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Wild Worlds Beneath Our Feet: 6 Ways to Photograph the Tiny World of Fungi

By July 19, 2014 4 Comments

When you walk through a forest, what do you see? Probably trees (if not, then you may not be standing in a forest!), colourful wildflowers, maybe the path ahead, the sky above, splashes of colour and shape. But do you see the smaller creatures, the ones working hard, often behind the scenes, to keep the forest thriving? These include insects, fungi, mosses and other tiny organisms living on logs or in leaf litter and in other tiny hideaways? Most forests contain tiny worlds within worlds and these are the places I like to explore. I live in cool-temperate southern Tasmania (that’s the triangular shaped island to the south of mainland Australia) and I frequently go wilding with my wife and three daughters in our local forests, specifically looking for mushrooms and other colourful fungi. Not to eat, just to enjoy! I often photograph the ones that are new to me or that my children happily point out (“Look Dad! FUNGI!”), partly so that I can work out their names later using taxonomic guidebooks (I’m a science buff like that!), and partly because I enjoy capturing these tiny worlds in pixel form. Along the way, I reckon I’ve learned a few things about photographing fungi, so thought I’d share a few tips with you. I’ll mostly talk about mushroom type fungi here, but these tips should apply to most other types you’ll find.

 Get Down Low!

Almost all beginner photographers take their photos from a head-height perspective  as it is the easiest position to photograph from when out and about. But to really try to capture the world of small organisms such as fungi, you need to be willing to bend those knees and hips and get down low! If you’re using your camera phone, try placing the lens-end of your phone to the ground or fallen log, and snapping some shots. Play with different angles; what would be an ants-eye view? If you’re using a DSLR camera trying placing it on a soft wheat-bag to keep the camera steady and to avoid blurry images. See if you can make a mushroom appear like a giant of the forest!   photo 1 - get down low

Hold you camera close to the ground to make a tiny world appear huge!

Follow the Light!

To get a nicely contrasting shot of a mushroom (and most other outdoor objects), it is often good to have the sun at the photographers back. But I’ve found that sometimes you can create a more interesting mood in your photo when the mushroom is back-lit, especially if the cap (the top part) is nearly transparent. If you have time, try back-lit and front-lit photos and see what conditions work best in a given situation.   photo 2 - back lit fungi

Back lighting can create an interesting scene.

Find your Focus!

If you want to take a photo of a wispy mushroom, it can be difficult to get the little rascal in focus. If you’re using your phone camera, hold the camera a couple of inches away from a dark solid object and lock the focus (to do this on the iPhone’s native Camera app, hold down one finger on the screen). Then bring the camera back to the fungi and hold it around the same distance away from your hand as when you locked the focus previously. It takes a little practice but you’ll find you can get very short focal lengths at this instance.

photo 3 - iphone focus lock

I took this photo in a dark forest using an iPhone, with the help of the focus-lock technique.

Capture the Details!

So you might want to put a name to the fungi that you’re looking at. This is often difficult, because many species are still un-named or un-described. Whilst mushrooms can look like simple structures, they may differ on very fine details, sometimes microscopic. A good bet is to take a few shots, one of the top (cap), a side-on view that shows the stem (it may have a ring or particular colouration), and one of the underside of the cap. A little hand-mirror is useful for photographing the reflection of the underside of the cap, to avoid damaging it needlessly. It is also helpful to take a wide-shot that shows what the fungi is growing out of (e.g. wood or soil or something else). You might also like to collect a spore print. There are lots of online resources for fungi identification, and an increasing number of phone apps and guidebooks to help. I find that learning the names of species helps me feel more connected to them; like we’ve introduced ourselves properly! If you want to photograph for art’s sake then fungi are great for that! Try contrasting colours, look for repeating patterns in clusters of mushrooms, capture scale with small against big, or look for reflections of the forest canopy in the the water droplets resting on a mushrooms cap!   photo 4 - multiple views

Capture different angles to help identification: a) Cap-view, b) Side-view, c) Gills-view and d) Spore print.

Find that Treasure!

Where do fungi live? Well potentially anywhere, but some fungi favour particular habitats. Some great places to look for mushrooms are in wet forests and natural areas, around old and decaying trees and stumps and down amongst the leaf litter. However, you might be just as lucky to find some in the shadier areas of your yard. These ones can be great to observe over time, seeing how they look at different stages of growth and decay. In some places, if you look carefully, you might just see the fringe of a fungus along the edge of a fallen branch; turn it over and who knows what beauty you might find!

photo 5 - hidden treasures

This intricate fungi was found on the underside of a twig at ground level.

Compose your Shot!

A small mushroom can get lost in a photo, especially when the background is complex and full of leaves and grass and shadow and light. So if you want your fungi to get the attention it deserves, either get closer to your fungi, or crop the photo to bring out the details. photo 6a - wide shot

Fungi lost in the forest

photo 6b - close up

Fungi to the front!

Spending time photographing fungi and other tiny creatures of the forest floor has helped me to feel like a veil has been lifted to the way I perceive nature in forests.  I’m now seeing things I would have previously overlooked. I’ve learned that diversity resides almost everywhere, even the simplest looking natural areas. Happy wilding!

Author Oberon Carter

Oberon Carter is a Tasmanian ecologist and life-long nature lover. He and his wife run an online retail business selling ethical and hand-made resources for children (spiralgarden.com.au) and they also unschool their three daughters. Oberon enjoys running, songwriting, permaculture and nature photography.

More posts by Oberon Carter
  • Mariah

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets down in the dirt to take pictures of these beautiful sculptures! They’ve fascinated me since I was young, they are so varied and unique! Not to mention some of them are super useful!
    You’ve given me a few great tips on catching them, I can’t wait to use them!!

  • gK Okuma

    Your photos are fantastic! Your tips are practical and demand a true artist’s devotion – to get down with your art and demonstrate its beauty in a way most others would not stoop to observe. Wonderful work!

  • Robyn Fell

    Can’t wait for the fungi season to begin so I can get going!

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