Why Can’t Nikon Do Software? A Rant About Nikon’s Moronic Implementation of Focal-Length-Aware Auto ISO
NOTE: Images with an icon next to them have been artificially shrunk to better fit your screen; click the icon to restore them, in place, to their regular size.

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, I happen to have acquired a Nikon D4. I haven't used it all that much yet, but it mostly seems okay. However, my strongest impression so far is utter disappointment in the one feature that I was really really really looking forward to: focal-length-aware Auto ISO. It's implemented so poorly as to be essentially useless to me. The one feature I was really looking forward to.

I realize that many people will never care one way or the other about the Auto ISO feature, but this plays a part in almost every shot I take, so it's a very big deal to me.

I've been a part of creating some big products (Yahoo! and Lightroom), so I'm quite familiar with the spouted opinions of ignorant know-it-alls bitching about how wrong something is when it just happens to not be how they personally wish it to be, perhaps for very good reasons beyond the ability of the so-called expert to comprehend. I really don't want to be that way... I know I'm not an expert in camera design and marketing.... but really, as an engineer and photographer I can't possibly imagine why Nikon choose the implementation that they did, one that seems to me to be gratuitously sucky.

It's pretty obvious how to do focal-length-aware Auto ISO smartly, and I submitted an official request to Nikon many years ago (circa 2006? 2007?) detailing it, as I'm sure plenty of other folks did. It's so obvious. You allow the user to enter a “focal-length multiplier” for the minimum shutter speed; if the user enters a “1”, then a 200mm focal length would result in a minimum of 1/200th of a second. If “1.5” is entered, the minimum would be 1/300th of a second. If “0.5” is entered, it'd be 1/100th of a second. Simple, obvious, and intuitive. The only twist that comes to mind would be to have a separate multiplier setting to be used when VR (anti-shake) is active.

But no, Nikon had to do something more complex and less intuitive. But at least they avoided documenting it in the manual or anywhere else that I can find, to keep it a “fun” and ongoing mystery. I'll have to do a bunch of tests to figure out just what's happening behind the opaque “faster/slower” labels they use. Sigh.

Even worse, though, is that it doesn't work at all when a non-CPU lens like my beloved all-manual Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5, my favorite and most-used lens. It simply shuts down and defaults to a useless 1/50th of a second.

Can there be a technical reason for this? The camera knows the focal length of the lens, which is the only extra thing the camera needs to know with respect to this focal-length-aware Auto ISO, so I can't fathom a technical reason why non-CPU lenses disable the feature. Can not fathom. But it's such an odd, unexpected restriction that there must be a reason... mustn't there?

I'm so very disappointed, but it gets worse.

Even if I can quantify what it does with a CPU-enabled lens, to take advantage of it I'd have to swap back and forth among settings every time I change lenses, something I might do 50 times on a single outing. (Really; I like primes and change lenses often, doing so at least 65 times on this outing last year, for example.) I would have to turn it on when I switched to a CPU lens, and turn it off and select a specific minimum shutter speed when switching to a non-CPU lens. This is a hassle made all the worse because Nikon inexplicably removed the ability to put “Auto ISO Settings” into the easily-accessible “favorites” menu, meaning that I'd have to hunt for it in the menu system every time I wanted to do this. What a hassle! It was just dandy on the D200 and the D700, so why did they go to the extra trouble to disallow this one particular menu item from the “favorites” menu on the new camera? One believes that there must be a technical reason, but the engineer in me is left without the slightest hint what it might be.

Nikon's computer software has a reputation for being horrible in every respect (slow, kludgy user interface, inconvenient workflow, etc.), so when looking at these inexplicable software choices for the camera firmware, it's hard to come to any other conclusion but that Nikon simply has no clue how to do good software.

I'd sure like to help. Does anyone know how I can talk to Nikon firmware engineers? I'd make a special trip to Tokyo just to chat with them, in Japanese no less, for 10 minutes. I really would.

All 10 comments so far, oldest first...

Hi Jeffrey,

Just when I was thinking to look at purchasing a Nikon camera :-). Why don’t you contact directly to the top? I find it sometimes helps……..

Nikon Corp
PR Sec Office of the President
Fuji Bldg
3-2-3 Marunouchi
Chiyodaku Tokyo
Japan 100-8331
Tel 03 32145311 Fax 03 32161454

Regards, Richard.

— comment by Richard (Osaka - Japan) on July 29th, 2012 at 3:37pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I second the shoot for the top approach. I find this top down rather than bottom up gets you to the right person much faster more often than not.

— comment by Derek on July 29th, 2012 at 6:03pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I don’t have any experience with the D4 (sadly) but all that I can come up with is that the FLA Auto ISO is also taking into account the minimum aperture of the lens to produce an Auto ISO curve and it somehow screws with their algorithm when you use a non-CPU lens so they just disable it. Though it should be able to deal with it since you enter that information when you add a lens as a custom non-CPU lens in the camera settings, assuming the D4 hasn’t also done away with that setting.

By the way, your multiplier is a very simple solution that would be user-friendly, but my guess is that they use a more complicated ISO curve to account for faster/slower lenses and a fall-off at the faster end of the lens/ISO combination. But I’m just guessing because, well, Nikon is Nikon and that’s how they like it.

I dunno, it’s just a replacement for a hard-coded minimum shutter speed, so I don’t see the need for any curves or the like. The aperture of the lens is not relevant to the setting in this case, except indirectly. We’re just looking to avoid having to pick a different minimum shutter speed when changing lenses. —Jeffrey

— comment by Christopher Holland on July 29th, 2012 at 6:36pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Well I’m much more surprised that there are people purchasing a Pro Camera who are using this kind of settings… to me it is more a COOPLIX thing.
Photography is and will always be subjective. One uses a camera up to 6400 ISO the other will not use it over 1600…
Nikon is very much into this > 1000 photogrpahers = 1000 opinions > can you handel this? May be with open source…
If you have any comment on a Nikon Product you will have to talk to your Nikon Professional Service Manager of your country, he can report it directly to the right person “up there”.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Auto ISO is really convenient when light is dynamically changing, and it’s as convenient for a pro as for anyone else. We’re not talking “Program Exposure” or something like that. —Jeffrey

— comment by Richard on July 29th, 2012 at 10:25pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Jeffrey, do you know a photo pro using Auto-ISO? I do not.

Yes, I do, but I don’t see what this has to do with anything, unless you work for Nikon and your personal lack of knowing any pros who used it somehow caused you to want to break the feature. 🙂 —Jeffrey

— comment by Dietmar Bachmann on July 29th, 2012 at 10:42pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Photo pros come in all colours and sizes, auto-ISO or not, just like as JPG and RAW.

I think you’re looking at the picture too narrowly: It’s not just engineering reasons, it’s also markting and product portfolio. The feature you dream of might be planned for the upcoming D5. Or they think your solution is too complicated for the average owner.

Nikon doesn’t (markting wise) like to support manual focus lenses. They know they would have sold more lenses had they changed the F-mount with the introduction of AF. They are supporting manual lenses because they didn’t make that decision. Not because they want to. They don’t earn anthing in lens sales if you choose to use a manual lens. Though making things difficult but not impossible with manual lenses might sell more AF lenses over time.

BTW: The dumb auto-ISO in my D7000 sucks too.

— comment by Daniel Cutter on July 30th, 2012 at 5:39pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

FWIW, those with the “no pro would use such a feature” attitude might want to read Michael Reichmann’s review, Nikon D800 / D800e Initial Field Impressions. Search the page for “Auto-ISO” if you just want to read that section:

“Auto ISO on the D800/e may well be the best implementation of this feature on any camera. Here is what it allows one to do. … Spend a day working with this system and you’ll wonder how you’ll ever go back to anything else. Simply brilliant.”

(He goes on to point out the bug with non-CPU lenses.)

— comment by Gary Brown on August 1st, 2012 at 7:42am JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Another good article on Auto-ISO. Until I got my 50D I just thought of it as another gimmick.


— comment by Richard (Osaka - Japan) on August 17th, 2012 at 8:32pm JST (11 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,

I feel your pain regarding some unfathomable camera firmware implementations. I don’t have my D700 anymore, but was there not the limitation that you could put Auto-ISO on/off in the custom menu, yet the minimum shutter speed setting not? That always baffled me.

I can’t speak for the D4, but on the D800 I find the Auto-ISO implementation quite ok. I agree that your multiplier idea would be more transparent and the non-CPU-lens bug is lame. But the rest, including the on/off setting via the ISO button works fine for me. Press and rotate the 1st dial to change the base ISO, press and rotate the 2nd dial to turn Auto-ISO on/off is working better for me than to use the custom menu.

And whoever is not using Auto-ISO because it is not “pro” enough is missing out on one great feature of digital imaging: A whole new exposure mode, “ISO priority”, so to speak. But to each their own, I suppose.

But don’t get me started on the custom/shooting bank implementation. Talk about brain dead…

Best regards,

— comment by Marc Dabringhaus on August 27th, 2012 at 9:06pm JST (11 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I recommend setting up the little record button next to the shutter button to do ISO setting while the camera is in still photo mode (custom setting f16). Then auto ISO toggle is really easy (with one wheel) and when in non Auto ISO, the other wheel will set ISO very quick and easy. This is even better than having it in the favorites menu in my opinion as all can be set while still looking through the finder.
Best regards,

— comment by Lars Holst Hansen on December 10th, 2012 at 6:27am JST (11 years ago) comment permalink
Leave a comment...

All comments are invisible to others until Jeffrey approves them.

Please mention what part of the world you're writing from, if you don't mind. It's always interesting to see where people are visiting from.

IMPORTANT:I'm mostly retired, so I don't check comments often anymore, sorry.

You can use basic HTML; be sure to close tags properly.

Subscribe without commenting