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How to Photograph Fungi in the Wild

Improve your ability to photograph fungi with this excellent guide, loaded with tips, techniques, and advice for capturing fantastic photos of mushrooms and fungi.

Among the array of natural subjects available to outdoor photographers, it's fair to say that fungi are not generally considered one of the most glamorous or popular. But their potential shouldn't be overlooked. They are one of the most fascinating life forms on the plant. They have existed for millions of years and have evolved into an extraordinary variety of types, ranging greatly in shape, colour and texture. Autumn is when fungi are at their peak, decorating our lawns, parks and woodland. Through a camera lens, you can begin to appreciate their design and beauty. If you haven't tried photographing fungi before, now is the time to begin. Only simple equipment setup is required so this is truly accessible and enjoyable subject.

Wild Mushrooms

Wild Mushrooms

Where and How to find Fungi

Different types of fungi require different conditions and habitats. Towards autumn and into early winter, fungi can be found growing practically anywhere, however, they prefer woodland, moisture and old, rotting tree matter. If you wish to find a good range of fungi to photograph, the best place to being is your nearest ancient deciduous wood.

Look near the base of trees, among fallen branches and on decaying stumps. Look also among dense leaf deposits and areas where it's mossy and not overgrown. Some will be easy to spot, while others will be small and extremely well camouflaged. Look up as well as down - some may be growing just above you on overhanging branches and on tree trunks, but still within range of a telephoto.

Fields within a few hundred metres of old, mixed deciduous trees can also be worth exploring as mycelium (the fungus roots) can travel over a mile underground. The older the ground or woodland, the more mycelium that will occur and the greater the likelihood there is of finding a good range of subjects.

Approaching Fungi

Whatever you have found to photograph - whether it is a waxcap, amethyst deceiver, death cap, shaggy ink cap, stinkhorn, puffball, penny bun, woolly milk-cap or one f the many other types of fungi found in the UK - the big question is how is it best photographed?

Orange fungi contrasting with green foliage

Orange fungi contrasting with green foliage

Don't rush your decision. One of the advantages of photographing a static subject like a plant, flower or toadstool, is that it isn't going anywhere - so take your time and consider its size, shape, the available light and its surroundings before reaching for your camera. Fungi are sturdy, so are unaffected by the wind; the only movement you need to worry about is your own. Presuming you are shooting in woodland, the light will probably be restricted. Consequently, it is likely that available shutter speeds will be slow, so a tripod is a must, or a beanbag if shooting at ground level. Once using support, the length of exposure becomes largely irrelevant.

Be warned; fungi are rarely accommodating; it tends to grow in the most awkward, inaccessible positions. Arranging your tripod accurately on rough, uneven ground can prove fiddly. If the ground is soft, push the feet firmly into the ground to increase stability.

LiveView or an angle finder can help you to compose strong images from low or awkward shooting positions.

Mushroom Lighting

Fungi enjoy dark spots; bad news for photographers. Natural lighting is usually limited when shooting fungi, so it will often need supplementing.

A fungus's underparts receive less light than the cap, and if you don't balance the light, detail in the gills and stem will be lost. You can balance the light by using fill flash or a reflector. I prefer using the reflector to make use of natural light which is less harsh. They can be held in position by hand or using a clamp in order to angle light onto the subject. You can vary the intensity of the reflected light by moving it closer or further away. One of the main advantages of using a reflector is that you can see, and tweak its effects instantly. In my view, it is the most natural way of relieving shadows on miniature subjects, it is also the simplest. A sheet of white card, or foil, can also act as a reflector. A mirror is also very effective, but less practical.

Fill flash can also be used to relieve shadows and light fungi. To achieve a nice balance with the available daylight, reduce the flash output by anything up to two stops below the ambient exposure - the exact amount will depend on the camera to subject distance, the level of ambient light and the subject itself.

The built-in flash is capable of decent results, although with close-ups of nearby subjects, be aware that the flash burst can miss, or only partly illuminate the subject. The off-camera flash is more versatile and capable of producing more natural-looking images. Off camera flash can also be used creatively. By positioning it to the side or at an angle to the subject, you can create interesting side or backlighting, which works particularly well with translucent species, like porcelain fungus.

To maximise image sharpness when working in poor light, use mirror lockup. Not all cameras have this function, but it works by locking up the reflex mirror prior to firing the shutter, eliminating internal vibrations. Use in combination with a tripod and remote release or self-timer.

Composition and Aethetics

There are many approaches when photographing fungi, as they vary so greatly in shape and size. The type of fungi and its surroundings will greatly dictate your method. Begin by wandering around the plant and viewing it from every possible angle. Single mushrooms often suit a vertical composition, while a group are best photographed in a horizontal format. Larger species often suit being shot in context with their environment. Using a wide-angle lens is good for this style of shot, due to its extensive depth of field. Also, its short minimum focusing distance will allow you to get close to your subject in order to create an unusual perspective. This type of photo only works well if the surroundings boost the subject.

If the backdrop is distracting, using a longer focal length with a narrower angle of view is a better choice; allowing you to exclude ugly background detail.

Spikey Mushroom (Spring Puffball?)

Spikey Mushroom (Spring Puffball?)

Simplify your Composition

Many species of fungi are small, so a macro lens or close-up attachment are required for frame filling results. CLose-ups give you more control over the choice of background. It might be a cliche, but what you exclude from the frame is often as important as what you include. Dead leaves, twigs and vegetation can be highly distracting and ruin an otherwise perfectly good shot.

Before shooting, peer through the viewfinder and carefully remove distracting elements. Creative use of depth of field in another way to isolate your subject from cluttered surroundings. Large apertures generate a much narrower depth of field, throwing background detail out of focus and helping the subject stand out. The risk is that if the aperture s too wide, there won't be sufficient back to front sharpness to keep the subject acceptably sharp.

Many types of fungi are awkward shapes making the choice o aperture less straightforward. For example, the cap of a mushroom extends closer to the sensor plane than the stalk, so a smaller aperture is required to keep both in focus. The aperture required depends on the subject; the level of magnification; and the effect you desire.

Lastly, you don't have to include the entire subject. Isolating detail and texture can create highly striking close-ups.

Choose a Viewpoint

When photographing fungi, the viewpoint is often key. Although an elevated view can suit some smaller variants that grow close to their hosts - like many zoned polypore rarely will an overhead viewpoint be best. A low shooting angle looks far more natural.

When shooting mushrooms, you will want to try to capture the beauty and texture of the gills underneath their cap. Therefore, a shooting angle from slightly below the subject often produces the most striking composition. It also creates an interesting, false sense of scale and height.

Underside of mushroom

Underside of mushroom

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to achieve such a low angle, which is why some fungi photographers place a mirror beneath the subject and photograph the reflection. Alternatively, if the fungus is growing on a movable branch, it may be possible to rotate or move the branch into a better position. Fungi are very delicate, so take care if you do this and always return it to its original position after you have finished.

Fungi Photography Equipment

Fungi Photography doesn't require much in the way of specialised equipment, I've even shot fungi using my iPhone. There are a few pieces of equipment that you can use to make things easier for yourself.

Lens Types

Although almost any focal length lens can be used to shoot fungi, many species are small, so the most useful is a dedicated macro. They are optimised for close focusing and typically have a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:1, or lifesize. They also have a large maximum aperture, providing a bright viewfinder image, which assists in focusing and composition in dark woodland. A focal length in the region of 100mm is a good choice. If you don't own a macro, don't be deterred - there's a variety of close-up attachments available. CLose-up filters are a good budget option, plus they don't affect any of the cameras automatic functions, although do expect a slight reduction in image quality. Extension tubes are another option.

You don't always need to fill the frame with your subject when photographing fungi. Different focal lengths create very different perspectives and results. A wide focal length is ideal for showing the subject in context with its environment; while a telephoto or tele-zoom, upwards of 300mm will help you to isolate mushrooms from their surroundings.

Camera Supports

A tripod offers the best stability. Opt for legs that can be splayed almost flat to the ground and positioned in practically any position. When shooting at ground level, a beanbag is often the best option. Place a piece of polythene beneath the bag in damp conditions to prevent moisture.

Polarising Filter

A polarisers ability to reduce glare and reflections is very useful. They can reduce exposure times by up to 2 stops, so a tripod is essential when using one.

Blower Brush

Using a blower brush, so can carefully remove anything distracting from the fungi, which will save you from spending time later in Photoshop.

Groundsheet

To avoid getting grubby and your camera bag from getting damp, it's worth carrying a sheet of polythene, bin liner or groundsheet to place on the ground.

Anglefinder

When shooting at low angles, an angle finder is very useful. They allow you to compose images comfortably without having to contort your body to look through the viewfinder. Cameras with vari-angle LCD displays and LiveView are highly useful for this type of fungi photography.

Remote Release

Even when the camera is tripod mounted, physically pressing the shutter release button can generate a small amount of vibration. A remote cable or wireless device allows you to release the shutter without having to handle the camera, ensuring rock steady shots.

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