I recently decided it was time to upgrade my Canon Digital Rebel XT to something more powerful. I’ve been using the Rebel XT for a year and a half, and have come to the point where it was holding me back. That’s not to say that it’s a bad camera. It’s a great starter DSLR, and I I’ll be keeping it in the family by giving it to my wife, Sarah. I decided to “switch teams” as it were, and go with a Nikon. I deliberated between the D300 and the D3 for a while. Every time I’d convinced myself that the D300 was the right choice, I’d run into Matt Mullenweg at some conference and get to play with his D3. That full-frame clarity and low light performance is incredible. I just couldn’t justify spending that much money on a body. And then the D700 came along with 90% of the features of the D3 at a $2,000 discount. So I got it, and I absolutely love it.
Here are some of the tricks I’ve learned after putting a couple thousand frames through it. The vast majority of these tricks apply to the D3 as well as the D700.
ISO performance is amazing from 200 to 3200, good at 6400, and okay at 12800 and 25600. I try to avoid anything past 6400 if I can avoid it. This matters for Auto-ISO, which is next.
Auto-ISO is one of the features I was most excited about. Auto-ISO allows you to set a base ISO, a maximum ISO, and a minimum shutter speed. ISO will default to your base ISO. If the shutter speed is at the minimum and the camera still needs more light, it will then raise the ISO. If it reaches your maximum ISO and still doesn’t have enough light, only then will it start to lower your shutter speed below your minimum. This beats the pants off of manually setting your ISO, but there are some pitfalls. First of all, auto-ISO should NOT be used in Program mode! My low-light lens is the 50mm f/1.4. In Program mode, with Auto-ISO set to min 200 max 6400 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/100, what happens more than not while indoors in medium-good light is that the lens opens all the way (1.4) and the shutter speed goes down to 1/100, and the ISO will hover between 200 and 1000. What ends up happening is that I’ll get someone’s nose in focus, but not their eyes. Or one eye, but not the other. Snapshots of people do not look good at f/1.4. So forget about program mode with auto-ISO.
Auto-ISO in Aperture Priority mode
Aperture Priority mode is your friend. It’s better to let the ISO go up towards 6400 than to let the lens open up all the way. Set the aperture to f/4, or higher if you can get away with it. It’s better to max out your ISO at 6400 and even to drop down to 1/40 or 1/30 than to take the shot at f/1.4. Obviously, anything slower than 1/30 is going to seriously reduce the number of usable shots you get, so if your light is that bad, you can start manually opening the lens up a little more.
Manual mode rocks with Auto-ISO!
I never used manual mode on my Digital Rebel XT. It was too much work. With Auto-ISO, the camera isn’t really in manual mode any more, even though you have full control over the shutter speed and the aperture. This significantly reduces the amount of work you have to do to shoot in manual mode! An auto-ISO range of 200 to 6400 gives you a lot of protection against over- or underexposure. Just keep an eye on that exposure meter. You’ll only be in trouble if your auto-ISO hits your minimum or your maximum. I can see myself shooting in Manual mode a lot more now that the camera will handle the ISO for me.
Settings you might want to change
Some of the default settings are really silly. Here are the settings I’ve changed, along with my reasons for doing so.
- After delete — I use Continue as before. This is a very handy feature. How it works, is that it will note direction you were going before you deleted a photo, and after deleting the photo, it’ll let you continue on your way, instead of possibly reversing directions. This makes deleting a string of bad images a one-button affair, no matter which direction you were going.
- JPEG compression — I set it to Optimal Quality. I shoot in JPEG Large Basic. This allows for the smallest possible file size, by starting at basic and letting the file size grow if the complexity of the image demands it.
- Active D-Lighting — I turn this to Auto. That way it kicks in when it is needed.
- Auto-ISO — As discussed above, I have it range from 200 to 6400 with a minimum shutter speed of 1/100.
Custom Settings Menu
- a1 — Release plus focus. If you don’t do this, you’re going to have a lot of blurry shots in Continuous tracking mode.
- a3 — 51 points, 3-D. I don’t use this mode a lot, but when I do, this allows for great 3-D tracking of subjects
- a9 — Off. It annoys the hell out of people, and it’s not really needed.
- c2 — 8 seconds. I like to have a little extra time.
- c4 — 20 seconds for playback, 20 seconds for menus and shooting info display, 4 seconds for image review. Make these as low as you can stand them, to save battery life.
- d1 — Off. Again, it is annoying, and if you need it, you probably need a cheaper camera.
- e4 — Off. The third annoying option that you should turn off.
- f1 — Both. Might as well give yourself the option of looking at the info from the back.
- f2 — Playback mode: zoom on/off, medium. Pressing the center button zooms in on the area that was chosen by the AF system. This is critical for making sure you got the shot in perfect focus.
- f5 — I set the function button to activate the top item in My Menu, which is changing the shooting menu bank. I have a bank for low-light (allows ISO to go up all the way, once the shutter speed hits 1/80, and another one with manual ISO control)
- f9 — I turn it on for menus. This allows you to zoom in during playback, and then change to the next/previous photo while staying zoomed in. Great for A-B comparisons of a burst. It is also easier than repeatedly pressing left/right on the d-pad.
- f11 — Please turn this to Lock. You don’t want to shoot without a memory card. This default is so you can play with it in the store.
If you use the vertical grip (or even if you don’t), it can be helpful to activate AF with your thumb instead of partial depression of the shutter button. The vertical grip one is a little sensitive, and holding that button down halfway can be tedious. I find that it is more comfortable to use my thumb.
Upgrade the strap. I got the Op/Tech Pro Loop Strap and am loving it.
Note that while you need 8 AA batteries or an EN-EL4 battery in the vertical grip to shoot at 8 frames per second, you don’t need any battery in the grip in order to use the grip. I don’t use the EN-EL4 (because it requires an additional charger and a lot of expense), so I just use that battery insert as a dummy if I need the vertical grip but want to shave about half a pound off of the system’s weight.
I hope you found this useful! Big thanks to Ken Rockwell for his D700 Users Guide that gave me a running start.