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Tips for Using a Digital Camera to Photograph Mushrooms

by Michael Kuo


I am not a professional photographer, and I'm not even very good at taking pictures. But like many mushroom collectors, I like to illustrate my collections. Over the years I have developed some techniques that have somewhat improved the quality of my mushroom pictures, and I offer some of these techniques here, in the "for what it's worth" category. I have a Nikon CoolPics 5400 digital camera (5 megapixels) with both automatic and predetermined settings, and a flash that is built in to the camera. The tips below represent what might be called "work-around" techniques--methods that allow me to approximate, on mostly automatic settings, the techniques that advanced photographers use with more expensive single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

Use a Tripod

There is just no way to take close-up photos of small subjects in low lighting situations (like, mushrooms on the forest floor) without a tripod. Cheap, plastic mini-tripods from Wal-Mart will sometimes hold your camera steady, but they are a pain in the neck, in my opinion, and they often break. Very expensive tripods with booms and multiple adjustments are also a pain in the neck, however; I recommend a small but sturdy metal tripod with telescoping legs. Without the boom, you will often need to tilt your camera so that the tripod lies flat on the ground, or elevate the tripod on a stick or small log.

Use the Timer

Since cameras in my price range do not feature attachments for remote shutter triggers, I am stuck with using the timer function to avoid jiggling the camera. My camera counts down from ten when the timer is activated, but if I press the shutter button a second time, it skips to "three," saving time. However, I often need the full ten seconds in order to accomplish one or more of the techniques below.

Use the Camera's Automatic Settings for Close-Ups

Most digital cameras have "macro" settings for close-ups, backlit scenes, and so on. The manufacturer has pre-calculated settings to make better pictures in specialized situations. These precalculated settings cause some problems, but I have found it is easier to address these problems directly with work-around solutions than to use manual settings and actually learn what photography is all about (f-stops, shutter speeds, film speeds, the "f-16 rule," and so on).

Use the Flash

Professional mushroom photographer Taylor Lockwood once told me he always uses flash, and that mushroom photos relying solely on natural light fail to adequately capture the reds and yellows in the light spectrum. This seemed counterintuitive to me; the light from a camera's flash is cold, and seems full of the blue end of the spectrum. How could the addition of cold, blue light lead to more accurate representation of reds and yellows? But then I tried it, and the results floored me. Indeed, the reds and yellows are much more present (and much more realistic) with the addition of the light from the flash.

But there's a catch. "Real" photographers with SLR cameras use light meters to determine how much flash is needed, have flash units that are separated from the camera and can be positioned in any desired location, and use light umbrellas to diffuse the harsh light of the flash. None of this is particularly easy with a point-and-shoot digital camera, so a work-around solution must be implemented to approximate the results of professional methods. Hold a piece of white paper over the flash to diffuse the light and avoid the washed-out appearance of direct-flash photos. Obviously, holding a piece of paper over the flash bulb can only be accomplished if you are using the timer, and have given yourself enough time to position the paper. Experimentation will help you determine what kind of paper works best, whether or not you should fold the paper and double its thickness, whether you should angle the paper in a certain direction to allow more or less light, and so on.

Fool the Autofocus with a Piece of White Paper

The precalculated settings involved with the focus functions of digital cameras are often inadequate for mushroom photography. The problem usually results from the fact that the background (moss or leaves, for example), has more detail and is more interesting to the autofocus than the mushroom. With my camera, even if I have nearly filled the frame with the mushroom (see the tip below), the autofocus will get interested in the tiniest bit of well-defined moss at the edge of the frame if it has more contrast and discernible detail than the smooth cap of the mushroom.

I work around this problem by using a piece of white paper to cover up what I don't want the camera to focus on, forcing the autofocus to pay attention to the subject. With the paper in place, I depress the shutter button so that the camera focuses and locks the focus. Then I press the button the rest of the way, triggering the timer's countdown. Before the camera takes the picture, I carefully remove the paper from the photo. Since the focus is locked in, the camera will now take the picture as though the paper is still there, focusing on the subject.

The paper must be clean, and its texture must be nearly invisible; otherwise the autofocus will get interested in the fine details of the paper. I usually use the same piece of paper that I will be using to diffuse the flash, once the timer's countdown begins. Occasionally I have to use two, or even three pieces of paper to get the autofocus to pay attention to my subject. Precalculated settings for extreme close-ups involve very minimal depth of field, so I must always decide what element in the photo should be in focus. Sometimes it is even necessary to decide which part of the mushroom is going to be in focus, and block off the other parts with paper.

Frame Your Shot by Positioning the Camera (Not by Using the Zoom)

Whatever position your digital camera's lens arrives at, without zooming in or out, is the position to use for your mushroom pictures. The precalculated settings are often based on this lens position, and may become difficult to work around once the lens is zoomed. But the biggest reason to frame your pictures by positioning the camera, rather than zooming in or out, is that you are forced to address the composition of your shot more consciously and adequately. Your photographic goals may be more artistic than mine, but I am usually trying to represent the important identifying features of a mushroom, so that I can illustrate what I am talking about on a species page at this Web site.

 

Lactarius gerardii

Lactarius gerardii: A piece of paper was placed over the large, textured cap in the background, forcing the autofocus to pay attention to the gills of the mushroom in front.



Bird's Nest Fungi

Bird's Nest Fungi: The camera's macro settings for close-up subjects allow detailed photos of very tiny subjects.



Clitopilus prunulus

Clitopilus prunulus: An example of tight close-up used to demonstrate the features of a mushroom; the shot was framed with the camera's position rather than with the zoom.



Lactarius atroviridis

Lactarius atroviridis: Paper was used to convince the autofocus to pay attention to the stem and gills of the left-hand mushroom; flash-diffusing paper was held at a slight angle to create the side-lit effect.



Mycena subcaerulea, photographed with natural light (top), and with the addition of flash, diffused through a piece of paper (bottom).

Mycena sp.

Mycena sp.


Fooling the autofocus with a slip of white paper.






Cite this page as:

Kuo, M. (2004, September). Tips for using a digital camera to photograph mushrooms. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/kuo_07.html

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