The Best Settings for Macro Photography (Ultimate Guide)

Choosing the best settings for macro photography can be a struggle. After all, you’re out in the field, and you want to be capturing stunning photos now–not fiddling with your camera.

Fortunately, there are a few easy guidelines you can use…

…to choose the perfect macro settings, every single time.

And I’ll be sharing them with you in this article.

Let’s get started.

1. Use Aperture Priority as Your Go-To Camera Mode

Aperture Priority mode allows you to set your lens aperture. Your camera does the remaining work, ensuring that the photo is beautifully exposed.

(The aperture is the size of the diaphragm in the lens. A wide aperture lets in lots of light, and also blurs the background. Whereas a narrow aperture lets in very little light, but makes the background sharp.)

In macro photography, Aperture Priority is a great go-to camera mode. This is because the aperture is the most important thing for you to think about.

Whereas it’s completely okay if your shutter speed (see below) fluctuates a bit.

After all, your aperture gives you creative control over the background blur (AKA bokeh). So you want to select this carefully.

Now, if you want a soft-focus macro photo, you can use Aperture Priority mode, and bring your aperture down to f/2.8 or f/3.2.

If you want your subject to be sharp throughout the photo, you can use Aperture Priority mode to bring your aperture up–to f/8 and beyond.

Does that make sense? This is why Aperture Priority is so valuable. It allows you to choose the overall look of your photo.

Now, I’d recommend you use Aperture Priority all the time–unless you’re dealing with moving subjects, and unless you’re shooting in low light.

Which brings me to my next best setting for macro photography:

2. Use Shutter Priority for Moving Macro Subjects

Shutter Priority mode allows you to choose the shutter speed for your macro photos.

The camera does the rest of the work, selecting the best aperture for a beautiful exposure.

Now, the shutter speed simply refers to the amount of time the shutter is open–exposing the camera sensor to light. In other words, the shutter speed is length of time for which you’re taking a photo.

The faster the shutter speed, the more you’ll create a freeze frame: single point in time that’s perfectly sharp.

Does this make sense? The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the photo. Because you’ve done a better job of freezing the moment.

(Up to a certain point, that is. Eventually, all the fast shutter speeds will start to look the same.)

For most macro photography, the shutter speed isn’t very important. That’s because macro subjects tend to stay still. Flowers don’t move much. Insects often remain in position for several seconds.

So when your subject isn’t moving, it’s the aperture that’s important. Not the shutter speed.

But when your subject is active, that’s when shutter speed comes into play.

Because if your subject is zipping around, and you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed…

Well, you’ll get a bad photo. Because your subject will be blurry.

Instead, you need to use Shutter Priority mode to increase the shutter speed. You need to freeze the motion!

Here’s a few guidelines:

If you’re photographing flowers in the wind, go with a shutter speed of at least 1/250s. Better would be 1/500s.

If you’re photographing crawling insects, shoot with a similar shutter speed: 1/250s on up.

And if you’re shooting flying insects, you’re going to need a shutter speed that’s even faster: In the 1/1000s to 1/2000s range.

Bottom line?

If you’re working with moving subjects, shutter speed is of utmost importance. That’s why you need to use Shutter Priority mode–not Aperture Priority.

3. Use Manual Mode if You’re an Experimental Photographer

Now, there’s one more camera mode that you should know:

Manual.

Manual mode gives you complete control over your shutter speed and aperture. You choose both of these values, and your camera does no work.

Of course, you don’t want to pick blindly. When using Manual, a small bar in the viewfinder displays the brightness of your photo.

If your exposure is reading too bright, the bar will let you know. And you can compensate by increasing the shutter speed or narrowing the aperture. If your exposure is too dark, you can do the opposite.

Manual mode may seem a bit confusing, but you get the hang of it after a bit of practice.

The real question is:

When should you use Manual?

I’d suggest using Manual mode…

…only if you’re an experimental photographer.

Let me explain:

An experimental photographer is constantly changing settings, trying to capture various types of shots. For instance, an experimental photographer might quickly change the aperture, then make some adjustments to the shutter speed, then change the aperture once again.

And come away with three fundamentally different shots of the same subject.

Does that make sense? If you’re not sure what type of macro shooter you are, I’d suggest starting with Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Then switch over to Manual only if you find those two modes to be overly restrictive.

4. Switch on Manual Focus When Close Focusing

Here’s a simple setting that all macro photographers should use:

The manual focus option on your lens.

See, when you’re focusing at high magnifications, your lens’s autofocus just won’t work. It’ll hunt. It’ll rack back and forth.

But it won’t get you tack-sharp shots of your subject (at least, not without a lot of frustration).

So that’s why you should use manual focus.

If you haven’t used manual focus before, there’s a small switch on your lens–this will let you move back and forth between autofocus and manual focus.

Personally, I leave my macro lenses on manual focus. Because, when it comes to macro photography, I use manual focus all the time.

If you try out manual focus and you’re struggling to get used to it, don’t worry. Just practice a bit every time you’re out shooting. It’ll come with time.

And eventually?

You’ll be taking some incredible macro shots.

5. Only Raise Your ISO in Low Light

First things first:

ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light. That is, the higher your ISO, the brighter your photo will be (all things being equal).

ISO comes in nice round numbers: 50, 100, 200, 320, 400, etc.

Now, ISO comes with a massive tradeoff:

Every increase in ISO adds more ‘noise’ (AKA grain) to your photo. And you absolutely do not want noisy macro photos. Noise will make your shots look unpleasant and muddy.

So the trick is to only increase ISO when you have to.

And when must you increase ISO?

In low light.

You see, noise makes a photo less pleasant. But a blurry photo is a ruined photo. So, in a choice between a blurry photo and a noisy photo, go with the noisy one.

Raise your ISO.

I should also note: The better your camera, the better it does at higher ISOs. For instance, in years past, photos would become noisy at an ISO of 320 or 400 on many DSLRs.

Now you can push your DSLR past this and won’t notice much noise. Because technology has advanced and cameras have gotten more impressive.

In fact, I recommend you go out and test your camera. Take the same exact photo–at different ISOs. And figure out the point at which the shot becomes unusable.

This will be of great help in the field. Because you’ll know your camera’s limits. And you’ll know when to call it quits.

The Best Macro Photography Settings: Conclusion

Choosing the best macro photography settings may seem difficult. But it doesn’t have to be.

Because there are simple guidelines you can use to pick the perfect macro settings.

Hopefully, you now have a good sense of these guidelines. And you’ll start feeling far more confident and capable when doing macro photography.

If you’re interested in further increasing your macro photography skills…

I recommend you sign up for my newsletter. I’ll send you lots of tips, tricks, and secrets to improve your macro photos.

(Oh, and you’ll receive a free nature photography eBook!)

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14 Comments

  1. Jack

    Reply

    I just came in from shooting a very colorful caterpillar on the parsley in our garden! I use Aperture priority about 90% of the time, 100 ISO almost all of the time (except in low light), and stubbornly stick with Automatic Focus even when I know I should switch to Manual. So now I’m going back out and shoot more of this caterpillar using manual focus with my ISO at 100 (it’s very sunny here). Aperture priority is okay, too – this guy isn’t moving! Thank you for all of your great tips!

    • Jaymes Dempsey

      Reply

      That sounds amazing, Jack–I wish I had colorful caterpillars in my garden. I’m a fan of Aperture Priority–I didn’t really talk about this in the article, but I think it’s especially good for situations when the light is changing fast, or you’re moving between light and shadow. Regarding manual focus, it can be tough, but once you get in the habit you may start to wonder why you ever liked autofocus in the first place 😉 Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and good luck with your photography!

  2. Sam Britton

    Reply

    Hey, Jaymes. I just want to say “thanks” for a great tutorial on settings. I love shooting all the things you talk about. Even attended a Mike Moats workshop a few years ago and came away every excited about shooting macro images. I also get re-engerized to get out and shoot when I read articles like yours. Then, reality sets in and I simply don’t allocate the time to do this. Here’s the kicker: I’m retired, so I should have all the time in the world. Right? Oh, well. I need to get more intentional with ALL of my photography. Nuf of that. Just wanted to tell you how helpful your stuff is. Keep up the great work, Jaymes. Know that you have a huge fan here in Michigan.

    • Beverley

      Reply

      Thank you for the great tips. I was getting a bit frustrated when trying to take a close up that my lens would not focus and rack back and forth like you mentioned. So going to try manual focus today. I have been teaching myself photography so every tip helps 👍
      Love your photos by the way.

      Beverley

  3. Dale

    Reply

    Your photos are beautiful and have blown all my ideas about having everything in focus. You have inspired me to get my macro gear out and try some new ideas. BTW are you cheating with that photo of you, or are you really just a genius kid? I’m a fan

  4. Ronelle

    Reply

    Good day, just wanted to say, I love Macro photographing, I so want to learn more, I am for sure going to try your suggestions, can’t wait. Thank you for the advise. Ronelle.

  5. Wim

    Reply

    Thanks for the guide, Jaymes. Your explanations are easy to follow, very comprehensive. It would help that the inserted photosare not random beautiful pictures, but real illustration to the text. I was looking for a macro photo of a moving subject, for example.

    • Jaymes Dempsey

      Reply

      Thanks for the kind words and the feedback! I’ll keep in mind what you’ve said–you have a very good point.

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