A (non technical) Guide to Fungi & Photographing Fungi
This guide is an attempt to introduce people to the wonderful world of fungi and to help them record their findings using a digital camera. It is based on very general macro photography techniques and my own experience over the years. It also includes safety measures with regard to potential hazards which may exist.
I have purposely omitted technical jargon such as White balance, File format, Raw, Tiff, Jpeg compression and additional items such as ring flash, reflectors and filters. Although in the latter case it is always a good idea to use a filter (UV) in order to protect the lens. Similarly image editing software and archiving methods are excluded. Although these may be the covered in future articles.
- Digital camera capable of macro / short distance focusing
- Small tripod. These are now very popular but if you’re using a heavier DSLR type camera they may prove unsuitable. The larger and generally more expensive tripods allow low level photography through use of the central column or leg attachment. Occasionally space will not easily allow use of a tripod. In these circumstances consider using:
- Bean bag type camera support. This can be more appropriate than a tripod in some situations. Home made or bought this item is particularly useful in photographing small fungi and the underside of larger species.
- Shutter release cable OR better still remote shutter release
- Small knife for cross sections and removing surplus distracting material.
- Small soft haired brush for removing any debris from caps
- Note: A combination knife/brush can be bought from specialist suppliers
- Container for carrying material back home for further study / photography
- Small rucksack
- Outdoor clothing
- Sturdy boots
- Over trousers or something to lay / sit on the ground whilst photographing specimens. A short beach matt or a square piece of heavy duty polythene is ideal.
The most important item that came with your camera is the ‘User Manual’. It’s unfortunate however that some manuals are produced by people who know little about the item their writing about! Most people tend to skim through the manual briefly (if at all!) and then hide it somewhere never to be seen again. The majority of digital cameras have far more functions than were available on older type film cameras. A few minutes spent each day looking at the manual will greatly improve the confidence required in using your camera and ultimately provide better photographs.
In particular you should be familiar with:
- Macro settings your camera may have
- Aperture Priority Mode
- Manual focusing
Spare camera batteries and memory cards should always be carried. Avoid editing and deleting images in situ as this will only waste valuable foraying time and drain batteries unnecessary.
Going back the next day to take repeat photographs is generally not possible with fungi. In many cases it just won’t be there, it may be past its best or you simply won’t be able to locate it again!
The first job to do on returning home is to recharge the batteries used during the day. Memory cards should be downloaded to your computer and maybe archived on to CD or DVD. If you can get into this routine it will avoid obvious frustration and anger the next time you go out.
Most species are found at ground level where the fruit body (fungi) emerges either as a solitary specimen or a group (troop). Their shape tends to be cylindrical or oval in shape.
Number of species
In Britain there are more than 20,000 different species. Many of these are microscopic in size but about 3000 fungi are in the small, medium and large size category.
There are many different colours and individual species may exhibit different colours during their life cycle. Forests and woodlands can be quite dark and in order to capture subtle differences in colour, it is necessary to use a small aperture (>F8), which will require long shutter speeds.
There are many textures ranging from smooth and glossy through to rough and dull with every combination in between. Some are dry to the feel, some wet and some extremely slimy. As with colour many species exhibit different textures during their life cycle.
Smell is the second most important identification record after photography in order to identify species. Although we can’t ‘record’ this characteristic there are many smells associated with fungi. Whilst some just smell ‘mushroomy’ or mealy some species smell of potatoes, radishes, geraniums, fruits, coal gas, sulphur, curry, rotting meat, mouse pee…. the list goes on and on!
Smell also helps in locating some fungi. For instance the smell (sewage / rotting meat) of the common stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) will usually be the first indication of its presence.
Like smell, there are many tastes associated with fungi. The genus Russula are noted for their taste. They may taste hot, mild or bitter (see safety issues).
Here’s a tip …BUT ONLY IF YOU KNOW THE SPECIES IS RUSSULA …. Chew a little on the tip of your tongue – spit it out then wait a few minutes. Is it hot, mild or bitter? In combination with the cap colour, gill colour, spore colour and tree species it was growing with, this will give you the species.
Finding fungi and garden plants
Fungi can be found almost anywhere but especially so in woodlands and forests. Grassland, meadows, scrub land, bogs, road verges, gardens and parks are also important areas.
Here are a few examples of fungi and their associated habitat
- Chanterelles can be found linked with birch, pine, oak and beech trees.
- Waxcaps can be found on unimproved (organic) grassland
- Morels are often associated with Ash and areas of soil which has been naturally disturbed, say by rabbits.
- The Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria is always associated with birch
- The bolete Boletus Uloporus lividus can only be found under alders
- The Bog Beacon – Mitrula paludosa or the Eye-lash Fungus â€“ Scutenelia. Can be found in bogs and wet ditches containing rotting wood.
Garden photos and camara: Time of year
Fungi can be found throughout the year but the main season is between the months of August and December. Very much depends on the level of moisture within the soil and to the type of soil. Whilst some species are seasonal some will only return after a period of years. For instance, the Hen of the Woods or Grifola frondosa may remain dormant for 5 years after fruiting.
Some fungi are only present at certain times of the year. Here are a couple of examples.
- St George’s Mushroom or Calocybe gambosa around the 23 rd April until early June
- Morels such as Morchella esculenta between March and May
Time of day for garden photography
Early in the morning is the best time to search for fungi. You are more likely to see fresh, whole fruiting bodies which have not been attacked by foraging insects or animals (including humans!). Generally the fruit body may take 2 to 10 days to emerge from the ground but only a few hours to reach maturity and fade away.
A few more facts
One of the largest and oldest living fungi on earth is a species of honey fungus – Armillaria ostoyaeis growing in North West America. It covers over 890 hectares and is at least 2,400 years old. A similar species covers a large area of Edinburgh. However, in Northern Russia there are some microscopic, aquatic types at least 545 million years old.
One of the richest fungal habitats in the British Isles is the well established woods of Scotland where several species of the stalked tooth fungi can be found.
Finding and photographing fungi is not normally a hazardous activity. Nevertheless since it normally takes place in the countryside it is worth considering the following notes to ensure a pleasurable experience.
- Never climb trees to take that ‘birch polypore’ close-up. Just find another specimen lower down on another tree.
- Look after your back. Photographing fungi can involve much bending and stooping. Avoid strain on your back by adopting the best posture i.e. straight back.
- Wasps can be a problem particularly from August until October. During this time much of their food intake consists of decaying / fermenting fruit. This explains their erratic almost ‘drunk’ behaviour. Like some humans, wasps always seem to fancy a fight after consuming alcohol! If you are allergic to stings its best that you avoid known danger areas especially when walking alone.
- Several species of fungi are deadly poisonous and some edible types can be easily confused with poisonous ones if not identified correctly. Extreme care is essential when collecting any fungi for consumption. If you are in any doubt over a specimen then leave it alone or seek help from an expert.
- If you handle fungi always ensure you wash your hands afterwards.
Experiment at home with garden photography
Before your first photo fungi foray you may wish to experiment at home first. First of all check your own garden for any fungi, in grass, borders, plant pots, paths and green house. These will be far more interesting to photograph!
If you don’t find any nearby then purchase a box of ordinary button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) from your local supermarket. Arrange some on the grass in your garden (a window sill will suffice if you have no garden). You can experiment on single specimens or arrange them in groups for photography.
Take several photographs at various angles and heights using natural available light and take the same shot using flash. Although we are only using one species here the results may surprise you.
Once you have taken a variety of images, download them to your PC for inspection. The main advantage with this experiment is two fold. You can quickly repeat the exercise using different settings if necessary and you can return the mushrooms for eating in your favourite recipe (after you have cleaned them).
Note: If only one specimen is found try to photograph it ‘off’ centre using other floor material (leaves etc) to ‘guide’ you into the main subject.
Note the remote shutter release. A real bonus where long shutter speeds are involved. If you don’t have one use the shutter timer. Note: In order to get maximum depth of field (DOF) you should aim for a lens aperture of at least f11 and preferably f22. This may involve a shutter speed of several seconds. Hence the need for a tripod!
Camera placed on bean bag for ground level photography.
You may notice that the colour of the mushrooms have changed slightly. In this species it is only slight but some fungi can exhibit quite dramatic changes in colour when handled or touched. A good example of this feature is the poisonous Yellow Stainer – Agaricus xanthodermus.
In the field you could adopt a similar approach in order to show different stages in the fruiting body like this example of Amanita.
Remember, out on location you may only get one chance to photograph a specimen before it changes beyond recognition or is consumed by slugs or other foraying hunters. A good specimen or group is worthy of at least 10 photographs.
Garden Photography – The end result
Before any photograph is taken it is worthwhile considering what it is you want to achieve in the final image. There are usually two types of image in mind. Firstly there is the image that portrays the sheer beauty of the subject through lighting effect, colour, shape, surroundings and form. I’l refer to this type of image as ‘Arty’. Secondly there is the image which shows maximum fungi detail which later allows a reasonable guess to the correct identification. I refer to this type of image as ‘Technical’. Although hopefully this will be ‘Arty’ too!
A picture of the Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda) showing cap, gills and stipe detail. It also gives an indication of habitat – leaf litter. I know that some people may not agree to this type of ‘contrived’ image but it does also happen naturally by foraging predators other than humans!
It’s worth noting that background information is quite important when photographing fungi. There are several reasons for this.
- All fungi are associated with plants or animals and therefore the background can aid identification
- The background scene itself will probably lead you to specimens previously unseen
- The background (or foreground) can enhance the overall image as shown in the next example
Tiny coloured seedlings surround a troop of Fairies’ Bonnets – Coprinus Disseminatus. This species is very delicate and any attempt to remove the seedlings would have resulted in damage to the fragile caps. It would be unfair only to show one side of the coin so here is an example where the background / foreground interfere with the subject.
Correct Framing or Composition
Many images could be improved greatly by correct framing or composition. A common mistake in fungi photography is to not use the entire frame for the subject. Although this can be achieved to some degree later by cropping, the resulting image will be of poorer quality.
Poor composition resulting in a red blob in a sea of distracting grass. Notice also the poor lighting and shadow. Let’s crop it to bring out the best and worst! OK, we now have a better composed image or is it?
The coin does little more than to distract the viewer’s attention. Although the subject image is bigger (but less quality) we have a large ‘burnt’ out area through over exposure and a large shadow cast. Both of which are difficult to remove or improve on.
If you need to indicate / compare the size of a species use natural objects rather than rulers, coins, lens caps etc. Leaves, acorn cups, beech mast and flowers are just as good and will make the image even better! Now here’s one taken full frame and shielded from direct light. You could take this in portrait mode to further increase the ‘dynamics’ of the image. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. With this particular example it is very easy to positively identify the species ‘Amanita muscaria’ or its common name of ‘Fly Agaric’. We can see clearly the cap, gills, stipe, ring and volva.
A few words on lighting
Autumn lighting can be quite harsh; a low intense light casting long shadows over adjacent specimens or fine detail burnt out. A good way to overcome this is to shield the subject from direct light by placing a rucksack or other object in the light path or taking the photograph from a position which allows your body to act as a shield.
Again, flash can be quite harsh. All digital cameras have a built-in integral flash which is usually too powerful for short range / macro work. However flash can be very useful in recording detail on the larger gilled and bracket fungi. Here are two examples showing the advantages and disadvantages of using flash. A large troop of mycena species taken with a single on-camera flash at close range. Notice how the picture is split into 3 distinct regions. A second additional flash and / or reflector may have helped with overall exposure but focus would still be an issue due to the ‘camera to subject’ distance and limited depth of field.
Pure white mycena. Gives the impression that the image profile has been physically cut out of the image. The ‘washed’ out appearance is due to over exposure.
Always be aware that flash illumination may not be the correct method for certain types of fungi. Quite often the colours obtained may be different to the original scene. By experimenting with both natural available light and flash on fungi you will come to your own conclusions. Much depends on your own camera / flash capability.
Taking them home for further study / photography
When collecting fungi to take home for further study, extract the whole fruit body, including the base of the stalk by using a small knife. Try to avoid cutting the stalk. The base of the stalk is an important structure for identifying some fungi. It is useful also to take a small amount of material that surrounds the specimen in order to re-create the original scene.
Avoid handling the specimens too much. As stated above many will change their appearance (colour) on contact.
A ‘good collection’ of a fungus consists of at least several fruit bodies of the same species, preferably young and mature specimens at different stages of development, collected at the same place and time. Brush any excessive soil off the fruit body, being careful not to remove any part of the fungus, especially any attached mycelium at the base.
Any rotting or maggot infested specimens should be discarded.
Old cleaned out and dry margarine cartons are ideal for transporting larger specimens whilst multi compartment utility boxes like the ones sold by DIY shops are ideal for smaller varieties. Once home, further photographs can be taken using the technique described above.
Finally, discard any material safely and wash your hands. Tomorrow is another foray!