We have had a dull wet summer here in England, and although the weather has been bad for landscape photography, it was good news for mushrooms which are now abundant. I have been taking a close look at them this year in Epping Forest. Most woodland mushrooms are easy to miss ( fly agaric, below, is the exception ! ), and indeed step on if your are not paying attention. They can pop up anywhere, but some types grow only on rotting wood, and others require a particular tree species as a host. The darkest corners of the forest, which wouldn't offer much photographic interest at other times of the year, can sometimes be the best places to look. The pictures on this page were taken with the Canon 5D, Sigma 105mm macro, and the Canon 17-40L. For mushrooms I always take a tripod, 550EX and 420EX flash units and a reflective umbrella with me.

There are three ways to light mushrooms ( or indeed any other subject ) - natural light, flash, or a mixture of the two ( fill flash ). Whatever I'm doing I put the camera in manual mode (M) and set the aperture for my required depth of field - this is normally around f25.

natural light This is just a regular landscape shot. I use using the longest exposure that doesn't blow the highlights. With the small aperture, and in the woods, the exposure can be for several seconds so I always use the tripod.


If I'm using flash only, I hand-hold the camera if it's difficult to get the tripod in position. The flashes will fire for less than a hundredth of a second so camera shake should not be an issue. A bigger problem can be getting an accurate focus as I sway about. I set the shutter speed to 1/100 sec and let the ETTL metering work out the exposure for me. ETTL normally does the job but I can use the flash exposure compensation to adjust.
fill flash


I use fill flash where the background is part of the composition and the natural light on the mushroom is not ideal. I adjust the shutter speed to get the background exposure I want. This will normally be -2 stops on the exposure indicator, making the background visible but not too bright or distracting. The ETTL flash will then 'fill' the light according to its own algorithms, which only Canon understands, but again I can use flash exposure compensation if I don't like the ETTL metering.

I have found that the light on the mushroom can normally be improved with flash. Even if I take the shot in natural light and it looks fine, adding a bit of flash coming in from the side seems to lift the image a bit more. The shot of fly agaric below is an example. This one uses the 17-40L at 17mm. I needed the super-wide angle to show the trees in the background, although somehow the shot doesn't look that wide. The 17-40L focuses down to 28cm without losing any sharpness - a great piece of glass.

the iconic toadstool fly agaric, fill flash, 17mm, 1/20 sec f20

The shot below of porcelain mushroom is an example of natural light. Mushrooms are usually in shady spots so I was surprised to see sunlight on these, and I even got starbursts as the light reflected off their slimy surface. I also like the woodland behind showing the dappled pattern of backlit foliage. Getting the tripod set up in a location like this can be tough. I was crawling around for some time in the dead wood and leaves to get this angle, showing the underside of the mushroom caps.

porcelain mushroom ( oudemansiella mucida ), natural light, 1 sec f29

flash techniques

Using flash for a nature shot seems a bit strange in some ways. It raises the question of whether the appearance of the subject is being altered to something that cannot or does not occur in nature. For landscape photography the issue doesn't arise because there is no flash powerful enough to make any difference, but if you could signal a satellite to flash some nice low-angled light across your landscape then photographers would surely do it.

Subjects in natural sunlight actually have two light sources, the sun which gives directional light and hence casts a shadow, and the sky which gives a diffuse light from all directions. You need two flashes to reproduce this, one flash off camera ( the direct light ), and another bounced of a reflector ( the diffuse light ). It's then possible to control the angle of the direct light, and the relative strength of the diffuse light by setting the flash ratio. I do this with the 550EX on-camera as master bouncing of an umbrella, and the 420EX as slave off-camera. I like to have direct light coming across the subject at a low angle to emphasise the texture. An example is the shot below of fungus and moss growing on a tree stump.

coriolis versicolor, flash illuminated, 1/80 sec f25 handheld

identifying mushrooms

I don't like to present a wildlife or plant image without knowing the species shown, but it's difficult with mushrooms because many are alike. Sometimes it's necessary to examine the gills ( the radiating tissues under the cap ) or even the spores to distinguish between species. So it's worth taking some extra shots to help with identification later. I find books on mushrooms to be the best way to identify a species, and I then search the internet for more photos of that species to give me a bit more confidence. Even then I'm only able to confidently identify about half the mushrooms I find in Epping Forest. I read recently that a new species of fungus is found in Europe every year so maybe it's just not possible to put a name to everything.


updated October 2009 for photography