10 camera settings you need to learn to master your Nikon

The vast array of buttons, menus and other features available on even the most affordable Nikon DSLR can sometimes seem pretty daunting, especially if you're just starting out on your photographic journey.

Understanding which features are worth exploring, and which are best left alone, is fundamental to getting the most from your camera.

So, we've come up with the 10 most important camera setting that you need to get to grips with to use your Nikon to its full potential.

We've broken these down into five sections, where you'll find out how to use the different focusing, exposure and other modes to help you really take control of your camera.

There are also suggestions for other features to try once you've mastered the essentials, to enable you to take your photography to the next level

There are also suggestions for other features to try once you've mastered the essentials, to enable you to take your photography to the next level. And we've even included features that are best left alone, at least until you've got the hang of the fundamentals.

These advanced features do have their uses when you're shooting in very tricky or specialised circumstances, but they aren't necessary for the vast majority of subjects and situations.

So, whether you've just started using your Nikon, or are already an experienced user, you'll find plenty of handy information about the different features and modes available on your camera. Read on to learn more…

Essential Nikon camera settings: 1. Focus lock

Even the most sophisticated autofocus systems need you to take control in order to focus on off-centre subjects

What is it in a nutshell?
Positioning your subject off-centre is one of the best ways to improve the composition of your shots, but you need to make sure that your Nikon focuses on this area rather than what's in the middle of the frame, otherwise you could end up with your subject out of focus and your background pin-sharp (a problem common to compact camera users). With static subjects, the easiest way to do this is to use a technique known as focus lock.

Why is it so important?
Focus lock is the perfect technique to use when you want to vary the composition by positioning the subject in different areas of the frame.

Once you have locked the focus, you can position the subject anywhere in the frame, and as long as you remain the same distance away, it will be sharp.

This is useful on cameras which have a limited number of AF points, as they only allow you to focus on a limited number of areas within your scene. Using focus lock, you can place the subject in areas of the frame where there aren't any suitable AF points.

How do you use it?
To use focus lock, you need to set your camera to single shot autofocus mode (AF-S). Then, frame the scene so your subject is in the centre and half-press the shutter release until the camera focuses.

You can then recompose your image so that the subject is anywhere in the frame, but you must keep your finger half-pressed on the shutter release, and make sure that you don't change the distance between you and the subject. Then, once you're happy with the composition, you can press the shutter fully to take your shot.

What you can ignore: Auto AF point selection
Like many automatic functions, the automatic AF point selection can work perfectly well, but it doesn't always pick the AF point that corresponds with the thing that you want to focus on.

You'll get more reliable and consistent results by choosing the AF point manually (see Taking it further), or simply leaving it set to the central AF point and using the focus lock technique described above.

Taking it further: Manual AF point selection
While focus lock is a simple and effective method of focusing on off-centre subjects, it's not always the most convenient option. If your subject is consistently going to be in the same off-centre position for a series of images, you should manually select an AF point that corresponds to that position within the frame.

This is also the best option if your subject is likely to move closer or further away from your camera in the time it takes you to focus and recompose.

Essential Nikon camera settings: 2. Focus Tracking

When you're shooting moving subjects you need to choose the right focus mode to keep them sharp. Here's how…

What is it in a nutshell?
There are three main autofocus modes on Nikon DSLRs: single, continuous and automatic. If you want to track a moving subject you need to select the continuous autofocusing mode (AF-C).

In this mode the camera will continuously adjust the focus whenever the shutter release is half-pressed, enabling it to track subjects that are moving towards or away from your camera.

Why is it so important?
Shooting moving subjects is a challenge for any focusing system, so you need to choose the right mode in order to give yourself the best chance of keeping your subject sharp.

Even though the automatic AF mode will switch between single and continuous AF when it detects a moving subject, it's still better to switch the camera to AF-C mode so that it will continuously track moving subjects.

In continuous mode the camera automatically switches to predictive focusing; this analyses the movement of the subject and tries to predict where it will be at the exact moment when you fire the shutter.

It's not completely foolproof, particularly when the subject is moving erratically, but it still gives you the highest hit rate of any AF mode for moving subjects.

How do you use it?
Once you have chosen AF-C mode, the camera will automatically adjust the focus for as long as you keep the shutter release half-pressed. To use this mode successfully, it's important to keep the focus point positioned over the subject for as long as possible, otherwise the camera will focus on another part of the scene, and you'll then need to reframe and refocus, which can mean that you miss the perfect moment.

What you can ignore: 3D AF tracking
This focusing mode relies on the focus locking on to the subject, and it will then move the focus point automatically if the subject moves in the frame. This can work well in some situations, but the camera will always struggle to identify the main subject if it's close to the background or contains similar tones and colours to the surroundings.

Therefore, in most situations it's often better to use a single AF point, and keep this positioned over the subject for as long as you possibly can.

Taking it further: Back-button focusing
If you're shooting fast-moving subjects, it can be difficult to keep the autofocus activated and take pictures at the same time.

The solution is to set up your Nikon so that focusing is activated by a button on the rear and not the shutter release; this is known as back-button focusing. Pro models have a dedicated button for this, but on most other models you can assign the AE-L/AF-L button to it.