As the northern autumn draws closer, bizarre little creatures pop up all over the temperate forest. On the forest floor, underneath hedgerows and on trees, alive or the ones who have fallen. Fungi are the cleaning crew of the forest as they take care of layers of fallen deadwood and provide nutrients back to the forest. Surely they are great subjects for macro photography. Like everyone else, I’m looking to find their reproductive organs: Mushrooms. They let our imagination run wild as these little toadstools hint of fantasy worlds when photographed in a certain way. This is how I recreate my own little fantasy world.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and following a week of seeing computer screens, talking with people, and touching mostly keyboards, I like to come to the forest to unwind. Get back to (our) nature if you will. As soon as I get out of the car and get a whiff of actual pine-scented air, I’m reminded of the impact nature has on my creativity. It’s the reason I like being a landscape photographer. Being outdoors in the backcountry, when the light is great… The experience of it all outweighs taking pictures for me. As I throw my bag over my shoulder and walk from the parking lot towards the entrance of the woods, I can’t help but imagine what I want to shoot when I get there. I want wacky, full of fantasy and a distant feel of malevolence. Think “Alice in Wonderland” meets “Harry Potter.” How would it feel to be really tiny and walk among a forest of giant mushrooms? What if those mushrooms emitted light of their own?
This previsualization step is the most important step to successful fine art photography, I recon. I look up at these grand oak trees that cover and dapple the fading daylight. Even a particular color palette starts to come to mind when I see the forest is bathed in the deep greens of late July. There is also a subdued type of cyan; a color which I can’t quite put my finger on. I start to look for yellow, red, and brown mushrooms to create a complementary color palette as I turn left; then right. Suddenly: There’s no one but me in this dense woodland and my imagination kicks in to overdrive.
That camera bag? I’m sure you’re wondering what’s in there. Let’s talk gear for a sec. I shoot with Nikon, but for macro work I yearn for that EF 100mm f/2.8L to fit on my D750… The optics are just that good. Nevertheless, I’ve found the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 SP Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD to work really well. I’ve used the 105mm Sigma before, but the slightly shorter focal length helps to get just that bit closer to the mushrooms. I’ll tell you why that helps in the next step, but there’s more in the bag. I use the Sirui Carbon T-2204XL Traveller Tripod; a light, versatile, and sturdy piece of equipment from which I can invert the center column and hang the camera to obtain a lower vantage point. Aside from a tripod, I also carry a flat beanbag from Stealth Gear that has seen use in just these kind of shots.
On to the light painting bit. I use the Black Diamond Storm headlamp. It’s hurricane proof, has an amazing battery life and comes with three lighting settings: Wide, red, and “lighthouse.” The most useful setting in this scenario is the “lighthouse” spotlight setting. It’s bright enough to pierce the delicate tissue of most small fungi. A selection of colored transparent plastic sheets help to tone the cold white LED light. Flash gels are also a hit.
Making the image really sharp isn’t simply done by dialing in f/32. Instead, I’d like to shoot wide open to create spectacular bokeh effects in the background. But that has detrimental effects to the front-to back sharpness of the mushrooms. And this is where it becomes technically challenging, demanding and sometimes utterly frustrating. I think I’ve mentioned before that today’s camera gear does not allow me to pursue my creative vision out of the box. If the dynamic range is too wide, I bracket exposures, but now we must focus stack the images. Focus stacking is taking exposures at various focus distances and merging them into one image. It’s imperative that they align perfectly and have the same exposure throughout “the stack.” But how do you adjust the focus? Think of turning the focus ring when you need the images to align perfectly while photographing subjects that stand mere centimeters tall.
Enter Helicon Remote. Via an USB OTG (on the go) cable, I connect my D750 to my Nexus 5 smartphone and fire up this app. Helicon Remote does all sorts of things remotely; including calculating depth-of-field and setting the start and end points of a focus stack that then automatically fires in rapid succession. Check out its capabilities on the Helicon Soft website.
While I get deeper into the forest, I move more slowly and get lower and lower. Like a hunchback I lift fern leaves and look for moss. These particular fungi share the same environments with moss: damp and shaded areas of woodland with plenty of nutrients to feed on. Deadwood with moss in the shade of a large, leafy tree is a surefire way to find what you’re looking for. The best lighting conditions are found under an overcast sky and well before sundown, because you’re going to be busy for a while. There’s also the included bonus if the shrooms are elevated. That will help to get your camera underneath, pointing up to them. This is exactly why a shorter focal length is preferred. Time for behind-the-scenes shots.
4) Blur one area, sharpen others
You can angle a shorter lens more toward the forest canopy, which gives you gorgeous bokeh if you dial in the right settings. Then the aperture also has amazing effects on the atmosphere of the image. Check out these shots at different settings.
Buttery smooth backgrounds and large highlights. That’s wide open for you. At f/3.5, the aperture is actually wide open, but the camera calculates the effective aperture based on the focal distance... It had me scratching my head too. At f/7.1 the depth-of-field becomes larger and the highlights drop in size. The background becomes rather nervous and distracting at even smaller apertures like f/14.
For me, there isn’t any value to capturing it all in a single image, apart from that it is a lot less work if you do. I really like the large highlights at f/14, so I’ll use those. I’ll dial in the focus stack (with the lights turned off) from the very front edge of the first mushroom to the last bit of detail I can find in the distant mushroom at f/3.5 as well, just to keep the fore- and background nice and calm with good transitions between subject and surroundings.
If you’re struggling and find the foreground has too much sharpness, you can always put a leaf inside the lens hood.
This will give you most excellent blurry foregrounds that will add another layer of depth to your final image.
5) Composition & Exposure
Placement of the mushrooms in the frame is of course entirely up to you. I’m fairly traditional when it comes to macro photography and use either the rule of thirds or the golden mean for compositions that are easy on the eye. But be sure to experiment before you fix the tripod or beanbag and attach the OTG cable to the camera. In fact, try to hand-hold and move around the mushrooms before fixing the camera at all.
Spoiler alert: We're going to work on that last image.
When you’ve found the composition you’re after, it’s time to make the image darker. Dial in around -1EV and take note of the auto exposure settings. Do make sure you set your ISO to 100 again. This makes the image feel more moody and atmospheric and helps to prevent overexposure in the areas you are about to light paint. Switch to manual mode and dial in these exact settings. Fire up Helicon Remote and let the app do its thing.
Make sure the battery has enough juice left to last through the entire session. You absolutely don't want this to happen during the shoot (it did obviously happen to me), because you'd have to touch the camera between shoots. And remember: Don't touch the camera once you've found the composition you are after.
6) In the spotlights
Cue: “Hit the Lights” by Metallica. At this point, the fun really starts. This is also the time that you decide for yourself if you’re in for a penny and in for a pound. Do you create a fantasy world or do you stay more true to nature? It’s totally up to you if you actually want to light your mushrooms. Let’s assume for now you are reading this because the title enticed you to learn something creative.
You'll want to paint from above and behind the mushrooms to make them translucent.
Light painting is handwork. So we won’t be focus stacking. But in Helicon Remote, we can also control the camera’s settings. So decrease the aperture to about f/10 and compensate the loss of light with the shutter speed; still at -1EV. Focus on the areas under the mushrooms with the arrow keys in the focus tab of Remote. Don’t touch the camera at all! Leave it in place until you are absolutely sure you are done. Now place the LED light over and slightly behind the shrooms and zoom in on the LCD screen to make sure you've got the most critical areas in sharp focus:
Should it all become a grainy mess: Open up the aperture to let in more light. This will lower the gain (ISO) on the image you see presented on the LCD screen. Then focus properly and close the aperture to achieve enough DOF again.
In most cases, the white light is enough. It brings out the natural coloring of the mushroom’s translucent structure, so you can leave the gel filters off. Do this a couple of times while adjusting the focus slightly using your smartphone or tablet and placing the light over different areas. Don’t adjust the camera’s exposure, but control the brightness of the light with distance and intensity (dimming).
That’s it for shooting. I’ve took 69 exposures and light painted 25 of them in just under one hour. In the meantime, I’ve seen a mouse looking at me with huge eyes. I bet he wondered what I was doing before he went into the tree trunk I was sitting on. I’ve also been bitten 27 times by mosquitos, pulled three ticks from my legs, and got out of the way of the odd leech during this “one photograph.”
Next, we’re of course putting them all together and this is where the mushrooms become true magic mushrooms. I'm also going to give you a step-by-step post-processing rundown of this shot. But let’s save that for another time, because this article’s length is getting out of hand already. In the meantime, check out my profile at 500px where you'll find finished examples of glowing mushrooms.
Thanks for the read, guys! I'll see you in the next chapter.