If you’re looking to create close-up photos that feature gorgeous colors, beautiful tones, and plenty of crisp details, it’s essential that you master your macro photography camera settings. In my experience, a couple of minor camera tweaks can be the difference between a great shot and a bad one – so the more effort you put into selecting your settings, the better.
I’ve been doing macro photography for over a decade, and in this article, I take you through the settings I recommend, including my favorite focusing mode, my favorite camera mode, and more. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know how to approach each new macro photoshoot – and you’ll be ready to create some consistently outstanding shots in a variety of scenarios.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Manual focus
I know, I know: Focusing manually can be incredibly intimidating, especially if you’ve never tried it before. But manual focus is one of the most important tools in a macro photographer’s toolkit, and once you do get the hang of it, you’ll be so glad you put in the effort.
You see, when you’re working at high magnifications, you cannot rely on your lens’s autofocus capabilities. This is for one simple reason:
Even the best lenses struggle to lock onto close-up subjects. This is true of dedicated macro lenses as well as more conventional lenses, and if you do try to capture macro shots using your camera’s AF, you’ll end up waiting while your lens hunts back and forth.
And then, when your lens eventually does find a point of focus, it probably won’t correspond to the point of focus you had in mind. (In macro photography, the depth of field is often very narrow, so you have to make that point of focus count!)
The solution, of course, is to focus manually. And I’m happy to say it isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds! Simply switch your lens over to MF (there’s generally a switch on the side of the barrel), keep your camera still, and slowly turn the lens’s focus ring until you nail your point of focus.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to focus quickly and efficiently, and your keeper rate will immediately increase.
2. Aperture Priority or Manual mode
In macro photography, it’s important that you choose a camera mode that allows you to control various settings, especially the aperture.
Why is this so essential?
At the high magnifications that are characteristic of macro photography, the depth of field is often mere millimeters. And, as touched on above, it is essential that you use that in-focus area to your advantage.
One way to do this is by carefully adjusting the aperture. This may involve using a wide aperture for a more abstract look or a narrow aperture so as to ensure a completely sharp subject. Regardless, being able to modify your aperture – and consequently your depth of field – from image to image is crucial.
There are two camera settings that offer this level of control: Aperture Priority mode and Manual mode. Aperture Priority mode (labeled A or Av on your camera mode dial) allows you to set the aperture (and hence adjust the depth of field). The camera then sets the shutter speed based on its internal light meter with the goal of creating a well-exposed image.
Manual mode (labeled M on your camera mode dial) also allows you to control the aperture. However, it also allows you to set the shutter speed directly (in other words, your camera won’t choose this setting for you).
Personally, I prefer to use Manual mode. For one, I like the deliberate process of choosing both my aperture and my shutter speed. Additionally, Manual comes in handy when the light is relatively constant; you can set an aperture and shutter speed, then take dozens of photos without needing to make exposure adjustments.
But Aperture Priority can also work well. It’s a good mode to choose if you’re not totally comfortable with your camera’s settings, and it’s also a good pick if the light is changing rapidly or you’re moving from sun to shade and back.
Regardless, make sure you carefully set your aperture to achieve the depth of field that fits best with your creative vision!
3. Live View
Live View is a setting that allows you to preview your image on the back of your camera screen, and it makes a huge difference in macro photography.
First, Live View allows you to check your exposure before you’ve actually pressed the shutter button; that way, you can be confident you’re not under- or overexposing your image from the get-go. (If you use a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, this is admittedly redundant.)
Second, Live View allows you to check your point of focus. Nailing your desired point of focus with precision is essential in macro photography, and with Live View, you can zoom in on the LCD screen to ensure that you’re not front-focusing or back-focusing.
Third, if you’re a DSLR user, Live View enables you to reduce camera shake and keep your images sharp. When Live View is activated, the mirror in your camera will immediately flip up, which prevents it from flipping up when you press the shutter button and causing camera vibrations.
Fourth, Live View allows you to compose from all sorts of angles. This is especially true if your camera features an articulating screen; you can activate Live View, then shoot from high and low angles without struggling to keep your eye pressed on the viewfinder. Not only will this be more comfortable, but it’ll also ensure you create some truly unique compositions!
4. Burst mode
If you always use a tripod when shooting macro, feel free to ignore this tip. But for those who don’t like the weight or reduced flexibility that a tripod brings, Burst mode can be a great tool.
What is Burst mode? It’s a feature that tells your camera to continuously fire off shots as long as you hold down the shutter button. Depending on your camera model, Burst mode can range from a few frames per second to upwards of 30.
While it’s primarily used by wildlife, sports, and bird photographers in order to capture split-second action in the field, Burst mode is a great macro photography setting because it’ll help you ensure maximum focusing accuracy.
Macro photographers are often working at such high magnifications that it’s difficult to ensure perfect focus even when using the settings I’ve shared above – and that’s where Burst mode comes in. As you focus on your subject, you can fire off a series of images. While some of the shots will look bad, at least one will generally turn out the way you envisioned (and you can delete all the failed files when you get back home!).
5. The two-second self-timer
The self-timer allows you to press the shutter button, then wait for two seconds before your camera fires the shutter. It may sound like a useless feature – after all, who wants to wait several seconds before taking a photo? – but it does come in handy on certain occasions.
You see, if you’re shooting in low light at high magnifications, capturing sharp images can be a struggle. The intense magnifications will amplify camera shake – including the camera shake caused by your finger pressing the shutter button.
Therefore, it’s important to minimize this issue as much as possible. One option is to use a remote release, where you fire the shutter using another device or even your phone, but releases cost extra and can be annoying to carry around. (They’re also tough to use if you’re handholding your camera!)
That’s why I recommend using your camera’s two-second timer. This is a setting offered by pretty much all modern cameras, and once activated, it will delay the shutter just enough to let any problematic vibrations die down. And while it can be frustrating to wait the extra seconds, this brief period is often the difference between a usable image and a blurry one!
Macro photography settings: final words
Well, there you have it:
Five settings that all macro photographers should know! If you can remember to use these settings when you’re out with your camera, you’re essentially guaranteed to capture better images.
And if you find some of the settings difficult to use, don’t give up. Spend some time practicing, and your comfort levels will grow in leaps and bounds.
Now over to you:
Which of these settings do you plan to apply to your own photos? Do you have any favorite settings that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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