The Fine Art of Mushroom Photography
for Pictorial and Documentary Use
by David W. Fischer, author of Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America
In all honesty, I do not consider myself a great mushroom photographer; I consider myself a competent one. The reason I have a lot of great mushroom photos is that I have spent a lot of time searching for mushrooms, even suffering the bugs of hot, sweaty summer days in the process. Some of the most beautiful, most unusual, most colorful, most photogenic mushrooms are summer mushrooms. When I find a worthy subject, I am usually able to get good photos of it because over sixteen years, I have learned enough to use a simple approach to capture an image that's worthy of the specimen. Here, more or less, is how I do it.
When I first started seriously photographing the mushrooms I found, I did so with great misgivings. I had already been studying mushrooms on a very serious level for a number of years; in fact, my best-selling book Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America had already been published. But I had assidiously avoided getting into mushroom photography because I knew that once I started, mushroom photography would draw me in and envelop me.
Indeed, it did. Once I let the phototography bug bite me, whenever my time in the woods was limited and I was forced to choose between harvesting fine edible wild mushrooms or taking the time to get some good photos, I found myself increasingly choosing photography over food, and sometimes even over spending more time and energy studying unfamiliar specimens.
Actually, as much as anything else, it was the 1992 publication of Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by the University of Texas Press that "forced" me (insofar as I can be "forced" to do something) to finally get a camera and start shooting mushrooms instead of depending on other mushroom photographers. When the book was first released it was an immediate success, quickly selling out the first printing of 30,000 copies. I was proudly autographing a lot of copies and many people remarked on the quality of the photos.
I routinely heard "they're beautiful!" and "did you take most of the photographs yourself?"
And my answer was "not even one." I promised myself that my second book would include mushroom photos I had taken myself.
I needed a camera.
I had two objectives. First, I wanted to take good documentary photos showing typical specimens of various species for use in field guides as well as for documenting unusual or hard-to-identify specimens; second, I wanted to take pretty photos of mushrooms to show their stunning forms, colors, shapes, textures and sizes.
I picked up a good 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera and a macro lens, which is vital for close-up photography. I had a second flash unit and a cord to connect and synchronize its flash to the camera; I would position the "slave" flash unit a bit lower than the flash unit atop the camera, and a bit off to the side. (I bought everything used, except for the extra flash and the snych cord.) The value of using a second, synchronized flash unit for macrophotography is easy to see when you look at photos that were taken using a single camera-top flash unit: Using only one flash, you get harsh shadows that detract from the photograph—the "deer in the headlights" look. The second flash fills in those shadows, so the entire mushroom is nicely illuminated with no shadows. (I must note here, however, that many of my prettiest 35mm shots were actually taken with no flash at all: when the natural lighting was bright enough, I would often opt to take a shot or two using natural light; the only trick was to find a way to block the sun's direct rays, which often meant asking a companion to lend me his shadow. I set the camera's shutter speed to "Auto" and that yielded consistently good results.)
The two-flash system seemed fairly complicated at first, but I got good advice from other mushroom photo-hounds. I chose Kodakchrome 64 color slide film, which was the most popular slide film for outdoor macrophotography. After a little experimentation, I found optimum apertures based on the distance between the subject and the lens, and with the camera's shutter speed set to 1/30th of a second (the camera's "synch speed") my photos were very color-accurate and well lit. Within a few years I had gotten a lot of great—some award-winning—photos. By the time my second book (the thick, encyclopedic volume Mushrooms of Northeastern North America) was published in 1997 by Syracuse University Press, I had amassed a good archive of mushroom photographs and was able to use many of them in the new book.
My Switch to Digital Photography
Soon enough, the 35mm camera I had only been using for seven years or so found itself entombed in its case and archived in a desk drawer as the age of digital cameras arrived. I bought a Sony Mavica FD83 digital camera, which actually used a built-in 3-1/2" floppy drive for image storage and transfer to my computer. Its modest 1.1-megapixel resolution was limiting, but it had an awesome macro function that allowed me to get within a single centimeter (less than half an inch) of my subject, so I could show extraordinary detail, and could fill a shot with a fairly tiny mushroom. The huge financial advantage of digital photography allows me to take a lot more shots of each specimen without concern for the high cost of processing color slide film.
My third book on mushrooms is still in the works, but this time a significant percentage of the mushroom photos in its pages will be my own. Meanwhile, through AmericanMushrooms.com I am able to share hundreds of my photos, along with hundreds by other mushroom photographers, and I am also glad to share my ideas and techniques here with anyone who wants to be able to document an interesting specimen or to simply capture the beauty of some of the most photogenic members of the Earth's phenomenal swarm of life: The Fungi.
How to Take Really Good Mushroom Photos
Focus on the Mushroom!
First, an important fact that a lot of people miss about photography basics: You MUST hold the camera STILL. A moving camera guarantees a blurry photo; a still camera will give you a clear, sharp image. If you are using a tripod (tripods generally get a lot less use in mushroom photography than bean-bags!, read on) make sure that it is steady and well balanced. Whether you are using a tripod or are holding the camera with your hands, when you are ready to take a shot, be sure that the camera is very still and then press the shutter button gently so that you don't know precisely when you will hear the camera capturing an image (sharpshooters employ the same technique, "squeezing" the trigger of the firearm rather than abruptly pulling it).
The objective should be to show the mushroom well enough that its colors, shapes and textures—which are often different for the stalk than for the top of the cap—are evident. Camera stillness is key, and so is proper lens focus.
Good digital mushroom photography requires a digital camera with a built-in macro function. This allows the camera to focus on subjects that are very close to the lens. Most digital cameras with macro function will allow you to focus within one or two inches (2.5–5 cm); some will let you get even closer, typically 1cm (about two-fifths of an inch). Most digital cameras without a macro function won't focus on a subject nearer than one to two feet of the lens, which makes it impossible to more-or-less fill the frame with the specimen when you're working with a small mushroom. In such cases, using the camera's optical zoom with the camera positioned several feet away can yield satisfactory results, but in that case it is vital to ensure that the camera is absolutely motionless because even the slightest movement of the camera will be amplified, resulting in a blurry image. (Never use your camera's digital zoom or you will sacrifice sharp focus!) The zooming-in technique affords the photographer much greater depth-of-field than with a typical macro shot, so the entire mushroom is generally in better focus. The biggest downside to it is that it can take more time to set up the shot. A tripod or bean-bag and a self-timer can often be used to make sure that the camera remains motionless while you take a zoomed-in photo.
Most digital cameras have good autofocus, and that makes a big difference. But it's important to understand and work with that autofocus function; otherwise, it is just as likely to work against you. I say this because I am more often sent poorly autofocused digital photos than I am good ones, because the camera often focuses on the background rather than on the mushroom specimen. On most digital cameras, there is a way to switch to manual focus; this can also be problematic, because the resolution of the camera's modest-sized LCD display is insufficient to see whether the camera is "perfectly" focused on the subject.
It is best to experiment with the camera to figure out how to "trick" the camera into ignoring the background and focusing on the mushroom you're trying to photograph. On many models, if you gently depress the shutter release button halfway, it will focus, and then (keeping the button halfway pressed) you can move the camera around a little bit to better frame the mushroom in the shot. Another trick that has saved more than a few difficult autofocus shots for me is to hold a flat piece of wood immediately behind the mushroom specimen and focus, then take the photo after the piece of wood has been removed. The obvious problem with this is that it's nearly impossible to do this without a third hand, so if you're in the field alone, it's unlikely to work for you.
The Importance of Proper Lighting
One way to ensure consistently good mushroom photos is to invest in a two-flash rig such as the system that I used when I was shooting color slides using Kodachrome 64. That's not necessarily the best approach, and it's definitely not the simplest. It is what many of the most productive mushroom photographers use, but not necessarily on the prettiest mushroom photos. One thing that I don't like about even the best double flash system is that it illuminates the specimen so uniformly that it just doesn't appear natural: two-flash photos look as if they could have been photographed in an indoor photography studio with suitably sylvan substrata for background. The two-flash system is the best bet for low-light photography conditions such as in thickly canopied forests, though.
But in my experience, natural-light photography is the most reliable approach for natural-looking digital photos—and most of the really beautiful shots are taken this way! Since I made the switch to a digital camera I have found that most of the time, my photos come out more to my satisfaction if I use natural light with no flash. Direct sunlight does not work well at all, but all it takes is a good shadow to eliminate that. If a friend is with me, I often ask him to stand so that his shadow falls upon my specimen. (Note: make sure that the background is in shade too!) When I am alone I'll do whatever works, for example several times I have found a couple of small logs or rocks to raise my mushroom basket up a few inches when that's what worked to block the direct sunlight from my specimen. Direct, shadowy sunlight is BAD for natural light digital photos! Bright, indirect light is GOOD for natural light digital photos.
Shooting indoors—with a single flash or with normal (or even bright) room lighting almost invariably yields very poor results, including very inaccurate colors. Even if you're just taking a snapshot to send to someone for confirmation of your tentative identification of the specimen, don't take the photo indoors!
Thoughts on Photographic Composition
The top of many a mushroom's cap is beautiful, but without photos of the other parts of the mushroom, you may never know what kind of mushroom it is. A good mushroom photograph should be carefully framed to show the entire mushroom (or mushrooms), rather than just the cap or just the upper half. If your objective is to get a pretty photo of a pretty mushroom, composition becomes a true art: deciding how much of the background to show, whether to center the mushroom or show it off to the side a bit, and other compositional considerations are where a really great pictorial photo is often born. My strongly mycocentric tact isn't very creative in this regard: I almost always have the mushroom right in the center of the photo, rarely allowing even the prettiest backgrounds much limelight. This is the most frequent criticism I hear about my "pretty mushroom" photos: many photographers feel strongly that the subject shouldn't dominate the shot, and that it usually oughtn't be centered. I plead guilty as charged, and frankly I have no intention of changing my style—but you may want to.
|This documentary photo of Chroogomphus vinicolor includes several
specimens to show all parts of the mushroom.
|Likewise, this shot of Cortinarius semisanguineus
uses several specimens to show all of this species's features.
For a good documentary shot, the photo should show at least one specimen in its entirety—that includes the extreme base of the stalk, even if you have to use a pocket knife to extract it from the soil. With a typical gilled mushroom, you should clearly show the top of the cap, the side of the cap, the gills beneath the cap (including the point of attachment to the stalk or to the cap) and the entire stalk. If there are several specimens of the same species, they can usually be positioned so that you see every part of one specimen or another. If there are small young specimens, it is great if those can also be shown, as that can show important anatomic features that are only evident in young specimens.
When taking documentary mushroom photos, it's always great if there is a convenient and natural way to show the size of the mushroom you're photographing, such as a common tree leaf. For tiny mushrooms, I have a preference for placing a standard paper match in the shot. Some folks use a common coin, such as a Roosevelt dime or a Lincoln penny, in many of their photos. If you're really not concerned about aesthetics, a ruler is, of course, a sensible item to add to the scene before taking the photo.
Angle is Everything!
When I find a handsome specimen that begs for a "pretty picture" photo, I look at it for a few minutes before I even get my camera out of its case, studying it to get a sense of which angle would work best. I view it from all sides before deciding which is its "best side." In many cases one side of a specimen is damaged or discolored, while its opposite side remains pristine and "perfect." For beautiful pictorial photos, ANGLE IS EVERYTHING! I think a primary reason that my photos come out well is that I am not afraid to get my belly dirty: I most often lie right down on the forest floor, camera in hand, so that I can photograph the mushroom at its own level. Depending on the specimen, this is not always necessary, but for mushrooms that are growing directly from the ground (as opposed to mushrooms that are growing on stumps, logs, etc.) it is typically the best angle. Most often, I end up taking the photo with the bottom of the camera resting on a small bean-bag or directly on the ground, as I lie on my belly; I use a small plastic bag whenever necessary as a groundcloth to prevent the bottom of the camera from getting damp or dirty and don't worry much about trying to keep my clothing clean, beyond avoiding lying on an old, rotten mushroom specimen.
A Note About Cell-phone Cameras
There are exceptions to every rule but generally speaking, cell-phone cameras do not yield very good photos of small subjects. If you want to take good mushroom photos, face the fact that you probably need a good digital camera… and don't forget the macro function!
Two More Digital Issues
About Digital Editing
Avoid "photoshopping" your photos unless there is a clear correction needed, such as bringing down the green RGB value until it looks more the way it did in person or slightly adjusting contrast or saturation slightly in cases where the light was just too bright. Never try to enhance simply to make a photo "prettier." Always use "Save As" and keep the raw file raw "forever," and use a sensibly modest compression ratio. Any time you decide to edit a photo for printing or sharing, either use a once-saved-as version or go back to the original file. (Your image software's online "Help" can explain these terms and instruct you on how to use them.)
How Much Resolution Do I Need (How Much is Too Much?)
Finally, just a few words about image size. Most digital cameras allow the user to choose between various resolutions. An eight-megapixel digital camera allow the user to take a photo up to eight megapixels in size, but it can also take smaller digital photographs. For most purposes, a two-megapixel image is plenty, but most of us prefer to use the largest image size available. Generally, when you send a mushroom photo via the Internet (such as Emailing it to me to ask "what is this?"), it is a good idea to resample the images to a smaller size image and send that smaller file instead. With infrequent exceptions, an image with higher resolution than about two megapixels is unnecessary for anything other than high-resolution (300 dpi) printing at sizes larger than about 4"x6".
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