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Another Round of Learning New Tricks: Making Better Use of the Nikon Menu System

Menus. Every digital camera has them. Some are fancy, some not, some easy to use, some notoriously difficult. Some have drawbacks, some . . . Well, they all have a drawback or two. Many consider Nikon's menu system to be one of the best around. Yet, for me, at least, there are a couple of things I think could be improved upon:

1. The inability to lock a menu down. As it is, if I make a change on the camera, it changes that thing in the currently selected menu, and then I have to remember to put it back the way it was. Remembering those kinds of things was easier 30 years ago, but 30 years ago, I was a lot younger, and we didn't have digital photography. But if I can lock a menu, I can change what I need to change for that particular moment, and know that I can return to that menu's base settings later, without forgetting everything I changed for that specific shoot.

2. Not everything can be set within a menu. Let's face it, in a DSLR, there are only a handful of things that are absolutely mechanical -- the mirror, the diaphragm in the lens, and the shutter. But controlling the diaphragm is already a strictly electronic (read: computer) process, and when you think about it for just a little bit, so is the shutter and mirror. Sure, you spin a wheel to change the aperture or shutter speeds, but that wheel is relaying the information to the aperture or shutter via the camera's computer. I'd like to see a literal menu item for every single thing that can be changed on the camera (while maintaining the traditional controls as they are). I'd even include things like the self timer, the mirror lock up, as well as the single - continuous low - continuous high settings. All of it. Reason? See #1 above . . .

3. More menus. Currently, Nikon provides a Shooting Menu and a Custom menu, each of which has four banks (A, B, C, and D). Each bank contains the same items, the idea being you can set one bank one way, and another bank a different way for shooting in different situations. I use all four banks. I have one for "General Shooting," another for shooting "Wildlife," one for shooting with studio strobes, and the fourth is set up to shoot with speedlights. Personally, I'd like to see at least two more banks, giving us A, B, C, D, E, and F, in both the Shooting menus and the Custom menus. That would allow photographers like me, who shoot a lot of very different things, the ability to cover more of those situations. There is also an option for what Nikon calls "My Menu," where you can copy something you change or access often to your "My Menu", thereby making it easier to find than having to dig through all the layers.

Again there is, IMVHO, one drawback to all this -- see #1 above.

Would these changes result in even longer-to-scroll-through, more complicated menus? Yep. But stick with me, and you'll see where I'm going with this.

I was chatting with a friend a while back, and discovered that he'd never used the menus on his D850 (or his D750, D500, or now, his Z6) at all. He'd never messed with them. If there was something he wanted to change (like a button assignment), he'd change it, but he was forever working in Bank A. If he decided he needed that button to do something different for today's shoot, he'd just change it, and then have to put it back later. So what's the big deal about that? Well, suppose you shoot both portraits and architecture, and many of the camera's settings are considerably different for each. Now, you're having to change a lot of stuff all the time. For me, this can lead to mistakes, or at the very least, some confusion as to why the photos aren't working out. To help alleviate the problem, I set up banks for certain kinds of shooting as best I could, which meant all I had to change was which menu was active.

But there were still things I had to change by hand, things that don't have a spot on any menu, and like I said, I'm getting forgetful in my old age. For example, 99% of everything I shoot is in Aperture Priority. But when I shoot with studio strobes, I shoot in manual mode with shutter and aperture lock. And since I am forgetful, I have forgotten to unlock either the shutter or aperture before going on to shot something else, and end up sitting there, trying to figure out what's wrong. But by assigning all of that (among other things) to the Studio Strobe menu, all I have to remember to do is change menus to what I need for the next shoot.

For example, now that I have a 500mm PF lens for the majority of my wildlife shooting, I also shoot in manual mode, without the shutter and aperture lock, but WITH AutoISO. With studio strobes, the ISO never changes.

And of course, I use speedlights in a lot of my work, and those require different settings yet.

I had originally set up a "general shooting" menu in both Shooting and Custom. This was a very generic, vanilla group of settings. Stuff that pretty much covers whatever. But since I shoot with speedlights so much, I set up a menu with all of the speedlight settings I use. Combined with my conversation with my friend, all of this got me thinking about more uses for menus. Then I discovered an option called "Extended Menu Banks" in the Shooting Menus. On my Nikon D810, exposure, flash modes, shutter speed and aperture* are all automatically included in the selected menu banks. Please note that you have to turn "Extended Menu Banks" ON in each of the four Shooting Menus to have each menu record those settings.

What I have setup is pretty simple. As I mentioned earlier, in both the Shooting Menu and Custom Menu, I have the banks set up this way:

A = General Shooting, B = Studio Strobes, C = Wildlife, and D = Speedlights.

I could easily use two more. For example, E would be for shooting Architecture, F for something I'll think of later.

This means that when I switch from bank A -- General Shooting (Aperture Priority, et al.) to to bank C -- Wildlife, the mode changes to Manual, the ISO changes to AutoISO, the shutter speed is set to 1/1600, and the aperture to f/5.6 (for the 500mm PF), and so on. Then, when I change to bank D -- Speedlights, the mode goes back to Aperture Priority, the Auto is removed from the ISO, which is set to ISO 200, the shutter speed drops to something around 1/60, the aperture changes to f/8, and one of the buttons is programed to be the EV flash lock (yes, I use the speedlights in TTL most of the time).

Using this system, I no longer have to remember to change modes, shutter speeds, AutoISO, etc. I just change menus. It's not perfect, but we're getting there. Like I said, I still have to remember that if I change something on the camera while in a particular menu bank, I have to change it back, or it'll be changed in that menu bank until I do. Being able to lock the menus would solve that.

It continually amazes me what I discover about a camera I've been shooting with for several years. There are all sorts of little gems to be found within the Nikon system. All I have to do is look for them.

* -- shutter speed and aperture are recorded only when in their respective modes -- S and M for shutter speed and A and M for aperture.

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