Beginners Guide to Cameras & Equipment
for Shooting Mushrooms
Last month, I wrote about recommendations for both minidigital cameras and SLRs. While the camera itself is the basis for good mushroom photography, the right camera accessories are of equal importance. I also want to cover informational sources about photography, which you’ll need to get the most out of your camera setup.
The main constant in shooting mushrooms is low light conditions
. Not only do mushrooms often grow in conditions where there is little light, but high magnification (as you get with macro lenses) lets even a smaller amount of light through the lens. There are two solutions to this, both of which you’ll probably need. The first is flash (to throw additional light on the subject), and the second is a long exposure time. Because a camera cannot be held perfectly steady for more than a fraction of a second, this necessitates the use of a tripod or other stabilizing device.
Flash is a necessary part of mushroom photography for the low-light conditions mentioned above, but also often necessary when there is plenty of available light. This is because, due to the shape of a mushroom, the underside is often heavily shaded, so “fill flash” serves as a way to even out the illumination above and below a mushroom.
Most cameras come with a built-in flash unit; however, builtin flash is inflexible, in the wrong location for mushroom photography, and generally not up to the task. It’s very easy to spot horrible looking mushroom photos shot this way— blown-out on top and totally dark below. I’ve actually manages to work around this on a few occasions by holding my Coolpix upside-down, but shooting a photograph this way is less-than easy!
Off-camera flash units are available for high-end point-andshoot digital cameras and for SLRs. I use a Sigma EF-500 DG off-camera flash and highly recommend it. Note that it comes in different models depending on what camera system you’re using, so there’s one specific to Canon EOS, another for Nikon, and even one that’s specific to Nikon Coolpix.
Another option you might consider is a ring flash unit. There are certain tricks to getting really good illumination with a ring flash (mainly involving covering select parts of the ring with something like aluminum foil or thick paper to more selectively illuminate the mushroom), but you can get some good lighting this way. This is a particularly good option for older Nikon Coolpix models, as a very inexpensive ring unit, the Nikon Cool Light, was made for these. (I’m not sure about its compatibility with the Coolpix S10, however.)
It is actually possible to photograph mushrooms entirely by hand using flash, but the mechanics of holding your camera and flash in proper position to get the ideal shot are often difficult. Also, getting background details in the photograph is in some cases better accomplished by a long exposure, even when you’ve adequately illuminated the mushroom itself with flash.
The subject of tripods and tripod accessories is a huge one, which I’ll try and cover here without too much gory detail. And thankfully, there are cheap solutions that work well in many cases. If you want to shoot a mushroom from about ground level, often the best and fastest solution is to simply rest the camera on a beanbag or bag of rice. Another solution that works very well with a “swivel body” Nikon Coolpix camera is an ingenious one that Bolek Kuznik came up with: make a simple monopod with a wedge end that one can drive into the ground, then add a flexible clamp head with a camera mount on it. One simply attaches the camera to this setup, drives the spike into the ground in the appropriate position, and you’re ready to go.
Using a camera in any position much higher than ground level is where things get tricky, because here one does need a real tripod; one that’s sturdy and, at the same time, extremely flexible. I use a Gitzo Explorer, which has a movable central post that the camera rests on. One can get a camera into all kinds of weird positions using this tripod, though it takes some getting used to. (One description I’ve read describes it as “taming the octopus.”) Uni-Loc tripods have a similar design, and are also a good choice.
The right choice of tripod head is something I’ve seen more electrons spilled on various photography forums than just about any other. Generally, inexpensive ball heads are not the most stable places for a camera to rest, and are often hard to position easily. The flip side is that really good geared heads or high-end ball heads that allow for precise work are not only expensive, but, in my experience, extremely large and heavy and an absolute boat anchor when it comes to doing practical field macro work. I use a Manfrotto 56 “3D” head, which, while not allowing for the same degree of fine adjustment as a good gear or ball head, is very cheap, lightweight, and, like the underlying Explorer tripod, movable into all sorts of odd configurations, as needed.
Another part of the tripod setup that may be useful with an SLR and macro lens setup is a macro slider. Basically, whenever you change focus with a macro lens, you also change magnification. Hence, to change focus while keeping magnification consistent, you need to be able to move the camera, often over very small distances. This is where the slider is very helpful.
Finally, any tripod setup benefits from being able to move your camera on and off very quickly. For this, a device called a quick release comes in very handy, with one part mounted on the tripod, and another on the camera. Manfrotto makes an inexpensive one that I’ve always found very adequate.
One accessory I forgot to mention in my last article (Part 1, published in the February 2008 Mycena News) is a UV filter. This is a simple, clear glass filter that you mount as the front element of your camera lens. The ostensible purpose is to keep out UV radiation that can fog one’s photos; the real purpose, however, is protective. Quite simply, if you hit your lens against something and chip or break the glass, it’s far less expensive to replace a $20 filter than an entire lens or mini-cam.
Books and other sources of information
As of yet, there are no books specifically on techniques in mushroom photography—though both of Taylor Lockwood’s books are wonderful documents of the possibilities of mushroom photography. There are, however, a number of books on macro photography and flower photography that are quite good. In fact, they probably go into more depth than you’ll want, but are nevertheless worth a look. Here are some I recommend from my bookshelf:
Closeups in Nature by John Shaw
The Complete Guide to Close-Up and Macro Photography by Paul Harcourt Davies
Photographing Wildflowers by Craig and Nadine Blacklock
The Field Guide to Photographing Flowers by Allen Rokach and Anne Millman
Many of these titles, and others like them, are in local libraries, so have a look there.
Also, a good introductory book on general digital photography is also highly recommended if you’re totally new to photography. Classes in digital photography and Photoshop are tremendously helpful if you have time to take them.
Other excellent sources of information are Internet photography forums and websites. There are scores of them on the web, covering all manner of cameras and specialized areas of photography. Two in particular that I highly recommend are www.photo.net, probably the best general photography site, and www.macrophotography.org, which is exactly as the name describes. Both of these have articles, forums, and places where people can post their photos for others to look at and critique. Both of these places have been an invaluable part of my (ongoing) photographic education, and I highly recommend them to all.
And, of course, one of the most important things of all is to read is your camera’s owner’s manual. A lot of people skip this and, as a result, don’t even know how to do 90% of what their camera is capable of. Read it and get the most out of your camera!