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Tips on photographing mushrooms


Mushrooms grow just about anywhere, but finding suitable subjects to photograph is a challenge.
Mushrooms grow just about anywhere, but finding suitable subjects to photograph is a challenge.

Finding mushrooms in the field

The first step in making good pictures of wild mushrooms is finding suitable subjects. A good mushroom field guide, which can be purchased in most book stores or found in your local library, will usually contain information about where to search out mushroom varieties in your area.

Generally speaking, mushrooms thrive where it is dark, often where it tends to be damp, although they can also be discovered in open fields in direct sunlight. Mushrooms can often be found after a rainy night. If conditions are too dry or not warm enough, some mushrooms will wait, remaining dormant until conditions are just right.

Typical habitat includes woodlands. bogs and marshlands; in grasslands soil; on live and dead trees, stumps, wood debris, leaf litter; on rotten wood, burned ground and burned wood; on decaying matter and dead organic material; on manure and even on other fungi.

Look in shady areas below trees and shrubs and on the shadow side of structures. They may be hidden underneath fallen pine needles, leaves and other debris, and places where there is manure-rich soil. Some types of mushrooms will only grow at the base of certain trees. The rain forest is often a great place to find likely subjects, as are mossy areas, near tree stumps and in newly harvested forests. Apple and other orchards can often be a good place to look. The color, size and shape of a mushroom can make it easy or difficult to spot. A mushroom that matches its surroundings in color or texture can be hard to pick out from its background.

If you need to photograph a particular variety for, say a nature magazine or website, or if you just wish to photograph as many varieties as you can in a given area, consider going out with a local mushroom expert or with the members of a mushroom club.

The time of year is a major factor. Mushrooms are as seasonal as many other organisms. There are spring, summer, fall and winter mushrooms. Fall in northern countries is the season when many types of mushrooms can be found, but some mushrooms appear only in the early spring as the ground warms up. Morning is generally a good time to go on a mushroom hunt, since those that have come up overnight are fresh-looking and less likely to have been damaged by animals or the passage of time.


Your comfort

Since you will likely be searching in woods and on rough terrain, be sure to dress for warmth, protection from insects and to keep dry.

Consider wearing long sleeves, leg coverings and comfortable, sturdy footwear. A ground sheet to kneel or lie on would be a useful accessory to keep your clothes dry and clean.

Safety

Some mushrooms are deadly poisonous or dangerous to human organs when consumed. A variety described as being edible in a field guide may not be edible in your area. We have been told that some mushrooms should not even be touched. If you aren’t certain, don’t pick or handle a mushroom.

Since it is difficult to identify a mushroom as being safe to handle or eat without proper training and knowledge, you would be wise to assume that a wild mushroom is poisonous.

IMPORTANT
We aren’t mushroom experts, and therefore advise you not to rely solely upon our comments for your personal safety. We strongly recommend that you research mushroom safety from reliable experts.

Expect to be kneeling or even lying on the ground when photographing mushrooms.
Expect to be kneeling or even lying on the ground when photographing mushrooms.

Mushrooma often retain material from the soil when it grows. Wind and rain may clean it naturally, but you too can remove litter for a better mushroom picture.
Mushrooma often retain material from the soil when it grows. Wind and rain may clean it naturally, but you too can remove litter for a better mushroom picture.

NOW LET'S TAKE MUSHROOM PICTURES

It's okay to groom a mushroom and surrounding area to take its picture.

Mushrooms are often partially covered in soil, bits of vegetation and other woodland debris. To make the best photograph, remove the debris and brush aside distracting or unnatural objects in the foreground or background of your shots.

Shooting angle

Like many subjects that are at a lower height than you are, mushrooms are generally best photographed from their level. Your camera ahould capture them in side view, or from slightly above or below rather than just photographing their cap from well above. You want your pictures to show features such as shape, texture and the mushroom’s underside and its height. This means getting down very low, at or close to ground level, with your camera to take the picture. You may need to kneel or even lie on your stomach.

Fill the frame

Almost all subjects benefit from being photographed so that they fill the frame. Doing so avoids including unnecessary and distracting objects. Your picture’s viewers should have no confusion about what the center of interest is. This generally means getting your camera and its lens as close as possible to a mushroom, or using a telephoto lens to focus in tightly on your subject, or switching to a macro lens (or using your camera’s macro mode) for a really tight, frame-filling picture.


Lighting

It should be no surprise when you discover that the underside of a mushroom can be quite dark, thanks to its umbrella-like cap and the ambient light in many places where mushrooms are found. You may need to provide secondary illumination to make a great picture, although sometimes the sun, when very low on the horizon or due to light-colored ground cover, will illuminate the stem and underside. Some experienced mushroom photographers feel that normal daylight, even at the best of times, is inadequate to show a mushroom's true coloration - especially reds and yellows - and recommend electronic flash for every picture.

Lighting a mushroom’s underside or just lighting a mushroom in general can be easily accomplished with foresight and planning. There are several effective techniques, each of which may provide a different result. Here are a few to try:

A reflector is an effective way of directing daylight or artificial light onto the underside of a mushroom for sufficient illumination. Diffused lighting provided by a reflector usually doesn’t look artificial, unless the reflector’s surface or the light source (the sky, for example) is unusually colored. Even then, a warm-toned reflector can make a mushroom picture look terrific. Handling and accurately aiming a reflector when your subject is so small can be tricky, and it helps to have an assistant to take on that task for you. Using a small reflector, like a hand mirror, a professional mini-reflector or even a small white or colored sheet of cardboard or aluminum foil, may be the answer when you don’t have someone to assist you.

Fill flash - Most digital cameras with a built-in flash have fill flash capability, but few will function well, if at all, when the flash is very close to a subject. There is a likelihood that the mushroom will be overexposed. Check your camera’s manual to learn what the minimum flash-to-subject distance is, and be sure to keep the flash at or outside of that distance. If you are using a telephoto lens, your camera’s fill flash function will work properly, but may cause an unwanted dark shadow from the mushroom’s cap which will also be illuminated by the flash and give you an unwanted result. Holding a white handkerchief or translucent white paper over the flash head will diffuse its light, softening shadows. Since the lens and the flash are so close to one another when using a camera's built-in flash, the lighting may also be flat with no shadowing visible, and therefore no three-dimensionality apparent in your picture. Sometimes, though, a camera’s built-in flash can result in a delightful picture, so it is worth trying if you have no alternatives.... or just to see its effect.

Off-camera flash – If your camera has a hot shoe to which you can connect a secondary flash unit or another means of attaching an accessory, dedicated flash, and if you have a flash extension cord or a wireless slave unit to synschronize your flash and your camera, you are then able to hold or place the flash unit at a greater distance than your camera from the mushroom and to aim the flash head so that its light strikes the underside of the mushroom at just the right angle for the illumination you desire. Without a flash extension cord or wireless slave unit, your camera’s accessory flash may also be mounted on the hot shoe so that it is far enough away from the lens to provide a desirable three-dimensional effect. The flash head may also be adjustable so that it can be aimed at a reflector rather than directly at the mushroom, and can then be used to give quite acceptable fill flash illumination. You will want to experiment with different reflector-to-subject distances and angles, taking a number of exposures, and later choosing the best shots after examining them on your computer or any prints you have made. You may also wish to experiment with strong side-lighting or even back-lighting from your off-camera flash (or your reflector, or both together). Finally, you can use two flash units, aimed from different angles and distances from the mushroom subject to provide very interesting lighting.

A creative approach to lighting for your mushroom photography involves a flashlight, which can be aimed at the underside to provide sufficient light to make a good exposure that will bring out details. A flashlight’s illumination can result in a warm or, depending on the type of flashlight, even a cool cast to the picture, or at least to the underside of the mushroom.

Proper lighting is the key to good mushroom photography. It can be difficult to achieve.
Proper lighting is the key to good mushroom photography. It can be difficult to achieve.

The variety in shapes, texture, color and size of mushrooms is astonishing. Preserving their images with your camera can be highly rewarding.
The variety in shapes, texture, color and size of mushrooms is astonishing. Preserving their images with your camera can be highly rewarding.

Shooting mushrooms in ambient light only

Because of the typically low lighting levels where mushrooms are found, you will frequently need to use long shutter speeds for proper exposure when you are not employing electronic flash, requiring you to keep your camera from moving to avoid blurring. A tripod is the solution that first comes to mind, except that few tripods are intended for photography of small subjects that are so close to the ground. A minipod may do the job just fine. Some tripods are designed so that your camera can be attached beneath them, upside down, on the main support column, within a few inches from the ground, and others have legs that can be so widely spread that your camera can be very close to the ground. But, of course, there are many other ways to stabilize a camera to keep it from moving during a long exposure. These include nestling it firmly in a bean bag or on a flat rock at the right level. In a pinch, you can even remove your jacket, bunch it up and treat it like a bean bag. You should avoid placing your camera on the ground, though, to keep it safe from moisture and dirt. Using a remote shutter release, a shutter release cable or your camera’s self timer will help to keep the camera still when making an exposure.

Composition

While it is good advice to fill the frame with your mushroom subject, you should also consider whether it makes sense to include other elements in your image. Good composition is as important when photographing mushrooms as it is with any subject. Check the scene from a number of viewing angles and shooting distances to not only see how the mushroom(s) look from all sides, but also how the setting and nearby objects affect your composition. You may find, for example, that including a leaf, rock or tree root helps to create balance. Or, that a rising or setting sun in the background provides drama to the scene. Look for lines that may lead the viewer's eye to the center of interest. If an animal - a squirrel, snake, small bird or indeed any animal - should suddenly appear, its presence in your composition can add that je ne sais quoi that makes your picture a winner. Consider the foreground, too. It may make sense to include an overhanging branch or a plant in the composition so that it provides a natural framing element for the mushroom. If the mushrooms you are photographing are unusually small or large, you may wish to include something in the frame that will reveal scale. It could be a leaf of a known size, or another plant or object. Carefully examine the scene in your camera's viewframe to ensure that the composition is pleasing to you. Make small (or large) adjustments if it isn't pleasing by moving a branch from the foreground or relocating a small rock or another object.

Depth of Field

You must consider your camera’s aperture setting when photographing mushrooms. You will want a setting that will provide just the right depth of field to capture the mushroom in sharp focus while blurring background and foreground objects that don’t contribute to the composition. This can be particularly important with mushrooms, where surrounding objects such as twigs, rocks, foliage and general woodland debris can deflect the viewer’s attention from your subject. Great depth of field can be difficult to achieve when you are taking pictures so close to your subject, since the resulting “default” depth of field in close-up and macro photography is typically shallow. Very small apertures (which you can choose manually or by using your camera's aperture-priority setting) and a change in your focusing may be needed to achieve the proper depth of field in the foreground or background (or both).

There may be occasions when it is important for the success of your photograph to show the mushroom’s surroundings, which may include several other mushrooms at different distances from the lens or other objects, and that is when you must avoid a shallow depth of field by using smaller apertures to show foreground and/or background objects in sharper focus.


Be careful about overexposing the mushroom

If the mushroom is white or very light in color, you will have to be aware of the risk of overexposure. When an object is a small part of a scene, a camera's exposure meter will often "ignore" it in favor of an exposure reading that will render most of the scene properly exposed. If the little object is a small mushroom against a darker background, it will not be properly exposed. This is a more serious problem with digital photography, which has minimal exposure latitude, than it is with traditional film photography.

You may not even notice the problem until later. You can easily miss noticing overexposed highlights when reviewing your shot afterwards on your camera's monitor because its small screen size makes it difficult to see fine detail or the absence of it.

Overexposure cannot be corrected afterwards using a photo-editing computer application. You are usually better off to slightly underexpose your mushroom pictures. You can also avoid overexposure by using a spot meter to read the light reflected from the mushroom or using an ambient light meter to read the light falling on the mushroom.

Bracket your exposures

Bracketing your exposures provides a degree of "photo insurance" that combats the dreaded overexposed shot.

Because the chance is more than slim of your mushroom being there or of looking the same to re-photograph should you discover long afterwards that your exposures aren't what you wanted, and because proper exposure can be tricky with the many factors involved in mushroom photography, it makes sense to bracket your exposures.

You will be happy that you did, especially when you decide you really like an image with an exposure that you hadn't originally intended as your best picture.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR MUSHROOM IDENTIFICATION

If the purpose of your mushroom photography is to provide an expert with pictures so that the mushroom can be identified, you must take a different approach, one that is more complicated and will provide more information than just that which is shown in a great-looking, artistic picture of a mushroom.

For information on mushroom identification photography, click here or on the heading below.

Proper exposure of a relatively bright small mushroom in a dark setting can be tricky. Bracketing exposures gives you a degree of assurance that your picture will turn out fine.
Proper exposure of a relatively bright small mushroom in a dark setting can be tricky. Bracketing exposures gives you a degree of assurance that your picture will turn out fine.
Further information...

Macrophotography
Related topics...

Mushroom identification