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Mushroom photography
Contents of this tutorial
Introduction
Due to their often colorful appearances and lush habitats, mushrooms make for pretty pictures. Many photographers have observed this, which has resulted in a multitude of books and websites featuring stunning photographs of thousands of species. The excellent quality of many of those images is deceptive: recording mushrooms in all their beauty is not as easy as it may seem. Most species occur on, or close to, the ground and often in environments with very little available light. Moreover, the shapes of the fruitbodies themselves may cast unwanted shadows and plants and saplings growing around the mushrooms can obscure the line of sight between the camera and the subject. These are challenges that are related to macro photography of subjects in nature in general and to mushroom photography in particular.

Mushroom photography in a natural habitat
This page offers a tutorial on photographing mushrooms. It consists of a collection of tips and tricks that may be helpful in depicting species in an attractive and natural way. An important note to make here is that this tutorial focuses on mushroom photography in the natural habitats of the species. Specimens may be collected and photographed for reference purposes in a studio setting. In that case, any tutorial on studio photography can be helpful. However, since each species of mushroom is intimately related to its habitat, this tutorial departs on the premise that we want to record the found specimens right where they are growing, which is usually in a challenging environment from a viewpoint of photography.

On equipment
The tips offered below are in many cases applicable regardless of the type of camera used; whether a film-based or a digital camera, a compact camera or a single lens reflex (SLR) body. However, expensive camera equipment such as specialized macro lenses and adjustable (remote) flash units do not exist for no reason: they make certain shots easier and in some cases open new pathways of creativity. However, good-quality photographs can be obtained with a relatively simple and low-cost setup. A simple (digital) compact camera with macro function and a small tripod are sufficient, bringing mushroom photography within reach of even the tightest budget. Keep in mind that about 90% of the image quality is determined by the user's proficiency, while the remaining 10% depends on the equipment used. This means that an experienced (amateur) photographer can consistently produce images that blow away the snapshots taken by the 'equipment measurebator' that sports a $ 3000 digital SLR setup without knowing how to unlock the full potential of his equipment.

The chain of image quality
When speaking of image quality, I refer to the combination of the aesthetic as well as the technical quality of an image. The following may sound trivial, but it is the pitfall for amateur as well as professional photographers: all steps in photography contribute to the resulting image quality and sloppiness in each and every single step will lead to a sub-optimal end result. In other words: the perfect image requires perfect preparation. This page offers an overview of the most important steps that make up this preparation. Naturally, the perfect image also requires perfect equipment, but as stated above, the impact of equipment is far less than that of your skills as a photographer. Skill and practice are the major success factors in photography and to top it off, they come free of charge and weigh nothing at all! Another important aspect in image quality is what I label 'goal alignment': all preparations, including the equipment used, must be tailored towards the desired end result. This requires a concept of what the resulting image should look like before you start setting up for the shot. This may be the hardest issue to tackle as there is no tutorial that can help you in determining what you want to achieve. Experience is the key.

Setting the scene
Once you've found a (group of) mushroom(s) that you would like to take a picture of, the first thing you will have to do is to prepare the scene before recording it. This breaks down into three steps, which can be executed in sequence, in tandem or iteratively:
  1. Identify what appeals to you in the scene. What specific aspect is it that you are attracted to? Is it the color of the mushroom(s), the way it interacts with its direct environment (e.g. by pushing up leaves or debris), the shine of the cap(s) or the way they are grouped in clusters? Be aware of this and keep it in mind while setting up for the shot.
  2. Determine the required perspective. Most cameras offer the possibility to zoom in or zoom out. Many people are not aware of the possibilities this creates, especially in a context of macro photography. By using a high level of zoom ('tele') or long focal length, you can isolate the subject by blurring objects in the background and including less of the background to begin with. By using a short focal length (low zoom or 'wide'), you can place the subject prominently in the foreground, but at the same time include a wide view of the environment. Depending on the focal length, you choose the distance of the camera to the subject, not the other way around!

Example of the same mushroom shot with a long focal length ('tele'; left) to reveal detail and to isolate the subject and with a short focal length ('wide'; right) to include as much of the habitat as possible.

Lighting and exposure
This section can only touch very briefly upon this subject on which many books have been written. It is often argued that lighting can make or break your picture and indeed, its impact on the resulting image is profound. Depending on the available light and the equipment you carry, you can chose to highlight certain parts of the scene or go for a smooth overall lighting. Note that there are two overall types of light sources: available light and artificial light. I will elaborate on both, but be aware of the huge amount of information available on lighting. It is impossible to deal with all relevant concepts on this page, but a few considerations will be offered here that are relevant to mushroom photography.

Available light
Available light is like experience: it's free and it weighs nothing. Therefore, it's a good idea to use it. However, in the context of mushroom photography, it brings a few challenges. Firstly, there is usually very (too) little of it to work with, necessitating the use of a tripod for consistently sharp images. Keep in mind that the human eye does a phenomenal job at compensating for variation in light levels. Hence, it is difficult to objectively judge real light levels. A scene that may appear to be well-lit, can in fact be extremely dim and shooting it while hand-holding the camera will be practically impossible. This is a very real problem in mushroom photography, especially when photographing in woods, thickets and tall grass (typically habitats where attractive mushrooms will occur). Therefore, I consider a tripod an essential piece of equipment, even when using artificial light to augment available light (see below).

Another issue when using available light is the anatomy of the archetypical mushroom: a more or less central stipe (stem), supporting a pileus (cap). Any available light will usually be directed in a downward fashion, resulting in the cap casting a shadow on the lower parts and smaller siblings of the mushroom. These shadows obfusciate detail in those parts of the scene and, depending on what result you have in mind, may lead to an unattractive image. With shelf or bracket fungi, this problem is especially challenging. It is therefore recommended to use an artificial light source to overcome this problem. Alternatively, a reflector can be used to direct some of the available light towards shadowy regions of a scene. Any light-colored or mirroring surface can be used as a reflector, a simple sheet of white printing paper or a piece of tinfoil will do a good job in many cases.

Example: using only available light often results in the lower parts of the mushroom being left in shadows.

Artificial light
This is any sort of light source that you bring to the scene and can manipulate at will. Perhaps this will be the built-in flash unit of your camera, but external flash units or even flashlights can be used as well. Artificial light can be used as the sole light source for a picture, but it will often result in flat-looking images with harsh shadows, especially if you use the built-in flash unit of your camera. This has another drawback, as a built-in flash cannot be positioned separately from the camera. As with available light, this will usually result in deep shadows underneath the mushroom's cap, as the camera's flash unit will in most cases be positioned at a higher level than the cap of the mushroom.


Example: on-camera flash will cast deep shadows below the cap of the mushroom.

Therefore, artificial light sources that can be positioned separately from the camera body are preferred for use with mushroom photography, as they can be used to highlight those 'difficult' spots of the scene. The aforementioned flashlight is the low-budget solution, but usually lacks the flexibility and power of an external photo flash unit. When using a camera with a hot-shoe connector, an off-camera cord or a wireless remote trigger can be used to freely position an external hot-shoe flash unit. Strobist's Lighting-101 series is a great source of information on off-camera lighting solutions. It does not focus specifically on macro photography, but the concepts can be used for that purpose nonetheless.


Example of different lighting setups: flash only (above) casting harsh shadows and artificial/flash light balanced with available light (below) to eliminate deep shadows.



Exposure compensation
A final note regarding lighting pertains to the concept of exposure compensation. This breaks down into to sub-topics: normal exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation. Normal exposure compensation can be used to manipulate the camera's built-in light meter to achieve correct exposure. Why, you might ask, would I want to correct an automated system that is designed to function properly in all situations? The answer is as obvious as it may seem: because most systems designed to work in any given situation, will perform badly in most situations. This is especially true for the exposure mechanism of cameras. The camera's light meter assumes that all scenes it evaluates will have a certain, 'average', color (or luminosity) distribution. In other words: it assumes that a scene is never very dark (black or dark brown/blue/etc.) or very light (white or very light colors). This is, however, at odds with reality. Some scenes will be made up of darker colors than others. Your camera does not know this!

Although a detailed explanation on using a light meter and obtaining correct exposure is beyond the scope of this article, what it comes down to is this: if you aim the camera at an overall light-colored scene, the camera will still 'think' it is a scene of average luminosity and therefore underexpose (your picture will come out too dark) and vice versa. In terms of mushroom photography, this means that if you are shooting a light-colored (group of) mushroom(s) that fills a substantial portion of the image, adjust the camera to overexpose about a stop or so. Keep in mind that this is only true if the mushroom fills a substantial part of the image. If you shoot tiny, white mushrooms that grow on a dark or black substrate, you will not need to overexpose, but it is rather recommended to underexpose by about a stop to correct for the overall dark colors of the scene. Refer to the manual of your camera on how to adjust exposure (it's quite simple!). The procedure and tips on appropriate use will be covered in there briefly as well. If you want to dive deep into the art of exposing (as it is an art in itself!), please refer to the page on exposure on Photo.net or this article on the 'zone system' on Luminous Landscape.

Focus and depth of field
In most, if not all, cases you will want to picture the mushroom as sharp as possible. This requires two things: getting proper focus and choosing the desired depth of field ('DoF'). Getting the focus right is the main thing. The DoF issue is somewhat more 'advanced' and primarily of concern to users of (d)SLR systems as compact cameras usually offer plenty of DoF due to their smaller sensors anyway.

Getting the focus right
This is absolutely essential and the number one thing that goes wrong in about 75% of the first-time mushroom pics (and still somewhere around 50% of the photos of more experienced amateurs!) that are posted on the 'net. The problem with focusing in mushroom photography is the phenomenon that most mushrooms are small. Hence, you will probably take the camera close to the subject (keep in mind what I wrote above in the 'setting the scene' section about first choosing perspective!) And that often takes your camera closer to the subject than the normal focusing ability of the camera will allow. In other words: your camera may not be able to gain focus at such a close distance. Luckily, camera manufacturers are very much aware of this and practically all digital compact cameras that are sold today offer a macro mode which will allow the photographer to get an object into focus within a few (or only one!) centimeters or inches from the camera lens. But you need to activate this macro mode by hand. So in cases where your camera does not seem to be able to obtain good focus of the mushroom you are shooting and the mushroom is less than a few feet away from the lens, try activating the macro mode. Alternatively, you can try to set the camera to a manual focus mode (if it features one) and do the job yourself.

A note on using autofocus (AF): practically all consumer cameras have autofocus, but that does not mean that you don't have to check anything. Two things can go wrong. Firstly, the camera does not know what you are trying to photograph, hence, it is not aware of what object it should focus on. Modern AF algorithms will pick an object and focus the camera, while older mechanisms will 'hunt' back and forth a bit until the focus locks on something. In both cases, there is no guarantee that you have the desired object (your mushroom) in focus. Therefore, it is necessary to check your focus before you shoot the picture. Alternatively, you can instruct the camera to focus on the object that is in the exact center of the image (refer to the camera manual), so you know at all times what the camera will do. Aim the camera at your subject and make sure it is in the center of the viewfinder and focus (usually by halfway depressing the shutter release button). Once you've locked the desired part of the scene into focus, you can recompose the image by moving the camera. Be sure not to change the distance between the camera and the subject at this point as that will result in a loss of focus. Even when using this method, you will need to check focus to see if the camera succeeded into 'locking' onto the right object. See also below. Note that the 'focus and recompose' method explained above is not very comfortable in use in combination with a tripod. When using a tripod, manual focus is preferred.

In some cases, the camera's AF system will not be able to obtain focus and will 'hunt': i.e., shifting its focus from close to far and back again without locking on an object. This is especially a problem in low-light situations (e.g. forest mushroom photography!) and particularly with compact cameras, that usually have less sensitive AF sensor than those found in the bigger reflex cameras. You can work around this problem by bringing a flashlight and illuminating the point you are trying to focus on. You can turn off the flashlight as soon as you've established proper focus.

About depth of field (DoF)
DoF is a somewhat more complicated and, if you will, 'advanced' concept than focus. DoF is the term that is used to refer to the part of the scene that appears sharp in the resulting image. It depends on the spot you focus on, but also on the used focal length ('zoom') and the aperture ('f/ - number') chosen. The underlying physics and mathematics are beyond the scope of this article, so I will stick to the conclusions relevant for mushroom (macro) photographers. In general, a small DoF is the situation where only the object you focused on appears sharp and the foreground as well as the background are blurry. Conversely, in a picture with a very large DoF, all objects may appear sharp. The interaction between focal length and aperture lead to some considerations that must be kept in mind when optimizing DoF in mushroom photography.
  • The longer the focal length ('zoom'), the shorter the DoF will be. This is usually not a problem especially if you use a digital compact camera,  you will most likely choose a longer focal length ('zoom in') in order to isolate the mushroom from its environment. A small DoF helps in such a case by blurring out the background. However, if you are using a (d)SLR with a telephoto lens, the DoF may actually become too small to get the entire mushroom sharp. In that case, you will have to 'stop down', i.e. select a higher f/-number to increase the DoF. Increasinf the f/-number (or 'f/-stop') is called stopping down because the light that travels through the lens of your camera also falls through a little hole that is made smaller as you increase the f/-number. For example, you will have to 'stop down' from f/4 all the way to f/22 to get a sharp image. But note that increasing the f/-number will allow less light to fall through the lens onto the sensor or film, therefore, you will at the same time have to increase the exposure time. That's why a tripod is especially essential if you're shooting mushrooms with a (d)SLR system.
  • The shorter the distance between the camera and the subject, the shorter the DoF will become. Hence, if you are shooting a small mushroom with the macro mode on your compact camera turned on, you may have to stop down  (i.e. increase the f/-number) just like the dSLR users have to do when shooting at longer focal lengths, as explained above.

Example: small DoF due to use of a small f/-number (left; note the blurred background) vs. large DoF (right, back- and foreground appear more or less sharp). Also note the differences in lighting, where the left image was shot using available light only, while for the right image, on-camera flash was the only light source.

In conclusion, the mushroom photographer must keep in mind that the DoF will become smaller as the f/-number is decreased or the focal length (or zoom) is increased. This is more of a concern to photographers using (semi-)preofessional reflex systems and less to the users of digital compact cameras. If you want to read more on DoF, please refer to one of the following sources:

All done - take the picture!
You've now prepared the scene and all the settings, all that's left to do is the actual taking of picture. This, now, is nothing else but pressing the button. Be sure to hold the camera as still as possible and not to move the tripod to avoid motion blur. You can, of course, use a a remote shutter release (cable or wireless, depending on what your camera supports), but using the self-timer will work as well.

And now, it is up to you to get out there and enjoy mushroom photography! Remember that practice makes perfect, you will find that you will continue to learn and each new level of experience will bring more satisfaction with your images. Have fun!

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