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The 5 Best Camera Settings for Macro Photography

The best settings for macro photography

If you’re looking to create close-up photos that feature gorgeous colors, beautiful tones, and plenty of crisp details, you must 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 consistently outstanding shots in a variety of scenarios, whether you’re capturing flowers, leaves, insects, or objects around the house.

Let’s dive right in!

1. Manual focus

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

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 a few simple reasons:

First, 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, as you probably gathered, 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.

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

One quick trick:

If you’re focusing at very high magnifications and you’re struggling to get the perfect point of focus, instead of adjusting the focus ring, try adjusting the camera position. In other words, set the focus ring in advance, then slowly rock the camera back and forth until you achieve the right result!

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, you must 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 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.

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 composition! I used Manual mode to select an aperture of f/4.2.

There are a few camera settings that offer the required level of control, but I have two favorites: 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 (using its internal light meter) to create 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 worrying that the exposure will change unexpectedly.

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. (Aperture Priority also comes in handy if you’re dealing with fast-moving subjects, such as dragonflies flitting from branch to branch.)

Regardless, make sure you carefully set your aperture to achieve the depth of field that fits best with your creative vision!

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

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, you can do this in the viewfinder – just make sure that it’s set to simulate the exposure.)

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.

macro photography abstract flower - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know
Live View allows you to confidently focus on a precise part of your subject.

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.

Macro photography black eyed susan abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know
I took this handheld image at dusk. Thanks to Live View, I was able to capture a sharp image.

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!

Personally, I use a mirrorless camera with exposure simulation turned on in the viewfinder – but I still do sometimes use Live View with the screen flipped out so I can capture shots at odd angles! Even though I often photograph while lying down in the dirt, that little Live View screen saves me a lot of difficulty.

4. Burst mode

Macro photography settings clematis flower

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 (like me!), 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 60.

While it’s primarily used by wildlife, sports, and bird photographers 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 at ultra-high magnifications.

macro photography seedhead abstract - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know
I took this photograph while handholding at extreme magnifications. Without Burst mode, I probably would have failed to get the shot.

You see, 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 manually focus on your subject, instead of just capturing one photo (where you risk subtly missing focus), you can fire off a series of images. And 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!).

When I use this approach, I’ll often manually set the focus, then slowly rock the camera back and forth as I hold down the shutter button. (That way, I can increase my chances of getting the focus right.)

By the way, this Burst-mode technique has a second benefit: Since you’ll only need to press the shutter button at the start of the burst, photos taken toward the middle and end of the burst will often turn out tack-sharp, even if you’re shooting at a dangerously slow shutter speed.

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 abstract lights - 5 Camera Settings That All Macro Photographers Should Know
When shooting in the evening, the two-second timer can be extremely useful!

Note: If you do use the two-second self-timer, then you won’t be able to use the Burst-mode approach I discussed above. Personally, in good light, I prefer using Burst mode – but if you’re shooting in dim light and need to avoid camera shake as much as possible, the self-timer can come in handy.

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!

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

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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