How to Customize the Control Ring on Nikon Z Lenses & What You Can Do With It

My aim in this post is to walk through how to adjust the control ring settings, explore the default settings, and dive into the various options available so you can set it up for your own style of shooting.

Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S Zoom Lens. Photo by David Coleman "
Text & Photos By David Coleman
Last Revised & Updated:
Topics: Nikon

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One ring to control, well, some things.

One of the innovations that Nikon has added to many of their Z lenses is a control ring. Another name for it could be a utility ring.

It’s a rotating ring on the lens to which you can assign custom functions. On some lenses, it’s a dedicated ring in addition to the larger manual-focus ring. On others, such as several of the smaller primes, there’s only one ring that is by default for manual focus but can be reassigned and treated as the control ring.

Complicating matters a bit is that some lenses have yet another customizable ring, which is known as the Lens Fn ring. But that’s basically a third-tier option that few lenses have.

The Control Ring is the first tier of the customizable lens rings. It’s typically the ring closest to the camera body (but not always). [1] And it’s that ring that I’m focusing on here.

The key to understanding how to set it up is to know that it’s all controlled through the camera’s settings. And that means that the setting in the camera will apply to the same to every lens you attach (until you change the setting in the camera, obviously). So it’s not something you set on a lens-by-lens basis.

That said, there is an important distinction between how it behaves for lenses with a dedicated control ring compared to those with only a single ring. I go into more detail on that below.

So my aim here is to walk you through how to adjust the control ring settings, explore the default settings, and dive into the various options available so you can set it up for your style of shooting.

Accessing Control Ring Settings

To customize the control ring on your Nikon Z8, you’ll need to dive into the camera’s menu system. I’m going to use the Nikon Z8 here for these menu screenshots, but the process is fundamentally the same across the Nikon Z camera range (sometimes with minor tweaks in terms).

Here’s how you can access these settings. Go to:

Custom Setting Menu (the pencil icon) > f Controls > Custom controls (shooting)

You’ll then get a graphical panel that highlights each of the corresponding customizable buttons, dials, and rings.

Screenshot of Nikon Z8 Menu Screen for Custom Control Ring Settings

What you want to do is move down to the bottom of the options to the section dealing with lenses.

The graphic shows a lens with a dedicated control ring and function buttons, even if you have a smaller, simpler lens mounted on the camera.

Available Customizable Options

When you assign functions to other buttons and dials on the camera, you have a huge range of functions you can select from. But when you’re assigning functions to the control ring, you have a much more limited set to choose from.

By default, the control ring on Z-mount lenses is set to adjust the aperture. So it’s acting like the old-school aperture ring (which many manufacturers have taken away with newer lenses).

The options are pretty self-explanatory, but there are a few behaviors that aren’t necessarily obvious.

Screenshot of Nikon Z8 Menu Screen for Custom Control Ring Settings

Here are the available options:

  • Focus (M/A). This gives you the option to override the autofocus system. But you will only see this option if your attached lens does not have a dedicated control ring. If your lens does have a dedicated control ring, it also has a separate manual-focus ring, which negates the need to have the option here and avoids the complications of two rings conflicting with each other.
  • Aperture. Change the aperture. One of the nice perks with the mirrorless display is that you can see the depth of field effects directly without having to push a button to the side of the lens.
  • Exposure compensation. This lets you change the exposure relative to the light meter reading. It’s worth noting that when setting the control ring to this, it doesn’t reset in the way that the back dial Easy Exposure Compensation dial does on the back of the camera (if you have the reset enabled). I’ve written a more detailed post on this issue.
  • ISO sensitivity. This adjusts the ISO setting. If you’re using fixed ISO, it’s straightforward–it just changes the ISO. If you’re using Auto ISO, it changes the baseline ISO, but when shooting you might end up with a higher ISO if needed. Put another way, it’s the same as changing the ISO sensitivity setting in the PHOTO SHOOTING MENU (i.e., the camera icon). And the setting is sticky; that is, it remembers it when you turn the camera off.
  • None. This disables the ring. And this can be more useful than you might expect. The control rings turn easily, and it can be easy to bump it or accidentally adjust it. Setting this to None prevents that.

Control Ring Response

There’s another setting that’s directly relevant here. This is available on the Z8, but I haven’t checked on other models yet.

It adjusts the sensitivity of the control ring. By default, the control ring is very sensitive–probably too sensitive. Even small movements can have big changes to the setting.

But you can dial that down and desensitize it a bit, requiring larger movement to make changes. I prefer this slower setting myself.

On the Z8, you find this setting under:

CUSTOM SETTINGS MENU > f Controls > f10 Control ring response 

The default setting is High. I prefer it on Low.

Screenshot of Nikon Z8 Menu Screen for Custom Control Ring Settings

Switch Focus/Control Ring Roles

And, finally, there’s one more setting that’s directly relevant. It’s the ability to reverse the roles of the control ring and focus rings. It’s OFF by default; switching it to ON makes the switch.

Screenshot of Nikon Z8 Menu Screen for Custom Control Ring Settings

This only applies when using a lens that has a dedicated control ring. And it’s not, frankly, a feature I use myself.

Things Worth Knowing

Custom Controls for Photo vs Video

I should point out here that in this example I’m focusing on the controls for shooting photos.

The Nikon Z8 (along with other cameras) has a separate section of the Custom Setting Menu for settings for shooting video. But once you’re in that section, the process is again fundamentally the same.

I’ve been focusing above on the photo-shooting options. When you’re customizing the lens control ring for shooting video, you have different options (with some overlap). On the Z8, for example, those options are:

Screenshot of Nikon Z8 Menu Screen for Custom Control Ring Settings
  • Power aperture. This is the default.
  • Exposure compensation.
  • ISO sensitivity.
  • Hi-Res Zoom.
  • None.

Other Lens Rings

If your lens has a dedicated custom control ring as well as a manual focus ring, you can also assign functions to the focus ring separately. And you get more options and finer control with that. Again, it’s the same basic process, but choose that option to customize instead.

Zoom rings aren’t customizable, for obvious reasons.

A few larger lenses have yet another customizable ring, known as a Lens Fn ring. But that’s relatively rare. As an example, the high-end and expensive NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S has a Len Fn ring.

  1. On the NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S, for example, the control ring is between the zoom and focus rings.[]
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David Coleman

I'm a professional photographer based in Washington, DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and many places in between. I've been shooting for 30+ years, and my photos and time-lapse videos have appeared in a bunch of different publications, from major newspapers to magazines and books, billboards, TV shows, professional sports stadiums, museums, and even massive architectural scrims covering world-famous buildings while they're being renovated. You can see some of my travel photography here and here.

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