Among my favorite things to photograph are Mushrooms – in this post I’ll give you some tips on how to do it.
As a child I had a love hate relationship with Mushrooms.
It all started down on my Nana’s farm where on cool Autumn days one of the things we’d love to do was go Mushrooming. We’d hunt in dark damp places for them and would marvel at the different colors, sizes and shapes that they came in – these bizarre little things that looked like something from out of space.
Nana taught us which ones were edible and which ones to leave alone and we’d return to her kitchen with a bucketful which we’d clean, chop up and put in a pot. That’s where the ‘hate’ part of my relationships started. I can still remember the smell of that stewing pot and Nana’s attempts at getting me to eat the fruit of our mushroom hunt. No thanks – not for me.
These days I don’t mind eating them as much as I used to – however my love of the ‘hunt’ for good mushrooms, toadstools and fungi is still with me – however I don’t hunt them to eat, I hunt them to photograph.
The little alien like creatures that we used to pick and chop up are now sought after photographic subjects. The variety of shapes, colors and sizes present photographers with all kinds of striking possibilities.
How to Photograph Mushrooms, Toadstools and Fungi:
It’s all about the Season – Fungi photography is not a year round hobby as they only tend to grow at certain times of years. I suspect that this will vary from place to place and between varieties but I find I have the best luck in Winter and Autumn where it’s cooler, darker and damper.
Where to Find them
At Nana’s farm we learned where Mushrooms hide and discovered that it’s pretty much the opposite sorts of places that you’ll find flowers (who like warmth, light and are generally out in the open). Mushrooms like the dark, they like the wet and they tend to appear in places that you’d least like to be (on the farm it was often next to a cow pat). Keep your eyes open below trees, under leaves and amongst undergrowth of forests.
Groom Your Fungi before Shooting
Mushrooms grow up from under the ground and as a result can often be half covered in dirt, bits of vegetation and other ‘gunk’. While you might like this natural look it can also be well worth your while clean them up a little before photographing them. Brush off dirt and vegetation and remove any movable distracting objects in the foreground or background of your shots. Remember to be an environmentally friendly photographer and to leave things as naturally as you found them but don’t be afraid to do a little grooming pre-shooting.
Get down Low
Perhaps the most effective way of entering the world of Mushrooms and Toadstools and drawing the viewer of your image into your shot is to get down low and shoot from ground level. This will enable you to see the textures, shapes and colors of not only the top dome of the mushroom but it’s underbelly. It will also give your mushroom height which makes for a more dramatic and three dimensional shot. Of course means you’ll probably spend a lot of your Fungi photography flat on your stomach on the ground getting dirty. No one said this would be easy!
Get in Close
For a real impact in your mushroom shots get in as close to them as possible and try some tight framing. This will mean you might want to think about switching your camera into macro mode or, if you have a DSLR, hook yourself up with a macro lens or macro screw in lens and learn how to use it. I use a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens and it works well with this type of photography.
One of the challenges you’ll be faced with when shooting from low down in lower lighting situations is that the underbelly of your mushroom (which is often it’s most interesting part due to the patterns and textures there) will often be in darkness when compared with it’s top. Lighting a mushroom’s belly can be a tricky thing. Here are a few techniques to try:
- Fill Flash – the first thing to try that almost any digital camera can do these days is to use a flash to achieve a ‘fill flash‘ effect. If you can control the level of output from the flash you’ll want to experiment with this as there is a danger of getting quite harshly lit parts of the mushroom.
- Directional/off Camera Flash – the problem with built in flash units is that you can’t really direct what direction it fires in and when photographing a small object like a mushroom this means that you might not just light up the underbelly but also the top of the mushroom as well as it’s surrounds. If you’re lucky enough to have an external flash unit experiment with bouncing it off other objects (trees, the ground or purpose built reflectors). If you can take your flash off your camera and move it around the mushroom you can also get some interesting sidelight or backlighting results also. Off camera flash is probably the best bet if you have the kit to do it.
- Reflectors – last time I went mushroom hunting I took a reflector with me and used it to reflect available light from the sun back up into the underbelly of the mushrooms. I found this worked quite well (although as I was alone at times I found it a bit of a juggling act).
Stabilize Your Camera
Due to the low light in most places that you’ll find Mushrooms, you’ll often need to shoot with longer shutter speeds which mean the need to find a way to keep your camera perfectly still. Some tripods will allow you to set up your camera as low as inches from the ground by spreading their legs widely but another option is one of the numerous beanbag stabilizers that are available. Also consider using a remote shutter release for extra stillness (or use the self timer).
Slow Shutter Speeds
If you’re struggling with the low light levels don’t be afraid to lengthen the shutter speeds that you’re using. The beauty of Fungi is that they are very still and if you’ve got your camera stabilization working for you with a solid tripod and shutter release cable you can lengthen the shutter speeds almost as long as you’d like (within reason).
Use a Shallow Depth of Field to Isolate Your Fungi
Mushrooms and Fungi usually grow in environments where there can be a lot of clutter around them in the vegetation that they grow in. One great way to isolate them from this background and foreground distraction is to use a shallow depth of field by selecting a large Aperture which will throw the background out of focus (see this tutorial on other tips for getting great backgrounds). Of course it can also be effective to show the context of the mushroom if you’re lucky enough for it to be growing in a photographic location – in these cases you’ll want to select a smaller aperture.
More on getting a shallow depth of field here.