How to Photograph Fungi

A Guide to Fungi Photography with Guy Edwardes

Photographer Guy Edwardes shares his secrets and techniques on how to creatively photograph fungi. 25 years of experience have given Edwardes the know-how on finding the best fungi and photographing them using creative lighting, thoughtful composition and focus stacking. Read on to hear from the expert himself.

Meet Guy Edwardes

Fungi have long been one of my favourite subjects to photograph. I think it’s the sheer variety of colours, shapes and textures that appeals most. I also get to work in one of my favourite habitats … the fabulous pockets of ancient broadleaved woodland in the south of England. I enjoy the challenge of hunting out particularly beautiful, intact or scarce fungi. The fact that fungi tend not to blow around in the wind or run away from me means that I have time to get creative with both composition and lighting.

I have spent the past 25 years refining my technique for photographing this beautiful autumnal subject and have found that you don’t necessarily need lots of equipment or to go somewhere special to achieve great shots…

Finding Fungi – When, Where and How?

When

If you look in the right places you can usually find some fungi at any time of the year. There is no doubt that autumn is the most productive season for fungi photography. However, if you look hard enough in the spring you may find scarlet elf cup, morels and other species.

Mild wet conditions cause a fresh flush of fruiting fungi, particularly just after a rainy period. They can emerge very quickly, maybe even as soon as it starts raining! Remember to take note of where you found the fungi, as they often emerge in the same place each year.

Where

Fungi can be found everywhere! Woodlands are the obvious place, particularly old deciduous woodlands, which tend to be the most productive habitat and hold the greatest variety of fungi. Here the best place to search is near old rotting trees or in deadwood. However, all sorts of different fungi species can be found in all sorts of habitats. Grasslands, such as churchyards, meadows in nature reserves and upland hillsides, are home to waxcaps  (below) which can be very photogenic as their caps split and curl, revealing the gills. Wherever you look there are probably fungi hiding somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding them…

How

Expect to spend a lot of time crawling around on the ground getting down and dirty! Simply walking around in a wood won’t get you very far. It is best to look very closely as many fungi are hard to spot amongst the leaf litter or on the underside of fallen trunks. Horn of Plenty and Elfin Saddle, for example, are species that emerge on the ground amongst leaf litter making them especially hard to spot. Remember some fungi are tiny, and these species are often the most delicate and photogenic, so you really need to look closely.

Finding the fungi is the easy part. It takes time to search for fresh, perfect, undamaged specimens. I reject any that have been nibbled by slugs, snails, mice or damaged by other fungi. Don’t reject your fungi too fast though, as sometimes dirt can carefully be brushed off.

As with any form of nature photography, a basic knowledge of the subject is very helpful. Which species occur when? What habitats do they occur in? Are they associated with a particular tree or plant? All of these questions will help you find fungi.

Identifying fungi

The more common and recognisable species, such as amethyst deceiver (below middle and right), fly agaric (below left) and orange peel are easy to identify. There are lots of useful guides and tools that can help me identify the trickier species afterwards. Just remember to take a few identification photos from different angles. These don’t need to be special and I just take them with my phone. Finally, do not worry if you cannot identify a species as many fungi look very similar, such as the many different species of mycena, and it can be impossible to tell them apart without taking a spore print. However, if you are looking for fungi for culinary purposes it is very important to get the correct identification as many are poisonous! To be honest I am rarely looking for specific species … I look for the most photogenic specimens.

Useful guides:

Fungi apps – ‘Seek’ provides a useful starting point

Fungi books – Roger Phillips book ‘Mushrooms’

Online resources – ‘First Nature’ and dedicated fungi Facebook groups

What Equipment do I need?

Camera body

Relatively minimal equipment is necessary to get started in fungi photography. Any camera capable of reasonably close focus will work fine, but if you want to be more creative and take your photography to the next level, I recommend getting a camera with interchangeable lenses.

There are a few other useful features that will help make photographing fungi easier. One of the most useful functions on modern digital cameras is a fully articulating rear LCD screen. This enables you to compose and focus easily when working in awkward positions. Definitely a function I would look out for! Another function to look out for is in-camera focus-bracketing. This will allow you to quickly shoot a focus-bracketed set of images for focus-stacking (I will talk more about that later). For fungi photography I wouldn’t buy a camera without this function!

Lenses

100mm macro lens: I use this lens for close-up patterns or to capture a slightly wider field of view. I also love achieving interesting background bokeh with this lens. Overall, I would say this lens is the best choice as it is pretty versatile.

180mm macro lens: This lens has a narrower field of view and is good for isolating the subject from the background.

200-500mm lens: I use this lens for larger species. The shallow depth of field and narrow field of view allow better isolation of the subject from the surrounding clutter of fallen leaves, sticks and branches. They are also great for focus stacking as only a few shots will be required to get the whole fungus sharp (below right).

15mm macro: This lens has an extremely wide field of view, which is great for getting in really close to the subject whilst including lots of background habitat (below left).

5X macro lens: I use this lens specifically for very tiny subjects. However, you will need to use it on a focusing rail for focus-stacking.

Additional items I like to pack

Always pack these next few items as they make a real difference to the quality of your photographs!

A tripod that is stable, flat to the ground and has no centre column. This allows you to get a really stable shot low to the ground. Preferably it would also have ball head or geared head to allow manoeuvrability. A beanbag can be a useful alternative to a tripod, particularly when photographing larger fungi on the ground using a telephoto lens.

A polarising filter to remove reflections.

A waterproof cover as fungi appear in wet conditions (I like Optech Rainsleeve).

Needle-nose Tweezers and a small fine paintbrush for removing distracting bits of dirt around your subject.

Raynox DCR-250 close-up diopter to get really close up shots.

What Techniques and Settings are Best?

Focus

Getting the subject in focus is a very important feature of a good image. Using manual focus allows me to be precise as to where I place my focus point. I carefully focus 1/3 of the way into the depth of the fungus and use a high aperture to provide sharpness throughout the subject.

These days I use focus stacking for most of my images. The principle behind focus stacking is a series of series of identical images each focused on a different plane throughout the depth of the fungus. These ‘slices’ can then be stacked into one image of exceptional clarity. I also use a small aperture to avoid the softening effects of lens diffraction, particularly with smaller subjects.

To achieve focus stacking I use the Canon R5 which has an in-camera focus bracketing setting. Before I had the R5 I used my Canon 5DSr on a focus rail but if you can get a camera with in-camera focus bracketing it is a lot easier!

I stack the resulting images using Helicon Focus Pro software. I prefer this to Photoshop because it provides different blending methods and allows me to work with RAW files.

Composition

Composition is one of the first things I think about when constructing a photograph. A lot of the time I simply try to use a shallow depth of field or a wide aperture to separate the fungus subject from the surrounding clutter of vegetation, sticks and leaves (above top right). Telephoto lenses are excellent for minimising background distractions, because they provide a shallow depth of field and a narrow field of view. I use this technique in combination with focus-stacking for sharpness throughout the entire fungus.

The background is just as important as the subject itself. Once I have set my composition, I tend to manually turn the focus ring through its entire range of travel to pick up any distracting background features that may have gone unnoticed. Sometimes it can be nice to include surrounding foliage to provide subtle shapes or textures around the subject. Additionally, showing the fungi in their surrounding habitat, by using a wide-angle lens, can be a nice addition to your portfolio (above top left).

With close-up subjects it is important to get the back of the camera as parallel to the plane of the subject as possible in order to get as much of the subject as sharp as possible. It is tempting to frame tightly when photographing close-up but it is important that leaning fungi are leaning into space. Also, groups tend to look best off-centre with some background habitat or interesting bokeh (above bottom left and right).

Once you have taken a portrait of the fungus consider trying some creative close-up shots of interesting patterns or features of the fungi. I like to use my 100mm macro lens for this.

Lighting

Many woodland fungi appear in dark shady places, so it can be nice to maintain this feel in your photographs. Natural light is the best light to use but you may need to control the contrast using artificial lighting, mirrors or reflectors. Usually I use two small LED panels as these provide a constant light, making it easier to precisely position the lights to get the desired effect.

Creative lighting can really transform fungi photos. I am a big fan of backlighting, particularly since fungi can be translucent and backlighting makes the subject glow (above images). Sometimes a tungsten point light can be used to produce a fine spot of warm light, emphasising particular features of the fungi.

Bokeh

Interesting Bokeh can add a lot to fungi images. Bokeh are the circular patterns of light that appear in images when background highlights are used. For example, bokeh can be created by shooting up towards the woodland canopy when light is falling through the leaves and branches. An important point is to shoot with a wide aperture. The smaller the aperture, the smaller the bokeh circles will become.

Slime Moulds and Tiny Fungi

Slime mould are not actually fungi, although they are similar, and belong to a separate kingdom called Protista. At 1/2 to 10mm tall these tiny weirdly shaped structures are a challenge to capture. During lockdown I experimented with a variety of techniques to find and photograph these fascinating organisms.

First you will need to find these tiny structures. They can be found anywhere including on deadwood, the tiniest fallen twigs, leaf litter, pine cones, compost or even fruiting on living vegetation. Slime moulds produce fruiting bodies in damp and mild weather, so I found the best time to locate them is autumn and spring. They are so tiny that they are not easy to see! I use a 5X magnifying loupe to help me discover the best specimens, but just keep looking and you will locate some eventually.

Because of their size, slightly more specialised equipment is required to photograph them well. I have invested in the Stackshot automated focusing rail and a 5X macro lens (Laowa 25mm) to achieve the necessary magnification. The result is fantastic image sharpness and clarity of all the fine details which are not visible to the naked eye.

Remember to use a wide aperture when focus stacking small subjects, to avoid the softening effects of diffraction. Most of my images are stacked using an aperture of f4. This means I need to shoot more images, but the end result is of higher quality. I also try to avoid photographing them on windy days as subject  movement will make it impossible to blend focus-stacked images.

If you would like to look at more of my images take a look at My Gallery.

If you would like to hear more from me about how to photograph subjects such as fungi come along to one of my workshops: Guy Edwardes Workshop

Alternatively keep an eye out for our upcoming blogs, as we will be posting more about photography techniques with many more pro tips from our specialist photographers.