Gear – what I use and why

I’m often asked about what lenses and cameras I use, how I set up my cameras and suggestions on tripods and other gear. This area is a good starting point for those types of questions. Below you’ll find my answers on cameras and lenses, preferred bags, exposure and processing settings, and the menus I find most helpful and why. At the end are my recommendations for speedlights, tripods, filters and light modifiers (umbrellas, reflectors and soft boxes).

 

Inside my bag these days

I’m lucky enough to have a fairly large assortment of gear to choose from, so I pack according to what I’m going to do. For family trips and general running around, I either take a Nikon V3 with 10-30mm lens, or a Nikon D7200 and Nikon’s 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lenses. If I’m doing more serious photography and it involves travel where weight is a concern, then my go-to kit is two cameras, perhaps the D500 instead of the D7200 and adding the Nikon D750 (or perhaps D810) plus three Nikkor lenses – the 16-35mm f/4 VR, 50mm f/1.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. I love pairing an FX and DX camera together, as that gives me more flexibility in framing thanks to the crop factor of the DX camera (1.5X). If I’m shooting  wildlife, then I take along either my Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 VR or 500mm f/4 VR long lenses. And I’d probably add in the TC-14E teleconverter. If I’m trying to go extra  light, I’ll take the nice, but slower Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6. Sports? Then I switch to a Nikon D4S or D500. And I almost always have a Nikon flash in the bag, either the SB-700 (lighter weight) or SB-910 (more power). Or, to go very light, when I don’t need much power, the SB-500.

The bag I choose is always based on what I’m doing. I love the Think Tank Photo Speed Demon waistbelt with a couple of accessory pouches for general shooting. The Think Tank Airport series backpacks are great for travel, fitting even in the tiny overhead spaces I often find in commuter planes. The Essentials and Commuter are my current two favorites. Thinktank has a workshop promotion (that you qualify for by reading this) where you get a free product every time you place an order over $50. To take advantage of that deal, go here.

Lenses

I shoot everything from landscapes to portraits, sports to news. And high quality is always a must. This section lists many of the lenses I use, in different situations, and why I like them.

As a Nikon shooter, I’m going to talk about Nikon lenses here because that’s all I use. I think other companies also make good lenses, but one reason I’ve stayed with Nikon is because of their optics. Of course, not all Nikkor lenses have the same level of quality. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Higher-end lenses (okay, more expensive) tend to have better optics, better lens coatings, better edge-to-edge sharpness, better contrast and color and hold up better over many years of use.  Nikon’s “kit” lenses (like the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 commonly sold with entry-level and sometimes mid-level cameras), while good, make sacrifices to be lightweight and inexpensive. However, you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to get a good lens. Fixed focal-length lenses (non-zoom) are usually very sharp and not as expensive. And there are some very good zoom lenses in the under $1000 category too, as I explain below.

(Note – “DX” lenses are those made primarily for Nikon’s DX cameras. While they can be used on Nikon’s FX cameras, they do so at a reduced resolution, so are primarily used on DX cameras)

Consumer Zooms

By “consumer zooms” I’m talking about those that cost less than $1000 (the 80-400mm is more) but still have very good image quality. There are several that I’m very fond of, and regularly use if I’m trying to carry less weight and don’t need fast apertures (which generally means f/4.0 or less for telephotos, f/2.8 or less for 200mm and shorter).

Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S – A very nice super-wide (and not DX) lens for under $1000, it’s a bit smaller, lighter and less expensive than the 16-35mm f/4, but not quite as wide and no VR. Around $800 for a very good lens.

Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S DX – This is my favorite super-wide zoom in the DX category. It’s very small and compact. Some people feel that its edge-to-edge sharpness isn’t as good as they’d like, but I rarely shoot the lens wide open (maximum aperture), and find that at f/5.6 to f/11 I’m happy with the results.

Nikon’s 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR and 16-85mm f/3.5-4.5 VR are two of my favorite consumer zooms. Compact, sharp, with VR – excellent value for their price.

Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S DX VR – This is one of my favorite “go-to” lenses for personal (as opposed to professional) work. Compact, very good sharpness and VR, I love pairing that with the 70-300mm (mentioned below) for vacations and family travel. And, I think it’s a very good deal at around $700.

Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S VR – My other favorite “go-to” lens for personal use, I love pairing it with the 16-85mm mentioned above. Very good optics, especially at this price, and a bargain at around $600. Plus, it’s not a DX lens, so no crop factor if you use it on an FX body.

Nikkor 200-500mm AF-S f/5.6 ED VR – Nikon made a lot of headlines when this lens was announced because it was so less expensive than its other long zooms. And at $1300, it’s a great deal. Not only is that a good price, it’s very sharp and reasonably portable for its zoom range. Perhaps its only downside is that it will take a couple of full turns to go from 200-500mm. But that’s a small price to pay for such a nice lens.

Nikkor 80-400mm AF-S f/4-5.6G ED VR – A more expensive long zoom (about $2400), this has been a popular lens for wildlife shooters who want a wider zoom range than the 200-500 and can’t afford the excellent, but pricey, 200-400mm f/4. It’s been updated from the earlier model to a faster, sharper AF-S version.

Pro Zooms

I break lenses down into “consumer” and “pro,” based mainly on price. I recommend the “pro” lenses to anyone who can afford them. You get what you pay for, and lenses play an incredibly important role in image quality. “Pro” lenses, in addition to the quality benefits, will stand up to harder use longer.

Nikko 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S – Described by some as perhaps the sharpest fast wide zoom ever made. An amazing lens, it’s also got a very large, protruding front element that makes adding filters difficult. I use this when I absolutely need that f/2.8 aperture.

Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 AF-S VR – This has become my favorite wide-angle zoom over the last couple of years. While f/4 is not considered a fast aperture in wide-angle lenses, better noise performance in today’s cameras mean we don’t need an f/2.8 lens as often. The 16-35mm range means a very wide option at the one end and a short wide-angle choice at the other. As opposed to the 14-24mm zoom, it takes standard 77mm filters (actually, you’ll want a “thin” filter for less chance of vignetting at 16mm). And finally, it has VR, not common on wide zooms, which is particularly nice if you want to shoot some video.

Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S – Most pros consider a 24-70mm 2.8 zoom one of two “bread-and-butter” lenses in their bag (the other, the 70-200mm 2.8 is mentioned next). Great standard zoom range in a fast, very sharp lens. Enough said.

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR – The other “bread-and-butter” pro lens, this might be the single most popular lens among serious photographers today. No question about its sharpness, great VR capability (more important in telephotos) and a fast f/2.8 aperture all the way from 70 to 200 millimeters has made this a standard for many years.

Nikkor 70-200mm f/4.0 AF-S VR – Just added to Nikon’s line-up in 2013, this is a smaller, lighter version of the f/2.8 model, so a stop slower but about $1000 less expensive. Still has ED glass and Nano Crystal coating. I’m very impressed with this lens so far and look forward to using it when I don’t need the speed of the f/2.8 model. Plus, it can use Nikon’s teleconverters.

The 200-400 f/4 is a wonderful wildlife lens, and extremely popular for people going on safaris. You can rent one for a fairly reasonable price.

Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 AF-S VR – Nikon’s made a 200-400mm f/4 lens for a long time now, and it’s the gold standard for wildlife photographers. When photographing animals in the wild you’re often unable to change your distance to subject, so a zoom can be essential to get the framing you want. Very sharp, nice VR, and perhaps most importantly, it’s not too large to hand-hold, at least for a short time. The size and weight also make it a reasonable lens to carry to remote places where those factors can be extremely important. Finally, better high ISO performance in today’s cameras has meant this lens starting to show up more on sidelines of sporting events which previously required f/2.8 lenses.

Fixed Focal Length (“Prime”) lenses

Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 AF-S fisheye (or its 10.5mm DX partner) – This is a fun lens to use because of its full-frame fisheye view. I also like it because of the fast aperture (f/2.8) and very small size. Plus, while it gives edge distortion (“field curvature”) when shot as is, if you use Nikon’s edit software, Capture NX 2, there’s a button that will automatically change it from a 180-degree view to a 130-degree corrected view. That removes the distortion, and gives me essentially two lenses in one – a full-frame fisheye with 180-degree coverage and curvature, or a corrected 130-degree view. This is a favorite for me when I’m traveling and want to go light, but expect to be indoors where I’ll want a wide view in low light.

Nikkor 40mm f/2.8 AF-S DX Micro – This is a close-up lens, commonly called a “macro” lens, and made for Nikon’s DX cameras. It’s very light, small, fast (f/2.8) and inexpensive. What’s not to like? Only downside, as with any short close-up lens, is that you risk blocking light from your subject when you get very close.

Nikon’s 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm f/1.8 lenses are all very reasonably priced and excellent lenses.

 

Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 AF-S -The newest of Nikon’s fixed f/1.8 lenses, I ordered this one right after it was announced, and love it. It’s small and light, and has become my go-to night photography lens.

Nikkor 28mm f/1.8 AF-S – If you’ve got an FX camera, this is a sweet, very fast, compact wide-angle lens for those times where you need a wide aperture due to low light or for shallow depth of field. Nikon also makes a 24mm f/1.4, but that’s very expensive. And on a DX camera this is still a slightly wide-angle lens, and thanks to it being AF-S, will autofocus on even the least expensive Nikon bodies.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-S – I find this lens to be a real steal. Around $200 for a very fast f/1.8 lens that will autofocus on even Nikon’s entry-level bodies (that’s the importance of the AF-S designation). Plus, it’s not a DX lens, so gives a full resolution image on both DX and FX bodies. I love shooting this lens wide open, even outdoors (lower your ISO to do this) to make unique photos with very little depth of field. Of course, as with any very fast lens, you better be in focus. Inches can make the difference between a great and bad picture if you’re not in focus when shooting at f/1.8.

Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 AF-S – Now we’re talking about a fast (f/1.8) telephoto, and still at a very reasonable price. This is a great budget lens for someone wanting to shoot indoors in poor available light. And, on an entry-level DX body it has autofocus (again, that’s what the AF-S means), and the “crop” factor of the DX sensor means the field of view is actually about 127mm. Plus, great depth of field control, even more than the 50mm above due to more telephoto. I recommend this lens all the time to people who want to photograph their kids in dance, theater, or any indoor sports.

Nikkor 500mm f/4 AF-S VR – I chose this lens over the 600mm because of its smaller size. More reach than the 200-400 at the same aperture, yet still a manageable size to carry and shoot.

Nikon TC-14E II – Often times teleconverters come not just with a loss of light (one stop with a 1.4X converter), but a loss of sharpness as well. Not this one. It’s always with me if I’m shooting the 70-200 mentioned above (making it a 105-280mm f/4 lens), or one of the longer, expensive telephotos from Nikon. Remember, though, that Nikon’s teleconverters can only be used on specific Nikon telephoto lenses.

Cameras

Teaching Nikon School for over ten years now, I’m intimately familiar with all of Nikon’s DSLR cameras. And I shoot all of them so I can help students regardless of the model they have. However, when I’m working, or out shooting on my own, as mentioned above, I prefer to carry one FX and one DX camera. Right now that means a D750 and D500, but in the past has been a D700/D800/D600-series camera and anything from a D90 to a D7200. The 1.5X “crop” factor of the DX camera lets me get more “reach” out of my telephoto lenses, and the larger pixels on most FX cameras mean they tend to do better at high ISO’s. This lets me play to the strengths of each body, and means I’m often shooting sports and wildlife with a DX body. Unless it’s low light (indoors or at night), when I’ll usually switch to the FX body.  Plus, simply swapping a lens from one body to another changes the angle of view I get because of the change in sensors.

Exposure

Most of the time I choose to shoot in Aperture Priority. Aperture, Shutter Priority and Program are all automatic exposure modes, and all of them can get you to the same place. It’s only how you interact with the camera that changes. I’m a big fan of limited depth of field, so Aperture is a great place for me. The downside to Shutter Priority is that you can choose a shutter speed that’s too fast or slow for the light. In that case, the camera can’t adjust the aperture for a good exposure and you end up with overexposed or underexposed pictures. With Aperture Priority, if I need the fastest shutter speed, I simply dial my aperture to its widest setting. I use Manual as well sometimes, when the light is unchanging or when I’m lighting a shot with flash. By staying in Manual when using strobe, I can set the aperture for the flash exposure, and use the shutter speed to control the ambient (available) light.

Matrix metering (some manufacturers call it “Evaluative”) usually gets me close, and then I use EV (exposure compensation) to adjust that exposure to where I want it. Since I tend to like scenes where the subject is the brightest part of the photo, with darker areas around it, I’m quite often shooting with EV at -.3 to 1.0.

Processing Settings

One of the great features of digital cameras is their ability to let you customize how they work. From menus and white balance to image processing, you can now set them up to create the kind of photos you want.

I’ve been shooting Nikon for over 40 years now, so obviously the settings I talk about here are for my Nikon cameras. However, you’ll find that many of these can be applied to Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Minolta, etc. The different companies may call them by different names, but most camera and processing settings I talk about can be used on other cameras too.

Nikon’s Picture Control menu is the starting point to take control over the in-camera processing of your photos.

In the days of film, you bought film based on the “look” it gave you. That could be saturated, cool, warm contrasty – there were lots of choices. Since you’re not buying film anymore, who decides how your images will look? Turns out you do, if you choose to. When you shoot JPEGs, the camera’s processing the raw data from the sensor for color, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction and other variables to give you a finished image (and compressed too, with JPEG). Those settings are available to you in most cameras, and can be changed. For instance, Nikon’s current cameras have a “Picture Control” setting that does that, and other manufacturers have similar options. If you look inside that menu, you’ll find by default it’s set to “Standard.” But you could also choose Flat, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape. Each one so those will make your photos look a little – or a lot – different. After choosing one of those, you can go even further and tweak the individual settings within them for more or less contrast, saturation, sharpening, etc. If you shoot JPEG, these settings are extremely important because they determine how that JPEG will look coming out of your camera. If you shoot RAW (NEF for Nikon, different for others), then the choices you make in image processing in-camera are simply a starting point. You can always change them later in RAW processing software.

Picture Control set to “Vivid.”

However, remember, you’ll only see the results of those processing settings from the camera if you shoot JPEG (since every image is processed that way), or if you use the manufacturer’s processing software. Third-party programs by companies like Adobe or Apple do their own processing of the data, ignoring what you set in camera and giving the images their own look. If you use those programs, you’ll probably want to create your own “recipes” for different situations. For instance, I keep my Nikons on “Standard” most of the time, but up the sharpening a couple of notches. For landscape shots, I’ll often use the “Vivid” setting and even bump up the contrast and saturation an additional notch. And if I’m in a contrasty situation where I’m worried about overexposing highlights, I’ll choose the “Neutral” setting. And since I want those “looks” when I get to the computer, I use Photo Mechanic as my browser (looks at the embedded JPEG in a

Picture Control set to “Standard.”

RAW file for the preview, and Nikon View NX-i would also give a “true” rendering of the NEF data). My editor of choice for careful editing of my best images was Nikon’s Capture NX 2, which used those Picture Control settings as a starting point, and then I would work from there. With Nikon discontinuing support NX 2, I’ve gone back to Photoshop for my major editing. I use Lightroom at times too, but mostly for work that requires a lot of photos processed quickly, where I don’t need to do careful selective work on the images.

 

 

Menus

Rather than try to go through my favorite, or most commonly used menu settings for different cameras, I’ll list the ones I use most frequently across different cameras. Not all Nikon cameras (or other manufacturers) have these settings, but many are common.

File Format – Most of the time now I shoot my cameras in RAW (NEF) format. If I want the absolutely best quality, then I’ll choose 14-bit lossless compressed. 14-bit files are larger, but the difference between them and 12-bit is like when you’re making a cake. 14-bit means you have a few more ingredients to start with. I choose lossless compressed to keep the file sizes down without having to sacrifice quality. And I shoot JPEG sometimes when I want to save space, speed up my workflow, and am comfortable with my exposure and white balance. JPEG files at highest quality (least compression, “Fine” in Nikon menus) have a lot of information and you can still make big changes to things like tone and color.

PLAYBACK MENU

Playback display options – On every camera I use, one of the first things I turn on is found here in the Playback Menu – “Highlights.” Often called “highlight alert,” or “flashing highlights,” or even “blinkies,” this will make the LCD flash black-and-white any area that’s overexposed. It’s a great feature to warn you of an overexposure problem. If an area’s flashing and it’s large or important, then you need to decide how to correct that. Most of the time that involves reducing the exposure, until the area’s no longer blinking. This menu also lets you choose to see an RGB histogram (in addition to the black-and-while luminance histogram already shown), see what focus point was used, or see more shooting data than is normally displayed.

Image Review – for most shooting I keep this turned off, for two reasons. One, I don’t like the display turning on after every press of the shutter, as I find that distracting. And two, when an image is being displayed on the rear LCD, that changes how the dials function. That means I can be trying to make a change in exposure and instead am changing the display. That’s frustrating. The only time I turn Image Review “On” is when I’m shooting something like portraits or a product in the studio, and want instant feedback on each photo.

Rotate Tall – I like to leave this “Off,” and here’s why. The LCD on the back of the camera is horizontal, so if you choose to have your vertical rotated, they’ll be turned to fit into the smaller vertical dimension of the LCD. So I turn off “Rotate Tall” and instead rotate my wrist to see a larger image displayed full-size on the LCD screen.

SHOOTING MENU

Shooting Menu Bank – In the past I haven’t used this much, but in newer cameras I may start. Here’s why; if you turn on the “Extended Menu Banks” option, you can now include the exposure mode you want in a Menu Bank choice. That means you can create groups of settings that apply both to the shooting options you want and include a specific exposure mode as well. Some people will really like this, and I’m going to experiment with it.

File naming – This allows you to change the default prefix of “DSC” for file names to any three-letter combination you prefer, such as your initials. This is useful in situations where you might be sharing images straight off the card, before you rename them with something more meaningful. But if you always download and rename first (and I highly recommend this), then there’s no real reason to change the prefix of the file in-camera.

Image quality – I tend to set my cameras to RAW only, unless I’m on a tight deadline and need JPEGs ASAP. In that case I might actually shoot RAW + JPEG, so I have the RAW file in case I make a big mistake on exposure or white balance (or any other image processing variable). And sometimes, if I want JPEGs fast for web, email or screen use, I’ll choose RAW + JPEG, and set the JPEG for a smaller resolution and higher compression. That way the camera’s creating those JPEGs for me, andI can always go back to the RAW for all the data and resolution.

JPEG compression – I choose “Optimal quality, which means the JPEG file size can change based on the amount of detail in the photo. In “Size priority,” file sizes are fixed, which can mean less information in highly detailed photos.

NEF (RAW) recording – I prefer “Lossless compressed” (smaller file sizes without a loss of quality) and 14-bit (more data than 12-bit for processing RAW information). With some cameras, choosing 14-bit can slow down the maximum frame rate, and anytime you choose larger files (like RAW over JPEG) the buffer will fill faster when shooting at Continuous frame rate. High-speed cards are helpful in avoiding this.

White Balance – I always say, “if you know what your light source is, tell the camera.” So in daylight conditions I choose “Direct sunlight,” in fluorescent I choose “Fluorescent,” and so on. I only use “Cloudy” or “Shady” if I want to add more warmth to the scene. And I use Preset whenever possible under artificial lights or mixed lighting conditions. I keep a gray white balance card in my bag just for this use.

Set Picture Control – “Standard” is my preference, with Sharpening increased a notch or two. If I want to pump up the contrast and color (like the old Kodachrome and Velvia films), I’ll choose Vivid and add some Contrast and Saturation. And in a high-contrast situation, I’ll often choose Neutral or Flat to help protect the highlights in the photo.

Color space – Adobe RGB is what I choose, because I run color management on my computers and monitors, and that gives me a slightly larger color gamut to work with than sRGB. However, that also means I regularly convert my files from Adobe RGB to sRGB because most of the world (web, browsers, printers, etc.) expect sRGB. There are many photographers (including some very famous pros) who choose to shoot sRGB for a simpler workflow.

Active D-Lighting – If you know how to manage contrast through exposure, graduated filters and post processing, then you probably want to leave this turned Off. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then I recommend leaving it on “Auto.” That way if you’re shooting a high-contrast scene, the camera will automatically underexpose a bit, then add extra processing to the shadow areas. This is an attempt to extend the camera’s dynamic range, and can be helpful in some situations.

Long exposure NR – Once you start shooting time exposures, you risk a different type of noise caused by those long exposures. This setting helps mitigate that in exposures over one second by making a second “black frame” of the same length of time and processing the two files to help remove that noise. So it means each exposure will take longer (a five-second exposure becomes ten seconds with the two exposures). This also means more quickly draining the battery. I only turn it on after I’ve figured out the correct exposure (to save time and battery), and generally not until I get to ten seconds or longer.

High ISO NR – We all know that with digital cameras, the higher you raise the ISO the more likely noise will be visible. I normally choose to process that kind of noise after the fact, on the computer, but you may want to try this to have it done in-camera. In that case I’d recommend trying “Low” or “Normal.” Higher settings can create a “smeared” look to the detail.

ISO sensitivity settings – I love this menu choice. It lets me set the ISO I prefer to shoot at, but then also allows the camera to raise that ISO to a higher level I choose if the shutter speed drops below a certain speed, that I also choose. Newer cameras also allow you to have the camera choose that shutter speed based on focal length, which is a great idea. This is a very nice design to let ISO float in a smart way.

Multiple exposure – This lets you shoot from 2-10 exposures (the maximum number determined by the camera you have), after which the camera will merge them together in-camera. It’s a fun effect to try, both to create more blur (with action, like running water) or a more classic multiple exposure photo.

Interval timer shooting – Many Nikon cameras have had this feature for the last several years, and is an intervalometer built into the camera. This is normally used to create time-lapse movies, and you can set the interval between photos (every two seconds, or two-minutes, or whatever) and for how long and how many frames. If you are using it to create a time-lapse movie, then you probably don’t need RAW or even full resolution. I normally set for a smaller, more compressed JPEG since the images will be used on-screen. Also, be sure and turn off VR or you may get occasional shifts in the framing, and don’t use Auto white balance or the color might shift.

Time-lapse photography – Some Nikon cameras now have this feature, which combines the intervalometer function mentioned above with the camera creating the finished movie file immediately afterwards, in-camera.

Movie Settings – Here is where you choose the resolution you want (1080, 720, etc.), the compression level (High quality or Normal), Microphone level and Destination (card).

CUSTOM SETTING MENU

Autofocus

AF-C and AF-S priority – You choose what the camera’s priority should be with autofocus, in either C or S (Continuous or Single AF) modes. Release (camera shoots when you push the button, regardless of whether in focus or not), Focus (camera won’t shoot unless it confirms focus) or a combination of the two.

AF activation – This sets whether the autofocus starts when the shutter button is pressed, or only when the “AF-ON” button on the back is pressed. Using the AF-ON button is often referred to as “back-button autofocus,” and many professional photographers, myself included, work this way. This allows me to choose when the camera focuses (or more important, when it doesn’t), and separates shooting pictures from the action of focusing. I usually use this with the camera set to Continuous AF. That way if the subject’s not moving, I press the AF button, let the camera find focus, release the button and then shoot pictures. If the subject’s moving, I hold down the AF button and let the camera track the subject while I shoot.

Number of focus points – This lets you set how many focus points you want to be able to control when choosing them manually, with the rear thumb pad. I like all of them being active, but that takes longer to cycle through them.

Built-in AF-assist illuminator – This is a pet peeve of mine, and one I turn off on every camera I touch. That AF assist lamp in the front of the camera only helps if the subject is very close to you, the rest of the time it’s just annoying and lets everyone know when you’re trying to shoot pictures.

NOTE – for even more detailed information on how to use autofocus, particularly with the Nikon system, read this.

Metering/exposure

Easy exposure compensation – I’m a big fan of exposure compensation (EV) because I like to shoot in Aperture Priority (an automatic exposure mode) and am regularly overriding the exposure to capture scenes lighter or darker. With this turned on, I no longer have to hold the +/- button down to dial in compensation. Simply by turning the main command dial I’m adjusting EV, while in Aperture or Shutter Priority.

Auto meter-off delay – This is another pet peeve of mine. In the early days of digital cameras (over ten years ago now), having the meter on was a big drain on the battery. That’s no longer the case. However, this carryover from then has the camera meter go to sleep after about six seconds. As soon as that happens, moving a dial no longer changes your exposure. You’re constantly tapping the shutter button to “wake” the meter. So please, please, please, set that delay for one-minute. You’ll thank me later.

Monitor off delay – I also extend the default times on most of these so the camera’s LCD isn’t constantly turning off while I’m working with it. When I’m done with the LCD, I can tap the shutter button to turn it off, or press the “Preview” button on the back to accomplish the same thing.

Shooting/display

Exposure delay mode – Not all Nikon cameras have this one, but it’s a favorite of mine. Turning it “On” means that when you press the shutter the mirror first flips up, then after a slight pause, the shutter fires. This lets you shoot slow exposures on a tripod with less chance of adding motion blur by pushing the shutter button, and can lessen the chance that the mirror’s movement creates blur. Some newer cameras let you choose how long it waits, from one to three seconds.

File number sequence – I like this turned “On” so that when I pull one card from the camera and replace it with another, the camera continues numbering the files from where it stopped with the last card. If you don’t rename when downloading to your computer, this can save you from accidentally overwriting files with the same name (number).

Viewfinder grid display – I’ve always struggled with keeping my horizons horizontal and straight lines vertical. Turning this on helps me, and of course, the lines don’t show up in the photos.

Bracketing/flash

Flash sync speed – All cameras have a maximum shutter speed where the entire sensor is completely uncovered by the shutter. Any speed above that, the second curtain of the shutter is starting to cover the sensor before the first has cleared the top. That speed is usually 1/200 or 1/250. With many Nikon cameras, you can set that shutter speed higher, when used with appropriate Nikon Speedlights. That’s called “Auto FP,” and lets you shoot up to the camera’s maximum shutter speed (1/4000 or 1/8000) in the right circumstances. The camera’s able to do this by “pulsing” the flash so it’s in essence painting the subject with light during the exposure. The downside is since it’s firing multiple bursts of light, they can’t be as powerful as one single burst. That means less reach for your strobe. However, when you choose “1/250 s (Auto FP),” the camera automatically has the flash fire one pulse once you lower your shutter speed to 1/250 or below. And some cameras even support “1/320 s (Auto FP), which means that full pulse flash will happen at 1/320 second or slower. This is a great feature, as it lets you shoot in bright sunlight at fairly wide apertures because you can use higher shutter speeds. We weren’t able to do this before. Other camera makers sometimes offer a feature like this, usually called “Hi-Speed Sync.”

Flash shutter speed – The default here is usually 1/60 second, which means that if you’re in an auto exposure mode (Program, Aperture or Shutter) and you have the flash turned on, the camera won’t let the shutter speed drop below 1/60. That can make it hard to get a good exposure for the background in low available light. I usually set this to 1/15, knowing that I need to be steady if shooting that slow. Otherwise I’ll add blur to the photo. The advantage is I can get a better exposure of the background area.

Flash cntrl for built-in flash – This lets you choose whether you want TTL (the default, where the camera and flash work together to try to give you the right exposure), Manual, Repeating flash or Commander mode (again, in cameras that support this). I’m a huge fan of Commander mode, letting the camera’s pop-up flash “talk” to Nikon Speedlights in the area. But that’s a whole tutorial on its own.

Controls – these let you customize how your camera’s buttons work, and are well worth looking into.

Multi selector center button – some of Nikon’s higher-end cameras let you use this button, when previewing photos just shot, to instantly zoom to 100%. This is a fantastic feature, and if your camera supports it, I strongly advise you using it. Go to the “Playback mode” option, choose “Zoom on/off,” then “Medium magnification.” “Low magnification” is under 100%, “High” is over 100%. Medium, as Goldilocks would say, is “just right.”

Assign Fn button – Most Nikon cameras today have a Fn button on the front of the body, and this menu lets you choose what it does. I normally assign mine to either take me to the top item in “My Menu,” or turn on the “Viewfinder virtual horizon.”

Assign preview button – I’ll assign it for the other of the two options mentioned above.

Assign Ae-L/AF-L button – If not using the rear AF button to control focus, I set this to “AF lock only,” so I can press it to lock my AF at the current distance.

Movie

Assign AE-l/AF-L button – I set this for “AE lock (Hold).” That’s because I often use an automatic metering mode (Shutter Priority) when shooting video, and this lets me quickly lock the exposure for the brightest area of the scene I’m shooting. Otherwise the exposure would shift, and look unnatural. If you shoot video in Manual exposure mode, you’d likely use this button another way.

Assign shutter button – I often set this to make the camera start recording video when I press the shutter button. I find that easier than having to remember to press the red button instead.

SETUP MENU

Format memory card – Formatting cards on a regular basis is an important part of a good workflow. It helps prevent the card’s directory structure from getting corrupted through overuse. I prefer to format my cards after I’ve finished downloading and backing up the images on them, and do it using the two-button method on the outside of the camera. This menu does the same thing as the two-button method.

Clean image sensor – This feature, available on some cameras, has the camera “shake” the sensor. I turn on the “Clean at startup/shutdown,” which makes it do that every time you turn the camera on and off.

Image Dust Off ref photo – If your sensor gets dirty, you can create a reference photo using this menu that can be applied with Nikon’s Capture NX 2 software to remove those spots from photos you’ve recently shot. To be most effective, it should be created as soon as you notice the problem, before the dust moves.

Auto image rotation – If this is turned “ON,” smart software will see that the image was shot vertically and rotate it for you automatically on your computer.

Image comment – Lets you embed a short string of information into every photo you shoot. It’s only visible when using certain software that can read metadata. It doesn’t show in the photo itself.

Copyright information – This allows you to embed your own copyright into all the photos you shoot. As above, this isn’t visible in the photo, but embedded into the metadata.

Save/load settings – This lets you save the settings you’ve created, to be loaded back into that camera or another one that supports this feature.

Virtual horizon – Another feature I love, this turns the rear LCD into a level to help you make sure the camera is, well, level.

Non-CPU lens data – If you have old lenses that don’t have CPU contacts, this will bring back Aperture Priority automatic exposure to them. You tell the camera the focal length and maximum (widest) aperture, it does the rest.

AF fine-tune – Allows you to adjust (in a very small way) the focus of the lens mounted on the camera. I haven’t personally found much use for this, but some photographers swear by it. It has to be done very carefully, and is most apparent at wide apertures when shooting close subjects.

Firmware version – Occasionally manufacturers release new firmware for a camera. This is the software the controls the camera, and either fixes a problem, adds new features, or both. It can also let older cameras take advantage of newer-model memory cards (size and speed). You can check your camera company’s website for the current version, read what it does, and if you want that, follow the instructions to download and install it.

 

RETOUCH MENU

I prefer to do my editing on a computer, but this menu lets you do everything from crop, change color and tone, choose different artistic effects and even process NEFs to JPEGs, right in the camera. It makes a new copy, so doesn’t harm the original image.

MY MENU or RECENT SETTINGS

This is a great addition to Nikon’s cameras. It lets you either create a select set of menu items you regularly use, or have it always show you the most recent settings you’ve changed. I set my cameras to “My Menu,” and normally have some or all of these settings there:  ISO sensitivity settings, Virtual horizon, Battery info, Time zone and date, Flash cntrl for built-in flash, Exposure delay mode, AF activation, Movie settings, Long exposure NR and HDR mode.

 

Speedlights (flash)

In the old days I only put a flash in my bag if I thought I would need one. That changed when Nikon added “Commander Mode” to many of their cameras. That lets me trigger Nikon speedlights with the pop-up flash on most of my Nikon cameras, and I use this feature a LOT. I don’t change many of the settings on my speedlights. If I’m using them on camera, I tend to leave them set to TTL to take advantage of the great “Through The Lens” metering capabilities they have. If I’m using them as a remote flash with a camera in Commander Mode, then I go into the Custom Settings on the camera and change the built-in flash mode to “Commander.” Then, further in that menu, I usually turn off the built-in flash so it doesn’t contribute to the exposure (it fires to get exposure and communicate with the external speedlights, but doesn’t put out much light during the actual exposure). And I sometimes adjust the power output of the remote speedlights by changing the EV (again in Commander menu on the camera) to + or -. Right now I’m using either the SB-500 or SB-700 if I’m going lightweight, or the SB-5000 (or SB-910) if I need the added power and features. I also have a number of SB-800 and SB-600 speedlights in my lighting kit.

Tripods

A tripod (or two) should be an investment you make for the long-term. A good one will be a pleasure to use and should last many, many years. Here are my experiences and recommendations:

Photographers want three things when buying a tripod – lightweight, sturdy, and inexpensive. But you can’t get all three together so you have to pick two. If you want sturdy and inexpensive, you’re going to get an aluminum model which will be fairly heavy. If you want sturdy and lightweight, then you’re going to get carbon fiber (or other new-age material), which is expensive. My suggestion, whichever route you go, is to spend real money. A good tripod, properly cared for, should last you 15-20 years. If you spend $1000 on a tripod, head and plates (not unreasonable, and you can spend much less), that ends up costing you $50 a year for 20 years.

I probably bought six or seven cheap tripods over thirty years before finally buying a good carbon fiber one. I now have three, two different heads and a collection of plates. And I have no plans on buying any more. Here’s what I’ve got and why:

Gitzo Mountaineer model G1228 LVL, 4 leg sections, 3.7 lbs without head, 52-inches w/o center column.  This was my first carbon fiber tripod, and as expected with Gitzo, it’s been great. I bought this primarily for travel, so size and weight were very important. I’ve taken it all over the world, and while I might skimp on clothing for a trip, a tripod is almost always in my luggage. The LVL model means the centerpost will adjust sideways to simplify leveling, but you can save some money and get the one that doesn’t. And, I replaced the center post with a “short” post so I could lower the tripod down to nearly ground level.

Slik Pro 724 CF, 4 sections, 3.1 lbs without head, 51-inch w/o center column. A couple of years ago a friend who works for THK Photo Products asked if I’d ever tried one of their Slik tripods. I hadn’t, but had looked at them because of their lower price and what appeared to be good build. He sent me this one, and I’ve been using it ever since. Nearly the same in size and weight to the Gitzo, it’s much less expensive. And it’s been a very good tripod. I’ve recommended it to many people who wanted a good CF tripod but were on a budget. I like that the center post can be unscrewed and removed to let you get lower to the ground.

Gitzo Studex model G1327, 3 sections, 5.1 lbs, 60-inches w/o center column, 70 with. This is my BIG tripod, which I use in the studio or if I need support for a really big lens and won’t have to carry the tripod too far. And while I normally avoid using a center poste (makes the tripod less stable), on this big, heavy-duty tripod, I feel confident raising that post.

Ballheads and Plates

After you’ve got the legs, you need a good ballhead and plate system. Like many photographers, I started with a less expensive system (how the plate and ballhead connect), the Bogen Quick Release. It was good, and the price was reasonable for both ballhead and plates, but the plates mounted with friction and would slip. So I upgraded (and spent more money) to an Arca Swiss system, which is what I recommend to people now.

There are several companies that make very good Arca Swiss mount ballheads, and they cost serious money. But again, like the tripod, a good ballhead will be a pleasure to use and not cost that much in the long run. Some of the companies I’ve had experience with, and wouldn’t hesitate recommending, are Markins, Kirk Enterprises, Really Right Stuff and Acratech.

The first Arca Swiss style ballhead I bought was a heavy duty Markins M10. A heavier ballhead, it will take the largest lens and camera combination I’ve got (800mm and D3S) without a problem. And, with a heavy-duty ballhead like that, I can use my Wimberley SideKick gimbal which makes panning and tilting with a long lens very easy.

Then I bought an Acratech GP ballhead for travel. The lightest high-quality Arca Swiss head I could find, it’s a unique design and weighs in at under one pound. That’s the one I use on my Gitzo or Slik tripod when traveling.

And my latest addition is a new design called UniqBall. It uses two balls, where you set the first one to level the head, then the second lets you move the camera up or down and side-to-side, all the while maintaining a level horizon. It’s pretty cool. Of course, it’s expensive too.

And you’ll need plates to mount the camera to the tripod. My favorite small  all-purpose Arca Swiss plate is the P700U by Markins. It can mount on most of my cameras, from point-and-shoot through big DSLR, and has a pair of flanges that keep the mount from twisting once it’s on the camera. But of course I have some other plates as well, larger ones that are designed for specific models of cameras. Plus one L-bracket, for the Nikon D3-series cameras, that allows you to mount the camera either vertically or horizontally and keep the center of the camera over the ballhead. Finally, if you have any long lenses, you’ll discover you can buy replacement “feet” that fit an Arca Swiss system and are also threaded to take a monopod.

Monopods

Monopods are great when you don’t need a tripod, but could really benefit from some extra stabilization of the camera, or when using a heavy lens. I have both metal and carbon fiber monopods. It was hard justifying the extra expense for the carbon fiber, but the lighter weight is nice, and they don’t get as cold. The two CF models I have are a small Slik Pro Pod 382CF, and a larger Velbon Neo Pod 7.

Filters

In all my years as a newspaper photographer, the only filters I ever owned were a few cheap, clear ones to protect the front element in case of rain. Now I own everything from polarizers to grads and ND (Neutral Density) filters. And most of these filters are fairly expensive. Putting a cheap filter on a good lens is like smearing Vaseline on your glasses. But most of the time I don’t use filters. My philosophy is that I’m using high quality lenses, being careful with them (lens caps on when not shooting), and so only use filters when there’s a real need.

First, I have a few good “Protective” filters. These are made by Hoya, their HD line, and are only used when I’m going to be in bad conditions – like sand and seawater – where I’m worried about stuff hitting the front element of my lenses.

Then I own a couple of very good Polarizers. A “thin” Nikon and a Hoya HD. I rarely use Polarizers to darken a blue sky. True, they’ll do that, but mostly when the sun is to your left or right (90-degrees to the subject), and I can do that in software. The true advantage of a polarizing filter is that they can reduce, or even remove, glare and reflections. The secret is your angle to the surface. At 30-degrees, you can pretty much remove reflections entirely. These filters can be downright amazing for shooting through glass or water, or bringing out the true color in plants with waxy surfaces.

Neutral Density (ND) Filters – Simply stated, these are dark gray filters. They reduce the amount of light coming through the lens without changing the color, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. They commonly range from -2 to -4 stops in density, though you can find them up to -10. My personal favorite is the Singh Ray Variable ND, which lets me dial in density up to -8 stops. You don’t want to know how much it cost.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters – Often called “grads,” these are filters that go from dark gray at one edge to light gray at the other. You use them to reduce overly bright areas in a scene, such as a bright sky with a darker foreground. Whether we think about it this way or not, we use them to manage the dynamic range of light in a scene. Most commonly they’re used to darken a sky that’s too bright, though you can also use them to darken from a corner, side or even the bottom of the frame. They come in “hard” and “soft” models. “Hard’ means that the transition from dark to light is sudden. “Soft,” of course, does that in a much more gradual way. I usually carry a couple of Cokin P 121 series grads, a three-stop soft and a two-stop hard. I’m pretty rough on them, usually just holding them right up against the lens (with the hood off) to make my picture. That means I tend to scratch them up, and replace them every year or two. That’s recently gotten me to spend more money to buy a glass grad, so I won’t scratch it as easily. I bought a Formatt one, three-stop soft, and have been pleased with it.

My final words on filters are good news for anyone who has lenses with different filter-ring sizes. Mine range from 62mm to 68mm to 77mm, and I sure don’t want to buy three of every filter. Which is why I’m a big fan of step-up rings. Costing only about $20, they allow you to use larger-diameter filters on your smaller lenses. That means you can spend your money on a few good filters, and use them on almost all of your lenses for a fraction of the cost of buying additional filters. I own step-up rings that go from 62mm to 77mm and 68mm to 77mm, which let me use my 77mm filters on all of my smaller lenses.

Light Modifiers

If you take light seriously, then you realize there’s more to it than just looking for nice light. Part of that is taking control of light, and there are tools that can help you do that. The most common are umbrellas, soft boxes, reflectors and diffusers.

Umbrellas – The point of an umbrella is to make a small light source large. You can bounce the light out of an umbrella, or shoot through it (it the material is translucent). The closer you get the umbrella to your subject, the softer the light will be. That’s because the closer you get the light, the larger it is in relation to the subject. Larger umbrellas are thus softer light sources, but you have to balance size against how much space they’ll take up when opened. Mine range in size from 32-inches to 51-inches in diameter. The downside to umbrellas is that it’s hard to control the light – it just spreads out in all directions in front of the umbrella. Don’t forget you’ll need light stand(s) and a bracket to attach the umbrella to the stand and hold the strobe.

Soft Boxes – A soft box also makes a small light source larger, and thus softer. But its advantage over an umbrella is that you have more control over where the light goes. You can aim the front of the soft box to direct the light, and turn it to feather it off your subject. Again, larger soft boxes give you a larger soft light source, but can become unwieldy. My small soft box is 24” X 16” and made by Photoflex. My portable medium one is a 30” X 30” Foursquare by Lightware, and my large is again by Photoflex and about 48” X 36.”

 

Reflectors – These are one of my favorite tools because they’re inexpensive, easy to use, and a constant light source (as opposed to a strobe). It’s easy to show someone how to hold a reflector for you, because they can see when the light’s being reflected onto your subject. If your subject’s in shade or backlit on a sunny day, a reflector can add a beautiful “kiss” of light. In my opinion, the best reflectors are those that have removable covers, so you can change them from soft white to silver to gold or a combination thereof. Again, large are better, but they still need to be manageable. Something around 36-inches in size is good.

Diffusers block light from your subject, softening and diffusing it, and my favorites are simply reflectors that have removable covers (see above). With the covers removed they’re usually just translucent white fabric, and can be held between your subject and the sun to turn the light from hard to soft.