Here, you’ll find techniques and tips for making the most of the autumnal fungi season
The first nature subject that I photographed was fungi – a birch tree polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) – in grainy black and white film. I can vividly remember looking at the structure for the first time and thinking that it just was so odd, like coral growing from a tree. The more I walked through the local woodland, the more weird and wonderful structures I found. Forgive the nostalgia. I was only 14 and full of wonder.
Fungi are found in various habitats but are most closely associated with woodlands. Especially, semi-ancient and ancient woodlands. Fungi (the fruiting bodies that you can see) grow in a variety of shapes and in a range of colours. From slimes and moulds to fabulous toadstools. You’ll find individuals that stand alone, others in tufts, clusters, rings, and troops, consisting of dozens or even hundreds of caps. In size, they range from the delicate tiny Mycena, through to the colossal Giant Polypore. Fungi provide an accessible subject to learn your photography craft and, with the right approach plus a few basic tips, they are easy to photograph well. A satisfying and rewarding photo project for the autumn.
What’s the best camera/lens options for fungi?
My answer is “by using ALL options available to you.” If you have a compact camera with a zoom, then use the zoom’s versatility. However, don’t just stand in the same position – move around, under and over the subject. Get close-up with the wide-angle, get low down with the zoom, and use the close-up / macro mode. Look at the fungi with a concerted effort to analyse its structure and form. Are there any patterns or abstract compositions that could benefit from close-up focussing? For example, the cap’s pattern from above, lots of small caps together, or the gill structure?
Should I Photograph Fungi When It’s Sunny?
Be very careful of photographing in direct sunshine as many cap fungi (especially the Agarics) have bright white stems. In dappled shade, with heavy shadows all around, the white stems ‘burn out’. That is, unless you intentionally under-expose or shoot in Manual Exposure mode. I often use a tiny puff of fill-in flash to reduce the contrast and carefully check the histogram. I also use a Lastolite™ diffuser to soften the light or wait for a passing cloud to reduce the glare. Something like the Trigrip is spot on. I find my 5-in-1 very useful with gold to add warmth, silver for bright neutral, white for soft neutral, and a sheer material to hold over the fungi and diffuse harsh sunlight – it can just as easily be used to diffuse for your speedlite.
I aim to photograph fungi in bright, lightly overcast conditions, after the rain. The soft light and freshly fallen rain saturate the colours on the forest floor. There may also be a splatter of water droplets on the fungi for that extra sparkle (although you could add this yourself with a garden sprayer). Fungi simply look more photogenic when they are slightly wet – glistening and shining.
For added wildlife interest, wait and see if an insect lands on the fungi. As they feed, they will sit still on the cap just long enough to get a few shots. If you rummage around in the leaf litter, you could strike lucky and find a snail or slug to put on top. I’ll leave the ethics debate to you.
To add a little punch, I sometimes use fill-in flash or a reflector, just to light up the stem and underside of a toadstool. It’s very subtle. I dial in -1 to -2.0 on the camera or back of the flashgun and add a Sto-Fen diffuser. It takes some trial and error to get the effect right, but do give it a try. You can use the flashgun directly on the camera, but its better off-camera, when held to the side. Trigger the flash with a sync cord or wireless trigger. Another handy piece of kit is the reflector. My 5-in-1 reflector provides a great range of options with silver, gold, white, and a diffuser. Plus, it packs away neatly into my backpack.
I see a lot of mouldy old mushrooms…
Be exacting and meticulous in your selection of a fungi specimen. There is simply no point wasting your time tidying the scene and taking a photograph if the fungi itself is decaying and ragged. If it has bites out of it, or going black and soggy, keep walking until you find something in perfect condition. Your aim is to capture beautiful photographs of these subjects – not simple record shots. The one exception would be if something is eating it as you’re photographing it – like a mouse or deer – that would be very cool!
It’s all about timing
Some fungi are very short-lived, decaying within a day or two of being formed. The toadstool or mushroom that you see standing proud of the leaf litter is only the fruiting body of a thread-like, fungal mass. This growth is out of sight in the earth or rotting wood. Fungi are sensitive to weather patterns and coordinate their fruiting growth with mild damp weather. Autumn is a perfect season with plenty of decaying matter to fuel their growth. At a suitable time, the fruiting body is grown to release the spores – fungi’s method of reproduction.
Timing has to be either remarkably precise or coincidental, i.e. you stumble across them. I take regular walks into the woodlands and meadows, and record locations where particular species grow. It’s amazing how quickly they appear and disappear.
When the autumn arrives, I visit my locations, checking on their condition and then photographing the fungi when they are fresh and perfectly formed. It’s actually quite handy to have dogs, as I’m often treading the same paths and the dogs don’t mind if I sit down for a bit and work a toadstool or two. Fungi are perennial and will spring up in relatively the same place given the right conditions. You can also join a local “Fungi Foray” designed for amateur mycologists and would-be chefs and ’foragers’ hoping to cook wild fungi.
IMPORTANT! Always carry a field guide and be extremely cautious as to which toadstools you touch with bare hands. Some toadstools are very toxic and others exude hallucinogenic substances from their surface. A few are deadly poisonous if ingested and will make you critically ill from just touching them. If you touch fungi, DO NOT put your fingers in your mouth or eat food without thoroughly cleansing your hands first! These are just a few species to be wary about: Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), Fly Agaric (Amanita muscari), Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus).
Why Do My Photos Always Look Messy?
Fungi photography involves a fastidious approach to gardening, i.e. the tidying of subject and the scene around it. Another reason for only photographing the very best specimens. Look closely at the cap and make sure there is nothing stuck on it or growing through it. Clear the area of bright or reflective objects such as dried pine needles. These will show up in the photograph as distracting blobs. If you are shooting from above, select a few freshly fallen autumnal leaves to scatter underneath the cap.
A small (cosmetic) make-up brush, fine tweezers, secateurs, and small scissors are useful items to keep together in a wallet. I have mine in my jacket so they’re always to hand. Tidying the scene is essential when using Macro. High magnification reveals everything, even the tiny strands of gossamer that you won’t se with the naked eye.
For the classic fungi portrait, you’ll need an uncluttered foreground and background. Use your secateurs and a small pair of scissors to trim away distracting grass, intrusive brambles and twigs. Aim to clear an area behind the fungus or cover it with leaf litter. You do not have to ‘slash and burn’ a clearing, but just trim away any obvious distractions. I wear a drab brown jacket, just in case there is some glaring distraction behind the fungi, I can take my jacket and cover it.
To make sure you have cleared everything, compose your shot, and use your depth of field preview or Live View – zooming into the foreground and background. Double check the fungi in case you’ve covered it with dust from your gardening. Then shoot. After you’ve finished, remember to put back and twigs or branches, exactly as you found them. Like with all nature and wildlife… be considerate. Take a field guide so you don’t need to break the fungi in order to ID it. I see so many just kicked over. It really pisses me off. They maybe ‘just mushrooms’ but they’re trying to reproduce.
I Really Want To Capture Details
Macro photography can be an especially ‘subjective’ area of photography as everybody has their own idea of how much depth of field is too much, or not enough. Hence, there are no rules. Yay! Forget about them! I have used every f/number from f/2.8 to f/22. It all comes down to personal choice and whether you want a perfectly sharp specimen shot or a stylised image. Personally, I prefer the latter.
Macro photography can reveal incredible amounts of detail, which is both good and bad. Good for the exquisite relief in surface texture or gill structure. Bad for magnifying the slightest bit of dirt, spider’s web, or stray blade of grass. You have to be really hot on spotting those distracting elements. Be conscientious now and it will save you hours of photoshopping later.
I rely on my 100mm Macro lens to isolate specific features of fungi, especially if I am struggling for composition with the other lenses. I put on the Macro and handhold the camera, moving around the fungus, over the cap, under the cap, round the side… It immediately gives me that inspiration to compose a better photograph. When I find something I like, I setup the tripod to the same angle and take the shot.
‘Stem & Cap’ fungi are the easiest variety to work with. For example, a troop or tuft of overlapping caps makes a particularly pleasing composition with all those circles and striations. Close-up views on individual caps can also produce architecturally strong photographs. Many caps are not just a single colour as they appear to be from afar. Many are streaked or ringed; others display a blend of colours; some have physical characteristics such as the shaggy parasol and the most well-known fly agaric with its familiar white-on-red spots.
How Do I Diffuse The Background?
The telephoto lens is the best option if you want to isolate larger fungi and create a diffused foreground and background. You also need the right aperture and working angle. The first step is to get down and dirty! Take a camping ground mat or garden waste bin liner with you to lie on. Position the camera, so it’s level with the cap height of the fungi. I use an angle-finder for low-level work as it keeps my chin out of the mud. If you flip-up LCD, then all the better.
The next step is to use the longest lens you have and get as close as you can to the subject (the minimum focus distance) while maintaining a frame. If you can’t get close enough to fill the frame, then invest in a set of extension tubes or a teleconverter, or simply crop the image in post-processing. You might find you’re too close and will have to move backwards.
When you’ve got the framing as you want it, focus on the preceding edge of the fungi’s cap. Then with your camera set on AV or aperture priority, set your aperture to its widest setting (lowest f/number). Using the depth of field preview or Live View, increase the f/number until the stem of the toadstool is rendered in sharper focus, while preserving a diffused background. I’ve never been that fussed about ‘front-to-back’ sharpness and focus on the point that I feel is just right for the shot.
The smaller the f/number, the greater the depth of field and the more the background will be brought into focus. You can try moving your position, so any background is further away, or you may have to do some gardening.
What About The Woodland Scene?
Although there is a trend for isolation and diffused backgrounds, this requires very little thought or effort regarding habitat and environment. Yet, in the case of fungi, this is an essential element. It tells the viewer where you captured this photograph. Including the environment when photographing something is so small is actually quite simple – just get REALLY close. You need to get as close as your wide-angle will allow. With a 16-35mm, larger toadstools will probably be touching the lens hood.
Again, try to position the camera at the same level as the fungi or underneath. My camera usually winds up on the ground, in the mud and leaf-litter. This style works equally well whether it’s a toadstool on the ground, a cluster on a stump, or brackets on a tree trunk. To aid composition with this perspective, I loosely work around the ‘rule of thirds’, composing the image so that the toadstool or fungi covered stump is in a corner with the scene filling most of the frame.
This low and wide-angle gives you a great perspective on the environment, whether it is the tree canopy above or the leaf litter below. It’s always worthwhile rotating the camera for a portrait format as this can often help realise the full potential of an autumnal canopy and leaf litter. This is definitely one of those moments to just work with the camera in your hand and find the best shooting angle.
A small aperture (f/16 or f/22) is not an absolute requirement for this to work well, although it does produce a great sense of perspective, along with chromatic aberrations. I usually work with f/4-f/11. This throws the background out of focus (not massively as it’s a wide-angle), but produces an impression of the environment. If you are going to close the shutter right down, do remember to support the camera. In gloomy woodlands, your shutter speeds will slow right down to 1 or 2 seconds, if not more.