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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.