A Guide to Macro Photography - Part III: Camera Settings

- deutsche Version -

Part 1: The Equipment

Part 2: The Preparation

Part 3: The camera settings

Today's post is about my recommended camera settings for macro photography. For this purpose I have taken a screenshot of the so called "Super Control Panel" of my Olympus E-M5. This great menu shows all relevant settings, which can also be directly modified on this screen using the buttons, dials or the touchscreen.

The Olympus Super Control Panel (SCP): All important settings on one screen

General Camera Settings

  • The ISO:
    In macro photography, details matter. Thus, sensor noise should be avoided. Set your ISO to "base ISO" (most often this is ISO 100, in case of the E-M5 it is 200). Only increase the ISO if you need faster exposure times to avoid blurred images.
  • The Image Stabilization  (IS): 
    According to the manufacturer, you should deactivate the IS if you shoot from a tripod, because the complete absence of movement apparently "confuses" the IS system. Not a big deal from my experience though.
  • The White Balance (WB): 
    The auto WB does the job for me. If it misses the correct color temperature, you can always adjust it in the post processing using the RAW files.
  • "Anti-Shock" and Timer:
    Meanwhile, I broke the cables of several remote controls for my camera, thus I mainly use the 2 seconds timer at the moment to avoid to blur the image due to my shaky hands touching the shutter release button. I combine the timer with the so-called "anti-shock" option of my camera (shown by the rhombus symbol next to the 2s timer). In mirrorless cameras, the shutter is open by default (to enable live view) and has to be closed first before a picture can be taken. The fast series of shutter closing, shutter opening and shutter closing again causes small vibrations, that can decrease the sharpness of your macro image when using a tripod. The anti-shock function causes a delay between the initial closing of the shutter and the actual shutter movement when taking an image. A similar function is the "mirror lockup" for DSLRs, reducing the vibration caused by the moving mirror. 
  • The Focus-Mode: 
    The AF is barely usable for macro photography. Manual focus (MF) is the way to go here.
  • The File Format:
    I highly recommend to use the RAW file format which allows to easily adjust White Balance , exposure, contrast etc without causing strong artifacts. I will explain that in more detail when I come to the post processing part of this macro guide. In addition, I save the JPGs in maximum quality, since these are really good in Olympus cameras, sometimes even better than what I can achieve with my RAW post-processing workflow.
  • The Exposure Compensation: 
    I usually put the exposure compensation to a positive value (e.g. +0,7 or even +1,0 as shown in the screenshot). First, I like my images with bright colors, second, the Olympus sensor is not great with rescuing details from dark shadows in the post-processing. Generally, I follow the rule of Expose to the Right.


Aperture and Exposure Time

One of the most important creative tools for macro photography is the choice of the correct aperture. The smaller the aperture (= the bigger the f/ number), the bigger is the depth of field. The effect on the image is shown in the gallery below, showing images shot with different apertures. At the same time, closing the aperture increases the exposure time, because less light is reaching the sensor.

What does this "aperture series" show us?
The first image (f/2) was shot with the aperture wide open, causing an extremely shallow depth of field. Important parts of the insect (e.g. parts of the wing) are not in focus and the background shows a boring, monotonous green.
The two following images (f/4 and f/5.6) look good to me. The relevant parts of the insect are in focus and the background got some structure caused by yellow flowers in the background. The image taken with f/5.6 has the edge here, because the background has bit more color variation.
This effect is even stronger in the image taken with f/8, but here the details in the background start to compete with the motive for the viewers attention. In addition, with f/8 we reached exposure times that might be too long if there is a bit of wind.
The image taken with f/11 already shows some a bit of "chaos" in the background, while the image with f/22 (minimum aperture of most lenses) shows a lot of details from the meadow and had an exposure time of 1.3 seconds, causing the slightest wind to blur your image. In addition, the sharpness of lenses decreases when the aperture is highly closed (keyword diffraction).
In conclusion, the f/5.6 image is my favorite here, but I leave that open to personal preference.

For beginners, it is certainly helpful to shoot the same scene with different apertures and select the best one at home after reviewing the images on a big screen.

The depth of field is also dependent on the sensor size. The sensor of a full frame camera is 4x as big as the one of my Olympus camera (µFT). To achieve the same depth of field as with my camera, you have to stop down the aperture by 2 stops with a full frame camera. My favorite picture from above (f5.6) thus would correspond to a f/11 picture shot with a full frame camera. This can force you to increase the ISO to stay within an acceptable range of exposure times.
Compact Cameras have the opposite problem. Their sensor is very small, leading to a big depth of field even with open apertures. Thus, images taken with compact cameras often struggle to create soft backgrounds (compare to the f/22 image shown above).