Shooting in Auto-ISO


I was out walking in one of our local parks recently, and happened upon a small herd of white-tail deer, maybe 10-12, including at least two young bucks. They weren't at all intimidated by my presence, and just went about their usual business, although they did keep a close eye on me. Of course, I maintained a safe distance -- besides not wanting to find myself being charged by one of those young studs, I don't like to disturb wildlife while I'm out shooting. Fortunately, the combination of my Nikon D810 and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens meant I could keep at a comfortable distance and still get some decent closeup and full body shots of these beautiful creatures.

One of the things I love about the 500 PF is that it's small and light enough to allow me to shoot hand-held, which is great, as that allows me considerably more flexibility and mobility than shooting with the camera and lens mounted on a tripod or even a monopod (and by now, everyone knows how much I just love shooting with a tripod . . . blech.). However, the 500 PF is still a 500mm lens, and whenever we're shooting at such long focal lengths, camera shake almost always becomes more of a problem. The lens' built-in Vibration Reduction (set to "sport"), reduces that camera shake almost entirely, but at my advanced age, I just can't hold the camera as still as I was once able, which means I need all the help I can get. So it behooves me to crank that shutter speed up to something above (sometimes well above) 1/1000 second whenever possible.


At the same time, I really prefer to shoot in aperture priority.* Unfortunately, doing so opens up the possibility that depending on the lighting conditions, the shutter speed could easily drop below that 1/1000 second threshold. This makes shooting in manual mode imperative. But I still don't want to have to worry about finding the correct exposure -- I'd rather concentrate on the subject.


Enter Auto ISO.


Activating Auto ISO is done on most Nikon cameras by pressing the ISO button and simultaneously turning the sub-command dial (on the front of the camera under the shutter release). Some Nikon cameras, such as the D3500, don't have a sub-command dial. In such cases, refer to your camera's manual to set the ISO to Auto through the camera's menu system.

I also made sure to go into the Shooting menu, under "ISO sensitivity settings," and set the maximum sensitivity to what I thought would be the max I would need in the vast majority of my shooting. For me, that's ISO 4000. (In the D810, Auto ISO can also be turned on in that particular menu, which will become important later.)

The next step is to set the camera to manual mode, and choose the shutter speed and aperture I want for my wildlife shooting. Since the skies were mostly overcast, and the deer weren't exactly running about, I choose 1/1600 sec as my shutter speed. For aperture, I set the camera to always use the 500 PF's maximum aperture of f/5.6.



Now I'm set -- a shutter speed that will freeze the majority of any action and eliminate 99% of the camera shake that the VR doesn't get, an aperture that will give me as much bokeh as I really need, and I still don't have to worry about hunting for the perfect exposure.


If you read my last blog post about using Nikon's menu system to remember different cameras settings, you know I already have all of this set up in Shooting menu "C -- Wildlife," and in Custom menu "C -- Wildlife." Remember I said that on the D810 (and most other Nikon cameras), Auto-ISO can be turned on in the same menu that sets the max ISO? Well, this is where it's turned on (or off) "automatically" whenever I change menus -- When changing to the "C -- Wildlife" menu under Shooting Menus, Auto-ISO is automatically turned on. I just don't have to remember to do that. This means all I have to do is mount the lens to the camera, and chose both of those menus. Done. Start shooting. The camera is worrying about the exposure, I have a high shutter speed and a wide open aperture, and I can concentrate on the deer. And that's the really fun part.


* -- Yeah, yeah, I know -- "you're not a photographer until you learn to shoot in manual mode." Look, I started shooting with 35mm SLRs in 1965, when the word "auto" wasn't connected to photography in any manner. Everything -- exposure, focus, all of it, was manual. Period. It wasn't until I went digital in 2004 with a Nikon D2h that I even owned a camera that could do anything "automatically." Manual mode? I've been there, done that, and have a whole dresser full of those t-shirts . . .


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Oklahoma Freelance Photographer

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Don Risi Photography
Oklahoma City 


Based in Oklahoma City, able to travel anywhere in the

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Using Nikon Cameras and Lenses exclusively since 1979.
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