Mushroom Photography Season
If you judge by what's sprouting in my front yard, mushroom photography season is upon us in the Northwest. Depending on the weather, they usually pop up right around Daylight Saving "fall back" time which happened last night. If you're looking to go crawling around on the ground for mushroom photos, here are a few tips to help you get good results.
First off, you have to go looking when the mushrooms are there to be found. It takes wet, rainy weather for most mushrooms to sprout, but not too rainy for too long. The ideal time seems to be the first clear day after a good stretch of rain. If you wait until further into the season the first crop will be past their prime. There's not much uglier than a mushroom starting to decay. Don't delay if you want photos of clean, fresh mushrooms. Not all mushrooms show themselves at the same time of year either so you may need to go on some exploratory trips or ask around until you get familiar with what is to be found in your area and when.
Next, the part I mentioned earlier about crawling around on the ground wasn't just a figure of speech. That's where they grow. This is one subject that no matter what camera and lens you use you can't shoot well from normal standing height. Most mushrooms are no more than a few inches high so sitting on the ground is the minimum commitment necessary in terms of position. For the best angles, you need to get down to their level and that means actually lying on the ground. Of course, the ground is likely to be wet, so if you want to stay reasonably dry yourself, bring along a ground cloth of some kind. Even a big trash bag works just fine. You don't need anything fancy. Make sure it is big enough though or while you're busy shooting and making sure the top half of your body stays dry your pant legs will be getting dirty and soaked. And bring along some knee pads too — your knees will thank you for it.
For camera support, you'll need a tripod that allows you to shoot at ground level. While many standard height tripods provide some means of doing this, it is generally easier to carry a small tripod instead. My favorite is the Joby GorillaPod. This thing can be bent into whatever shape is necessary to position a camera on uneven ground. Small adjustments are easy too by simply pushing on it hard enough to deform it as needed. A tripod with normal legs can be downright frustrating to get adjusted just right. Mushroom photos live in the realm of close-up / macro photography where camera position is critical and small movements can have big consequences. You need to make sure the plane of the camera back is parallel to the main plane of your subject.
When the entire frame covers only a few inches small changes, small movements can have a big impact on what your camera sees. Reposition your tripod an inch or two sideways what you see behind your subject could change completely. Really think about where you are shooting from and why.
And once you think you have everything set up, check carefully along the edges of the frame and across the span of background area. Use the depth of field preview button too in order to stop the lens down to the shooting aperture. Details that look sufficiently blurred with the lens wide open could easily compete with the subject for the viewers attention in the final image if you aren't careful.
Lighting can be problematic too. Mushrooms don't grow just in your front yard. Most grow in the forest where there's tree cover. And tree cover means mixed lighting. Just as when shooting wildflowers, even lighting is best. Bring along a diffuser so you can take control of the lighting conditions. A reflector can come in handy too so you can bounce a catch light back underneath your diffuser if your subject is in the shade. Flash can be helpful if used in moderation. If you make it the main light source, you risk ending up with well lit mushrooms and black backgrounds.
In terms of composition, I've already mentioned the importance of shooting from ground level so you can see your subject eye to eye ... not that mushrooms actually have eyes of course. They do have certain characteristic features though including gills on the underside of their cap. Try to shoot from a low enough angle to capture such details when possible. Sometimes you can find specimens growing on a slight rise, allowing you to shoot from even lower. Look around too for the best example possible of your subject. Mushrooms tend to be fragile. If one is broken or starting to decay, check around for another specimen to shoot. When conditions are favorable for a certain kind of mushroom, they tend to grow in groups since what you see popping out of the ground is merely the fruiting body of a much larger, primarily underground colony.
One last point: while some mushrooms are edible and a few are indeed delicacies, others are downright poisonous and can kill you. Telling the difference is not at all easy either since similar looking species can be quite different in their effects. I'm a photographer, not a mycologist (a botanist specializing in mushrooms and other fungus). I don't pretend to be able to identify everything I take pictures of. Don't be tempted to do more than take pictures of wild mushrooms unless you really, really know how to identify them.