In this blog, I will underline my process for shooting Mycological ‘portraits’. Why use the word portrait? Maybe it’s because I’ve been fascinated by mushrooms since I was young; but, if you do a little research you’ll find that they in fact share some similarities with humans! As with shooting portraits of people, it’s always a lot of fun to experiment with different lighting techniques when shooting mushrooms; generally they live in dark places so it makes sense from a photographic point of view too.
Given that it’s now Autumn, the time is right to head into your local woodland to discover a world largely unseen. The woods really come to life in the Autumn, with stunning displays of colour, succulent scents & plenty of little scenes for you to explore!
1. Choosing your Location;
Though you’ll find mushrooms growing in both deciduous & non-deciduous woodlands, I prefer to explore deciduous locations as there’s often a lot more on offer, a lot more variety & a lot more space to explore. I’ll generally explore woodlands that are close to a river, with steep embankments - this usually means that conditions will be reliably damp & I’ll have plenty of opportunities for shooting/lighting at different angles.
2. Choosing a Subject;
Once you’ve explored your location, you’ll want to find a subject that pique’s your interest. Look for interesting formations, colouration, contrasting visual traits or characteristics such as relationships between a group of mushrooms. You’ll want a scene which isn’t too cluttered, so look for subjects that have a clearly defined space within their landscape. Personally, I won’t enhance a scene by moving undergrowth debris etc as I don’t want to affect the ecosystem at all.
3. Composing your Scene;
Now that you’ve found your subject, you’ll want to compose your scene. I generally look at my subject from every angle & experiment with perspective until I find a position that really enhances the scene. Once you have your position, look at your foreground/background in relation to your subject; do you want it in focus or do you want it blurred? I like to shoot at larger apertures (lower f-stops) as it allows me to draw attention to my subject. It also has the benefit of creating an attractive blur or Bokeh around the subject. However; sometimes you’ll want everything in focus and a smaller aperture (higher f-stops) will help you to achieve this.
With mushrooms you have the choice of shooting from above for an overhead perspective, full frontal for an ‘eyeline’ perspective or from below for a really intimate & interesting perspective that isn’t usually seem. Each of these different perspectives offer exciting opportunities for lighting, so keep this in mind when finding your camera position.
Note; You’ll want either a lens with a close focusing distance, macro capabilities or a couple of ‘extension tubes’ to really get in about your subject at an intimate level. When shooting intimate scenes at close range or on a macro spectrum, I’ll generally use a lens with a variable focal distance (or zoom) as this allows me to easily pull in/out of a scene & recompose without having to move my tripod in tight situations.
4. Setting Up;
So, you have your subject, you’ve composed your shot & you’re happy with your perspective. Now you’ll need to look at lighting the scene. Firstly, think about the message you’d like to convey. Would you like a brightly lit scene resplendent with vibrant colour? Would you like a moody scene draped in deep shadow? Once I know what I’d like to say with my photograph, I’ll use a video light with variable intensity/temperature controls to find my lighting angles.
Generally, lighting with harsh, cool temperatures allows me to define where my shadows will fall within my scene. I then use warmer temperatures to fine tune the lighting positions in a much more natural sense. I’ll set up my master flash, using a wireless trigger for off-body shooting & then make test exposures until I’m happy with my main light source. Most of the time, I’ll use a small soft-box or diffuser on my master flash as this softens the light & allows it to ‘wrap’ around my subject.
Once you’ve got your flash in position, you may want to think about a secondary light source or ‘slave’. I generally use a slave to provide a bit of rim-lighting (back light) as this helps to add depth to my subject. I’ll also experiment with coloured flash gels, using the colour wheel to see which colours work well with my subject. Generally, woodland scenes will be of a warmer tone, therefore Blues & Greens tend to work well. It’s purely down to your personal aesthetic though! I like to use a large circular diffuser when backlighting a subject too, as this helps to soften the effect.
5. Exposing your Photograph
When using flash, you’ll want to remove any ambient lighting. To do this, you’ll want to shoot at higher shutter speeds; anything above 1/80th of a second in usually fine in woodland scenarios. Keep an eye on your shutter speed though - depending on your flash system your shutter speed can be too fast for the flash & this will cause a black bar across your image where the physical shutter blocks the light on the cameras sensor. Speeds below 1/200ths of a second without HSS (High Speed Sync) are generally fine. Once I’ve balanced my shutter speed & my aperture, I’ll usually set my ISO to 200/300. This means that I can reduce my exposure without having to change my other settings if need be!
I hope that this piece has helped to expand your photographic skillset & inspired you to get out there & explore the macro world that is the woodland undergrowth! Please remember to roam responsibly; leave as you came & respect that you are a visitor to the environment. Happy hunting!
Go Outside, It’s Good For You!