Macro photography is easy to do – you don’t need expensive equipment or exotic locations – but it can be difficult to find the right settings for macro work. You will need to push your camera system beyond its limits to get sharp, well-exposed images. This guide will cover everything you need about macro photography settings, including shutter speed, ISO, shutter speed and camera mode. There are also two checklists at the bottom.
There are two modes of camera that are suitable for macro photography depending on what type of photos are being taken.
- Aperture Priority This is useful when the light source in your photo’s image is the sun or another ambient light rather than a flash. It is not always possible to take macro photos without a flash.
- Manual Mode is required when using flashes for macro photography or shooting from a tripod with natural light (such focus stacking multiple photos together).
Avoid the “Macro”, or “Close up” scene modes of some cameras. These modes are more flexible than the default Auto mode but they don’t allow for complex macro scenes, especially if you use flash.
Shutter priority mode is not recommended for macro photography. Your aperture shouldn’t change frequently as you move into and out of shadows. You must control your aperture.
Your aperture (also known as your F-stop) is the first setting that you should adjust. This setting is crucial for macro photography because it directly affects your depth of field.
Macro photography is very limited in depth of field. It’s like paper thin. You’d be lucky to see an entire ant head in focus with macro lenses that are at the closest distance to your focusing distance. Sharp photos are possible only if you pick your aperture carefully.
What aperture should you choose for macro photography?
This is a difficult question. The optimal aperture is dependent on the source of light. A flash will give you enough light to allow for dark apertures such as f/16 and f/22. This will increase your depth of field. You might have to use a flash if you don’t have one. However, it can quickly reduce your depth of field.
Other factors that affect the optimal aperture include the size of the sensor on your camera, the distance from your subject and the brand of camera you are using (because Canon calculates aperture differently to other brands for high-magnification macro photography). Below is a list of the recommended aperture settings for macro photography subjects.
|Low magnification close ups (subject is several inches across: flower. dragonfly. frog. icicle.||High magnification macro photos|
|Micro Four Thirds Sensors||F/2 to f/8 is a broad range since depth of field doesn’t pose a problem yet||F/8 to f/11|
|Canon APS-C||f/2.8 to 10 – Same reason as above||f/5 to|
|Nikon/Other AAPS-C||f/2.8 to 10 – Same reason as above||F/10 to f/14|
|Canon Full Frame||f/2.8 to F/16 – Same reason as above||F/8 to f/11|
|Nikon/Other Full-Frame||f/2.8 to F/16 – Same reason as above||F/16 to f/22|
You are free to try these ranges and make your own conclusions. These ranges are not definitive, but they can be used as a starting point. You might not think macro photography has as deep a field. The photo below was taken at f/22 using an APS-C Nikon camera. It still has a very narrow depth of field.
As mentioned above, high magnification photography will require a deep field. This means that you will need a flash. Flashes also reduce motion blur from the subject or your camera. It is a crucial piece of equipment when macro photography is done.
What flash settings are best? I recommend using the combination of manual mode and automatic flash (TTL). This allows you to choose your aperture for depth-of-field, while still enjoying the benefits of auto exposure to adjust for changing conditions.
Flash exposure compensation can be adjusted to get a bright photo. For macro photography with high magnification, I use flash exposure compensations of +2 to +3 stops.
Flash can make macro photography difficult. To soften the flash and prevent specular highlights, you will need a flash diffuser. You can easily make your own flash diffuser using tape, cardboard and a paper towel. See our complete article on macro photography lighting for more details.
It is possible for the background to turn black or darken when using a flash with macro photography. Because the flash is so close to the subject, the background receives much more light than it does.
- Flash: It doesn’t matter what shutter speed you set. To block out the ambient light, set it at 1/200 or 1/250 seconds (or whatever speed you prefer). Your flash will still be bright because it is done in less than half an hour.
- Without flash: You need to ensure that your shutter speed is fast enough so blurring from subject motion and camera shake is prevented. If possible, I recommend using 1/320 seconds or faster. If you have image stabilization, and your subject is large enough, you might be able to use a slower shutter speed. But don’t go too fast. Blur is magnified when taking close-up shots. Although macro shots can be taken without the flash, it is possible to get excellent results with a flash. However, you should watch out for this setting.
- Flash: ISO are deeply intertwined. Because your aperture is narrow, flashes can struggle to provide enough light for macro photography. Also, it’s a bad idea for flashes to be at full power all the time. You should keep it at 1/4 power to ensure it recycles faster between shots. ISO is the key. The ISO setting is where you can set your flash to 1/4 power. Next, choose an ISO setting that gives you a good exposure for a leaf. Finally, turn the flash back on to Auto (TTL). You will now see that the flash will be at 1/4 power for a typical photo. For macro photography using a flash, your ISO will typically be between 100 and 800.
- With a flash You will need a fast shutter speed to remove motion blur and a dark aperture in order to capture sufficient depth of field. Without a flash, you only have one option to capture bright enough photos: ISO. For macro photography, it’s common to use ISOs ranging from 800 to 3200. Auto ISO is a great option. Your minimum shutter speed should be set to 1/320 seconds and your ISO to 100. This will allow you to take sharp photos while maintaining a fast shutter speed. It also allows you to keep your ISO low enough that you don’t have the need for excessive mental energy worrying about ISO and sharpness.
All settings will stay the same from one photo to another, which is a good thing. These settings are not easy to set , but can be . Once you have them set properly, they are almost done. Most of my macro photos with high magnification are taken at f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, and TTL flash. For low-magnification macro shots, I use aperture priority mode with Auto ISO 100 and minimum shutter speed 1/320 seconds.
Focusing can be difficult. It can be difficult to maintain a composition while maintaining a thin field of view. It is a difficult art form and even the most experienced practitioners may encounter subjects with low success rates.
For larger subjects, I recommend continuous autofocus at a lower magnification. Autofocus won’t work for flash photography with high magnification. Set your camera lens at a predetermined focusing distance and move forward and backwards until the subject appears sharp. This is not an easy task. To get the best result, take the photo and then make several more!
A detailed guide on macro photography focuses on these techniques.
Checklist of Recommended Camera Settings
It’s a lot to take in. This checklist is based on our complete guide to macro photography. These settings can be used for macro photography with a flash.
- You can either buy a monopod, or you can find a stick.
- Use a flash to create a softening effect. A diffuser is not necessary, but you can make one. For more information, see our detailed tutorial on macro photography lighting.
- Attach a macro lens to your camera. Set it to manual focus at the desired magnification.
- Make sure you choose the right exposure settings to capture enough light. If your flash is the main light source, such as a 1:1 magnification shot, you should use the fastest shutter speed to still sync with your flash (typically 1/200 second or 1/250 seconds). Aperture settings should be between f/16 and f/22.
- Manually set your flash power to 1/4 and the ISO value to whatever exposes ordinary subjects properly. It may take some practice.
- Change the flash to TTL mode (automatic). Using step 5, you can be sure that the flash will hover at around 1/4 power even though it is in automatic mode.
- You will need to adjust the flash exposure compensation in order to get an exact exposure. This can be as little as one stop. Flash compensations in macro photography can be as high as +2 or even +3. However, it all depends on the flash.
- The only “automatic” setting that you can use at this point is auto flash. It will adjust according to the reflectiveness of your subject. Your other settings, such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO, will remain constant. You don’t have to worry about changing these settings.
- As long as it isn’t in the way of reaching your subject at the correct height, you can put your camera on a monopod.
- You will need to find a bug that has landed long enough to allow you to take photos.
- You can focus manually by moving forward and backwards until you see your subject clearly. Then, take the photo. To maximize your chances for success, keep taking photos.
- You’re finished!
This is a similar checklist to lower magnification close up photography without a Flash.
- Choose aperture priority mode and choose the aperture that provides you with the best depth of field. You can use almost any aperture, but I recommend an f/2.8-f/5.6 aperture if you need a blurry background.
- Set your Minimum Shutter Speed at 1/320 seconds. Maximum ISO should be set to 3200. This will ensure that your shutter speed doesn’t drop below 1/320 seconds unless you are in very dark conditions, minimising motion blur.
- If your subject is moving fast (e.g. a dragonfly flying), you can set the Minimum Shutter Speed at 1/1000 or 1/2000 seconds. In these cases, 1/320 won’t be sufficient to completely freeze motion.
- For most cameras, ISO is set to 100 as the base value. Auto ISO may raise your ISO more than that, but it is best to set the default value as low as you can.
- You can adjust the exposure compensation if your photos appear too bright or dark.
- Take a picture using continuous autofocus (AFC or Continuous Servo), with the subject as the focus point. To increase your chances of getting a sharp image, you should take multiple photos.
This article should answer your questions regarding the best settings for macro photography. Macro photography is a challenging genre but it can also be one of the most rewarding. It is possible to take amazing photos in your backyard, even on a dull day. Or you can make use of rain or fog to get great close-ups.
These settings will require practice. Each sub-genre of macrophotography has its own requirements. It is difficult to keep track of all the information at once. Many of these settings are easy to remember and will be set up automatically. If you have questions about how to best set up a macro photo for your particular type, please leave them below.