Aperture in Macro Photography: The Ultimate Guide

Do you want to know how aperture affects your macro photography?

And do you struggle to figure out the best aperture for your macro photography?

Don’t worry! Because in this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about aperture.

You’ll discover the meaning of aperture. You’ll discover how aperture affects your photos. And you’ll discover how to choose the best aperture for your photography!

Let’s get started.

What Is Aperture?

First things first:

What exactly is aperture?

The aperture is a part of your lens. It’s essentially a circular diaphragm–one that opens and closes depending on the aperture setting.

When the diaphragm opens, it lets in lots of light. (This is a wide aperture.)

When the diaphragm closes down, it lets in very little light. (This is a narrow aperture.)

The more light that hits the camera sensor, the brighter the photo.

So, all things being equal, a photo with a wide aperture will be brighter. And a photo with a narrow aperture will be darker.

Now, an aperture can sit anywhere between very wide and very narrow. The way that the size of the aperture is expressed is in terms of f-stops. These are represented by f-numbers: f/1.4, f/1.8, f/5.6, f/16, etc.

The wider the aperture, the lower the f-number.

Therefore, f/1.8 corresponds to a very wide aperture (one that lets in lots of light).

Whereas f/16 corresponds to a much narrower aperture (one that lets in very little light).

As a macro photographer, you’ll set the aperture via a setting on your camera.

But how do you choose the right setting? What’s the best aperture for macro photography?

Well…

There’s one more thing you should know about aperture. And it’s called ‘depth of field.’

What Is Depth of Field?

The depth of field is the amount of your macro photo that’s sharp.

If you look at landscape photos, for instance, they tend to be sharp from front to back. The foreground is sharp, and the background is sharp.

Photos like that?

They have a deep depth of field.

Whereas bird photos tend to have a very shallow depth of field. That is, they have a sharp subject. But the rest of the photo–the background–is very blurry.

Macro photographers use both approaches.

For instance, you can capture a macro photo that’s sharp throughout:

Or you can capture a macro photo that’s almost entirely soft:

But what does this have to do with aperture?

The aperture directly controls the depth of field.

A narrow aperture (in the f/8 to f/22 range) gives you a deep depth of field. It makes your photo sharp throughout–both the foreground and the background.

Whereas a wide aperture (in the f/1.2 to f/5.6 range) gives you a shallow depth of field. It blurs the background.

To Sum Up:

A wide aperture:

  • Uses low f-numbers (approximately f/1.2 to f/5.6)
  • Lets in lots of light (photo will be brighter)
  • Gives a shallow depth of field (photo is mostly soft)

A narrow aperture:

  • Uses high f-numbers (approximately f/8 to f/22)
  • Lets in very little light (photo will be darker)
  • Gives a deep depth of field (photo is sharp throughout)

Depth of Field in Macro Photography

You’re often going to be shooting macro photography at high magnifications. Which means that you need to be aware of an essential relationship between macro photography and depth of field:

The greater the magnification, the shallower the depth of field.

Let me explain:

If you take a shot of a tulip at f/8, the whole flower will be sharp, front to back.

But if you then move all the way in, so that you’re shooting at very high magnifications (and you’re only focus on a single petal), and then you shoot at f/8…

…well, barely any of the shot will be sharp. Most of the shot will be blurry. Even though you were shooting at f/8.

So, as a macro photographer, you must remember:

The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field.

What this means is that you almost always have to use a narrow aperture at high magnifications. Otherwise, nearly all of your photo will be blurry.

Though you can sometimes use a wider aperture for an artistic, abstract macro effect (which I’ll discuss in a moment).

This leads to the question…

What is the best aperture for macro photography?

The Best Aperture for Macro Photography

Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to this question. Some of the best macro photos use wide apertures. And some of the best macro photos use narrow apertures.

It all depends on the situation.

However, there are clear reasons to use one aperture over the other. These reasons can be boiled down to a few simple macro photography tips:

1. If You’re Working in Low Light and Don’t Have a Tripod, Use a Wide Aperture

This tip is simple and easy.

If you don’t have much light to work with, you’re going to need a wide aperture.

Why?

A wide aperture lets in a lot of light. This will help compensate for the lack of ambient light. And it’ll prevent your photo from being too dark.

Whenever the light is starting to get low, I use a wide aperture. Something in the f/2.8 to f/4 range.

The one caveat?

If you’re using a tripod, then you don’t have to use a wide aperture. The tripod will keep your camera still. So instead of using a wide aperture to let in light, you can use a lengthy shutter speed.

However, I rarely use a tripod in the field. So a wide aperture is my go-to move in low light.

2. If You Want an Artistic, Soft-Focus Macro Look, Use a Wide Aperture

Another reason you’d want to use a wide aperture?

If you want a beautiful, soft-focus macro photo.

I love this type of photo. It’s a way to be both creative and original with your macro photography. And it looks stunning.

In order to create a soft-focus macro look, you have to use an extremely wide aperture. This will narrow your depth of field to a small area of focus.

And then you’ll get that gorgeous, abstract shot.

One more thing to note:

If you go for an abstract macro photo, you need to be careful about where you focus. I recommend you switch your lens over to manual focus, and then carefully pick a recognizable bit of detail on your subject. And make sure that it’s tack-sharp!

You’ll come away with some amazing abstract macro photography.

3. If You Want a Background With Beautiful Bokeh, Use a Wide Aperture

Bokeh refers to the quality of the background blur.

A background that is creamy and smooth has good bokeh.

A background that is mostly in focus or has an unpleasant blur offers bad bokeh.

Macro photography requires beautiful bokeh.

And the number one way to create beautiful bokeh?

Use an ultra-wide aperture!

An aperture like f/2.8 will turn your background into a gorgeous, creamy layer. One that looks great in macro photos.

4. If Your Background is Distracting, Use a Wide Aperture

Wide apertures are great for dealing with messy backgrounds.

So look at your background. Is it full of distracting twigs, leaves, or anything else you don’t want people to see?

If so, a wide aperture is your friend. It’ll blur those unwanted objects out of focus. Choose a wide enough aperture, and viewers will never even know the background was there.

5. If Your Subject has Lots of Interesting Detail, Use a Narrow Aperture

Some macro subjects are full of interesting detail.

This is especially true when you’re shooting insects. You often want to capture a photo that gives an ultra-sharp, very detailed bug photo.

That’s when you should use a narrow aperture. You need a deep depth of field to properly display all that detail!

6. If You’re Shooting a Flat Lay, Use a Narrow Aperture

Some macro photos are like flat lays:

They’re basically a subject that’s been laid out on the ground (and shot from overhead). I’m talking about photos like this:

If you’re shooting a flat-lay style shot, you’re going to want to use a narrow aperture. The best flat lays are totally sharp. You don’t want any of the corners slipping off into blurry territory.

A sharp flat-lay macro is a beautiful macro.

Aperture for Macro Photography: Next Steps

You should now know what it means to choose an aperture for macro photography.

And you understand how to pick the best aperture for your needs!

However, if you want to keep discovering tips like these, and you want to keep taking your macro photography to the next level…

…then I’d urge you to sign up for my newsletter, which will give you all sorts of macro photography tips and tricks (and turn you into a macro photography master!)

(Oh, and you’ll receive my nature photography eBook, free of charge!)

Just enter your email below:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on reddit
Reddit

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FREE eBOOK

Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Stunning Nature Photos