TIPS FOR IMPROVING OUR MUSHROOM PHOTOGRAPHIC SKILLS


TIPS FOR IMPROVING OUR MUSHROOM PHOTOGRAPHIC SKILLS

by Dianna Smith

WHY PHOTOGRAPH MUSHROOMS?

Well-composed and properly lit fungi photos can be works of art. They are creative expressions of our vision and appreciation of nature. They can inspire us to contemplate their fungal lifestyles and death, their connections with the roots of plants, and their interactions with other life forms including bacteria, worms and nematodes in the wood and in soil. Besides being a source of wonderment and inspiration, there are many practical reasons to photograph mushrooms - from entering them in photo contests to publishing them on social networks or personal websites to making screen savers, prints, greeting cards, calendars or even a book of favorites to share with friends and the world. Mycology teachers also find them essential for illustrating their PowerPoint lessons. In my humble opinion, one of the best reasons to photograph mushrooms is that they are a huge help in learning our mushrooms, especially when we compose them with the intention of displaying all their field characteristics. This is because when magnified on our computer screen, we are suddenly able to see minute details we might not observe or be able to see when in the field. It is also helpful for learning to print out the best shots and write notes on the back about their characteristics. This essay is devoted to helping us improve our skills as photographers behind the camera and as photo editors in front of the computer, no matter our reasons for taking photos of fungi or what kind of camera we have. 

COMMON PROBLEMS FOR NEW & EXPERIENCED PHOTOGRAPHERS:

Mushrooms make great close-up subjects and should be easy to photograph because they don’t move. In reality, capturing a good crisp photo of a mushroom is not without its challenges. The mushrooms are almost never seen in perfect condition, or in a beautiful flat patch of soft green moss free of distractions. In our region of the northeast, they are more often slug-damaged and surrounded by and wrapped in competing forest debris we may not notice until after we see the shot magnified on our computer screens. I can’t tell you how many otherwise good photos have been ‘ruined’ by stray sticks or leaves poking up in front of or just behind the mushroom in my camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen. The result is not unlike seeing a telephone pole seemingly emerging from someone’s head! Fortunately we can do something about this challenge by taking the time to carefully tidy up the mushroom and its immediate environs in preparation for taking our photos. The main difficulty we face as potentially great mushroom photographers is that our subjects are almost always in dappled light or deep in woodland shadows. To get the best out of our cameras we need to know what techniques and settings are most useful in low-light situations and what accessories are essential for ensuring that our photos don’t suffer from blurriness, sharp shadows, graininess, lack of focus and poor composition. 

Over the course of the next few pages, I will discuss the main digital camera types and their advantages and disadvantages with respect to each other and mushroom photography. I will explain the basics of low-light and close-up photography. Then I will describe the detailed steps to creating adequately lit and well-composed mushroom photographs. Finally, I will end with tips on editing, saving and sharing our masterpieces.

ADVATANGES OF DIGITAL CAMERAS: Fifteen years ago, digital cameras were a novelty. Today they are the norm, like computers, printers, memory cards, cable television and smart phones. There is probably at least one of each in every home. They offer the majority of us the pleasure of pursuing a relatively modern, engaging, even creative, hobby, or in our case, three activities/hobbies simultaneously - mushroom photography, digital photo editing and mycology. Taking photos can be as easy as composing the scene and pressing the shutter. Within seconds, we can check and decide whether or not we got our shot by examining it magnified on the camera’s LCD screen. If we didn’t get it, we can retake the shot as many times as we need as long as there is room on our memory card. After downloading our photos to our computers we can quickly spruce them up with various post-processing adjustments. We can organize and store them by the thousands on a compact or 1 - 2 terabyte external hard drive. We can choose to keep the ones worth holding onto without having to print them out unless we want to display or, thanks to the internet, share them with others around the world. The experience is really all in our hands.

Many of today’s cameras offer extensive manual or semi-automatic controls, or at least one or more light-control features such as exposure compensation and various scene modes. Yet when it comes to photographing anyone or thing, most of us leave the decision-making completely to the camera. Sophisticated as our cameras are at helping us reproduce what we see, they are not perfect. It is worth finding and cracking open the manual now and then with our fully charged camera in hand. One purpose of this essay is to encourage everyone to experiment with, make use of and master these features so that our mushroom photography skills improve beyond snapshots - even if we decide to permanently park our camera in AUTO.

RECOMMENDED EQUIPMENT:  Point and Shoots 

Most of us nowadays have a small point and shoot (PS) camera or camera phone. Most PS and camera phones do not offer much if any owner control, and so they appeal to those of us who can’t be bothered with taking photos outside the AUTO mode. Some camera manufacturers, however, are starting to offer a full complement of manual features for the amateur photographer who wants to begin experimenting with them. You may have one of these. The advantages of PS cameras include being lightweight and easy to carry in a pocket. Precisely because they are lightweight and small, we tend to carry them around with us all the time. We are less likely to do the same with a bulky, heavy and expensive digital single reflex camera (DSLR). PS cameras are also convenient in situations like club walks, where we may have to keep up with the leader, and don’t feel confident about making on the spot camera adjustments. They offer versatility in having focal lengths competitive with that of dedicated lenses. Many have a fairy wide-angle capability, which is important whether we are taking a photo of a group of people from a distance or a group of mushrooms from close up. They offer a macro mode that enables users to take a photo of a mushroom closer (though not bigger) than can be achieved with a DSLR lens. It also is actually easier to get a mushroom photo with adequate depth of field taken with a point and shoot compared with a DSLR outfitted with a macro lens. On the other hand, it isn’t as easy for the PS to get the background blurs that many favor for close-up and portrait photography. A disadvantage of point and shoots compared with either compact enthusiast cameras or DSLRs is that their image sensors are small and don’t have the light-gathering sensitivity, detail and color resolution of their bigger siblings. On the other hand, unless we plan on making a large print of our photo, most of us will be unable to discern the difference between an image taken with a PS versus one with a DSLR with a large sensor. Since PS are popular cameras for taking mushroom photos, the bulk of this article is geared toward users of them.

COMPACT camera A second type of camera that several COMA members have is often referred to as an enthusiast camera for people who want higher image quality and more control than a bare-bones point and shoot. I personally like the cameras in this category because they tend to have nearly all the manual controls of more expensive DSLRs, while being significantly smaller (although they are not as easy to stow in a shirt pocket as a PS). Their sensors are slightly larger than those of PS cameras, though not nearly as large as those in DSLRs. Like PS cameras, they don’t have interchangeable lenses, but the glass in their fixed lenses is generally of better quality than that of a PS camera. One group of them, the Canon G series, even has a rotating LCD screen, which is a very convenient feature for us mushroom photographers. Most of these cameras are in the $400-$500 range.  

The DSLR: Like some point and shoots and all enthusiast cameras, DSLR cameras come in a broad range of sizes, features and capabilities. Professional and enthusiast photographers prefer to use them because they can have as much creative control over their photos as they want to have, being able to set the camera on automatic, manual or something in between like aperture or speed priority. Image quality is also significantly higher, though this is usually not obvious when the images being compared are relatively small as they are for web and e-mail purposes. DSLRs can be fitted with lenses suitable for different needs. For mushroom photography we would use a dedicated macro lens or possibly even a wide-angle or magnifying zoom lens depending on the look we want to achieve. The glass in DSLR lenses is typically superior to that of compact and point and shoots cameras. Most DSLRs have a viewfinder, which is preferred by photographers over the LCD display screen at the back of point and shoot cameras. On the other hand, as relates to mushroom photography, I don’t view this as an overwhelming advantage. The 3”+ LCD screens on the back of nearly all kinds of newer cameras come with a high pixel count enabling the photographer to more easily see and compose a shot for close-up pictures of mushrooms. As long as the camera is on a tripod, it is not difficult to get clear images. One of the main reasons for preferring DSLRs is that they have significantly larger sensors than PS and compact cameras and thus can capture more light, color and detail. Again the actual size of the sensor varies somewhat among DSLRs, but generally the larger the sensor, the higher the resolution, light-gathering capability - and usually the price. One can legitimately argue, however, that unless you intend to make a large print or contribute a photo for publication in an oversize book, many of us probably wouldn’t notice much if any difference between a ‘12‘ megapixel JPEG picture made with a point and shoot and one made with an advanced DSLR. 

And finally, DSLRs, like some compact cameras, are capable of shooting photos in uncompressed RAW format (as well as JPEGs) and thus permit the photographer to apply his/her own editing preferences rather than have the camera’s internal software make those decisions. Here is where one can detect differences in the image quality between a PS JPEG and one created from a RAW photo. A JPEG from a 12 megapixel PS sensor will toss out a significant number of pixels during the in-camera editing process. The size of the same image created from a RAW photo retains the detail and megapixels. Consequently, storing RAW or processed RAW photos on your hard drive takes up between two and six times as much hard drive space. Given the cheap cost of storage these days, that is not as big a deal it was a few years ago. If you have any ambition to publish your photos, or if it is just important to you to have crisp, clear images with few distracting compression artifacts, you would rather have all the information available to manipulate that you get when shooting RAW.

I should mention that there is another type of mirrorless DSLR style camera and lenses that is rapidly gaining in popularity. This is my preferred style, because it offers all the benefits of a full-size DSLR, including a larger sensor, without the weight and bulkiness. Photographing mushrooms with these cameras is much more pleasurable for me. I no longer have to carry a heavy camera on my shoulder or around my neck, saving me from the pain of a ‘bad back.’ There are more differences in and between the various types of cameras mentioned than I have covered, but the dissimilarities are becoming increasingly blurred through constant innovation. Many of the more recently released point and shoot cameras, for example, also boast features previously seen only in expensive DSLRs, such as enhanced light sensitivity, numerous scene modes, the ability to record GPS coordinates or take HD video. A few even allow you complete control over camera settings. Though it may seem profligate, the amazing advances made in camera technology annually provide a good argument for buying a new PS every two or three years. The newest models are designed to give us a decent photo under varying conditions – often good enough to publish in a book. So I recommend everyone have one on hand. If interested in having a bit more control over the camera, you may want to consider eventually getting a more advanced compact camera or DSLR. If we are serious about consciously trying to improve our skills as well as learning about the mushrooms we are attempting to capture at a particular moment in time, then ideally we would have both types of camera - one for club walks where we have to keep up with the leader and one for going out specifically to take the time to take carefully thought out mushroom photos. However, inspired lighting, composition and the creative vision, the story-telling ability of the person taking the photo are more important than having an expensive camera. For that reason I say that the best camera to use is the one you already have. Master its controls and then invest in something a bit more advanced if you feel intrigued by the challenge.

No matter what kind of camera we have, it is important to spend time learning about it. This means we have to crack open the manual now and then to learn its features and what we can do with them. Practice taking photos of something the size of a ‘typical’ mushroom while at home, using the different settings possible to discover how the camera does when trying diverse adjustment options. Take settings notes. Look at the results on the computer screen to see which works best. Then try the entire exercise again. Then when we are out in the woods looking for our mushroom ‘models’, we will feel more in tune with our camera and confident about adjusting its settings on the fly. 

EXPOSURE TRIANGLE: Photography is all about the various ways of using and adjusting lighting to get the picture we want. Few of us are motivated to get up before dawn to get the best light of the day. But we can learn how to make the most of our camera’s capabilities at other times of the day by understanding how to adjust its settings to get the crisp, clean image we expect to see. Contrary to what many think, our subjects look best when photographed in overcast light. The need to prevent white blowout of details from sunshine, is why I frequently ask a COMA member to create a shadow for me with their body. When no one is around, I use my own shadow. 

Whether we take all of our photos in AUTO mode or in complete MANUAL mode, either our camera or we are juggling various settings to get a desired lighting effect. While pretty smart in automatic mode, as a photographer you can usually create a better quality photo by juggling just three variables – ISO, Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority. Several setting combinations are possible resulting in the same correct exposure. All involve a downside or challenge. We just have to find the best compromise as it pertains to shooting mushrooms that enables us to get a good photo under our specific conditions. As we will see, for mushroom photography we have to make camera settings that may seem counter-intuitive.

ISO: One easy way of adjusting the light gathering capacity of our cameras involves changing the camera’s ISO setting. Almost all cameras permit us to control the ISO. On digital cameras, ISO mimics film speeds (ASA) of older SLR cameras. Its numerical value reflects the light sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor. In general, on a bright day we might use a low ISO setting of 100. On a cloudy day, we might use 400. In deeply shaded woods we might go as high as ASA 800 or more. Most cameras go from an ISO of 64 or 100 to higher speeds of 400 up to ISO 112,000! If we stay entirely within the camera’s automatic mode, the camera will decide what the ISO should be. If the photo is taken in shade, the camera will often bump the ISO to the camera’s maximum so that we can get a brighter shot in darker conditions. But a consequence of raising the ISO is that it introduces graininess or noise. That noise is made up of multicolored squares, especially visible in the darker areas on the photo. To avoid graininess or noise I recommend that unless our camera is the latest and greatest in its class, it should be set at an ISO no higher than 200 if you have a point and shoot (PS) or between 400-800 for a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras older than some of today’s most light sensitive models. There are other ways of controlling lighting that don’t involve much effort in understanding.

SHUTTER SPEED PRIORITY: A second way of controlling the amount of light that hits the sensor is to use Shutter Speed Priority. This refers to the length of time the shutter stays open. In this mode we set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. Since we can agree that mushrooms do not move, we might assume that we consequently don’t need to worry about handholding our camera to shoot it. When taking pictures of mushrooms, we need to experiment to find out which is the slowest shutter speed that consistently works well for us. Shutter speeds below 1/60th of a second with the lens wide open are considered too slow to hold a camera steady without using support of a tripod. Even at this speed, few of us can hold a camera still enough to take a shot without the slightest evidence of blurring, though this may only be viewable on a large screen monitor. A little bit of motion may not matter so much printed on 3 x5 or 6 x 9 photo paper, but enlarged further, and it will begin to show softness or even ghosting. Some of us will object saying that our camera has image stabilization. No current camera image stabilization is an absolutely perfect solution to the movement that invariably comes with handholding a camera – especially from the awkward positions we have to get into in order to take our best shot. Just by pressing the shutter button, we introduce movement to the camera. No matter how shake-free our hands may be, they are not devoid of movement that comes with breathing or holding your breath – unless we photograph our subject at a high speed. Unfortunately, we can’t do that without compromising the amount of light that is necessary to clearly see our subject, which is why I highly recommend using a tripod in combination with our camera’s timer to make the shot.

APERTURE PRIORITY: Aperture refers to the amount of light that hits our camera’s sensor. In this semi-automatic mode, we adjust the aperture, while the camera adjusts the shutter speed. Counter-intuitively, smaller numbers represent a large wide-open aperture, which means an f-2 aperture stop lets in much more light than an f-16 stop aperture. Higher numbers represent a small narrow aperture. If in dark woods we might think we should to set our aperture at the lower end, like f2. However, aperture has an effect on the depth of field of our photos. Depth of Field refers to the region of our photo that is in focus (i.e. from the front to the back of our mushroom). At wide-open apertures (f.2) DOF is narrower meaning that part of our mushroom will be out of focus. We may see only the front, middle, or back of our russula, say, in focus. The rest will be out of focus. That dreamy look can be artistically interesting only if the front of the mushroom is in focus, but it won’t give us enough information to be able to identify our subject. At smaller apertures (say, f.8 to f.16 up), all of the mushroom and its immediate surroundings will be sharp. At f.22 all of the background and foreground would also be in focus. To balance the need for adequate light and speed while creating a decent DOF, for mushroom photography I recommend the use of Aperture priority almost exclusively. It is far easier than relying on total manual control of the camera’s complex settings. An aperture setting of between F.8 and F.16 more or less seems to work best in most circumstances. A consequence of setting the aperture at this level is that the camera will adjust the shutter speed downward depending on the precise lighting conditions, possibly as slow as several seconds in length. Such a combination of settings means we will be obliged to use a tripod and the camera’s timer to get the shot.

What else can we do to insure we have a properly exposed photo? If our camera features Exposure Compensation, we can use it to brighten or darken our subject or the entire scene as required. Also, if the background is either very bright or very dark making it difficult to get our main subject properly exposed, be sure to take it off matrix metering, the default setting for most cameras. Matrix metering averages out the lights and the darks in the scene with the result that the main subject, our fungal scene, may be either too dark or too light to see details. For mushroom photography it is probably best to use center spot metering exclusively, as this way we will be assured that our main subject is properly exposed. Like professional photographers, also try out the camera’s bracketing feature. In this setting the camera will take a series of shots, usually 3 to 5. They will range from under-exposed to over-exposed. We can pick the best of the lot – or meld them together in a software program like Photoshop to make a photo with high dynamic range.    

While some photographers prefer to take their mushroom pictures in natural light, most use supplementary lighting to bring out color and detail. For those of us with PS cameras, we may need to use our on board flash. But unless the shot is composed perfectly, it is going to be difficult to avoid introducing hard shadows. This is why professional photographers use remote flash lighting that is either reflected off a white or silver board or umbrella onto the mushroom, or soften their flash with a diffuser, such as a white plastic shopping bag. For those of us with PS, we can either buy a diffuser for our on board camera flash or simply use white tissue or plastic taped to it to get a similar result. Another option is to buy an inexpensive LED light or lights placed on the ground around the mushroom scene to create an effect similar to professional results. We can even use our iPhone or iPad as a soft light box, since there are a number of apps that can do this for us. It is important to experiment with lighting effects, not simply to shed light on our mushrooms, but to do so in an interesting way that enhances their features.

There are several ways to know if our photos are consistently too dark or too bright. If our camera has a histogram, turn the feature on so that it is always displayed on the LCD screen. Once we learn how to read the histogram, we can see whether or not we have to adjust our settings to get an improved exposure. The histogram shows us where the light and dark tones appear in our photo. If the peaks on the left side are higher than those on the right, our photo is too dark. If they are more bunched up on the right side of the histogram, our camera adjustments are letting in too much light. (Too much light is worse than too little, since details will be ‘blown out’ and can’t be recovered). The object is to get a well-exposed photo with the peaks forming something like a bell-curve. Every camera is a little bit different. If we find there is too much contrast in our photos, too much black or white, learn to recognize it and adjust the camera settings accordingly. If your camera does not have a histogram, learn to read the one in your editing program.

Many cameras as well as editing programs today display a highlight warning that blinks in areas that are overexposed or underexposed.  If we see white ’blinkies’ on our LCD screen, we can move our camera’s exposure compensation dial toward the minus side to darken the scene. If we see blue ’blinkies’’, we can use our camera’s exposure compensation dial toward the plus side to lighten the scene.

That’s it for lighting

CAMERA PREPARATION: With adequate forethought and preparation, we can make it a habit to ready our equipment in advance of going out into the woods. There is nothing worse than going out to shoot mushrooms and discovering that our battery is dead or nearly dead. I recommend having a couple of extra batteries with us at all times that have been freshly charged up the day before. The other disappointment that has happened to me a few times is forgetting to insert a formatted memory card into the camera. So be sure to check that it is in place and not in your card reader attached to the computer. Some of us have memory cards purchased a few years ago and many of them don’t have the capacity to store many photos. Today higher capacity 4GB to 64GB cards are quite inexpensive. Get class 10 memory cards, which can write and read data from the camera and upload to the computer fairly quickly. These cards are also suitable for recording HD video, a feature included with most of the current cameras on the market. 

 The easiest way to get started with photographing mushrooms is to follow these camera preparation steps, many of which can be adjusted at home before going out to save time while in the field. First of all, we want to make sure camera is set to record images with continuous numbers. We do not want the numbering to reset every time insert a memory card. Also, be sure the camera is set to NOT display the recording of date and time on your photo. Seeing numbers at the bottom of a photo is distracting and means that portion will need to be cropped out, should it be good enough for publishing purposes. Some may object, believing there is no other way to know when the photo was taken. This information is metadata visible in your editing program.  And if we group and organize our photos by date and place in our editing program, we will always know when and where the photos were taken. Also, unless we are making an HD movie with our camera and want photos with the same aspect ratio for our finished product, set the aspect ratio to 4:3 rather than wide-angle movie aspect. We are less likely to have wasted our camera’s resolution by having too much unnecessary space above and below and to the sides of our subject. Our cameras can be set in advance to the Macro mode.  If available on the camera, use the RAW setting. Whether RAW or JPEG, make sure the quality setting is on highest available (Fine) and the image size is LARGE. Though doing so will consume more space on our memory card we need our photos to be of the highest resolution our camera can produce, so we can crop them if necessary and still have enough pixels for a good print. Be sure the camera is off the default matrix metering and set it to center spot metering to increase chances of getting a properly exposed subject. We can even adjust the ISO beforehand. Remember, we want to keep the number low (100-200 for a PS, or 400-800 for a DSLR) to ensure we are not taking a grainy-looking photo. Set the camera to take photos in macro mode. If we are using a DSLR, we can mount the macro lens on the camera so we don’t have to carry it around. If the camera has a switch to shift between AUTO and Manual Focus manual focus, set it to the latter. The operator can be more precise in focusing than the camera can on AUTO. If it has manual controls, set it to the semi-automatic Aperture Priority and use the smallest aperture the camera will allow so we get a clear picture of the entire mushroom or cluster of mushrooms (a medium aperture, like f.16). If you also want to include the surroundings, use an even larger number (a smaller lens opening like f.22) to increase DOF. In the event we will need to use the flash, pre-set it to ‘fill flash’. This setting is also helpful in softening harsh shadows when our mushroom is in bright sun. Not all point and shoots will have the manual control to make all of these settings, but make as many adjustments as the camera allows. Cover the on-board flash with a diffuser or some white plastic to soften the shadows. If using a DSLR, brighten the scene with a ring light or an off camera flash with a diffuser and reflectors or white cardboard for bouncing and directing the light where wanted.

Finally, if using a small camera, we can even attach a small tripod to the bottom of the camera and be ready to simply point and shoot. I recommend Jobby’s Gorillapods for point and shoots, compact cameras and small DSLRs. They are sturdy, bendable, and add very little weight to the camera. Users of heavier full-sized DSLRs will want to bring along a sturdy tripod with a moveable central column that permits the camera to be set low to the ground as well as fairly high should a mushroom be fruiting in a tree.

GROOMING: Some mycologists like to photograph their mushrooms laying on a piece of dark colored fabric. But I prefer to shoot them in situ – in their habitat, especially when purposefully trying to shoot a good diagnostic photo that might accompany a description in a book. Often I see only a single mushroom, but if there are others of the same species nearby in different stages of growth, I tidy them up and then surround the central mushroom with them, being sure to also expose the hymenium or spore-producing surface. Puffballs, sclerodermas, hypogeous species (truffles, etc.), amanita buttons, and boletes should be sliced through the middle to expose their interiors and reveal any bruising reactions or color changes. Scratch and show the gills and milk of lactarius specimens.

Now it is time to move around the mushroom(s) to find the best angle for capturing the most pleasing shot. Don’t assume it is the angle at which everyone stopped to look at the mushroom. We want to keep the background and foreground free of distractions, but leaves and needles that are associated with the mushroom should be included in the shot. Get your camera down on level with, or slightly above or below our subject. By all means, don’t shoot the mushroom from a standing position. A ‘bottom of the shoe’ perspective is uninteresting and uninformative, since only the caps or top surface will be in the image and most likely at too much of a distance from the camera. We want to compose the shot trying to get the entire mushroom in the picture with just a bit of breathing room around it. If you are wondering what this looks like, just take a close look at the well-composed photos in the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America.

Confirm that you are in manual focus mode, especially when in macro or zoom mode and focus slightly in front of the middle of the mushroom cap. Manual focusing is usually much more precise than auto focus. If you don’t feel confident about focusing manually, lock focus while on the focal spot and then recompose while holding the shutter down half-way. If the camera’s lens ”hunts,” it is unable to focus on the subject while in Auto Focus.  It is not the camera’s fault. It is simply having difficulty discerning the subject from the background for one or more of several reasons: the sun is behind the camera; or there might be too little contrast between the subject and its foreground and/or background.  We are just as likely to be just too close to the mushroom. We need to be aware that just because a camera manufacturer may claim a camera can take a photo as close as 1 centimeter from the lens, this is only possible at the widest setting under the best working conditions. If lighting conditions are not perfect, as they rarely are in the woods, our photo will likely be out of focus. Here is where we want to move far enough back from our subject, until the camera can focus on the subject. We might use the situation as an opportunity to try using the telephoto range of the camera to zoom in part way until our mushroom fills much of the view. 

 So that you don’t introduce movement into the photo, set your camera’s self-timer to take the photo or use a remote shutter release if the camera is on a tripod. If despite my urging that you use a tripod, you are hand holding the camera, then press the shutter at the end of your breath‘s exhale. In either case, shoot several photos at different apertures, in other words bracket the shots. Never take just a single exposure as chances are it could be better. Immediately review the results and magnify the image on your LCD screen. While the small LCD screen cannot replace examination of the photos on a large monitor, it is the best we can do when in the field. If they could be clearer, sharper, or better lit, then reshoot if necessary before abandoning the scene. This may seem like a lot of steps, but once you practice them a few times, the process will be quick and automatic.

The reality is that we probably can’t perform all these procedures if in the woods with a large group of people, which is in a rush to collect as much as possible. This is why it is so convenient to have as many of our camera settings as possible ready to go before starting out, so that besides cleaning up the scene, we can literally compose the shot, set down the camera on its tripod, and set the timer to press the shutter a few times before moving ahead to photograph the next exciting find. There is always the danger that anxiety about keeping with others will lead to shaky shots rather than the steady images we are attempting to get. Instead I suggest people go out with a small group of like-minded mushroom photographers and take turns and the time to get the photos we want. Use scheduled club walks to document what we find with our camera phone, PS or compact camera, trying to apply some of the principles of composition learned here, but not worrying about the results too much. I guarantee our shots will still be better than they were before practicing the tips mentioned.

ORGANIZING & EDITING SOFTWARE: Some of the best organizing and editing programs include Adobe Lightroom 4 & Apple’s Aperture 2, Photoshop Pro, Photoshop Elements, ACDSee Pro, Corel Paintshop and others. There are also several free programs on the internet that offer all the most important features of commercial programs, such as the free Picassa. I personally employ and prefer Lightroom 4, because it is powerful, easy to use and fulfills my needs for managing tens of thousands of photos and quickly making a handful of adjustments to improve the look of my RAW exposures. I don’t need a paint program that is going to enable me to remove blemishes or wrinkles or substitute the cap on one mushroom for the cap on another to confound our fellow mycophiles. I don’t need to know how to use layers, because I am not interested in transforming my photos into something they are not. I just want to make them a little brighter, sharper or less noisy. Artists, however, will want to experiment with the numerous features provided by editing programs to create something unusual and imaginative.

SEARCHABLE PHOTOS: Using our chosen management/editing software, we need to make it a habit to import our photos ASAP to the computer’s hard drive. This first step should be done the day the photos are taken, while everything photographed is still fresh in mind. If you leave this task to a much later time, it will be difficult to remember if the color of the mushroom captured by the camera is accurate, too cool or too warm.  It will also be hard to recall what trees the mushroom may be associated with – or its name. Next we need to rename the folder that the photos are in. The camera/computer will name the folder by date (D/M/Y for example). All we have to do is add the name of the place where the photos were taken following the date (ie. 05/12/13 Tallman State Park). Then we need to look through each and every one with a ruthlessly critical eye by zooming in on them. Now delete the worst. This is the most important part of ‘editing!’ That means getting rid of all those out of focus pictures. Those that are so bright that they are blemished with a large colorless blotch, which has erased any detail away, or too dark and grainy should also be tossed in the trash. It may seem extreme, but I typically delete at least ½ on a first look and more thereafter. This is in keeping with what most professional photographers do. Unless I have a poor photo of a mushroom I have never seen before and I need a reminder however bad, I get rid of it. Why bother take up the space on my hard or external drive devoted to storing bad shots I don’t enjoy reviewing and would never show anyone else? It would be better to use the space for our growing collection of improved fungi photos. 

We want to be able to find any photo from among thousands of others. To do so, it should be given an appropriate name. We do not want to delete the unique number associated with each photo. Keeping the number differentiates the mushroom named in the photo from all others with the same group, genus or species name. With a field guide in hand, try to name the mushroom in each photo to genus and species followed by the number given to the shot by the camera (do not delete the photo’s number!). If we can’t name the mushroom at least to genus, name it to general group (i.e. polypore, stereum, gilled, toothed). I use free time over the winter, especially, to try to further identify fungi that are a puzzle to me. Naming fungi photos even to group makes it easy to find doing a search for an unnamed ’polypore’, for example. 

Now copy the folder (05/12/13 Tallman State Park, in our example) and its remaining contents and paste to a folder called ‘MUSHROOM PHOTOS’ which has been set up on at least two drives. This folder should be on at least two separate drives, for example a hard drive and an external drive, two external drives or on an external drive and a cloud storage service. It is better to be safe than sorry, since all drives have a limited life, it can be guaranteed they will fail someday. These options are cheap and worth every penny. Finally, return the memory card to the camera and format it to remove all files. If you leave the old files on the card, they will just take up space needed for the next mushroom photo session. Assuming we are simultaneously charging our batteries, our camera is now ready to accompany us on another photographic adventure.

EDITING: It used to be that once any changes were made to a photo, it was compressed. This was so that it took up less space on our computer’s hard drive, an important consideration when large hard drives or external drives were more costly. Compression meant the original data was lost. Every time the photo was re-edited, more information was obliterated. So a JPEG photo 12 megapixels to start with, could end up being a mere 1-2 megapixels after saving it a few times after making changes. Most editing programs today feature non-destructive editing. The original photo maintains all its information. You can make as many changes as you want, before the copy gets compressed (or recompressed as is the case with JPEGs).  Just hit ‘reset’ and you are back to the original image. Nevertheless, you will want to keep the editing to a minimum and try to get it right while actually photographing your mushrooms, especially if you are shooting JPEGs rather than RAW images. Except perhaps for erasing distractions you did not notice at the time of shooting a scene, it is not worth our time doing extensive work to get a photo into acceptable shape. Be aware that there is nothing we can do to make a blurry photo sharp, except to reshoot. But we can bring out highlights, sharpen, correct the white balance, and remove grain among other procedures.

Using editing software, these are the steps to make which will ready an image for publication, whether in the form of a print, an e-mail attachment, a presentation, a web site, or a book. If the images have been saved in RAW format, scores of detailed exposure and artistic adjustments can be made by the photographer. My practice is to only make adjustments to the photos requested for possible publication or that I want to put on my mycology education site, www.fungikingdon.net web site or our www.pbase.com/comafungi photo identification site. My routine is as follows: I adjust the white balance first. White balance adjustments are used to remove an inaccurate colorcast. This can often make the biggest difference in improving photos. Then while looking at the effects my adjustments make on the software’s histogram, I adjust dark and overly bright areas of photos to bring out hidden details. I then tweak the clarity and contrast sliders, make color adjustments if required, control any evidence of noise and straighten and crop the photo if necessary. Cropping can turn a boring photo into an interesting one by drawing your eye to an area of the photo that you may want to emphasize. Then I downsize the photo for sharing on the web. The next to the last editing adjustment I make is to sharpen the resized RAW image. Finally I save the image as a copy and export it to a temporary folder in Pictures for online output. Photos intended for possible publication in a book are not resized, but may be saved as high-resolution TIFF images. If the photos are in JPEG format, they have been processed or ‘edited’ by the camera. We usually will not need to make any changes other than straightening, cropping, resizing and saving the image if intended to be shared. 

Here are two tips of great photographers:

1. Don’t worry about taking bad photos. Learn from them. Learn from the bad ones as well as the good ones. Read the metadata information that accompanies your photo so you can see what settings did not work and what did.  

2. Create a portfolio or a book featuring your 10-20 best photos. Never show your mistakes.  Do this and your viewers will think you are an incredible photographer and you will be inspired to continue to improve your photographic skills!

CAMERA TESTS AND HOMEWORK

Take several photos of an object at different speeds (using Shutter Priority) to see how slow you can go while hand holding your camera without movement. 

Take several shots at different ISO settings in low light to determine which is of the suggested ones are best for your camera.

Take several photos of the same subject under the same conditions at different aperture settings to see which produces the best photo for you. Try bracketing, too.

Try taking photos at various distances from the subject and use your zoom to come in close to the subject to see if you can detect any differences between the shots.

When in the woods, shoot each subject from at least 10 different angles.

Take lots of photos during a day’s outing, but come home with only one.  Delete all but the best one.

Now try everything above with a tripod! It will make an enormous difference.

Send me your mushroom photos weekly for posting on www.pbase.com/comafungi. From your submissions, I will select the very best with the intention of honoring the winning photographer(s) at the COMA banquet in November.

To see photos illustrating all the photographic mistakes mentioned, log onto www.fungikingdon.net. They will be posted along with this article for illustration purposes.