Until recently, I thought bluebells only grew in woodland, but then I discovered swathes of them growing on an exposed cliff top without a tree in sight. The same goes for fungi; most people associate them with damp woodland in autumn, but whilst most prevalent in autumnal woodland, they can be found pretty much anywhere, from your lawn in spring to sand dunes in the summer.
Fungi are made up of hyphae, which are microscopic strands through which the fungus absorbs food. When conditions are right, they ‘fruit’ and produce what everyone recognises as a mushroom or toadstool. Generally speaking, fungi thrive in cool and moist conditions. In woodland, as the trees shed their leaves and the temperature becomes cooler, so the mushrooms and toadstools appear in myriad shapes, sizes and colours.
To find these fungi, the safest bet is to visit a forest or woodland in autumn. Pay special attention to fallen trees and moss covered logs. The time of day doesn’t really matter as you’ll probably be amongst trees, but near dawn or dusk you will find exposure times become longer than the 30 seconds your camera allows without using the bulb setting.
There is a selection of equipment you will need, some essential and some highly recommended. Light levels will most probably be low, so a sturdy tripod is essential (preferably one with legs that can be splayed, so you can get the camera almost at ground level). A beanbag is useable, although not as reliable. A cable release is recommended, but I often use mirror lock-up with the self-timer, which works just as well.
You will probably need to lie on the ground to look through the viewfinder, so something to lie on will keep your clothes dry. A small reflector can be useful to light up the underside of the fungi and a polarizing filter is handy to intensify colours and remove reflections. And finally, a bottle of water; fungi can dry out and sprinkling a little water over the mushroom or toadstool brings the colour to life.
Lens choice will depend on your budget. I use a Sigma 105mm macro and Kenko extension tubes, but I have successfully photographed large fungi with a standard zoom lens at the macro setting. Having a dedicated macro lens will allow you to get much closer to the fungi, although you’ll need to practise manual focusing, as autofocus becomes unusable at such close quarters.
Extension tubes allow you to get even closer by increasing the distance between the camera and the film surface or sensor, although focusing does become more of a challenge. Real enthusiasts of macro photography sometimes invest in a focusing rack to allow fine adjustment.
It’s worth spending time to find a mushroom or toadstool which is perfect. As they age, they get nibbled and start to looked somewhat ragged. Once you have found your subject, a little ‘gardening’ may be needed, such as moving fallen leaves or blades of grass. Fungi often have to push through the ground and can therefore be covered in dirt, which is where the bottle of water is particularly useful to carefully wash the dirt away.
Consider the ground too – it’s not pleasant walking around with wet clothes for the rest of the day. I’ve photographed fungi in pouring rain while lying on a plastic sheet with an umbrella over the camera and managed to stay mostly dry.
I always have my camera on the aperture-priority setting when photographing fungi, as depth-of-field is what I want total control over. I normally take a series of exposures for each shot to ensure I have a photo I am happy with, starting from f/2.8, then f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and then f/16 and maybe f/22. Any smaller than f/16 and the sharpness starts to noticeably fall off. In a normal landscape photo, f/16 will allow you to have the photo in focus and sharp from front to back, but when it comes to macro photography, f/16 or even f/22 won’t give full sharpness over the whole photo (unless the subject doesn’t have much depth).
If your camera has a depth-of-field preview, then use it often to see what’s in focus and what isn’t. Also ensure your camera’s viewfinder dioptre adjustment hasn’t been moved and is set for your eyes, as this can have an adverse effect with manual focusing if set incorrectly.
The fun really begins once you have become used to the drill of preparing everything before taking the photos, as you never quite know what fungi you will find. Some of them are dull and uninteresting, but others are bright, oddly shaped and amazing! Also, start experimenting with viewpoints.
Some fungi have very interesting undersides with gills, so try getting right on the ground and looking up. A blue sky provides a good contrast with the colour of the fungi. While you’re down on the ground, take a look around the fungi.
The moss bed it’s in may be just as interesting to photograph and the leaf litter may look particularly colourful.
It should be mentioned that however interesting mushrooms and toadstools look, don’t be tempted to even touch them!
Some are edible, but others are poisonous and some deadly. For example, a harmless looking white toadstool can cause severe internal damage and death; its name is rather a giveaway though – Death Cap. Mushroom identification courses are available for anyone who wants to learn to find edible mushrooms. Pocket books about mushrooms and toadstools are also available to aid in naming the fungi you find and are ideal to take with you where it’ll be easier to identify the species.
The children’s storybook toadstool, found growing near birch trees in autumn. Easily recognised by its red cap with white spots when mature. It emerges from the ground as a ball before opening out. Deadly poisonous!
This slimy, jelly-like fungus grows up to 3cm tall and can be found at the base of coniferous trees all year round. Easily recognised by its yellow antlers, although the finger-like species is Calocera cornea.
A small, bright red mushroom with a red hollow stalk, the scarlet waxy cap can be found in grassland and woodland from late summer to autumn and is only a few centimetres in size.
Common in late summer to autumn, puffballs normally grow on the ground, apart from the Lycoperdon pyriforme which grows on dead wood. They are edible, but can be easily confused with young fly agarics.
This fungus is often found growing on fallen branches and trees all year round, particularly oak and broad-leaved trees. Their characteristic shape with wavy edges makes them easily recognisable.
These grow in clusters, often around trunks or stumps of broad-leaved trees. This is a large family of fungi whose different varieties fruit much of the year. They are often recognised by their bell-shaped caps.
Photographer Natalie Kinnear goes leaf collecting with her macro kit
Anna Stowe advises on capturing the magnificent landscape right on your doorstep
Professional photographer and Garden Photographer of the Year judge Clive Nichols tells you how to take prize-winning shots of trees.
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