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Take full control of your Nikon. Get the best settings for Nikon dialled in! 

Although these tips offer what I think are the recommended settings for Nikon, why not use these tips as a list to find our how to make similar tweaks in your camera’s settings. I’ve listed my actual settings, my recommended best settings for a Nikon D850, D750, D610, the cameras I currently use. These settings should be relevant to most Nikon cameras. I hope you find them useful too!

Dial-in the Best Settings for Nikon

Please note, that different Nikon cameras and the cameras software version (firmware) might mean the wording and menu options might vary.

1. Stop your camera from taking photos when no memory card is inserted. You may have heard it before, but it has to be tip number 1!

The default settings of Nikon allow you to shoot images, the camera functioning as normal, the shutter actuating and all the feedback and feeling will be as if everything is normal. But, if you miss the small flashing card icon, you could have also missed some amazing shots. All because you didn’t realize there’s no card in the slot.

By changing these settings your camera will not take a photo, you’ll instantly know something is wrong, and avoid this potential problem.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Controls (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Slot Empty Release Lock (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Lock  (Click that OK button on Lock Release Locked)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

2. Set your Nikon to Remember the Auto Focus Position last used in both the Horizontal and Vertical Orientations

When switching between horizontal and vertical you can miss shots in the time it takes to move that small focus square around the frame, typically 11, 39, 51 positions, and increasing with each new model! That’s a lot of thumb clicks on that tiny annoying circular navigation thingamajig, christened by Nikon as the ‘multi-selector’!

This is especially annoying when shooting candid portraits, and your thumb just can’t click that red focus box around fast enough, meanwhile, the moment, the expression, and your engagement with the subject is waining.

This tip will speed up your workflow, and save time in such moments. You can easily set your camera to remember the last focus position used in the vertical or horizontal position by a fairly simple menu change.

After making this change, each time you rotate the camera it will automatically select the last focus position used. After making this change you can, of course, continue to change and tweak the position as you normally would, but your starting position is likely to closer.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (Pencil icon on screen)
  • Autofocus (a – first in the list on the menu on screen)
  • Store points by orientation
    (scroll down by clicking the down arrow on circle shaped multi-selector on the back of your camera)
  • OK (Button on back of the camera, or button inside that circle shaped thing called the multi-selector)
  • Yes (Click that OK button)
    Menu x2
    (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

Advanced Pro Cameras Extra Options

High-end pro cameras also let you select if the camera also remembers the autofocus area, so, for example, you could be using a group focus point in the vertical orientation and a single point on horizontal. If that option is on your camera, it will show at the point of selecting Store Points by Orientation yes or no.

3. Take Sharper Landscape Images by activating Exposure Delay Mode to avoid Mirror Slap, avoiding unwanted camera movements

You can reduce the risk of mirror slap induced movement by either the…

  • Use of Live View (Lv) (which uses a lot of battery) but raises the mirror, that’s the click sound you hear when you press the Lv button. Once you’ve done that, the camera now will only have to open the shutter when you are ready to take a picture. This reduces internal camera movement and so reduces the risk of mirror slap.
  • Use of Exposure Delay Mode, which will delay the shutter from opening 5 seconds after the mirror is raised. So mirror up, wait 3 seconds, the shutter opens.

Avoiding mirror slap, using the inbuilt camera timer with a 5 or 2-second delay, or cable release, to avoid camera shake from the pressing of the button, and a solid tripod, without the middle neck extended, will all together help you take a much sharper landscape photo.

This is how you enable exposure delay mode…

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Shooting/display (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Exposure delay mode (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • 3 S – to select 3 seconds (Click that OK button on Lock Release Locked)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

I would consider putting a shortcut on the custom menu. See the last tip for more on the custom menu.

4. Quickly zoom in 100% on the focus point when in Live View mode, perfect when manually focusing with Live View in extremely low light landscape situations

I find this tip avoids the need for a flashlight to locate that zoom button, located in a row of similarly sized buttons. More importantly, this avoids me pressing that zoom button 5+ times, and not knowing if I am zoomed into 100%, as the camera does not indicate a percentage zoom indication.

It also avoids me hunting around a dark zoomed in Live View screen to try and find the tiny light or distant house window I might be focusing on while photographing a landscape at night or pre-dawn. I typically use lights or distant house windows to help me manually focus.

After making this change you’ll be able to just press the OK button inside that circular multi-selector (when in Live View mode) and instantly be confident that you see a 100% zoom of the focal point you selected.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (Pencil icon on screen)
  • Controls (f – on the menu on screen)
  • OK button or ‘Multi selector center button’ (depends on model)
    Live view
    (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Zoom on/off (Click that OK button)
  • 1:10 (100%) (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice

5. Quickly zoom in 100% on the focus point when reviewing a photo

Just like the Live View zoom tip, after making this change you can just press the OK button inside that multi-selector (when on reviewing your photos with the Play button) and instantly know that Live View is showing you a 100% zoom of the point you focused on. This is great for checking you nailed the focus.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (Pencil icon on screen)
  • Controls (f – on the menu on screen)
  • OK button or ‘Multi selector center button’ (depends on model)
    Playback mode
    (Click that OK button)
  • Zoom on/off (Click that OK button)
  • 1:10 (100%) (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

6. A Faster / Smarter Way to Review Image

Like most other tips, this tip relates to that tiny multi-selector arrow joypad. It’s horrible to be clicking back through photos one by one with that multi-selector, especially if you bracket your photos (taking 3,5,7+ shots for each scene). You could zoom out with the zoom buttons, and then use the multi-selector… but it’s a far cry from what Canon users have, a beautiful big fast and easy to use thumb wheel to zip through images.

I’ve solved this by programming the ‘command dial’ (that’s the back wheel normally used to change aperture) and the sub-command dial (the front wheel, normally used for changing the shutter speed) to scroll through images.

First, you set the front (shutter dial) to jump either 50 or 10 images at a time (choose within the menu) in a forward or back direction. The back command dial (aperture dial) moves through the images one by one. It’s a much quicker and more enjoyable way to review and find shots.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (Pencil icon on screen)
  • Controls (f – on the menu on screen)
  • Customize Command Dials – –
    Menus and playback
    (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • On or On (image review excluded)* (Click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

* If you select image review excluded, it means that preview that comes up after a shot will not affect the front and back command wheels, it will be only when you press the actual play button that those wheels change to review photos. Just ON, will mean anytime an image is shown on the screen, those wheels control the display of photos. I just use ON.

7. Move the ISO button away from a button that changes RAW to JPG

This tip means you don’t have to use two hands to change ISO and keeps the left hand free to maintain a good hold of your camera, meaning you don’t need to lose the composition to change ISO.

There’s also another benefit for people who have just upgraded or moved over from Canon because it puts the ISO button back to a similar location to Canon cameras. It’s also useful if you shoot with a couple of different Nikon models. This tip also avoids a serious problem, going home with JPEGS and not RAW! Imagine my feeling going home with JPEGS on an epic morning with high contrast light and light rays.

My uncle, a pro photographer, gave me some of the best advice I ever had a young photographer. One of those tips was ‘at night go into your bedroom, turn off the lights, and to use your camera in the dark’. I can do that now, I never look at the buttons, I shoot manual, I know every switch, and so all my energy is on finding the story and composition, and changing settings are instinctive.

I sometimes shoot with 2 or 3 cameras, rather than changing lenses, or I’m run time-lapses. When I had this RAW JPG nightmare, I was shooting a D610 and D750 together. It could be relevant to other models, but that day I was shooting two Nikon camera bodies with almost the same button layouts, but a tiny difference…

D610 – on the back buttons, at the bottom are ISO (bottom) and Quality (second up)
D750 – on the back buttons, at the bottom are INFO (bottom) and ISO (second up)

So since I shoot D750 for 80% of my shots, I instinctively press and hold the ISO button (second button up from bottom) while scrolling the back wheel, not even looking at the top LCD or in camera reading, because I am focusing on the shot, the composition, and just make changes instinctively. I know to move up one stop, or three stops and move it three clicks.

The problem is that on the D610 this button is Quality, not ISO. Every click (or stop in ISO I moved) I was rotating the quality selection between RAW > RAW+FINE > LARGE JPG > etc… that button should be titled OMG, not QUAL! I hate having such an easy way to move between such important settings.

Even if you don’t have these types of problem, programming the top right side red colored video record button to be the ISO button is a smart thing to do. It means one hand can change ISO, rather than the left hand having to push and hold that ISO button while the right changes the wheel.

The Nikon D500 has inserted a new ISO button into this area, which solves this problem.

To program the top video record button to act as the ISO button, when shooting photos (not video mode) follow these steps:

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu (Pencil icon on screen)
  • Controls (f – on the menu on screen)
  • Assign movie record button
    Press + command dials
    (click that OK button)
  • ISO sensitivity (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

Once done, hold the record button in with your shutter button finger while using your thumb on the back command wheel at the top to scroll ISO, and the front sub-command wheel (typically shutter speed) to change between Auto-ISO and Manual ISO.

8. Try Monochrome (Black & White) but retain all the Color in RAW

I shoot at least 50% of my images in monochrome. I see black and white on the Live View screen and the review of images. I want to fully focus on the elements of the subject, light, contrast, lines and shapes. Taking away color removes another distraction and allows me to better focus on elements important to my style of photography.

Because I only shoot RAW, all the color is still in the file, I can switch to color in Lightroom no problem.

Why not give it a try? Please note, you will see B/W flashing in the viewfinder to remind you that you’re shooting in black and white.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Photo Shooting Menu  (Camera icon on screen)
  • Set Picture Control (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Monochrome (Click that OK button)
    Menu x2
    (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

9. Program the front (right-hand middle finger)’Assign Preview Button’ to bring up either a Tiny Virtual Leveller or Turn off flash while depressed

If you are wondering what the ‘Assign Preview Button’ is, you can find it on your right hand, while gripping the camera, it’s probably right at the end of your middle finger, between the lens and grip. It has a label of Pv, and almost looks like a button to remove a lens.

The button can be programmed to do a number of things, but I think these two are the most useful:

a) When you need to ensure handheld shots are leveled. You could program it to display as small level tool, made of vertical lines, to the left or right, displayed at the bottom of your viewfinder.  Although not as good as the Live View full jet fighter leveler, it’s handy to have something in the viewfinder.

e.g.  III |   This would mean the left side of the camera is too high.

b) Use the button to easily shut off the flash for a few shots, perfect for wedding and portraits.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu
  • Controls (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Assign Preview Button (Click that OK button)
  • Change “Press” to “Viewfinder Virtual Horizon” (Click that OK button)
    Menu x2
    (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

10. Change the self-timer default from 10 sec to 2 seconds, so when using the self-timer for bracketing (multi-exposure, HDR shots) movement caused by a finger press is reduced, but avoid a 10-second wait

This is a time saver, reducing the 10 seconds wait down to 2. Which can be significant if you take lots of landscape exposures on a tripod. I find 2 to 5 seconds is enough time for the tripod to be calm from possible movement caused by a shutter button press.

To make the change…

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu
  • Timers/AE Lock (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Change “Self-Timer” to  2 or 5 Seconds (Click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

11. Turn off the AF-Assist Beam, it will disturb your subject and wreck your ability to capture an engaged moment with the subject

This is really distracting, even for people often photographed, but for tribal people, off the tourist trail areas, and remote villages… people just wonder what that light is, you take home a confused or worried portrait. To turn it off…

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu
  • Autofocus (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Build-In AF-Assist Illuminator (Click that OK button)
  • Off (Click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

12. Turn off Focus Confirmation Beep. Don’t distract the subject or destroy the tranquil landscape. Unless you are shooting a wedding or event

I have considered Sony A7RII and other mirrorless cameras for many reasons, but a big one is the totally silent shutter system. On Nikon, I can never make it that quiet, but I can at least remove the beep every time a focus has been reacquired.  To turn off the focus confirmation beep…

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu
  • Shooting/display (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Beep (Click that OK button)
  • Volume Click that OK button)
  • Off Click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

13. Setup your Nikon to write RAW files to Both Cards in Backup mode

I recommend you shoot RAW and to both cards, using the Backup function of any second card slot you might have.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Photo Shooting Menu  (Camera icon on screen)
  • Role played by card in Slot 2 (scroll to select this option and click that OK button)
  • Backup (Click that OK button)
    Menu x2
    (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

14. Change “Focus Tracking with Lock-on” to off

The Nikon setting “Focus tracking with lock-on”, set to the default value 3. I leave that at 3, but sometimes move to 4-5 in still scenes in low light, as most of my settings in China are slow moving scenes, I do not change this much.

This setting controls how fast autofocus kicks in when any sort of focus error is detected. So in most situations, a lower setting is fine. But, if I was shooting actions, like a fisherman net casting, action sports, or aircraft etc… I would want the camera to notice focus errors much quicker and would reduce that setting to 1 or 2, so the camera re-engages faster, even with small changes.

This setting is perhaps more important to wildlife and birders.

15. Back Button Focus.
I Do. From now, and this day forth, forever more!

When I first was told about separating the focus function from the shutter button I thought ‘what’s the big deal’…. it is a big deal! You’ve got to do this, make the change, just get used to it, and stick with it! It has so many advantages. To do that on Nikon, follow these steps…

Some cameras have an AF-ON button but by the command wheel, where you would typically change the aperture setting. Others label the button AE-L FE-L, and you then need to just program the camera’s menu to allocate back button focus to that button.

  • Menu (Button on back of the camera)
  • Custom Settings Menu
  • Controls (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Assign AE-L/AF-L button (Click that OK button)
  • AF-O (scroll to select this option, and click that OK button)
  • Menu x2 (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

If you would like to read more on this, check out my friend Jim Harmer’s article on back button focus over at ImprovePhotography.com.

If you don’t listen to their podcasts, I recommend you subscribe. It’s a great way to stay up to date and learn on the go.

16. Check that the brightness of your LCD display is in the default position. Keep it in the middle, the default, never change it!

Once on a very bright day, I changed the brightness of my display to better review the images. When we changed locations to a tribal families hut, I ended up shooting my images way too dark, as a couple of times I previewed the images they felt amazingly bright to me. It’s best to never change this setting.

You can check if your setting is at the middle setting default by…

  • Menu (Button on the back of the camera)
  • Photo Shooting Menu  (Camera icon on screen)
  • Role played by card in Slot 2 (scroll to select this option and click that OK button)
  • Backup (Click that OK button)
    Menu x2
    (To exit click the Menu button on back of the camera twice)

17. Try using the Wifi App to shoot, to capture a more natural candid portrait or street scene with a close subject

Recently I found a beautiful old grungy shack while researching new villages and remote areas for a photo tour. I setup and took a beautiful bracketed exposure, as the light and dark contrast was extreme, it was the middle of the day. Once I had completed it, I turned on the D750’s wifi, and used the app to focus on a spot I hoped a subject would walk into, while I sit down talking to some locals, waiting for a candid shot of someone passing the shack or the chance to capture the man sleeping when he comes out into the public area, right in front of my camera.

If I had stayed with the camera, people would have walked behind me, not come out, or looked straight at me and the camera, this way I achieved a shot on the app which looked much more natural.

The other place I used it was a cool landscape that just needed a subject. I was climbing over rocks and walking out onto a part frozen ocean with cracks, so this was not a time for a timer and run! I just setup the Wifi app and could take the shot I needed easily in one shot.

It’s not always going to be like that, and I rarely use this, but it’s a nice tool to have for the moment you need it. So why not learn to use the app, it’s fairly easy, just a case of playing with it for 15 minutes.