How to photograph fungi

There are literally thousands of different types of fungi.  They occur almost anywhere and they can make unusual subjects for photographers.  The best thing about photographing fungi is you have plenty of time to set up your equipment without any fear of your subject disappearing.

I first noticed fungi as a photography subject whilst trudging through the bush in a remote conservation park in South Australia.  The soil was very sandy and soft and I had just scaled a small hill.  I sat on a fallen tree trunk to catch my breath and noticed a colony of bright orange toadstools clumped together on the trunk.  The colour was startling, contrasting with the dull greens and browns of the surrounding bush. 

Since that day, I have noticed the variety and distribution of fungi, from my own backyard right through to the remote national and conservation parks in the north and south of the State.  The variety of colours is extraordinary, especially if viewed up close, and the patterns and shapes make for interesting images.

ToadstoolCredit: Steven Pike

Fungi has proven to be a more challenging subject than I first thought.  It is true that it will remain stationary, but it will inevitably be close to the ground or growing on the wrong side of a large tree.  Light also can be a difficult thing to manage if crawling around on a forest floor.

Macro photography is the way to go.  A good macro lens on a DSLR is the ideal set up, but some quite pleasing pictures can be obtained using a compact camera and the macro setting.  If you are serious though a DSLR is the wise choice due to the superior image quality.

Because the fungi is not going to run away, you can get as close as you like, so a 50mm macro lens is as suitable for the job as a 100mm macro lens.  The only possible advantage of the longer focal length is it may make setting the tripod easier due to it not having to be as close to your subject.

Whilst on the subject of the tripod, it will be necessary to make quite a few adjustments to it during the set up stage.  Your tripod must be adjustable, so that it can be set very low to the ground, and a swivel head is also preferable, allowing you to make minor compositional changes without moving the entire tripod.

You will need a tripod in most circumstances as fungi is quite often found in damp, dingy places with poor light.  Actually the best conditions seem to be overcast, dull days.  Direct sunlight tends to lead to bright spots and shadows and flattens out the colours a bit.

Set a small aperture to increase you depth of field to have the whole fungi in focus.  At times using a shallow depth of field to focus just on a particular part of the fungi will have pleasing results too; it will depend on your subject.

Flash is sometimes necessary, although use just the available light if you can.  If you do have to use flash, manoeuvre it so you avoid blow outs and bright spots.  Pay particular attention to the angle at which you are holding the flash and it’s setting.  Generally the in-built flash on your camera will not be very effective, making things too bright or not illuminating the image uniformly, causing shadows, neither of which are desirable.

You may also need a mat of some kind to lie on.  It is necessary to get down to the same level as your subject and with fungi, this almost always means ground level or close to it.  Shots taken from above, looking directly down on the fungi generally lack interest.  A nice side on shot, or as side on as you can get, level with the camera will show much more of the subject and give a more pleasing perspective.

Look for patterns on the fungi itself for a different, abstract type shot.  The underside of mushrooms and toadstools often have intricate gill shaped patterns, sometimes with a soft pink or light brown hue. 

It is important to look carefully at your subject when taking such macro shots.  Every little detail will be displayed in the resulting image.  The more perfect in shape and colour your fungi then the more pleasing the end result will be.

Taking pictures of fungi is not everyone’s idea of fun, and it is certainly not easy.  You will attract some interesting looks from others whilst lying on your stomach, often cursing and swearing, and that is why I opt for a nice out of the way place to work.  However, the resulting images can be very pleasing and, surprisingly, it is my pictures of mushrooms and toadstools that have been most suitable for enlargements, with largely abstract patterns and nice soft colours.