Finally together and getting acquainted - a year end update

It’s almost seven weeks since my last D850 article, so I though that an update was due before we turn the calendar over into 2018. Obviously I wanted the long-awaited Nikon ‘gold box’ to arrive in time for our Peru - ‘Amazon to Andes’ adventure in November, but as we got closer to going I was actually quite relieved that it didn’t. That may seem a strange thing to say, particularly as the D850 would have (hopefully) given me an edge on the D810 in many of the situations we encountered but, regardless of its similarities, I wouldn’t have wanted to start using a new camera on an important trip. Although it was frustrating at the time, I didn’t give the matter any further thought until we arrived back home. We had no means of communication in the rainforest, so obviously I didn’t know that Wex had sent an e-mail just two days after we’d left the UK to confirm that it was finally in stock and ready for despatch. Not surprisingly, I didn’t waste any time getting in touch with them.

The camera arrived on Monday 4th December, since which time I’ve been concentrating almost solely on my travel section write-up about the Peru trip and going through 7000+ photos - culling, developing, tagging etc. With all the work that’s entailed, coupled of course with Christmas, there hasn’t been much spare time to spend with the D850 other than just a bit of playing around and getting her set up. However, even though I haven’t really used her yet, I have been making sure that I fully understand all the new functions and features, which I thought was a good topic for this particular ‘blog post’. It’s the next logical step in this series of articles that started with what I was looking for as a D810 replacement, and then has gone on to broadly cover - requirements, specifications, comparisons, considerations, acquisition and now familiarisation. That being said there are still a few other matters that I want to touch on before I start posting anything about my experiences in actually using the camera, but for now I’m just going to concentrate on the subject matter.

Getting acquainted
A photographer’s relationship with their camera is very important. It has to feel right and it has to be set up for your personal requirements and shooting style. Modern high-end cameras like the D850 have numerous configuration options for various buttons and dials and, consequently, it makes sense to understand what they all are and how you can best utilise them. Yes, you could just pick up the camera and start using it and learn along the way, but by doing that you could well be missing opportunities or not realising that the camera has a particular function. I’ve experienced this many times when speaking with fellow Nikon shooters. The fact is that there are a lot of options - some are obvious, and some are not. And, even if you know what all the options are, it is extremely unlikely that your camera will be set up exactly the same as someone else will have their’s configured. There is no right or wrong way, so the following control assignment notes regarding the way I’ve initially set up my camera are primarily for reference not necessarily recommendation.

Before I comment further about the functions, I have to say that the camera feels really good in the hand. On paper there’s hardly any difference in the size or weight compared to the D810, but the small ergonomic changes with the layout and slightly deeper grip make it really comfortable to both hold and operate. For me, the weight and feel are perfect. I didn’t have any issues with the D810 in this respect, it’s just that the D850 seems better balanced and more comfortable. I far prefer this size of body to the larger and heavier professional models with integral grip. That’s not to say that the D5, or its future successor, has been taken off my list as a possible second body to complement the D850 if I still feel that either the speed and/or high ISO performance is lacking, but for now any further talk of replacing my spare D810 (the other having been part-exchanged for the D850), is on hold until after I’ve fully evaluated how the new model performs.

Okay, let’s look at some of the set up and control configuration options of the D850 and how I’ve programmed mine as that was the purpose of this article. Normally I would simply replicate settings based on my current/other camera but, because the D850 provides different options, I’ve had to carefully consider what is useful and what could be confusing. In no particular order, I’ll talk through some of these, and then list how each of the user configurable controls has been assigned. The first thing to note is that to make the set-up process easier than it’s been on previous models such as the D810, Nikon has introduced all the possible options under one custom menu item - f1, appropriately named ‘custom control assignment’. It can be accessed through the standard menu or directly via the i button. Once you’ve selected it, you have the facility for setting up the Pv, Fn1, Fn2, AF-ON, sub-selector, BKT and movie buttons, plus L-Fn for any lens focus function buttons if available, all in one place.

My D850 'f1 Custom control assignment' menu screen
My D850 'f1 Custom control assignment' menu screen

It’s not immediately obvious, but the screen list scrolls down to access the last three items noted above.

There are a lot of options and, if you’re reading this and want to know what they all are, I suggest that you download the associated 270-page dedicated menu guide from the Nikon support website that accompanies the supplied D850 manual.

I’d also highly recommend Steve Perry’s e-book 'Secrets to the Nikon AF system' (494 pages) and, if you want even more information, particularly about non-AF related settings and are prepared for an even longer read, then also have a look at Douglas Klostermann’s 'Nikon D850 experience' (over 700 pages), which unfortunately is only available for the Kindle, but if you have a Kindle then I strongly suggest that you give it a go.

There are too many options and settings within the ‘SETUP’, ‘PHOTO SHOOTING’ and ‘CUSTOM SETTINGS’ menus to go through all the things I change, so I’m only going to refer here to the ones I consider important in relation to the way I’ve assigned my controls.

One of the first things I do with any new camera after running through the standard menu options under ‘SETUP’ and ‘PHOTO SHOOTING’ is to ensure that the dedicated AF-ON button is set for back-button shooting (BBF). This is not the default option so you have to go into ‘CUSTOM SETTINGS’ menu item a8 and select ‘AF-ON only’ rather than 'Shutter/AF-ON', which can be confusing when you look at the menu selection for a8 on the LCD panel as it will say 'AF activation - OFF'. As I always use BBF I have no need for the AF-S autofocus mode and, therefore, to avoid accidentally switching to that mode, I restrict the camera to only using AF-C under menu item a10. And, of course, I ensure that the AF-C priority selection is set for ‘release’ under menu item a1, albeit ‘release + focus’ is another option.

Similarly, I do not use all of the AF-area modes, so again to restrict and speed-up selection I always limit the options in menu item a9. With the D850 I’ve decided to initially limit the choices to single-point, dynamic D9, D25 & D72 and group. Normally I would only have the two smaller dynamic area choices readily available, but the D850 is equipped with the new very small D9 option, so it seems appropriate to extend my selection to three different dynamic areas. I’ve never found need for the largest area, which in the case of the D850 is all 153 points, nor have I had much success in the past with 3D-tracking, so I’ve deselected those, together with the Auto-area AF selection. I understand that these wider or more camera-driven modes can work well with tracking against a clean sky so I will keep an open mind and give them a try when I have an opportunity, but for now I’m turning them off to deliberately limit my choices as I prefer to use the smallest AF-area for the task in hand.

Keeping on AF-area mode selection, the D850 now has the facility for programming a second, or even a third, choice to one of the customisable buttons. This is a very useful feature that the D810 did not have, so a bit of experimentation may be required before I finalise my choice. Initially I thought it would be a good idea to set up two options - one on the Pv button and another on the Fn1 button but, after some consideration, I decided that it was probably a step too far. We’ll see, but for now I’ve opted to keep the camera in ‘single-point’ and have ‘group’ (effectively a larger single-point) available on the Pv button. If I need any of the dynamic modes then I’ll have to select them as required in the normal way. However, I will remain mindful of the fact that you can obviously change the focus mode on the Pv button (or indeed any other button where this facility is available) if, for instance, I was having a day primarily photographing birds in flight when I would have changed my normal AF-area mode to suit the occasion and want a different mode quickly available from a button press rather than having to specifically select it. There are many options to choose from. There is even an option for setting it up so that it both selects the assigned AF-area and AF-ON, but again after a bit of research I’ve decided to keep BBF separated.

The next thing I looked at was the new sub-selector joystick control in terms of what it does or can do, and the fact that its inclusion meant that there is now no dedicated AE/AF-ON button. After a bit of playing around, I’ve decided to use it for auto-focus point selection as an option to using the multi-selector control which I’m familiar with, but not to have it reset to the centre point when pressed. You can still do this with the centre button of the multi-selector control, so why have the facility in two places. Instead I’ve set the sub-selector as 'AE lock (hold)’, which to me is more logical, particularly as the sub-selector is positioned to the left of the AF-ON button in a not too dissimilar place to the AE/AF-ON button on the D810.

The centre button of the multi-selector can be set differently for playback. My two favourite options have always been to zoom in to 100% or to show an enlarged histogram. I’ve found both of these options useful, but previously have had to make a choice. My D810 was set up for zooming in, but the D850 has a touch screen and, as long as it’s activated in the ‘SETUP’ menu, you can double tap to zoom in (you can also pinch, stretch and move around an image) so with that new facility I can now have the enlarged histogram available.

Probably the most useful customisable buttons are Pv and Fn1 as they can easily be operated by one of your two middle fingers whilst keeping your thumb on the AF-ON button and your first finger on the shutter release. This means that you can activate a different setting at a push of the button without taking your eye from the viewfinder. I’ve already noted that I’m keeping the Pv button for an alternative AF-area mode, as personally I find that particular button slightly better placed and, consequently, it’s more instinctive for my second finger to be hovering over it. Although I may reconsider the use of the Fn1 button for another AF-area mode in the future, I’ve currently got it set for ‘spot metering’ as I find it a useful option to have quickly available. If I had to change the metering area via the exposure control button and rear dial in the normal way I would probably never come off matrix as it’s used 99% of the time. However, there are occasions when it’s sensible to use spot-metering, so if you’re able to do so with a simple press of a button whilst still looking through the viewfinder, you’re more likely to give it a go.

Whilst that’s covered the main buttons, we also have the new Fn2 button on the back of the camera. It has limited uses, but for me the one that I want to use it for is to access the top item in ‘MY MENU’ as I have that set for ISO sensitivity settings, so that if I’ve switched to auto-ISO, which I don’t use that often, I can quickly access the settings to change the minimum shutter speed. Maybe I should be using auto-ISO more often particularly in conjunction with Manual, but most of the time I photograph in Aperture Priority mode and am happy to make my own decisions about ISO. If the D850 proves to be better at higher ISO’s than the D810 I might start using auto-ISO more than I do at present, but for now I tend to use it only for fast changing light conditions, particularly when on safari first thing in the morning. This is when I want to set a realistic minimum shutter speed that I can slowly increase until the light improves. It’s too easy in these situations to set what you think is an appropriate ISO and then find, whilst you’re concentrating on the ‘action’, that your shutter speed is inadequate. I find that auto-ISO works fine in situations like this as long as you remember to keep raising the minimum shutter speed. It takes one of the exposure decisions away, until you’re comfortable in taking that control back and switching it off.

As I’ve mentioned ‘MY MENU’ in respect of the Fn2 button, I’ll list below how I have it set up, as it includes some important items that I haven’t referred to above, such as ‘focus tracking'. It will also be a good reference for me in the future should I find need to add, re-order or delete an item. This is quite likely given some of the new features that are available with the D850 like 'focus shift shooting' and 'silent live view photography' that may be overlooked if hidden away in other menus. There are different ways of accessing some of these features and I may find that I don’t actually need them in ‘MY MENU’, but if I initially put them there I’ll at least know where to look if, for example, I can’t readily see how to access them via the touch screen. By the way, I always ensure that ‘MY MENU’ is pre-selected so that it’s the first to appear when the menu button is pressed. The Fn2 button just drills down one item further so that the ISO sensitivity settings are immediately available.

The D810 had the facility to use the rear main control dial for 'easy ISO' so that you didn’t have to press the ISO button to change sensitivity. The D850 doesn’t provide this feature as the camera now has the ISO button in a more sensible position alongside the shutter release. I didn’t use ‘easy ISO' because I found it far more useful to have the control dial set for quickly changing exposure compensation. I use the dedicated exposure compensation button for making set changes that will hold after the standby timer has activated, and have set the control dial under menu item b4 for ‘easy exposure compensation’ with the 'on (auto reset)’ option, which allows temporary adjustment for a given situation, such as switching to a bird in flight against the sky when you want to quickly dial in a positive value. Because the ISO button on the D810 was on the shooting mode control dial I had the more conveniently positioned movie button set for ISO. The ISO button on the D850 has effectively changed place with the shooting mode button which has now been moved to the dial with the WB, QUAL and metering buttons. I don’t have a problem with that as I rarely want to change from say Aperture to Manual in that much of a hurry, but as the movie button is no longer needed for ISO it seemed to make sense to set it for exposure mode. I also considered setting it for quickly changing the image area but, apart from saving memory space by creating a smaller file, I can’t personally see any advantage or need to use that facility.

I’ve referred to the standby timer that’s activated by the AF-ON button or shutter release and the fact that some settings will reset once it times out. Whilst the factory default value is just 6 seconds, it can be changed under menu item c2. Increasing to 10 seconds or even the next setting of 30 seconds could be useful for situations where you're anticipating something is going to happen and you’ve got the camera primed ready. Obviously shorter times conserve battery power, so I raise it to 10 seconds as a compromise. I also set the button on the main selector dial to wake up the camera if, for what ever reason, I don’t want to reactivate via the AF-ON button or shutter release. This setting can be found under menu item f5.

I now feel that I'm in great danger of talking through some of the other less important settings, so I’m going to finish by just mentioning the final ‘custom control assignment’ option L-Fn which is for the lens control buttons if you have a lens with that facility. Personally I haven’t come across this before. I do have, and have used, telephoto lenses with control buttons that can be programmed on the lens itself. They can be set to memorise a focus distance so that you can quickly move back to a position without the lens having to completely re-acquire focus. This is a useful facility, but is not associated with the lens control function under ‘custom control assignment’ as that is used to set options such as AF-ON and AE-lock, or an alternative AF-area mode as you can for the Pv and Fn1 buttons previously discussed. My new 70-200mm f/2.8E AF-S FL ED VR lens incorporates these buttons. I’m dubious about how useful this is going to be but, as the facility exists, I’ve set them for AF-area D25. I can’t see any point setting them for AF-ON or AE-lock as those facilities are on the camera, so another alternative AF-area seems to be the best option.

Summarising all those ‘custom control assignment’ options, my D850 has been configured thus :

 Pv button :AF-area mode (group), as a quickly assessible 'press and hold' alternative mode
 Fn1 button :Spot-metering (press and hold)
 Fn2 button :Quick access to the top item in 'MY MENU', which is set for ISO sensitivity
 Sub-selector joystick :AF point selection, as the multi-selector
 - centre press :AE lock (hold) - resets when pressed again or the standby timer is activated
 Multi-selector :AF point selection, as the sub-selector
 - centre press (shooting) :Select centre focus point
 - centre press (playback) :Enlarged basic 'quick check' histogram
 Movie record button :Exposure mode (alternative control)
 L-Fn lens control buttons :AF-area mode (D25)
As a personal note, I think my biggest deliberation has been to do with the the three AF-area modes that I’ll use the most, being single-point, group and dynamic D9 and which alternative should be assigned to the Pv button. The only way of knowing is to get out there and use the camera and assess which modes are used the most. Reassignment is easy so it’s no big deal to change the selection.

And, I have set MY MENU up as follows :

 First screen :ISO sensitivity (top item directly accessed via the new Fn2 button)
  a3 - focus tracking (to adjust delay and/or sensitivity)
  a8 - AF activation (to quickly switch off BBF if using a remote to activate the shutter)
  a9 - Limit AF-area mode selection
  d10 - LCD illumination (for night use, so that both the top LCD and the rear buttons are lit)
  Virtual horizon
  Battery info (provides full status)
  Format memory card
 Second screen :Time zone and date
  c3 - self-timer
  Focus shift shooting
  Silent live view photography
  Flash control
  Airplane mode
  Connect to smart device

Tony - 'tickspics'
Sunday, 31st December 2017

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