Navigating the Nikon Menu

Camera menus with their overwhelming set of options can be quite confusing. Camera manufacturers have their own methods of naming things. Sometimes the same camera manufacturer may change things in their menus between various models. This article is a quick guide to the menu items found in Nikon DSLRs.

Reset the camera
First step is to reset the camera to factory default if you have been playing around with the settings. Nikon users can simultaneously press the two buttons marked with green dots and wait for the camera to restart. It takes just a couple of seconds. Once reset, everything in the menu will be back to how it should be in the first place except for image quality. Resetting the camera sets it to jpg, whereas I recommend using raw all the time.

Nikon divides its camera menu into a few subsets. The most important of them are the ‘Shooting Menu’ and the ‘Custom Setting Menu’. ‘Playback Menu’ can be left untouched for most uses and the ‘Retouch’ or the photo development part is better done on the computer rather than on the camera. In this article, I’ll write only about the settings that should be understood or changed. For the settings that I don’t mention here, those can be left at their default. Nikon’s menu has a an alphanumeric code for each of their settings. If any of these settings is changed to anything but default, a star appears after the alphanumeric code as a quick visual reminder that the setting is no longer the factory default.


Shooting Menu

Shooting Menu

Shooting Menu Bank
Just select any of the banks and leave it there. It is easier to directly manipulate the settings as per requirements rather than creating multiple shooting banks and trying to remember which one does what. Naming the shooting bank is not very useful since it is not visible while using the camera. So just select ‘A’ or whatever catches your fancy and forget about it.

File Naming
This can be used creatively. On a trip to the mighty Himalayas, I set it to HIM. While using it for a fashion shoot, I used the letters FSH. Some photographers use the first letters of their name. Some others like to name it as per the camera model. Your camera, your choice!

White Balance
Set it at Auto or Daylight, it doesn’t matter since all photographs will undergo post-processing. If you use Auto or Daylight, chances are that the starting point for most of the raw files will suit your requirements.

Image Quality
This is what tells the camera about how images are recorded. I recommend using raw (nef) only. Post-processing of photographs is an important aspect of photography and the raw files are best suited for that. If your camera features HDR, it’ll not be available when image quality is set as nef.
Post Processing RAW

Picture Control
Use Standard or Neutral. This again can be changed during post-processing (very easily so if you happen to use Nikon’s software). ‘Vivid’ looks too artificial and ‘Portrait’ reduces the contrast and increases shadow details. Monochrome can be a good choice if you are planning to use the images as a black and white later on. Do not depend on the in-camera conversion to monochrome but use this picture control setting only as a reminder about what needs to be done with the photograph in post-processing.

Color Space
sRGB works for most users. Even though AdobeRGB has a wider gamut of colors, it is still not the default color space. Use it only if you are sure of all your hardware and printers and know how to calibrate them in Adobe RGB.

Long Exposure NR
This is a noise reduction algorithm used when the camera is set for long exposures. The sensor in such exposures gets hot and this heat causes blobs of colors or bright areas appearing on the image. Long exposure NR takes care of these. Useful if you click night photographs but at the expense of speed of image transfer to memory cards.

Another aspect that is better taken care of during the post-processing. Leave it ‘Off’ or set it to ‘Norm’. Your choice! As long as you are clicking raw, indulge in noise reduction during post-processing while viewing the image at 100% magnification.
Remove Noise, Add Grain

Auto ISO
This is a very powerful feature. Set it to ‘Auto’. The camera will now boost the ISO in low light conditions maintaining the lowest shutter speed according to the lens focal length. This will prevent camera shake from spoiling the photographs. I have assigned one of the buttons on my camera body to this setting so that I can dial it in quickly whenever needed without hunting around in the menu. (Auto ISO)


Custom Settings Menu

Custom Setting Menu

Custom Settings Bank
As in the shooting menu, if your camera has this option, choose any one bank and play around in that. This maybe a useful feature for many photographers but for me it is easier to play around in a single settings bank.



Priority selection
Set the priority as shutter release rather than getting the image in focus. Sometimes I use a small aperture and so it is not necessary to lock the focus before clicking. For me shutter release is a priority rather than hunting for focus.

Focus point illumination
The selected focus point or the active focus points light up in red color. This is useful if you are using dynamic auto-focus modes or AF-C. It can however be disturbing in night shots.

AF Assist
It is that bright white light on the front that helps the AF to work in dim light. Keep it off. Switch to manual focus in such conditions. If you still feel the need for AF assist light, mount a speedlight and make use of the red focus assist light.

Focus point wrap around
While manually selecting the focus point (AF point), on reaching the end of the available focal points, pressing the selector further selects the first focus point again, cycling through them endlessly. I keep it on. It saves the clicks while moving from end to the other.

Number of focus points
Since I visualize images and then click them, for me a smaller number of focus points works well. It makes the task of manually selecting the focus point easier as I don’t have to scroll through all of them. For most photographers, selecting the maximum number of focus points is a better option.
More on Focusing – Staying Focused


Metering and Exposure

ISO Step Value
Change it to 1 step. This will shift the ISO in complete stops rather than small 1/3rd steps. It makes things easier when the ISO changed in complete stops especially while manually selecting all the settings.

Center-weighted area
The Nikon cameras by default consider the central 12mm of the area for giving maximum importance while metering. In most of the old lenses, even if the size is changed, the camera will use the central 12mm itself. No sense in changing it. For APS-C sensor cameras it is set at central 8mm.

Fine-tune optimal exposure
Use it to correct your camera’s optimal exposure based on how the photos in general have turned out from the last many shots. I use a -1/3 EV compensation in 3D Matrix metering mode with Nikon Df.
More on Metering Modes – Metering Modes


Timers/AE Lock

Everything remains unchanged



Change it to off. This is the beep sound that happens when the AF locks on to the subject. I do not understand why this is required when we are seeing the photograph before pressing the shutter release. Maybe it is one of those increased accessibility option for the visually impaired.

ISO Display
Keeping it on displays the selected ISO in the viewfinder. It helps in keeping a tab on the selected ISO especially while using Auto-ISO function.

Screen Tip
Keep them off. These can get very irritating.

File number sequence
By default it is on in newer cameras. Interestingly in older cameras, the default setting was ‘off’. Do check it again to make sure it is on. This will sequentially number all your photographs regardless of the times the card is formatted upto 9999. After reaching that number the next file will again be numbered as 0001. Keeping this on helps avoid many problems while copying and cataloguing photographs on the computer.



Built in flash
This is where the option to use the built in flash in commander mode might be present depending on your camera model. If you want to use the flash to light up the subject, use TTL. It is a no-brainer for getting the best results. Though I strongly dissuade people from using the built in flash.
More on Flash Modes – Flash Modes



Assign Fn button
I have assigned it to Auto-ISO. This helps me to quickly switch of Auto-ISO mode without going into the Shooting Menu. Depending on your camera model, the available functions that can be assigned to it may vary. Choose the one that is not available without the menu on your camera body and you find yourself quite frequently going into the menu for that option.

Customize Command Dials
It depends on how you use your camera. I use Aperture Priority mode quite frequently and turning the rear command dial by thumb is easier than turning the front dial. So I have set the rear dial to selecting apertures.


Setup Menu

Setup Menu

Format Memory Card
This is where the most important function which should be performed after loading a new memory card is located. Format each of your memory cards before starting to click. This will clean the card, wipe out all the earlier photographs and prolong the life of your memory card too.
Caring for memory cards

Clean Image Sensor
Again, if your camera model supports it, use it. This may reduce the frequency of proper sensor cleaning though I have not seen any difference with or without this function. All the sensors (actually the low pass filter in front of these) require an occasional cleaning using blower bulbs and sometimes even sensor swabs.
Cleaning Camera and Lens

Image Comment or Copyright Information
or even both these options may be available in your camera. These are a useful function to add your own name and short contact information in the EXIF information. I use my name and phone number in some cameras and in some others I have also included my email address.

Non-CPU lens data
For using those old Non-CPU lenses in the present day DSLRs. I use many old Nikkor AI-s lenses with my cameras and so this is an important function for me. With the present lenses, this function is not required.


Depending on your camera model, all these options may not be available. Some other cameras may have other options in the menu. Do take time out and read your camera’s user manual.

The various other menus like – Playback, Retouch, Recent Settings, My Menu etc can be left untouched initially. Once you become comfortable with the camera, use these for further fine-tuning your camera use.


Tree in Autumn

(Photograph clicked on a compact inexpensive camera in early winters, with overcast sky and bare trees. Camera had almost no configurable settings. Camera settings are there to help you. Don’t be lost in those to an extent that your focus shifts away from photography.)

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