Nikon D800: How To Customize It Effectively

If you have been following the photography part of this blog for a while, you will have noticed that I do not talk about equipment, let alone brands, because I think what matters most are the principles of photography and, ultimately, the photographer who is behind the camera. A photographer may have the best gear in the world, but if he/she does not master the technique to make the best of it or lacks creativity or artistic sensitivity, then the resulting photographs will be either technically inadequate or incapable of expressing an artistic message.

However, a dear reader who knows I have (and love) a Nikon D800 and who has recently bought one herself asked whether I would post some advice as to how to effectively set it up, so here I am talking about equipment! 😉

Saint Emilion Restaurant

In my view, the D800 is a wonderfully capable and powerful camera, that offers the photographer a myriad of options for customizing it just the way that specific photographer needs to suit his/her photography style. In this post I will focus on pointing out some of those that *FOR ME* are the most useful options that I take advantage of to make my D800 work the way I want based on how I shoot. Of course, other photographers may have different needs, so what follows may work for me but not for you – your mileage may vary 🙂

(A) Shooting Menu: These are the main options for which I have changed the defaults:

1. Primary Slot Selection: I changed it so the primary memory card to which images get saved on my D800 is the CF card, while the SD card only kicks in when the CF card is full (“overflow” option). This is because the latest CF cards are still faster than SD cards and trust me, with the unbelievable amount of data that the D800 moves to a memory card, you do need a fast UDMA 7 card if you do not want to fill the buffer too soon!

2. Image Quality: As you may have guessed already if you read my previous post about why one should consider shooting RAW instead of Jpeg, I set this to RAW. 😉

3. Jpeg Compression: For those rare instances when I shoot Jpeg, I set this option to “Optimal Quality.”

4. NEF (RAW) Recording: I set the compression option of NEF files to “Lossless Compressed” and bit depth to “14 bit”.

5. Color Space: I changed this to Adobe RGB as it provides a broader gamut than sRGB, which is a color space that is best assigned to an image at the time it is ready to be published on the Web. Bear in mind that the “color space” setting only affects images taken by the D800 as Jpegs, while it does not have an effect on NEF/RAW images for which the photographer can decide which color space to assign to them at the time of processing.

6. Auto ISO: Auto ISO is a feature that may come in handy on certain occasions, such as when shooting sports indoors (when light levels are generally dim) or wildlife on the move at the fringes of the day. The one setting of Auto ISO that I changed upfront is “Maximum Sensitivity”: this basically allows the photographer to instruct the D800 not to go higher than a certain ISO setting when Auto ISO is turned on. This is useful as it lets you set the highest ISO setting that you feel comfortable will return images with noise levels that are acceptable for their intended use. Personally, I set the limit on my D800 to 3200 ISO.

USA, Arches National Park (UT) Windows Arch at twilight

(B) Custom Settings Menu: The D800 has 54 custom settings that let you customize it just the way you want: use them! Below is a list of the custom settings that are the most useful to me:

a4AF activation: I prefer that my camera AF only activates when I want it to, so I changed a4 to make sure that the shutter release only takes the shot when tripped, without activating the AF. To do that, I assigned AF activation to the AF-ON button only, by selecting the option “AF-ON Only”. This way I have the utmost flexibility and I can activate my camera AF only when I want to.

d6Viewfinder Grid Display: I set this to “ON” so grid lines will show at all times in the viewfinder: this is helpful both not to tilt horizons when you handhold and to quickly identify strong compositional points in the frame according to the rule of thirds.

f4Assign Fn Button: There is a host of options here, so you should choose the one you think you are going to use the most. In my D800 I assigned it to spot metering mode, by choosing the “Spot Metering” option, so whenever I want to take a spot meter reading off a subject I just press the Fn button and there we go.

f6Assign AE-L/AF-L Button: This is one of my favorite customizations in the D800 – I assigned the button in combination with the subcommand dial (the one in the front of the camera) to “Select Image Area”. This way, whenever I want to change the active area of the sensor and therefore the size of the end image (which is something I do fairly often) I can do so in a breeze by just pressing the AE-L/AF-L button while rotating the subcommand dial: this toggles among the four available image sizes (FX – 36×24; 1.2x – 30×20; DX – 24×16; 5:4 – 30×24).

f11Slot Empty Release Lock: I set this to “Lock” – why would I want to trip the shutter when there is no memory card in the camera???

f12Reverse Indicators: In this option I chose “Reverse” so that the exposure indicator that appears in the viewfinder and in the top screen of my D800 has the + sign on the left and the – sign on the right. This is because I mostly shoot in Manual Exposure mode and I find it easier that the exposure indicator mimics the rotation of the camera dials. So for instance, if I rotate the main dial to the left to set a slower shutter speed (therefore increasing my exposure) the mark on the exposure indicator in the viewfinder will also move to the left toward the + sign, showing that my exposure is increasing (i.e., the image is getting lighter).

USA, Arches National Park (UT) Balanced Rock at twilight

(C) My Menu: This is a fully user customizable menu that I find incredibly helpful and I definitely suggest you set up and use. Essentially, you can add to it those of the options/custom settings of your D800 that you use the most so they can be all grouped in, and accessible from, one and the same spot as opposed to scattered across the various menus they belong to. To give you an idea, these are the options that I have assigned to mine: (i) Choose Image Area; (ii) Auto ISO; (iii) Long Exposure NR; (iv) Virtual Horizon; (v) d4-Exposure Delay Mode; (vi) Multiple Exposure Mode.

That’s all for now: I hope the above tips may be helpful to some D800 users who may have preferences/needs similar to mine.

In a future post I will discuss why I think the D800 (particularly if used in combination with the optional MB-D12 battery grip and a D4 battery) is a wonderfully flexible camera that fits many different shooting styles and subjects.

Happy shooting! 🙂


40 thoughts on “Nikon D800: How To Customize It Effectively

  1. kbvollmarblog

    Dear Stefano,
    thanks a lot. Dina will love it. She is still thrilled about her new camera.
    A big HUG from
    Klausbernd and his very busy Bokkfayries – actually I don`t know what they are up to …

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Klausbernd: like I said, I am excited for her! 🙂
      I am also looking forward to reading the new subject the Bookfayries are going to come up with! 🙂
      A big hug to you,

  2. Dina

    Reblogged this on The World according to Dina and commented:
    I finally did it. I treated myself to the Nikon D800 and two prime lenses. Since I got this camera I take less, but better pictures. I practice a lot, there’s so much learn to get the optimum out this jewel of a camera. I’m so happy that Stefano now writes about his experience with the camera and shares he thoughts with us.
    Thank you so much, dear Stefano! 🙂

  3. Dina

    Dear Stefano, du bist ein Schatz! 🙂 Thank you for posting your experience with the Nikon D800, this is very helpful reading. As always, I save your tutorials about photography. Visiting your blog and learning more about photography is the second best thing to “Go on a photographic expedition to the North with Stefano Crosio and learn more about your camera, photography, nature and wine”. 🙂

    Well, I must say, not only the camera is a rewardable challenge. The prime lenses also… 😉

    Thanks again, I’ll change some settings straight away now!

    Lots of love from the Rhine Valley

    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Dina,
      I am very happy that you found my post helpful! I hope it may inspire you to fully customize your D800 so that it operates just the way you want.
      I am glad that you are enjoying your new gear, although I had no doubt you would! 🙂 The lenses you bought are phenomenal!
      Finally, we should really make an effort to make a photo expedition together happen…
      In the meantime, enjoy your new gear! 🙂

  4. Mary Gilmartin

    Dina, if only I had a D800 camera I could use your tips you mentioned. But, for now it’s back to writing stories, so I’ll continue to use my digital Canon PowerShot ELPH110HS that replaced a Nikon I dropped on the sidewalk and broke. But, as you mentioned it’s not the camera or the brand, but the photographer behind it you ultimately makes the decision. Perhaps one day I’ll find time to explore other cameras and learn how to use their features.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Mary,
      Thank you for your kind comment – the only thing is… that I am Stefano 🙂 Dina was kind enough to reblog my post to her blog, hence I think the confusion.
      Anyway, you are right: the most important thing is to be out there photographing and to do the best we can with whatever equipment is available to us.
      Have fun and happy shooting! 🙂

  5. ChgoJohn

    This is another great, informative post, Stefano. I recently purchased a Nikon D5100 and am in the process of learning about it and how to use it. Posts like these, even if not about my specific camera, are and will be a big help. Thank you for being so generous, sharing your photography knowledge and experience with us.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, John and congratulations on your purchase! To me, camera purchases are always exciting! 😉 Now have fun with your new acquisition! 🙂

  6. nomadenseele

    Ist die Kamera auch für Gelegenheitsfotographen wie mich geeignet? Ich habe noch nie in meinem Leben eine Spiegelreflexkamera gehabt und befürchte, dass die D800 zu kompliziert ist. Es wäre ärgerlich, 2000 Euro für eine Kamera auszugeben, die dann entweder zu komplex für mich ist oder mit der ich nicht bessere Fotos als jetzt mache.

    Aber ich werde mir den Artikel auf jeden Fall in meine Linkliste legen!

    1. Dina

      Liebe Nomadenseele,
      vielen Dank, dass du dir die Zeit mit diesem Artikkel genommen hast! Also, deine Bedenken kenne ich auch, ich habe es mir nicht leicht getan.
      Also ich glaube nicht, dass ich jemand der keine Fotoausstattung (Objektive etc) hat dieses Kamera als Anfängerkamera empfehlen würde. Mit 2000€ bist du noch nicht lange dabei, diese Kamera verlangt prime lenses, erstklassige Objektive in FX-Format. Die Objektive kosten ein Vermögen, das muss man vorher wissen. Deswegen habe ich sehr lange mit der Entscheidung eine D800 oder lieber eine D7000 zu kaufen gerungen.

      Dir würde ich eher die D7000 empfehlen. Die gibt es jetzt günstig, auch in Set zu kaufen, da der Nachfolger D7100 (macht bessere Videos) auf dem Markt ist. Ich behalte meine D200 und werde somit die alten Objektive benutzen können. Die D800 kann zwar DX-Objektive erkennen und stellt sich automatisch von FX auf DX Format um, aber das wäre nur eine Notlösung.
      Ich kenne einige die die D7000 benutzen und sie sind alle sehr, sehr zufrieden mit der Kamera.
      Liebe Grüße zu dir

    2. Stefano Post author

      Dear nomadenseele,
      Thank you very much for commenting: I am sorry that I do not speak German, but I trust that Dina has wonderfully addressed your comment/question in my lieu – thank you, Dina! 🙂
      Should you have more questions, feel free to ask… Dina will answer them for me!!! 😉 😉 😉

      1. nomadenseele

        Oh, this was extremley unpleasent which I did – I chose the wrong blog to comment-.-. I`m really sorry. If somebody drops a brick, I´ll be it.

        I wanted ask Dina, if the D800 was also a camera for beginners like me and she recommened the D700.
        I use a very cheap Rollai (Examples).

        Please forgive me my bad English, my active English skills are quite awkward.

      2. Stefano Post author

        Oh, thank you for replying – and of course no problem whatsoever! Actually, I wish I could speak German (and French too!), so my bad! 🙂 And by the way there is absolutely nothing wrong with your English, let alone awkward! 🙂
        I am sure Dina gave you plenty of excellent advice regarding camera choices. In my view, the D800 is a wonderful camera – the best digital camera I have owned, hands down. So, I guess it really boils down to the commitment you want to put into it… It is a camera that requires discipline on the part of e photographer: at 36MP if you shoot handheld you need to use your best handholding techniques (elbows next to your chest, gentle and progressive tripping of the shutter, holding your breath or controlled breathing…) and a reasonably fast shutter speed relative to your focal length if you want to achieve the sharpness that the camera makes available to you. Plus, with that kind of resolution, you need to slap in front of it some high quality lens, with high resolving power or you will suffer image degradation.
        So, it is not a point and shoot, or at least it is not intended to be one. It is a great machine that, if used properly, can and will deliver images that will blow you away in terms of quality, sharpness, contrast, everything. But you have to put some effort into it.
        I hope this is of at least some help in your decision making process! 🙂
        Take care

      3. nomadenseele

        And by the way there is absolutely nothing wrong with your English, let alone awkward! 🙂

        Thanks, that`s very kind of you but I`ve found an mistake 🙂 . Thats why I´m too ashamed writing in English.

        In my view, the D800 is a wonderful camera – the best digital camera I have owned, hands down

        I believe it is, but I guess, that the D800 is far too complex for absolute beginners like me. I`ve chosen the D800 because it is the best camera right now. It will be a disgrace, if I do not take good photo, because I can`t operate it well.

      4. Stefano Post author

        That’s one of the greatest misconceptions about the D800. See, any camera whose shutter speed can go up to say 1/2000 sec (which is I think almost all cameras out there, including of course the D800) is capable of successfully taking an action shot that freezes the action of your subject. A different story is the number of frames per second (FPS) a camera can take. The idea in action shots is that the higher the FPS rate the higher the photographer’s chances to get “just the right shot” in the frame. The reality is that a good photographer knows when it is best to trip the shutter by anticipating the subject’s action. Anyway, the D800 at full 36MP shoots at 4 FPS, which is not very fast BUT that’s not how you are supposed to shoot that camera for action and by making a couple of changes you can improve that performance by 50%, which for me is absolutely adequate for action.
        How to achieve that will be the subject matter of another post though! 🙂

  7. maureenjenner

    I have a Nikon Coolpix S8000 which affords me enormous pleasure photographing flowers and bird-life in the garden. Your postings are so informative and your photographs a joy. Thank you for sharing them, and so much very useful information.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Way to go, Maureen! There are indeed some very fine, capable cameras in the Coolpix lineup. I am glad you take joy in photographing your favorite subjects: that’s what it is all about. Being there and enjoying the moment.
      Also, thank you very much for your very kind words: I am officially flattered! 😉

  8. Dina

    Dear Stefano,

    work was hard on me and I had little time recently, but I am eager to learn and now I try to put aside one hour every day to learn more about photography. That includes photoshop etc, puuuh, I still have a lttle hurdle to take there. 🙂

    I don’t go klick-klick anymore! 🙂 (Klausbernd is in for a surprise :-). I adjusted the camera settings following your helpful advice, although I’m not totally comfortable with all the technique yet.

    Now to the wide angle. My first shot of a nearby lake in Norway looked so good so I thought this was going to be really easy. I went off for a walk klicking my way around and the result was totally boring. 😦 That was a helpful lesson. What went wrong? I suppose I tried to squeeze everything into the frame ifrom a distance nstead of getting real close, practically bringing myself into the frame.
    So many deatils to watch out for. What’s in the middle, what’s in the Corners, where is the horizon, an Inch makes a huge difference… Now I always think about your magnificent shot of the caribou skull in Nunavut, having an object close to the camera makes all the difference! What are your favourite settings on the camera using the wide angle? Do use the spot metering on the object close to you? I suppose you know what kind of tutorial I’d love to read next… 🙂 Just joking (halfway) thanks a lot for all your kind help, Stefano. :-), it’s highly appreciated.

    Big hug

    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Dina,
      The path to enlightenment may be a windy one at times, but you have to keep at it and you will be rewarded for certain at the end!
      Regarding processing, do you use Lightroom at all? My workflow (in a nutshell) is download through Bridge, select the keepers, rename, import into LR, process and caption/keyword the RAW files there. Then when I need to finalize an mage for my website or the blog or a client, I export to PS and fine tune the image for e intended use. This way the amount of work I do in PS is relatively small – the bulk of it happens in LR. Anyway, PS is a powerful, wonderful software, which you need to understand the fundamentals of (first and foremost ALWAYS work with layers!) but then you will see how awesome it is. Even here, one day I will post a few tips about digital workflow and PS…
      Regarding WA shots: personally, I think that you can tell an accomplished photographer from the way he/she uses a wide-angle! 😉 Because the truth is that properly and effectively using a WA is anything but obvious and you need to think and practice to achieve good results. Just a few tips: (i) if you cannot find a strong subject/compositional element in the immediate foreground, don’t take the shot or your image will be just a very… wide shot, but hardly an exciting one (ii) when you find your foreground subject, walk right to it and lace your WA super close to it, don’t be shy! (iii) remember the law of physics as applied to lenses: telephotos compress the spatial relationships of a scene, WA’s expand them, so make good use of these principles by applying them to your composition – in a WA shot refrain from getting excited at the idea of how much you can squeeze into one shot, and instead before framing think hard what it is that you want to communicate to the viewer, then frame accordingly (iv) use leading lines and contrast to enhance perspective and unconsciously (Klausbernd would love this!) lead the eyes of your viewer through the important elements of your image. Try this if you will, take many shots and analyze mercilessly which ones work and which ones do not and you will see that before you know it you will become a WA expert!
      There’s much more that could (and should) be said but it would turn this comment into a full fledged photography course! 😉
      Hope this helps.
      Have fun!

  9. Dina

    Dear Stefano,

    …The path to enlightenment may be a windy one at times, but you have to keep at it and you will be rewarded for certain at the end! … This comment put a big smile on my face this morning! 🙂
    And the many hours of work and overtime also pay off in the end, I know, I’ll soon get more time to learn. Soon. How can I ever thank you for spending so much of your precious time and all this effort explainingl?! Please don’t think you have to guide and tutor me all the way to becoming the world’s best bookfayriemum photographer of the year. 🙂

    No, I don’t use Lightroom. In fact I don’t know what Lightroom is, apart from getting an invitation to participate in a Lightroom contest.

    Pssss. don’t tell anyone: I shoot in RAW, make few adjustments in iphoto and that’s it! Converting? 🙂 When I remove the photo from iphoto to my desk to use it for web etc it is automatically a jpg, ready to use. Oh dear. That bad? 🙂

    I have saved this most valuable Information, Stefano. Thank you so much. You are an excellent teacher. I’ll learn more about Bridge and I soon hope to master PS (before i got the Mac and iphoto became my best friend 🙂 ) I used to do some adjustments in PS.

    As for the wide angle, I can’t wait to get to North Norfolk and use it, try it out in the beautiful landscape. And hopefully I’ll soon get a nice perspective, because no one said it better:
    …. before framing think hard what it is that you want to communicate to the viewer, then frame accordingly (iv) use leading lines and contrast to enhance perspective and unconsciously (Klausbernd would love this!) lead the eyes of your viewer through the important elements of your Image…..

    A BIG thankful hug to you, dear Stefano. Have a great day!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Dina,
      It is a pleasure offering you a few hints, it just gives me the opportunity to write a few interesting “photo technique” posts! 🙂
      Well, you should consider getting Lightroom or Aperture, whatever you feel more comfortable with.
      They are both apps that let you process your images, present them and most importantly categorize and archive them. Because let me tell you, if you do not use any archiving method (or simply resort to a hierarchical folder structure) your image collection will soon become unmanageable and it will be hard for you to find a specific mage you are looking for. If I may offer some extra advice, get a copy of Peter Krogh’s “The DAM Book” ( which is the best book I know to discuss the subject of digital asset management for photographers. It will open your eyes! 🙂
      A big hug,

      1. Dina

        Dear Stefano,

        I take your point there! 🙂 I’ll take a closer look at Lightroom and order the book as pdf. Thank you so much!

  10. Flora Poste

    Hello Dina and Stefano, thank you for this helpful information. Good thing you treated yourself to a new camera: your talent deserves it and I am looking forward to the results;0) Hugs from Ohio.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Excellent timing then! 🙂 Glad you found it useful – I plan on publishing one more D800-related post in the next weeks.
      Good luck with your camera system selection process! 🙂

  11. Pingback: Nikon D800 & Action Photography: a Swiss Army Knife? | Clicks & Corks

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