Press the button once and the flash fires so the camera can lock in the flash value. Once locked in, the flash no longer needs to pre-flash, so the camera will fire instantly and the pre-flash will not disrupt the subject. A second push of the button unlocks the value. Note that the flash exposure will be accurate only if the camera-to-subject distance stays the same.
AE/AF lock: Exposure and focus are locked as long as the button remains pressed.
AE lock only: Exposure is locked while the button is pressed.
AE lock (Reset on release): Locks exposure when you press the button. Press it again to release. Will release automatically when you take a picture and when the meter turns off.
AE lock (Hold): Locks exposure when you press the button. Press it again to release. Will release automatically when the meter turns off, but not when you take a picture.
AF lock only: Focus locks while the Function button is pressed.
AF-ON: The Function button initiates autofocus.
Flash off: Holding the Function button prevents the flash from firing.
Bracketing burst: When the frame advance is set to Single and you hold the Function button, pressing the shutter button will initiate the full bracketing sequence that you have set in the bracketing mode.
Matrix metering: Activates Matrix metering while the button is pressed.
Center-weighted metering: Activates Center-weighted metering while the button is pressed.
Spot metering: Activates Spot metering while the button is pressed.
Playback: The Function button operates the same as the Playback button.
Access top item in MY MENU: One press of the Function button brings up the top item in My Menu. You can hit the Multiselector left arrow to jump to the entire My Menu choices.
+NEF (RAW): When you’re shooting JPEGs, if you press the Function button, a NEF (RAW) file will record as well.
Viewfinder virtual horizon: Displays a bar graph inside the viewfinder to aid in leveling and plumbing the camera. This works differently than Virtual horizon, which displays on the rear LCD. I much prefer the latter. Viewfinder virtual horizon is difficult to see in low light, and, of course, requires you to look through the viewfinder.
None: Disables the Function button. Function plus command dial operation is still functional.

And here are the choices if you press the Function button AND rotate one of the command dials:

Choose image area: Press the Function button and rotate a command dial to scroll through various sensor crops.
Shutter spd & aperture lock: Holding button and rotating the rear (main) command dial locks shutter speed in Shutter Priority and Manual. Holding button and rotating the front (sub) command dial locks aperture in Aperture Priority and Manual.
1 step spd/aperture: Press the Function button to make exposure changes in 1-stop increments.
Choose non-CPU lens number: This lets you choose an old manual lens from among a list that you have previously programmed into the camera. Those of you who understand this, don’t need my help. Those who don’t, don’t need to be messing around with this option.
Active D-lighting: Hold the Function button and rotate a command dial to adjust the settings for Active D-lighting.
None: Disables the Function plus command dial operation. Function button alone is still functional.

How I use it: Function button by itself: Access top item in MY MENU. Function button plus command dial: None.

f5 Assign preview button

What it does: Assigns the role of the depth-of-field preview button on the front of the camera. Options are the same as f4 Assign Fn button, except that the option for AF-ON is not available.

How I use it: Preview button by itself: Preview. Preview button plus command dial: None.

f6 Assign AE-L/AF-L button

What it does: Assigns the role of the AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera. Options are the same as f4 Assign Fn button, except that the options for 1 step spd/aperture and Active D-lighting are not available.

How I use it: AE-L/AF-L button by itself: AE lock only. AE-L/AF-L  button plus command dial: None.

f7 Shutter spd & aperture lock

What it does: Lets you lock the current selected shutter speed in Shutter priority and Manual modes or the currently selected aperture in Aperture priority and Manual modes.

This works similar to the Shutter spd & aperture lock setting under f4, f5, and f6, but with one huge difference. Once you lock it, it stays locked until you go back into the menu and change it. I have no idea why anyone would need to do this.

How I use it: I set both options to Off.

f8 Assign BKT button

What it does: Assigns the function of the Bracket button on top of the camera.

You have three choices here: BKT Auto bracketing, Multiple exposure, and HDR (high dynamic range). With either choice enabled, you push the button and rotate the front and rear command dials to choose the particular settings for that choice. Personally, I think it’s asking for trouble to assign a function to a button that is different from the button’s name. There’s enough to remember already on these picture-taking computers. I know I’d forget how I programmed the button and wonder why I’m not getting Auto bracketing when I press it.

How I use it: BKT Auto bracketing.

f9 Customize command dials

What it does: Lets you choose the function of the main (rear) and sub (front) command dials.

Reverse rotation: Change the direction in which you rotate the dial for adding or subtracting exposure. This should be set at whatever you feel most comfortable with. For me, it feels natural to rotate the rear command dial to the left (clockwise as viewed from above) to increase exposure and to the right to decrease it, since that’s the way I have the exposure indicators set up (plus is on the left and minus is on the right). But then I also can’t understand why anyone would want their toilet tissue unrolling toward the back, either.

Whichever way you choose, make sure the exposure compensation and shutter speed both operate in the same direction. You don’t want to start freaking out right when the  bride’s walking down the aisle. You may need to sync this with f12Reverse indicators. As I said, I have my indicators set so that plus is on the left and minus on the right, but in order to get everything synced, I had to check Exposure compensation and uncheck Shutter speed/aperture.

Another thing you’ll want to do is sync all your cameras. If you shoot all one brand, they’re probably already in sync, but if you own different cameras, you’ll probably need to customize the dials so that all of them operate the same.

Change main/sub: This lets you switch the roles of the main and sub dial command dials. I prefer the default setting of using the main dial for shutter speed, since that’s what I change most often and it’s easier to adjust that dial.
Aperture setting: If you are using a lens that has an aperture ring (remember those?) and if for some reason you’d rather change aperture by rotating the ring instead of using a command dial, you can choose that here. Have no idea why you would want to do such a thing, but you have that option.
Menus and playback: Thank you Nikon! Every once in a while, you get it right. Set this to On and you can scroll through photos on the LCD screen using the main command dial and you can scroll through whatever image review info screens you have selected in Playback Display Options under the Playback menu. So you can flip through a bunch of photos very easily just by rotating the dial, rather than using the cumbersome multiselector. (The multiselector retains its function with this option, so you can use it as well.)

And here’s another cool tip. If you magnify the image, either by using the magnifier button or pressing the center button on the multiselector if you programmed it that way under f2, you can scroll through all your photos while the magnification remains set. This is a great way to pick the sharpest photos if you edit in the camera. (I prefer editing in the computer, where I can better see what I’m doing.) On (image review excluded) prevents the command dials from being used to scroll through images when a picture you just shot pops up on the LCD. If you have your camera set up for every photo to come up on the screen, you’ll want to choose On (image review excluded) so it doesn’t interfere with you making exposure adjustments quickly.

How I use it: Main command dial is for shutter speed, sub for aperture. Rotate main command dial to the left to increase exposure. I have On (image review excluded) selected, although I have the automatic image review disabled.

f10 Release button to use dial

What it does: Lets you activate a button by pressing it once and letting go. Select this if you really want to drive yourself crazy.

When this feature is enabled, you can press a button once to activate it, and then you can rotate a command dial to make adjustments without having to keep the button pressed down. Sounds like a good idea, right? The problem is that the button remains active until you press the button again, take a picture, or press the shutter button halfway. I’m afraid my memory is not that good. I’d forget that I pushed a button and walk around with a live camera, ready to make who knows what changes at the flip of a dial.

How I use it: OFF. NO. DISABLED. INACTIVE. DO NOT USE. NO FRIGGING WAY.

f11 Slot empty release lock

What it does: Lets you take a picture when no memory card is inserted—if you’re crazy enough to do so.

If you started out with film, you know what it feels like to shoot an entire roll and then discover that the film never  engaged with the spool sprockets, or even worse, that you simply forgot to load a new roll ion the first place. And, of course, the best photo you ever shot in your life was on that roll. The most spectacular sunset in the history of humankind is on one of my phantom rolls of film.

To make the disaster even more likely, if you have this enabled, not only can you take the picture without a card inserted, you can view it on the LCD, just like it’s there. You just can’t download it. I’ve read in a couple of places that when you take a photo without a memory card installed, the camera places a red flag in the upper left corner of the image on the preview screen, but it doesn’t show up on my screen.

Do yourself a favor and choose Release locked.

How I use it: I’m still peeved about that sunset. I choose Release locked.

f12 Reverse indicators

What it does: Lets you switch direction of the positive and negative values on exposure graph.

This is purely subjective. The only suggestion I would make here is that the bar graph be  synced to the rotation of the command dials. For example, I have mine set up so that the plus sign is on the left and the minus sign on the right. I also have the main command dial set up so that when I rotate it to the left, it increases exposure, matching the direction of the exposure graph. It just feels more natural working this way.

How I use it. Plus to the left, minus to the right.

f13 Assign MB-D12 AF-ON

What it does: Assigns the function of the AF-ON button on the optional MB-D12 battery grip.

The choices here are explained under f4 Assign Fn button.

How I use it: I don’t use the MB-D12. My camera is big enough as it is.

g1 – g4 Movie

I’m shooting a fair amount of video, but it’s going to be a while before I feel qualified to offer any advice. I’m skipping all discussion of video in this guide.

SETUP MENU

Format Memory Card

What it does: Lets you, um, format the memory card.

This performs the same function as the two-button formatting done with the Delete and Mode buttons (the ones with the red format icon). I much prefer to use the simple two-button formatting rather than to dig through the menus, so I never use this. Note that if you use this menu function, you can select which card (CF or SD) you want to format. If you use the two-button formatting and have two cards installed, you can only format whichever card you have selected as the primary. To format the other card, you have to remove the primary card.

Remember, formatting removes ALL data from the card!

How I use it: I prefer the two-button formatting. I always reformat every card immediately after downloading and backing up the photos. I NEVER erase photos or format cards in the computer.

Monitor Brightness

What it does: Adjusts the brightness of the rear LCD screen.

You can set this to fixed level or let the camera adjust it automatically based on the ambient light levels.

How I use it: I prefer to have the brightness at a constant level, so I set it manually to 0.

Clean Image Sensor

What it does: Lets you initiate the in-camera sensor cleaning and set whether the cleaning is done automatically when you turn the camera on or off or both.

This is for the auto cleaning that the camera performs, where it vibrates the mirrors hoping to dislodge any dust. I think this is mostly marketing hype. It might remove some of the dry dust that has recently accumulated on the sensor,  but it won’t remove any of the sticky dust or dust that has been sitting there for a while. Still, I suppose there is no harm in using it, although it does take a little time and therefore I wouldn’t recommend enabled the automatic cleaning at startup.

See the next menu item for more about sensor cleaning.

How I use it: OFF Clean at shutdown. The “OFF” part sounds confusing. It refers to the sensor being cleaned when the camera is shut off.

Lock Mirror Up For Cleaning

What it does: Locks up the mirror so you can clean the image sensor.

Sensor cleaning is in competition for title of “Most talked about and fought over setting on the camera.” It’s right up there with RAW versus JPEG. Some say NEVER touch the sensor, others claim it’s no big deal. The truth is somewhere in between. I’ve been cleaning my sensors with brushes and swabs for years, with no problems whatsoever. But I’m a MacGyver kind of guy that doesn’t get squeamish at the idea of taking something apart and putting it back together again.

For most photographers, my recommendation is to leave the physical sensor cleaning to the experts. I do recommend one cleaning method that does not allow anything to contact the sensors. After you lock up the mirror for cleaning, very carefully hold the camera upside down and use a big bulb blower to throw blasts of air into the chamber. Do not let the blower contact the camera and throw a few blasts from it before you point it in the chamber so it will shoot out any dust that has accumulated inside. Do this for a few seconds, then close the mirror, and very quickly put the lens back on.

This method will remove most of the dust that accumulates on the sensor, but only a “wet” cleaning removes all of it. Even a direct wiping with a statically charged brush won’t remove the sticky dust. With a wet cleaning, you wet a swab with a special cleaning solution and wipe it across the sensors. I don’t recommend this unless you really feel comfortable and know what you’re doing.

SETTINGS NOTE: For some reason, if you have Custom Setting g4 (Assign shutter button) set to Record Movies, the Lock mirror up for cleaning option is greyed out. You need to set it to Take photos.

How I use it: I clean my own sensors when they get bad, but remember, I’m like the guy who created the bionic limbs for the Six-Million-Dollar Man. I like to take things apart and make them better than they were before. Better, faster, stronger. (Guess I’m showing my age a little here.)

Image Dust Off Ref Photo

What it does: Tells the camera to take a picture of the dust on the sensor so Nikon’s Capture NX software can use it to remove that dust from a photo.

This works similar to Long Exposure Noise Reduction in that a reference photo is taken by the camera and software is used to identify what needs to be removed from the real image. There are a number of problems in this case, however. First, you have to use Capture NX software. I don’t and I don’t know many people who do. But the biggest issue is that it just isn’t practical. Dust is not constant, so you can’t use a Dust Off Ref Photo to remove dust from an image that you shot the next day, or even a few hours, after you shot the reference photo.

Also, since focal length and aperture can affect the appearance of the dust, I would question the accuracy of this method if the settings between the ref photo and actual image do not match. Nikon claims that this makes no difference, but I still question it. I don’t use Capture NX, so I can’t test it myself.

For this to be truly useful, it would need to work just like LENR, where you would enable the function and after you take the shot, the camera acquires the ref data and the camera software removes the dust. This would be useful in certain situations where you know there’s a lot of dust on the sensor but you don’t have the time or means to clean it right then.

There are methods for acquiring dust reference photos that other software can read, but frankly, this is all more trouble than simply keeping your sensor cleaned in the first place and dealing with whatever few dust spots pop up along the way in post processing.

How I use it: I don’t.

HDMI

What it does: Choose the format and other settings for when you connect the camera to a TV.

How I use it: I’ve never connected my camera to a TV, but I keep this set to AUTO in case I ever do.

Flicker Reduction

What it does: Reduces flicker in video shot in under certain types of lighting.

The idea here is to match the frequency of the lighting power source, either 50Hz or 60Hz. You always know this, right? What? You mean you don’t have a clue what the frequency is of the lighting you’re shooting under? And you call yourself a photographer?

Okay, just set it to AUTO. If the video still flickers, try switching between 50Hz and 60Hz and see if one looks better than the other.

How I use it: AUTO.

Time Zone And Date

What it does: Set time zone, date, and clock.

The clock changes automatically when you switch the time zone, which is cool, but you need to tell the camera whether Daylight Saving Time is in effect for your particular location as not every region follows DST. For example, most of Arizona does not follow DST.

How I use it: Um, I use it to set my time zone, date, and clock.

Language

If you can read this, you don’t need me to explain what this setting is for.

Auto Image Rotation

What it does: Places a tag in photos shot vertically so that some image software knows to display the image correctly.

If you’re shooting RAW, there is no reason why you would want to choose Off. If you shoot JPEG, there might be a reason. Some viewing programs will cause a loss of image quality when they rotate JPEGs. Anytime you do anything to a JPEG (other than rename it) and then save it, the photo gets compressed again and there is some loss of quality. The image rotation causes another one of those “change image and save” cycles. Supposedly, some programs can do true lossless image rotation. I’m not sure if the latest versions of Photoshop can or not. I know earlier versions couldn’t.

Of course, this is really academic. You’re not going to be able to anything with a vertical image that’s flipped on its side anyway, so at some point you’re going to have to flip it up right. And if you’re shooting JPEG, you’re already accepting a certain amount of image degradation from the outset.

I’d set this to On and not worry about it.

SETTINGS NOTE: If you choose On in Rotate Tall in the Playback menu, you must also choose On here for that option to work. I don’t recommend choosing On the Playback menu, however, because that forces your vertical images onto a horizontal screen, making them much smaller.

How I use it: On.

Battery Info

What it does: Displays information about the installed battery, included the percentage of its current charge.

How I use it: I don’t. I use the battery charge indicator on the top LCD or Information Screen to see how much juice is remaining. It doesn’t give as precise a reading, but that doesn’t matter to me. I never take a chance with batteries. When the charge gets low, I replace it with a fresh one. I don’t have to know whether I have 25% or 17% remaining.

About every six months or so, I perform a battery test on all of my camera batteries. (I currently have four for the D800) I charge them fully and then see how many four-minute exposures I can get out of a single charge. (I chose four minutes because that’s typically what use for shooting star trails.) I then mark this number on the battery with a Sharpie pen. All batteries lose capacity over time, so this lets me know how well a certain battery will perform. I save the good ones for when I need to do a long star-trail or time-lapse sequence, and use the others for general shooting.

Wireless Transmitter

What it does: Controls settings for the WT-4 wireless transmitter. This menu is greyed out when the transmitter is not installed.

How I use it: I don’t use the WT-4 and know very little about it.

Image Comment

What it does: Lets you program 36 characters of text that supposedly will be added to the EXIF data in photos as they are taken.

This appears to be a total waste of time. And a LOT of time, at that. As best as I can determine, image comments are viewable only with Nikon’s View NX or Capture NX software, so this is not something that’s being hard coded into the metadata for all to see. However, this makes absolutely no sense to me, so I wonder if I’m just missing something here. I can’t find any of the test comments in the metadata when viewing in Photoshop. Can you?

I did read here that image comments show up in the description field when you post images online. I haven’t checked it out, but if it’s true, it’s scary. You don’t want that happening.

I can’t see any real good for using comments anyway. You’re certainly not going to use it for making unique comments for every image you take, as a sort of journal or something. You’d spend more time inputting the characters than it would take to chisel them into a piece of granite and have it shipped back to your office. The only way that I see how this would be useful is if the camera writes the comment into the regular metadata, either into Exif or IPTC files. That way, it can be read by any software that can read metadata. Even then, I don’t really see the point. The Copyright Information setting lets you enter your name and copyright info, which is all you need to embed in the photo during capture. Anything else is easy to add later with post-processing software.

If you do want to play around in here, the first thing you’ll wonder about is how to delete a character or shift characters forward. To delete something, you hit the trash can button, like you were deleting a photo. To shift characters, you have to enter a blank space. Moving the cursor won’t do it.

How I use it: I don’t.

Copyright Information

What it does: Lets you enter info that will be recorded into the IPTC metadata field.

Unlike Image Comment, I can read this info in the metadata when I view the photo in Photoshop. It’s a good idea at least to enter your name, although that alone could take an evening or two using the archaic interface.

If you do enter your name here, remember that if anyone else uses your camera, any photos they take will have your name it. That could be good or bad!

How I use it: I have my name listed under Artist and “Photo is protected by copyright” under Copyright.

Save/Load Settings

What it does: Lets you save the current camera settings to a memory card or load settings that have been saved.

I can see how this might be useful in a number of scenarios. If you loan the camera to someone, you could save all your settings so you can quickly get everything back the way you had it. Also, it’s a quick way of transferring settings from one camera to another.

How I use it: I haven’t had a need to use this feature, but as I said, I can see how it could be useful.

GPS

What it does: Lets you set various options for when an external GPS unit is attached to the camera.

For certain scenarios, I can see how adding GPS data directly to the metadata in a photo can be very useful, although I think a lot of people do it more for fun than any real need. I’ve never had a need for it myself, so I don’t know much about how to add a GPS unit to the camera. In an ideal world, Nikon would include built-in GPS capability, but I’m not holding my breath for that one.

How I use it: I don’t. For the few times I actually NEED to record GPS info, my Garmin or iPhone, along with a pen and pad, work just fine.

Virtual Horizon

What it does: Displays a level and pitch indicator on the Information screen.

Here’s one Nikon got right. The Virtual Horizon indicator is very easy to read and use. Yellow lines mean your off, green means your dead level and straight. It only takes a few seconds to get the hang of it.

This is much better than the Viewfinder virtual horizon that you can program to the Function button. Viewfinder virtual horizon is difficult to see in low light, and, of course, requires you to look through the viewfinder. Virtual Horizon is on the back info screen, where it’s easy to see.

Before we had built-in levelers, a lot of photographers used those little bubble levels that slide into the hotshoe. In fact, some people still use them. If you’re one of them, I encourage you to use in-camera leveling system if your camera has it. Those hotshoe levelers are simply not accurate. The base for the bubble is so small that the slightest error becomes magnified. Also, for the bubble to be accurate, the base of the hotshoe has to be precisely parallel with the sensor plane. If it’s off even a millimeter, the level won’t give an accurate reading.

How I use it: As a night photographer, Virtual Horizon makes my life a lot simpler. With it, I can set up my camera in the dark and be assured that is level. I use in the daytime, too, especially when the camera is in a position that makes it awkward for me to look through the finder.

Non-CPU Lens Data

What it does: Lets you program data about old manual lenses, so the camera can use the information to provide some of the features of modern lenses that have built-in electronics.

You can program the Function button to scroll through the lenses you’ve entered here, making it quicker to access them. Those of you who understand this, don’t need my help. Those who don’t, don’t need to be messing around with these options.

How I use it: All of my lenses have CPUs.

AF Fine-Tune

What it does: Provides a method for you to screw up your camera.

This one needs to be left to the folks who have trouble crossing the road without a ten-year-old holding their hand. You know, the ones who know their way around an optical bench in their basement, but can’t find their way around the laundry room. Probably the biggest problem with diving into something like this is that most photographers are not able to distinguish between a true camera focusing error and simple user error. Only a tiny fraction of out-of-focus images have anything to do with the camera. They are a result of the photographer not setting something right or not following through properly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that the (Insert camera model here) focus is off, just because the photographer has a fuzzy picture. Same with exposure, white balance, you name it.

The only way to know for sure if your camera needs the focus fine-tuned is to perform a series of precise tests. Most of us aren’t going to do what is required for this and most of us who do, won’t do it right. If you suspect your camera isn’t focusing properly, I recommend you take it to an repair facility and have them evaluate it. Personally, I’d feel more comfortable sending to an independent  facility than to Nikon. I’d only send it to Nikon if it were still under warranty.

How I use it: I don’t. I don’t need a ten-year-old to help me across the street and I know my way around the laundry room better than my basement, so I’m not qualified to mess around with something like this. Oh, wait, I don’t have a basement.

Firmware Version

What it does: Lets you see the current firmware version loaded in the camera.

It’s a good idea to keep up to date with firmware. Here’s the link for firmware updates to Nikon cameras in the United States. Note that the “L” firmware is for lens data, so the camera can make automatic correction for lens distortions. You can find the link for it in the top right of the chart.

Here’s the link for Canon firmware updates.

Updating firmware is easy. Simply download the file from Nikon and save it to the top level of a formatted memory card. Stick the card in the camera and come back here, to Firmware Version. You’ll see a new menu choice for Update. Click that and follow the instructions. The process for Canon camera sis essentially the same.

BTW, If you send your camera to Nikon for repair, they’ll upgrade the firmware for you—without asking.

How I use it: I admit that I don’t keep up with firmware updates as I should. I usually wait until I hear about a major firmware release rather than checking myself. Too many irons and ruining out of fire!

RETOUCH MENU

The options in this menu are used to post-process images that you have already taken. In other words, it’s like having an image-processing program in your camera. Only it’s not. If you want to process your images using a 3-inch screen and software that has only a fraction of the capability of even the most basic program you’d use on your computer, have at it. Personally, I like my photos too much to subject them to such torture.

MY MENU

This is where you save menu items that you use most frequently so you can access them quickly. This is a real time saver that you should take advantage of.

The last item in My Menu is Choose Tab. If you select this and then select Recent settings, it switches the menu to show the 20 most recent settings you have chosen. You probably don’t want this, as it totally negates the whole purpose of My Menu.

I know you’re going to ask, so I’ll tell you what items are in my My Menu. But you know, of course, that you need to choose your own.

  • Long exposure noise reduction
  • Virtual horizon
  • Multiple exposure mode
  • Self-timer
  • Lock mirror up for cleaning
  • Open bottle and pour red wine

Okay, that last one might not be real.

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3 Responses to “Nikon D800 Camera Menu Settings – With Info For All Cameras”

  1. petelaptop Says:

    both thorough and concise. Thanks for helping me with set up

  2. E. Cubarrubia Says:

    Excellent coverage.
    I bought a D800 just before Christmas and used it almost from out of the box. Naturally, I was just barely scrathcing the surface and had a few frustrations. Your coverage of the Shooting Banks eased my frustration on the “stupidity” of Nikon in not giving the user the ability to REALLY save the setting as the D600/610 does. Actually, there is a combersome round-around this issue. I save my setting to memory each memory cards I have and load it from the card as needed.

    I also created an Excel file listing ALL the settings available to the user using the camera MENU for grouping. First column is the item, next columns in order are MY prefered setting; factory default; available choices; then the specific last meaning of the function; last column is comment and memory jogger. Your coverage was a big help in refining the Excel file.

    Thanks

  3. Kevin Adams Says:

    Petelaptop and E., you are quite welcome! Thanks for comments!

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