Although macro photography is very accessible – no exotic destinations or expensive gear required – it is often tricky to choose the best camera settings for macro work. If you want sharp, well-exposed photos, you’ll have to push your camera system to its limits. Luckily, this guide covers everything you need to know about camera settings for macro photography, including camera mode, aperture, flash, shutter speed, ISO, and focusing, plus two detailed checklists at the end.
There are two camera modes which are useful for macro photography, depending on the type of photos you are planning to take:
- Aperture Priority – Useful when the source of light in your photo is the sun, or other ambient light, rather than a flash. However, keep in mind that it isn’t always realistic to do macro photography without a flash.
- Manual Mode – Necessary when using a flash for macro photography, or when shooting from a tripod under natural light (such as focus stacking several photos together).
I recommend avoiding the “Macro” or “Close-up” scene modes that some cameras have. Although these are better than the default Auto mode, they aren’t flexible enough to deal with tricky macro scenes, especially when you are using flash.
Also, do not use shutter priority mode for macro photography. You don’t want your aperture to change sporadically as you move in and out of shadows. It is important to control aperture for yourself.
The first setting you need to adjust is your aperture, also known as your f-stop. This is one of the most critical settings for macro photography, since it directly changes your depth of field.
Macro photography has very minimal depth of field – paper thin, and it gets worse as you focus closer and closer. With macro lenses at their closest focusing distance, you’d be lucky to get an entire ant head to appear in focus at once. Your best chance of capturing sharp photos is to pick your aperture very carefully.
So, what aperture should you use for macro photography?
It’s a tricky question. On one hand, the optimal aperture depends on your source of light. With a flash, you’ll have enough light to use very dark apertures like f/16 or even f/22, boosting your depth of field. If you’re not using a flash, you might need to resort to a brighter aperture like f/5.6 or f/8, even though it quickly diminishes your depth of field.
The optimal aperture also depends on other factors: the size of your camera sensor, the focusing distance to your subject, and even the brand of camera you use (because Canon calculates aperture differently than other brands in high-magnification macro photography). Here is a chart of our recommended aperture settings for different macro photography subjects:
As covered above, you won’t have enough depth of field for high magnification photography unless you use dark apertures like f/16. In turn, that means you’ll want to use a flash. A flash also cuts down on motion blur, whether from your camera or your subject. It’s one of the most important pieces of equipment for macro photography.
But what flash settings should you use? I strongly recommend using automatic (TTL) flash in combination with manual mode. That way, you pick your aperture for depth of field, but still enjoy the benefits of auto exposure to compensate for changing conditions.
In order to capture a bright enough photo, you might need to adjust flash exposure compensation quite a bit. I often use a flash exposure compensation of +2 to +3 stops for high magnification macro photography.
Flash can be very harsh for macro photography. You’ll want to use a flash diffuser to soften the light and avoid specular highlights on your subject. If you’d rather not buy one, you can make a flash diffuser pretty easily out of tape, cardboard, and a paper towel. See our complete article on macro photography lighting for more details.
Interestingly, when you use a flash with macro photography, the background of your photo may turn dark or even completely black. This is because the subject – being so close to your flash – receives many times more light than the background.
- With a flash: Your shutter speed setting is not especially important. Set it to 1/200 or 1/250 second (or whatever your fastest sync speed may be) purely to block out ambient light. It won’t affect the brightness of your flash, because your flash is over in far less than 1/250 second.
- Without a flash: It is critical that your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent blur from camera shake and subject motion. I recommend using 1/400 second or even faster if possible. You might get away with a longer shutter speed if you have image stabilization and your subject is large, but don’t push it too far. I can’t stress enough that blur is highly magnified for close-up photos. You certainly can get great macro pictures without a flash, but you need to watch this setting carefully.
- With a flash: ISO is deeply intertwined with flash for macro photography. Specifically, it’s common for flashes to struggle outputting enough light for macro photos (since your aperture is so narrow). It’s also a bad idea to keep your flash near full power most of the time; you’d rather keep it around 1/4 power so it recycles more quickly between photos. This is where ISO comes in. Set your flash manually to 1/4 power, pick an ISO that results in a good exposure of a leaf, and then set the flash back to Auto (TTL) mode. Now you know that it will hover around 1/4 power for a typical image. Your ISO will usually be in the range of 100 to 800 for macro photography with a flash.
- Without a flash: You’re dealing with a fast shutter speed to eliminate motion blur, and a dark aperture to capture enough depth of field. If you don’t have a flash, that only leaves one option for capturing bright enough pictures: ISO. It’s not unusual to use ISOs in the range of 800 to 3200 for macro photography. I recommend using Auto ISO here. Set your minimum shutter speed to 1/400 second and your ISO to 100. This will keep your shutter speed fast enough for sharp photos, while keeping your ISO at a reasonable value, without any mental energy expended worrying about sharpness and ISO for a given photo.
The good news is that all the settings so far will remain fairly constant from photo to photo. They are difficult to set, sure – once. But when you’ve set them properly, you’re pretty much done. I take almost all my high-magnification macro photos around f/16, 1/250 second, ISO 800, TTL flash. And for my low-magnification macro photos, I default to aperture-priority mode with Auto ISO 100, minimum shutter speed 1/400 second.
Unfortunately, focusing can be more complicated. You’re trying to maneuver a paper-thin depth of field to match your subject, sometimes when it’s moving quickly, all while keeping the composition you want. It’s a bit of an art form, and even the most skilled practitioners will come across subjects with meager of success rates.
My main recommendation is to use continuous autofocus for larger subjects at lower magnification. Once you get to high-magnification flash photography, autofocus simply won’t work well enough. Instead, set your camera lens to a given focusing distance, and then sway forward and backward until your subject looks sharp (not easy). Take the photo, and then take several more so you have the best chance of getting a sharp result!