“Fungal photography.” That’s like viral photography, right? Only slower moving and … itchier. Actually, no. “Fungal photography” is the quite literal term used to describe what for many people is a passion – photographing mushrooms. You won’t find much glamour in this little corner of the photography world. Mushroom photography can be dirty – like a growing in dung kind of dirty – and since mushrooms prefer damp, cool places seeking them out can sometimes be a miserable endeavor. But viewed through a camera lens when the light is just right, a mushroom can have beauty that goes far beyond those still-dirty button mushrooms and portobellos you find in your supermarket. Finding and shooting mushrooms can be a great challenge both physically and artistically, which, of course, is why you should do it.
Know where to look … and when
Not every place or time of year is a good one for shooting mushrooms. You won’t have much luck finding them in hot summers or in very dry places like deserts. Mushrooms like cool, wet weather and they like cool, wet places. So start your search in the rainy season, and in places like thick forests. Look for them under decaying leaves, on tree trunks and bark and growing out of damp earth.
Bring the right equipment, and be ready to get dirty
Some mushrooms grow on elevated surfaces like the bark of a tree, but most of them grow out of the ground. And because they are small, you don’t really have much choice but to take your shot from ground level. Shooting from above will make them seem ordinary, while shooting from below or at eye level will make them appear larger than life.
A macro lens is almost essential for this kind of photography, since you want your subject to be close to your camera when you take the photo. In the absence of a macro lens you can try a good-quality zoom lens, though it may be more difficult to stabilize during a longer exposure. Remember that different focal lengths may create distortion in your subject, so experiment until you find something that gives you natural looking results. Or unnatural, if that’s what you’re going for.
Because mushrooms like dark places, you will also need to be sure you have the right equipment to avoid common problems like camera shake. Invest in a table-top tripod (or get even lower with a bean bag) so you can place your camera at the same level as your subject. Use a cable release, since it’s going to be very awkward for you to maneuver down there on your belly, in the mud (and who knows what else) at eye-level with your fungi.
The conditions for most mushroom photography are almost a trifecta of trouble for short exposures, so some kind of camera stabilization like a tripod is mandatory. First, you will be in a place with poor lighting, so will need a longer shutter speed. Second, you are shooting an object that requires sharpness and detail, so you can’t really turn up your ISO to compensate or you risk adding unwanted grain to your image. And third, you want your depth of field to be reasonably deep, so you can capture the mushroom from the front of the cap to the back, and you will sometimes want to capture some of the background to give the image some context. So you may not be able to open up your aperture all the way, either.
You may want to try experimenting with artificial light sources, though direct flash will obviously do nothing for you besides wash out your mushrooms and leave you covered in mud without any good shots to show for it. Try bringing along a reflector and see if you can use some of that stray sunlight to illuminate parts of the mushroom that might otherwise have been in shadow, especially the part below the cap.
Finally, bring along a polarizing filter in case your subject or setting is particularly wet or reflective. And just in case your subject isn’t wet enough, you might also want to have a little spray bottle on hand – misting the mushroom can help bring out its natural color.
Don’t be afraid to muck with your subject
Yeah, yeah, reality is a great goal in photography. We love to believe that what we’re seeing in an image is a true representation of life as it really is. We hate the idea that something has been prepped and fussed over by a photographer, because that makes it seem fake. But guess what, no one is going to know that you cleaned up that mushroom a little bit before you took its photo.
Let’s face it, mushrooms grow in dirty places, and because of this they get dirt on them. Before you shoot, use a very soft brush to gently remove anything from the surface of the mushroom that might be distracting (that spray bottle will come in handy here, too), and don’t neglect your background, either. Remove or rearrange debris that is distracting or that just doesn’t seem to belong in the image, that way you won’t be contemplating doing the exact same thing in post-processing.
Now look at your subject for imperfections. We all have them, and fungus is no exception. Angle your camera so that any damage to the mushroom or any parts that don’t seem to be growing perfectly are left out of the shot, focusing instead on the parts that are well-formed. Changing your angle will also help you capture parts of the mushroom you don’t usually see, such as the gills on the underside of the cap.
Pay attention to the natural light and to the background
Because mushrooms like dark places, direct light isn’t generally going to be a problem. But it is worth pointing out that a very bright direct light, especially coming from above is going to be particularly damaging to mushroom photos because mushrooms are often white and somewhat reflective. You don’t need to limit yourself to magic hours when photographing mushrooms since most of your settings will naturally be in shadow, but be prepared to block some of that direct light on the occasion when it rears its ugly head. If you are shooting with a friend, you could simply have him or her hold your reflector over the subject to block out some of that harsh overhead light.
Don’t get so hung up on photographing that beautiful mushroom that you neglect the beautiful mossy tree trunk it is growing from. The environment may be damp and dirty but all your viewer is going to see is its visual beauty. So remember the rule of thirds and try placing your mushroom accordingly, bringing enough of your background into the image to give it a context, but not so much that it detracts from the mushroom itself.
Take photos, not samples
I know I don’t have to remind you that not all mushrooms are edible (and some are highly toxic or even deadly), so it’s not a good idea to combine your photographic outing with a culinary adventure. And although it is unlikely that simply handling a poisonous mushroom could make you sick, you should avoid using your hands to clean your subjects. If you do find yourself touching a mushroom make sure to keep your hands away from your eyes and mouth and wash them thoroughly when you are finished.
Challenges make for better photographers, and what could be more challenging than mucking around in the mud and dirt in search of fungus? Just keep a sense of humor, and keep on shooting.