Updated: Dec 7, 2022
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.
I also just published a video explaining the same topic, so if you want to learn about these settings while watching bees take off in slow motion, check it out below:
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.
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/3.2
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:Low magnification close-ups (subject is several inches across: flower, dragonfly, frog, icicle, etc.)High magnification macro photos (subject is about 1 inch/2 cm across: ant, dragonfly’s eyes, snowflake, etc.)Micro Four Thirds Sensorsf/2 to f/8 – a wide range, since depth of field isn’t a big issue yetf/8 to f/11Canon APS-Cf/2.8 to f/10 – same reason as abovef/5 to f/7.1Nikon/Other APS-Cf/2.8 to f/10 – same reason as abovef/10 to f/14Canon Full Framef/2.8 to f/16 – same reason as abovef/8 to f/11Nikon/Other Full Framef/2.8 to f/16 – same reason as abovef/16 to f/22
Feel free to experiment and test these different ranges for yourself. They aren’t set in stone, although they are good starting points. Macro photography never has as much depth of field as you would think. I took the photo below at f/22 with an APS-C Nikon camera, and it still has a very thin depth of field:
Nikon D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 800, 1/250, f/22.0
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.