Throughout my time photographing wildlife- over the last couple of years and especially since starting university, one species has utterly fascinated, and that species is fungi. The delicate intricacy of fungi as well as their potential as foods, medicines, psychedelics, and even poisons is endlessly interesting.
With roughly 3.8 million species of fungi and only a fraction of those with fruiting bodies visible to the human eye, we are only on the fringes of exploring the magical world of mushrooms. Coming from a non-scientific background and having no means to properly study fungi, the way I fuel my fascination with them is to photograph them. Not only can photographing fungi provide valuable insights and documentation for science, but it also creates interesting and aesthetic artworks that are pleasing to look at. I am in every regard a complete amateur in photographing fungi, but from some thorough research and experimentation, these are the most useful tips and tricks for exploring them photographically- enjoy!
Field Kit list:(inspired by the George McCarthy’s 2001 book ‘Photographing Fungi in the Field’)
- DSLR or SLR camera, batteries, and SD cards
- 100mm macro lens for wider macro shots of fungi
- 180mm macro lens for slightly closer shots
- extension tubes
- external flash (speedlight) for lowlight conditions and fill-in flash
- macro flash
- reflectors and diffusers
- tripod to minimise camera shake
- Polarising filter to knock out highlights
- 20-35mm zoom
- Remote release for longer exposures
- Camera bean bag for low angles
- Photography backpack
- Plastic sheets to stop you and your gear getting wet and muddy
- Portable continuous light source
Why photograph fungi?
Photographing fungi is very rewarding and can be done with several intentions. One of these intentions could be to provide a detailed account and study of the species, colours and light being true to life with sharp detail. Along similar lines of studying the fruiting body, the intention could be to examine up close the more hidden aspects, such as the gills or the spores of a mushroom, using a macro lens. Maybe there isn’t any scientific intention, but you’re just fascinated with the beauty and complexity of the mushroom, macro photography allows you to create atmospheric artworks playing with the textures and depth of the mushroom.
In all regards, photographing fungi is a fantastic way to celebrate the beauty of nature and share it with others. Mushrooms are a very good subject for practicing photography. They are stationary subjects, so you have plenty of time to play with your setting without risk of it moving. They can also sit in some tricky lighting conditions and annoying nooks and crannies that force you to take a moment to think about your composition, settings, and the gear you need to accomplish your desired image.
How do we start?
Since we will likely be using a macro lens to photograph mushrooms, we will need to get close to the subject and will likely need to use a tripod or beanbag to stabilise the camera. Using the bean bag to rest your camera on is self-explanatory but doesn’t have as much range of movement and stability as a tripod. To best optimise your tripod for fungi shots, turn it upside down. Remove the middle rod and reverse it so your camera will be hanging just above ground level. This will mean you images are upside down, so will need to be flipped in post processing, but it’s worth the extra hassle for a great shot! Treat your shot like a landscape and take the time to sort out a nice composition, remove dead leaf litter and other debris distracting away from your subject. Consider your lighting, maybe illuminate the cap with your continuous light to create a dream like effect, or back lighting the mushroom to make it pop out from its surroundings.
A remote release cable as well as mirror lockup may be vital in obtaining that crisp, pin sharp image in low light environments. Mirror lockup will be located in the custom functions of your camera and reduces the vibrations from the mirror in your camera, which can cause fuzziness and blur in your photos.
Focus stacking may also be a good idea when photographing fungi, especially clusters. Due to your proximity to the subject your lens will likely have a shallow depth of field, and it may not be an option to raise your f stop with the lighting conditions. Using a tripod and manual focus to take shots of all the parts of the mushroom you want in focus, making sure the focus overlaps slightly with your previous shot each time, then stack it in photoshop or an alternative stacking software!
To summarise, I strongly believe that photographing fungi is one of the most rewarding areas of wildlife photography as well as one of the most beneficial to your photographic development and getting to understand your camera and settings.
The images you can create photographing mushrooms have a certain quality that is hard to achieve, almost dreamlike, surreal, and utterly mesmerising. The world of fungi is begging to be explored further, they are one of the great driving forces of the natural world. Recycling dead materials back into the soil, renewing its life and even forming mycelium communication pathways underground, helping other fungi, plants and trees to share nutrients and support each other. More on that in a future blog!
Header Photo: Maeve Cushla
Images: Maeve Cushla