5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

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This article will detail five camera settings that are essential and which all macro photographers should know. It was inspired by Will Nichols’ excellent tips Five Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know. You will notice two main themes in this article – ensuring a perfect point of focus and ensuring maximum sharpness. Both of which are critical in macro photography.

Included in the list of settings are Manual Focus, Manual Mode, Live View, the self-timer, and burst mode. By familiarizing yourself with these settings, your macro photography will grow by leaps and bounds.

dahlia macro photography flower - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

1. Manual Focus

Manual focus is one of the most important tools in a macro photographer’s toolkit. When working at high magnifications, you cannot rely on a lens’s autofocus capabilities for a couple of reasons.

First, Manual Focus is necessary for creative macro photography. In macro photography, particularly in more abstract macro photography, you have to make your point of focus count. Only by using Manual Focus, can you do so with the required pinpoint accuracy.

Secondly, macro lenses tend to have relatively bad autofocus capabilities, especially at high magnifications. It becomes frustrating to sit and wait while the lens pans back and forth (this is an even bigger problem in low light).

Macro photography grape hyacinth abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

By using Manual Focus, I was able to render the tip of the flower sharp.

The solution? Learn to use Manual Focus. With a bit of practice, you’ll find that you can focus quickly and efficiently, and your keeper rate will immediately increase.

Flower Abstract Macro Photography pink flower - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

2. Aperture Priority or Manual Mode

There’s no way around this. A macro photographer must have maximum control over their depth of field.

At the high magnifications that are characteristic of macro photography, 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 selecting your depth of field. This may involve using a shallow depth of field for a more abstract look, or a large depth of field so as to ensure a completely sharp subject. Regardless, being able to modify your depth of field from subject to subject, from image to image, is crucial.

Tulip abstract macro photography - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

I knew that I needed a very shallow depth of field if I wanted to pull off this tulip photograph. I used Manual Mode to select an aperture of f/4.2.

There are two settings that offer this level of control: Aperture Priority 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). Then the camera sets the shutter speed based on its internal light meter. Manual Mode (labeled M on your camera mode dial) allows you to control the aperture but also gives you control over the shutter speed.

I generally use Manual Mode, because I like to make split-second decisions regarding the shutter speed. But there are good reasons to use aperture priority mode as well. Whichever mode you choose, make sure that you are consciously adjusting the depth of field to fit your creative vision.

macro photography abstract trout lily - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

3. Live View

Live View is useful in macro photography for a few reasons.

First, Live View allows for you to check your point of focus. As mentioned above, nailing your desired point of focus is essential in macro photography. With Live View, you can zoom in on the LCD screen to ensure that you are not front-focusing or back-focusing.

macro photography abstract flower - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

Live View allows for you to make an image such as this where you can carefully focus on the base of the flower.

Furthermore, on some camera bodies, Live View enables you to reduce camera shake and keep your images sharp.

How? For the relevant camera bodies (I recommend that you check to see if this is true for your camera because it is an excellent trick), when Live View is activated, the mirror in your camera immediately flips up. Normally, this mirror flip occurs when you press the shutter release, causing camera vibration, and thus reducing sharpness.

But with Live View, this pre-flip means that, when you ultimately press the shutter release, no extra vibration occurs.

Macro photography black eyed susan abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

I took this handheld image at dusk, and just barely managed a sharp image.

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? This is the camera setting that allows rapid-fire photography when you hold down the shutter release button. It ranges from a few frames per second to upwards of 10 (depending on your camera model).

While primarily used by wildlife, sports, and bird photographers in order to capture split-second action in the field, Burst Mode can also be used by macro photographers in order to ensure maximum focusing accuracy.

macro photography seedhead abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

I took this photograph while hand-holding at an extreme magnification. Without burst mode, I probably would have failed to get a usable image.

Macro photographers are often working at such high magnifications that it’s difficult to ensure perfect focusing even when using the above settings. This is where Burst Mode comes in. By taking a series of images, any slight camera motion is controlled. Even if a few photographs are out of focus, you are likely to be satisfied with some of the others.

5. Two-Second Self-Timer

A final setting that is useful for macro photographers is the two-second self-timer. When shooting (with or without a tripod) in low light with a large depth of field, you might struggle to get sharp images. Part of the problem may be camera shake, caused when you press the shutter release button. Your finger pushes the button but also rocks the camera at the same time.

The solution is to use the two-second self-timer. This is a setting offered by most DSLRs which allows you to obtain maximum sharpness and may be the difference between a usable image and a blurry one.

macro photography abstract lights - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

When shooting in the evening, the two-second timer can be extremely useful.

Conclusion

By familiarizing yourself with these five settings; Manual Focus, Manual Mode, Live View, Burst Mode and the two-second self timer – you will have the technical grounding that all macro photographers need.

Can you think of any others settings that all macro photographers should know? Please share them in the comments below.

macro photography abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jaymes Dempsey is a macro and bird photographer from southeast Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work, check out his website or his blog.

  • Jason Kustra

    I appreciate the tips but, to me, five of your pictures are not what I would consider useable. I’m not criticizing… They look like they’re distorted rather than out of focus?
    What equipment setup do you use?

  • Thanks for reading! Which five are you referring to? I do think that some of the images look a bit crunched due to resizing, could that be what you’re picking up on? I’ll admit, I do struggle a lot with resizing for the web, and am often disappointed with the results. Can I ask, what device are you viewing them on? It’s also the case that my style involves working at shallow depth of field with very little in focus, and I do recognize it’s not for everyone. Regarding my setup, these images were taken with various DSLRs and macro lenses.

  • Richard Doktor

    @LiveView:
    Principally right, but when using LV, any external flash setup is useless, as there is (completely inapprehensible) no way to trigger them. So, LV is OK for focusing (to some degree), but has then to be shut off to use external flash.

    @timer
    Why almost everyone suggest a timer and not a cable release? Sure, the cable release has to be bought, but you should have one anyway. With a cable release you have it literally in your hand, when to shoot. In 2 seconds (or any other number of seconds), some active insect could then be already away. Or not in position, either way.

  • Grace Gronowski

    I love just about every one of these photos, and if I took them, I would absolutely print them out for display in my house.

  • Screamin

    I never use Live view as it isn’t always easy to see the LCD screen outdoors and many of my subjects are mobile. I seldom use a tripod either but do use additional lighting. The flash allows me to stop down the lens for more DOF and the short duration of the flash stops motion, be it my own or my subjects…

  • Mark Weber

    Great article. I’ve been struggling with macro and now I know why. Thank you!

  • Brian Welby Poore

    I was thinking along the same lines that Jason was. I’m viewing on a 24″ ASUS monitor with 1080p resolution. On most of the images if I’m seeing anything in focus it’s the tiniest sliver. That may be your style choice, or that could be an artifact of my viewing medium. Other commenters are obviously liking what they see, so perhaps Jason and I are outliers.

  • Screamin

    Macro shooting( true 1:1 macro especially) means very slim DOF and that is what is showing. Many people choose slim DOF shots for artistic value. If you want more DOF, then one needs to stack images.

  • wedgel83

    Once in a while, I try my hand at macro images, I guess I do ok for a D3100 and cheapo($14) ebay macro/wide angle adapter lens? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/225b3ca9f7e40c25f0572b69ed209c27a516f2b4f208432177c25999e4b248af.jpg

  • Mark Miller

    I absolutely love your shallow depth of field. It brings a sense of unity to the whole image, and a very calming mood.

  • Antonio Mozeto

    Great tips !!!… the very best ones I´ve seen so far respect to the use of macro lens…. thank you so much for posting it…

  • Philippe Pichard

    ” Five of your pictures are not what I would consider usable” LOL Well I personally think that your pictures are great and more than usable !! Some people have no artistic sense or hardly, I guess it’s the case for Jason Kustra !

  • Dunya Petros

    Thanks for your tips. Any recommendation on using flash with Macro? how to use them, indoor and outdoor?

  • Jack Doy

    Nice one.

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