After I published the article on the recommended settings for the Nikon D600 / D610, I received plenty of requests from our readers that asked me to write a similar article for the Nikon D800 and D800E cameras. Since I own and use both frequently, I decided to expand the series to other cameras (and I do have plans to publish similar articles for Canon DSLRs as well). In this article, I want to provide some information on what settings I use and shortly explain what some of the important settings do. Please do keep in mind that while these work for me, it does not mean that everyone else should be shooting with exactly the same settings. The below information is provided as a guide for those that struggle and just want to get started with a basic understanding of menu settings.
Before going into the camera menu, let’s first get started on the exterior controls. The D800 / D800E have a lot of menu options, but there are some things that you can only control with external controls.
Autofocus Modes, Bracketing and Flash
On the front left of the camera, you will find a lever that goes from AF to M, with a button in the middle (big red circle in the image below). Make sure to keep that lever on “AF”, or your lens will not autofocus. If for some reason your lens stops focusing, this is what need to check first. Pressing the button in the middle of the lever allows to choose between different focus modes.
To activate this change, you need to press and hold the button, then rotate the rear dial with your thumb. As you do this, look at the top LCD and the camera will switch between AF-S and AF-C. I won’t go into too much detail about each focus mode, since it is all explained in detail in this article that I wrote a while ago. Here is a quick recap:
- AF-S – this mode is called “Single-servo AF” and it is used only for stationary subjects that do not move. When you half-press the shutter button, autofocus lock on the subject and if the subject moves, the focus will not change, resulting in a blurry picture. Only use this mode for photographing stationary subjects (landscapes, architecture, etc) and when shooting in extremely low-light situations and need the camera to engage the AF assist lamp.
- AF-C – known as “Continuous-servo AF” in Nikon’s lingo, this setting is used for photographing moving subjects. When you half-press the shutter button and your subject moves, the camera will re-acquire focus. I mostly keep my D800E in AF-C autofocus mode and only switch to AF-S in some situations.
If you cannot decide which one to start with, I would recommend to go with the AF-C mode for continuous tracking instead of AF-S.
Now if you rotate the front dial with your index finger while holding the same button, you will get many different options like “S”, “D 9”, “D 21”, “D 51”, “3D” and “Auto”. These settings are there for controlling the focus points that you see inside the viewfinder. Once again, most of these are already explained in detail in my autofocus modes explained article, so I won’t go into too much detail here. If you don’t know where to start, keep it on “S” (Single), which lets you choose one single focus point that the camera will use for focusing. Let’s move on to other external controls.
Right above the AF / M lever, you will find one additional Flash button, which allows you to fine-tune flash compensation and set other flash parameters like front/rear flash sync. Flash settings don’t really matter, but for now just make sure that everything is turned off and shows “0.0” when you press and hold it.
Shooting Mode and Camera Mode Dials
On the top left side of the camera you will find a large dial with buttons on the top. The primary function of this rotary dial is to set your shooting mode and the buttons that sit on the top are there for making quick adjustments to image format/quality, bracketing, ISO and white balance:
The dial has a bunch of shooting modes like “S” (Single), “Cl, Ch” (Continuous low and Continuous High), “Q” (Quiet), Timer and Mup (Mirror lock-up). Mine is usually set to “S” which only fires a single shot when I press the shutter release button. If I want the camera to fire multiple shots when shooting action, I switch to “Ch”. I rarely use other settings, but those can be useful as well, particularly the timer feature that I use when shooting landscapes to reduce vibrations (more on this below).
The top buttons are great for quickly changing important settings like ISO and White Balance. Personally, I do not like the fact that Nikon provides the “QUAL” (image format) button on the top – I was once shooting with my D800E in cold using thick gloves and accidentally changed the format setting from RAW to TIFF, which I found out about a day later. Gladly, I did not shoot too many images, but if it was something important, I would have been pretty upset about it. It would have been nice if Nikon made that button configurable instead. The configurable “BKT” button is for setting bracketing parameters, which you can change using the front dial (bracketing steps) and rear (number of frames). The D800/D800E allow bracketing up to 9 frames and up to 1 stops (EV) apart. The ISO button allows quick change of ISO if you use the rear dial and the front dial allows switching Auto ISO on and off. While I like the ability to quickly turn Auto ISO on and off, I typically end up mapping the Fn (Function) button on the front of the camera to Auto ISO settings, so that I can make changes to maximum sensitivity and minimum shutter speed (see my notes below under Custom Setting Menu). Lastly, the “WB” button is there for setting/changing white balance. The rear dial allows you to change white balance, while the front dial allows fine-tuning it.
To the right of the shooting mode dial, you will find three buttons: the “MODE” button for changing camera mode, the video recording button (with a red dot) and the exposure compensation button. I practically never record videos, so the two most used buttons here are the MODE and the exposure compensation buttons. Unlike other cameras with traditional “PASM” dials, the Nikon D800 / D800E do not have such a dial and require using the MODE button instead. So if you need to switch between different camera modes, you need to hold the MODE button and rotate the rear dial. Doing so will reveal 4 different modes: “P” (Program Auto), “S” (Shutter Priority), “A” (Aperture Priority) and “M” (Manual). I mostly rely on Aperture Priority and Manual modes when shooting with my D800E. The exposure compensation button nicely complements the Aperture Priority mode and the AE-L / AF-L button on the back serves me really well when I need to lock exposure.
I rarely ever touch anything in the Playback menu, since that’s only used for displaying pictures on the rear LCD. The only two settings that I ever mess with are “Playback display options” and “Rotate tall”. The “Playback display options” can be useful when reviewing images. When you press the playback button on the back of the camera, you can press up/down buttons and you will be able to see different types of information. To keep the clutter out, I have three things turned on: “Focus point”, which allows me to see where I focused, “Highlights” to show overexposure in shots (a.k.a. “blinkies”) and “Overview”, which gives me a summary of my exposure (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focal length, etc). I always turn the “Rotate tall” setting off, because I do not want my camera to change vertical images to horizontal when I review them – it is much easier to rotate the camera to see a vertical image, rather than having to zoom in every single time. Everything else is default.
Let’s now go through the Shooting Menu, which is the first place that I usually go to when checking my settings. I will first provide my values, then talk about the important settings:
- Shooting menu bank: A (default)
- Extended menu banks: OFF
- Storage folder: default, don’t change
- File naming: DSC (default), don’t change
- Primary slot selection: CF
- Secondary slot function: Overflow
- Image quality: NEF (RAW)
- Image size: grayed out
- Image area:
- Auto DX crop: ON
- Choose image area: FX
- JPEG compression: Optimal quality
- NEF (RAW) recording:
- Type: Lossless compressed
- NEF (RAW) bit depth: 14-bit
- White balance: AUTO (AUTO1 Normal)
- Set Picture Control: SD (Standard), Default values
- Manage Picture Control: —
- Color space: Adobe RGB
- Active D-Lighting: OFF
- HDR (high dynamic range): OFF (grayed out)
- Vignette control: OFF
- Auto distortion control: OFF
- Long Exposure NR: OFF
- High ISO NR: OFF
- ISO sensitivity settings:
- ISO sensitivity: 100
- Auto ISO sensitivity control: ON
- Maximum sensitivity: 3200
- Minimum shutter speed: Auto -> one higher than middle
- Multiple exposure: OFF
- Interval timer shooting: OFF
- Time-lapse photography: OFF
- Movie settings:
- Frame size/frame rate: 1080p 30
- Movie quality: HIGH
- Microphone: Auto sensitivity
- Destination: SD card slot
While there are a lot of different settings here, do not worry – you won’t be changing many settings very often. Let’s go through some of the important settings. The first one is “Shooting menu bank”, which allows you to store up to 4 different shooting menu settings. The good news is, you can name each bank with a custom name like “Landscape”, “Portrait”, etc. The bad news is, these shooting banks are completely useless! Many Nikon shooters, including myself, have been puzzled by Nikon’s implementation of the menu banks, which have not been changed for many years now. There are three fundamental flaws with the custom settings banks:
- Menu banks are separate for “Shooting Menu” and for “Custom Setting Menu” sections, which means that one would have to store settings in two places and when a change is needed, also have to remember to change in two places. There is no single place to store all camera settings.
- There is no button on the camera to be able to select a bank quickly. The quickest way is to press the “Info” button on the back, then press it again, then choose a different bank for “SHOOT” or “CUSTOM”. Lower-end Nikon DSLRs like D600/D610 are much better in this regard, because they have U1 and U2 options right on the PASM dial.
- There is no way to save menu banks. Yup, menu banks are supposed to be “memory” banks that allow one to store specific settings. If you pick a specific bank and then end up changing any of the settings, those settings will be preserved, which completely defeats the purpose of memory banks.
I have tried to be organized with my pro-grade Nikon cameras in the past and failed – the above limitations just make memory banks useless for me. The thing is, it is not that hard to get this fixed, as it is just a firmware change. All Nikon needs to do is add a few options like U1, U2, U3 and U4 to the camera MODE button, then allow saving all camera settings into these memory banks (including autofocus settings) and the problem is solved! I don’t know why Nikon keeps pushing the same useless banks over and over again to the pro-grade DSLRs…
Enough of ranting, let’s move on to other shooting menu settings. The next important setting is “Secondary slot function”, which allows you to choose a role for the second card slot when shooting with multiple cards. You can set the camera to save images in three different ways. You can set it to “Overflow”, which basically saves images to the first card, then when the space runs out, the camera starts saving to the second card. I usually set mine to Overflow, unless I am working on something really important and need to backup images. And speaking of backup/redundancy, that’s what you use the second setting “Backup” for. Once selected, the camera will save photos to both memory cards at the same time. The last setting allows you to save RAW files to one card and JPEG files to another. For your day to day shooting, just leave it on “Overflow” and if you really need to make sure that your photos are not lost if one of the cards fails, then choose “Backup”.
“Image quality” is obviously set to RAW, since I only shoot RAW. “NEF (RAW) recording” is always set on mine to 14-bit Lossless compressed. I choose 14-bit to get the best image quality the camera can provide and “Lossless” compression results in much smaller files than “Uncompressed”. “White Balance” is Auto and all other settings like Picture Controls, Active D-Lighting, HDR, etc. are turned off, since none of them (with the exception of “Long Exposure NR”) affect RAW images. Remember, RAW files contain non-manipulated data and require post-processing, so the above settings only impact two things: images displayed by your camera’s LCD screen (each RAW file contains a full-size JPEG image, which is what is used to display images) and if you use Nikon’s proprietary software like Capture NX, those settings can be applied to RAW images automatically. Since I use Lightroom to store and process my images, the second part does not apply to me. And I also do not care for how images are displayed on the camera’s LCD, so I leave everything turned off.
Although color space does not matter for RAW files, I now use AdobeRGB because it gives a slightly more accurate histogram to determine the correct exposure (since the camera shows histogram based on camera-rendered JPEG image, even if you shoot exclusively in RAW).
The big menu setting that I frequently change is “ISO sensitivity settings”. When shooting hand-held, I mostly use Auto ISO, because it is a great feature that saves me a lot of time. Instead of specifying ISO for every shot, I just have it set on Auto, with its base ISO set to 100, Maximum sensitivity set to 3200 (my personal limit for “acceptable” noise levels) and Minimum shutter speed set to “Auto”. The “Auto” minimum shutter speed setting is great, because it reads the focal length of the attached lens and automatically adjusts the minimum shutter speed to the focal length of the lens. Since the Nikon D800 / D800E are very demanding cameras in terms of technique, I tune the Minimum shutter speed Auto to be one step closer to “Faster”, which basically doubles the minimum shutter speed. For example, if I have a 50mm lens mounted on the camera, my minimum shutter speed will go from 1/50 to 1/100 of a second with one step up. If I move it all the way to the end (Faster), it will double the shutter speed again to 1/200 of a second. When using a VR lens, I often lower the “Auto” minimum shutter speed to “Slower”. Unfortunately, Nikon has not yet implemented a way to automatically compensate for VR, so you have to adjust this setting based on the lens you are using. When photographing landscapes or architecture with the camera mounted on a tripod, I turn Auto ISO off and use ISO 100 for the highest dynamic range and lowest noise levels.
This is where a lot of people get lost, since there are so many different settings. Here are the settings that I personally use:
- AF-C priority selection: Release + focus
- AF-S priority selection: Focus
- Focus tracking with lock-on: AF 3 (Normal)
- AF activation: ON (Shutter/AF-ON) – please read below on this setting
- AF point illumination: AUTO
- Focus point wrap-around: OFF
- Number of focus points: AF51
- Built-in AF-assist illuminator: ON
- ISO sensitivity step value: 1/3
- EV steps for exposure cntrl: 1/3
- Ex./flash comp. step value: 1/3
- Easy exposure compensation: OFF
- Center-weighted area: 12mm
- Fine-tune optimal exposure: —
- Timers/AE lock
- Shutter-release button AE-L: OFF
- Auto meter-off delay: 6s
- Self-timer delay: 5s
- Number of shots: 1
- Interval between shots: 0.5s
- Monitor off delay: 10s, 1m, 10s, 4s, 10m
- Volume: OFF
- Pitch: Low
- CL mode shooting speed: 2 fps
- Max. continuous release: 100
- Exposure delay mode: OFF
- File number sequence: ON
- Viewfinder grid display: ON
- ISO display and adjustment: OFF
- Screen tips: ON
- Information display: AUTO
- LCD illumination: OFF
- MB-D12 battery type: LR6
- Battery order: MB-D12
- Flash sync speed: 1/320*
- Flash shutter speed: 1/60
- Flash cntrl for built-in flash: TTL
- Modeling flash: ON
- Auto bracketing set: AE & flash
- Auto bracketing (Mode M): Flash/speed
- Bracketing order: Under > MTR > over
- Lightbulb switch: LCD backlight
- Multi selector center button
- Shooting mode: RESET
- Playback mode: Zoom on/off -> Medium magnification
- Live view: RESET
- Multi selector: OFF
- Assign Fn button: Access top item in MY MENU
- Assign preview button: Preview
- Assign AE-L/AF-L button: AE-L / AF-L button press: AE/AF lock
- Shutter spd & aperture lock: — (OFF / OFF)
- Assign BKT button: BKT
- Customize command dials: All default
- Release button to use dial: OFF
- Slot empty release lock: LOCK
- Reverse indicators: – 0 +
- Assign MB-D12 AF-ON: AF-ON
- Assign Fn button: OFF
- Assign preview button: Index marking
- Assign AE-L/AF-L button: AE/AF lock
- Assign shutter button: Take photos
That’s a lot of options! Once again, I won’t go into details about each setting, so let me just go over the most important ones that you should know about. The “Autofocus” section is pretty important, because it controls the way your camera autofocus is configured. The first two settings “AF-C priority selection” and “AF-S priority selection” are there to assist in shooting in Single or Continuous modes. I personally prefer to set the “AF-C priority selection” to “Release + focus”, which puts priority on focusing after the first shot. This might drop the fps speed if the subject is not in focus, but the D800/D800E is not a super fast camera anyway, so fps is less important for me than accuracy. The “Focus” setting in the “AF-S priority selection” selection forces the camera to acquire focus before taking the shot. Unlike earlier DSLRs like Nikon D700, the D800/D800E will still let you take a shot if you “focus and recompose” in AF-S mode.
The next setting is “Focus tracking with lock-on”, which I normally keep at the default setting of “3”. This setting controls how quickly your autofocus will re-engage when it detects focus errors. When shooting birds in flight, I tend to reduce that setting to short delays, because I want autofocus to re-engage even with smaller changes. The rest of the time, I keep it in normal and almost never go up to long waits.
The “AF activation” setting on my D800E is always set to “OFF” (AF-ON only) to allow me to use the dedicated AF-ON button on the back for focusing. If you have not read my article on the Focus and Recompose technique, now is a good time to do it, because it explains this feature in detail. Basically, once you switch the autofocus function from your shutter release (half-press) to the AF-ON button on the back of the camera, your camera will no longer autofocus through the shutter release button and will only respond to depressing the rear AF-ON button. It is a neat feature that I always use by default on all of my cameras.
“AF point illumination” is used to light up the viewfinder focus point(s) and different grids in red color when you half-press the shutter button. I usually keep this on “Auto”, which does not light up in very bright conditions where I can clearly see everything in the viewfinder, and only does it in darker environments (which helps with identifying my focus point location).
I do not like when my focus points roll over to the other side of the screen when I am in the corners and I like to shoot with all focus points enabled, so my “Focus point wrap-around” is turned off and the number of focus points is set to 51.
The “Built-in AF-assist illuminator” is the lamp on the front of the camera that is engaged when shooting in AF-S focus mode. If the subject is dark, the front light will turn on and illuminate the subject you are photographing, which will help the autofocus system to acquire proper focus. I find the light to be helpful in low-light situations, so I keep that setting turned on.
I never mess with any of the “Metering/exposure” settings, so I would just recommend to leave them at default values. I would also skip the whole “Timers/AE lock” sub-section.
Under “Shooting/display”, the first thing I always do is turn off the focus confirmation beep. I often re-acquire focus many times and I would hate to annoy anyone with the beeps coming from my camera.
The big setting that I often rely on when photographing landscapes is “Exposure delay mode”. This feature is a gem on the latest Nikon DSLRs, because it first lifts the camera mirror (which generates a lot of vibrations), then waits a specified amount of time and only then opens up the shutter to capture the image. The nice thing is, you can specify up to 3 seconds of delay, which can completely eliminate the dreaded “mirror slap”. When I conduct my landscape photography workshops, I often walk around the participants and check how they trigger their cameras. Those, that do not have camera remotes (remote cable release) initially feel frustrated, but once they discover this neat feature, they don’t regret that they did not bring remote triggers anymore. The best part about this particular feature, is that you can actually use it in conjunction with the camera timer! If you set the secondary dial on the top of the camera to Timer, then set the “Self-timer delay” to something like 5 seconds, you can completely eliminate camera shake. Basically, the initial 5-second timer is for the camera to settle after you press the shutter release. After it waits for 5 seconds, the “Exposure delay mode” feature kicks in and the mirror is raised. The camera waits 3 more seconds before the shutter finally opens up and the image is captured. This is a great feature that I highly recommend to use when photographing landscapes and architecture in low light conditions / very slow shutter speeds.
The “Viewfinder grid display” is a neat feature that creates vertical and horizontal lines inside the viewfinder. I use those grids all the time when composing my shots – they are great tools for aligning the horizon horizontally or vertically and having a better visual look at my framing / composition.
I won’t go into Bracketing/flash sections, because that’s a big topic on its own. The only thing that I usually change here is Bracketing order – I like to have my frames underexposed, normal, then overexposed, so I set “Bracketing order” to “Under > MTR > over”.
The “Controls” section is something I always change, because there are some time-saving features there. Let’s first start with my favorite hidden feature on the D800 / D800E cameras – “Multi selector center button”. This one is a huge time saver and something I really wish the Nikon D600 / D610 cameras had. Basically, you can set up the center button on the multi-selector to zoom in and out to a set magnification level when reviewing images with a single press of the button! If you find yourself frustrated by constantly pressing the zoom in button until you get to the right magnification level, then you will absolutely love this feature. There are three magnification levels to choose from: “Low magnification”, “Medium magnification” and “High magnification”. I find “Medium magnification” level to be ideal for the D800 / D800E – it literally saves 9 zoom in button presses!
The next important menu option “Assign Fn button” allows programming the “Fn” (Function) button on the front of the camera. Since I shoot in different environments a lot, I like to be able to change my Auto ISO settings quickly. Unfortunately, Auto ISO is buried in the “Shooting Menu” and takes too long to get to. I love being able to access Auto ISO with just pressing the Fn button and that’s something you can set up very easily. First, go to “My Menu” section of the menu. Then go to “Add items” -> “Shooting menu”. Find “ISO sensitivity settings” and instead of getting into this menu, simply press the “OK” button. The next screen should say “Choose position” and you will see “ISO sensitivity settings” there. Just press “OK” one more time and you will see this on the top of the “My Menu” window. If you already have some favorites saved, make sure to move this one to the very top. Once you do this, go to the “Custom Setting Menu” again and navigate to “Controls” -> “Assign Fn button”. From there, pick “Access top item in MY MENU” and press OK. Now test it out – close the menu, then press the “Fn” button on the front of the camera. If you did everything right, the back LCD should get you right into ISO sensitivity settings! Pretty neat and saves a lot of time when you need to tweak the Auto ISO feature!
If you don’t particularly care for the depth of field “Preview” button, you can program your D800 / D800E to do the same thing from that button instead.
Aside from these, I would leave the rest of the settings alone.
Not much to go over here, because this is the area that you will only use for particular tasks like setting time/date, adding image comments, adjusting LCD brightness, formatting memory card, etc. The only thing I would do is set up “Image comment” and “Copyright information”. Basically, these settings add text information that gets embedded into each photograph. If you ever happen to lose your memory card somewhere (which I personally have in the past) and someone finds it (let’s just assume that you have no labels on the card with your info) leaving your Copyright and/or Name could help big time in finding/locating you. Plus, you are writing data into RAW files, so if you ever needed to prove that you are the author of a photograph, the RAW file along with your contact info could make for great evidence.
I hope you found this article useful. Once again, these are settings that work for me and they might not necessarily suit your needs. It is best that you explore your camera and learn about each setting as much as you can in order to take advantage of all the available features and customizations!