Macro photography is all about getting close to your subject. This means that the smallest movements can have a big effect on your photo. That’s why it’s important to know your camera settings for macro photography.
When I first started my macro photography journey, the best piece of advice I got was to learn your camera. Sounds simple enough, right? But this takes time, patience, trial and error, and learning from mistakes.
I cringe a bit when I look back on old macro photography shots. We can be our own harshest critics. If only I knew back then what I know now. This post will provide some top must-know macro photography camera settings to take better macro photos.
How To Choose The Right Settings For Macro Photography
To choose the right aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, and ISO for your macro photos, you will need to:
- consider the amount of light that is available,
- the size of the subject, and
- the DOF (depth of field) that you want to achieve.
Aperture and shutter speed are interrelated, so you must experiment with combinations to find what works best for your particular situation.
The size of your subject concerning its composition and how it fits into the frame will determine your f-stop to capture the ideal DOF (depth of field).
Another factor to consider is understanding the relationship between shutter speed and available light. I like to think of these three concepts as a balancing act intrinsic to a macro image’s overall quality.
Many camera modes can be used for macro photography, but the most popular is probably the Manual Focus (MF) Mode. To have complete control over your shot, manual mode allows you to control each piece of the puzzle to fine-tune exactly how you want your shot to turn out. Other important modes are focus mode, aperture priority mode, and metering mode.
Focus mode is an important camera setting when taking macro photographs. In general, there are three focus mode settings on most cameras: single-servo AF (AF-S), continuous-servo AF (AF-C), and manual focus (MF). Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages when shooting macro subjects.
- Single-servo AF is best used when the subject is stationary, as it will lock onto the subject and maintain focus until the shutter is released. This can be problematic if the subject moves, as the camera will not refocus on the new location.
- Continuous-servo AF is best used when the subject is moving, as it continually adjusts focus to keep up with the subject. This can be problematic if the camera has trouble acquiring focus on the subject, as it will keep hunting for focus and may never lock onto the desired subject.
- Manual focus is best used when the photographer wants complete control over the focus of the image. It can be difficult to achieve precise focus using this method.
Focus mode is important for macro photography because it allows the photographer to control which parts of the image are focused. This is especially important when photographing small objects, where a slight change in focus can significantly affect the overall image.
By using focus mode, the photographer can ensure that the subject is sharp and clear while still keeping the background blurry. This can help to create a more striking and interesting image.
Tips for getting the most out of focus mode
There are a few things to remember when using focus mode while shooting macro photography:
- Use a tripod or other stable surface to keep your camera steady.
- Use the live view feature on your camera to help you compose your shots.
- Take multiple shots of each subject at different focus points to ensure you capture all the details.
Metering mode is a camera setting that allows the photographer to choose how the camera will measure the light in a scene. There are three metering modes: spot, center-weighted, and matrix/evaluative. With spot metering, the camera measures the light only in a small area around the center of the frame. This is helpful when there is high contrast in a scene or when you want to meter off a specific subject.
Center-weighted metering averages the light over the entire frame, giving more weight to what is in the center. This is helpful for evenly lit scenes. Matrix or evaluative metering takes multiple readings across the frame and calculates an exposure based on these readings. This mode is helpful for backlit or difficult lighting situations.
Aperture priority mode is a setting on a camera that controls how much light enters the lens and hits the sensor. A lower aperture number like f/2.8 lets in more light than a higher number like f/16.
Try adjusting your f-stop; you’ll see the higher the number, the lower the exposure, and the darker the photo will be. This requires adjusting either ISO or exposure time (shutter speed).
Higher ISO settings can compensate for low light levels or fast shutter speeds, but be aware that they can also introduce noise into your images.
As a general rule, a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number) will give you a greater depth of field, while a faster shutter speed will capture more motion.
Macro photography typically has a very shallow, paper-thin depth of field, which can make it difficult to get all of your subjects in focus. To help mitigate this, choose your aperture priority carefully and focus on the most important part of your subject.
The optimal aperture depends on how much depth of field you want in your photo.
A very small aperture like f/16 will give you a large depth of field, making everything from the foreground to the background appear sharp and in focus.
On the other hand, a large aperture like f/2.8 will give you a shallow depth of field, making only your subject appear sharp while the background is blurred.
Other factors that affect the optimal aperture are:
- The size of your camera sensor.
- The focusing distance to your subject.
- the brand of camera you use.
Shutter speed measures the time the shutter is open when taking a photograph. It’s one of the main settings for macro photography. A fast shutter speed will result in a short exposure time, meaning less light will reach the sensor, and the image will be darker if shot in a low-light environment. If the shutter speed is too long in a well-lit environment, this leads to over-exposure.
A slow shutter speed will result in a long exposure time, meaning that more light will reach the sensor, and the image will be lighter.
It is important to use a fast shutter speed when taking macro photographs to avoid blur. This often requires a proper flash or external lighting. Otherwise, the overall quality of images and utility of a dedicated macro lens go to waste.
Manually turn your dedicated macro lens to adjust the focus point with your hand. This enlargement and layer of static colored dots visually and intuitively show where the starting point of the aperture (f-stop) begins taking the photo.
Why is it important to understand shutter speed?
- It dictates how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to light,
- A longer exposure will result in a brighter image, but it also increases the chances of blurriness due to camera shake or moving subjects,
- A shorter exposure (faster shutter speeds) can help freeze fast-moving action or minimize blurriness.
The speed of your subject, from a potted plant to a fluttering hummingbird, determines your shutter speed or exposure time. Balancing your aperture, exposure, and ISO is your best camera setting.
In other words, your f-stop (usually f/2.8 to f/22 – narrow aperture to wide aperture) plays into how fast or slow your shutter speed is. You’ll need light or flash power if you want to shoot handheld.
The brighter the subject, the lower your ISO values. The darker your subject, the harder it is to manually shoot without a tripod and focus.
ISO (sensitivity to light)
ISO is one of the last camera settings you mess with as a last resort when shooting in underlit, dark places without a tripod or external light source.
This camera setting determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light. A higher ISO setting will make the sensor more light-sensitive, resulting in brighter images. However, this also comes with the trade-off of increased noise and decreased image quality.
It is often best to use low ISO settings for macro photography to get the highest quality image possible. This requires deciding what kind of tripod suits your macro photography and how adept you are at knowing your macro camera settings, inside and out, for your subjects.
White balance is a camera setting that helps ensure that whites are truly white in your photos. This is important in macro photography because the close-up nature of the shots can cause colors to appear off if they are not properly balanced.
Using the white balance setting, you can help correct any color casts in your photos so that they look their best.
What are some of the challenges of setting white balance for macro photography?
Some of the challenges that come with setting the white balance for macro photography include:
- Understanding what your camera is seeing and interpreting versus what your eye is seeing,
- Accounting for different lighting conditions within the frame, and
- Making sure the white balance is consistent across all frames in a series.
In addition, because macro photography generally relies on manual settings, it can be easy to forget to adjust the white balance when changing other camera settings.
Settings to overcome challenges with white balance in your photos.
- You can use a white balance card or grey card to help set the white balance for your camera.
- You can shoot in RAW format, giving you more control over the white balance in your final image.
- You can use software tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to correct the white balance after the fact.
It’s always helpful to learn as much as possible about your camera and how it handles different types of lighting situations so that you can anticipate and avoid potential problems.
What common mistakes do people make when setting white balance?
White balance is critical for all macro photographers, but it is especially important for macro photography. There are a few common mistakes that people make when setting white balance:
- Not paying attention to the color of the light source. The light source’s color will affect the image’s overall color cast. If you are photographing in natural light, pay attention to whether the sun is shining directly on your subject or if it is diffused through clouds. This will affect the color temperature of the light and, therefore, the white balance setting that you should use.
- Not using a custom white balance setting. Many digital cameras have built-in auto white balance presets (e.g., daylight, cloudy, tungsten). While these can be helpful in some situations, they will not always give accurate results. For macro photography, it is best to use a custom white balance setting to fine-tune the colors in your image.
- Not Shoot RAW files. When shooting in RAW mode, your camera saves all of the data captured by its sensor without applying any processing. This gives you much more flexibility when editing your images, as you can adjust white balance (among other settings) without affecting the quality of your original file.
While shooting in RAW is preferred, this inevitably means larger image file sizes compared to just shooting JPG. See if your camera body and settings let you shoot in RAW. Having a large SD card to store all those stunning nature photos, insect photography, and other macro shots is also a good idea.
Use macro photo editing software to refine your images.
Topaz Labs photo editing software is a great way to improve your photos. The software uses artificial intelligence to automatically enhance your photos. It offers a wide range of features to help you get the most out of your photos.
You can use the software to improve the quality of your photos, add filters and effects, and even create your own photo montages.
Topaz DeNoise is a noise reduction software that removes digital noise from photographs. It is also used to improve the quality of images taken in manual mode or low light conditions.
DeNoise is available as a plugin for Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
Altering camera settings to the best of your ability, utilizing the full potential of Manual Focus (MF) mode, and systematically running through the priority when adjusting your camera settings make for a good habit for amateur and professional macro photographers.
To take macro photos, macro photography settings can take time to learn.
How can I practice learning macro photography camera settings?
Use macro photography cheat sheet playing cards to practice understanding macro photography tips and key camera settings for shooting in manual mode.
You can practice the relationship of aperture (your f-stop) to the depth of field compared with different f-stops and exposure time.
Make sure to capture your macro image with minimal camera shake. Manual focus using a tripod produces some of the best quality macro images.
When you have a tripod and a stationary subject with decent stable lighting – depending on your macro photography equipment, you can utilize what I think are the best macro photography settings and features.
Focus stacking is an image processing technique where multiple images are taken at different focus distances and combined into a single image. This allows for a greater depth of field than would be possible with a single image.
Many new cameras macro photographers use in-camera focus stacking features. This includes selecting between, say, 5-15 images to be shot at differentials related to the depth of field.
While this is a convenient way to view the macro world immediately on your LED screen or the final image on your laptop at home, the borders of the frame will be cropped, forcing you to consider your composition more.
Focus stacking software for macro photography
Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus software use three main focus-stacking methods: weighted average, depth map, and pyramid.
- Weighted average is the simplest method and usually gives good results. However, it can sometimes miss a few areas out of focus.
- Depth map is more accurate but can be slow if you have a lot of images to process. It also doesn’t work well with moving subjects.
- Pyramid is the fastest method but can introduce some artifacts into the final image.
Focus bracketing is similar to focus stacking, but instead of combining the images into a single image, the images are saved as separate files. This can be useful if you want to later process the images differently or if you want to create a focus stack animation.
Focus bracketing can take up to 999 photos, and a more precise level of depth is gained. The bread and butter of processing the highest quality macro images come from combining a narrow aperture with a wide aperture. This is usually marked 1 to 10, narrow to wide. Set your f-stop to f/2.8 or lower and set your differential low.
Save Your Macro Settings
If you take photos of specific subjects frequently, instead of starting from scratch and fiddling with settings every time, simply save them as a custom mode. My Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark III model has a CM-1 custom mode on the dial. I can store baseline exposure settings and have all my preferences easily accessible. If your camera has a custom mode setting, use it!
Conclusion – Essential Macro Photography Settings
Knowing the ins and outs of your camera settings as a macro photographer stretches the imagination. You may even find yourself dreaming of scenarios for macro shots and what settings you’d employ.
As a macro photographer, you know that close-up photography has its own set of nuances and considerations. These affect your decisions, especially if you’re shooting in manual focus mode. Your macro photography gear can help produce stellar macro photos. Still, even with the best camera settings and macro lenses, your macro shots can be taken to the next level using post-processing software that uses the latest in AI and machine learning.