A Mushroom Photography Field Trip

Getting down in the dirt.

Last weekend, I joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society (PSMS) for their annual Ben Woo Foray. Like last year’s event, it was held at a camp just northeast of Mount Rainier. But unlike last year, there weren’t many mushrooms to be found. There simply hadn’t been enough rain over the summer.

Chanterelle Mushroom
Here’s a golden chanterelle mushroom coming out of the duff. (They’re white where I find them on the east side of the Cascades.) After photographing this one, I cut it off and put it in my sweatshirt hood to take home. (I didn’t have a basket with me!)

But it wasn’t a complete bust. I managed to get enough chanterelles for a few breakfasts; I’ll finish the last of them this morning. And I’d signed up for the photography session, so that gave me a different purpose on Saturday afternoon.

There were about 20 of us in the group of photographers that set out to find and photograph mushrooms. We started with an extremely basic discussion of photography with topics that included shutter speed, aperture, and depth of field. Paul, the leader, also discussed the usefulness of reflectors to bring light into dark areas under a mushroom. I had one of my reflectors with me, but it was way too big to be useful for this kind of photography. (I know I have a small one somewhere; sure wish I could find it!)

He showed us some really nice and very artistic photos done by a member of the PSMS. If you can imagine framing a photo of a mushroom, these were the kinds of photos you’d frame. I found them inspirational — in other words, they inspired me to create good images.

I also learned about one of the drawbacks to my sturdy Manfroto tripod: the center column makes it impossible to get the tripod head very close to the ground, despite the fact that the legs can be released beyond their normal stopping point. This would make photographing mushrooms with the tripod a bit more challenging, unless I wanted to shoot down at them (which I usually didn’t). Of course, a tripod really is necessary due to the low-light conditions in the shady, wooded areas where mushrooms like to grow.

Then we went out to a predetermined place and hunted about for mushrooms.

As anyone who knows me well might expect, I didn’t stay with the group. In fact, I lost them twice. We didn’t walk very far and although I didn’t have GPS tracking turned on (via GaiaGPS, which I can’t say enough nice things about), I wasn’t in any danger of getting lost in the woods. Having my camera and tripod set up and ready to go really helped me focus (no pun intended) on photography as an activity. Also helpful: wearing the rain pants I’d bought on my way to the foray when I made a stop in Yakima. It was a real pleasure to kneel down on wet earth and not get up with soaking wet knees.

Most of the mushrooms I shot were very tiny and growing slightly above the ground nearby. That made it possible for me to set up the tripod and camera in a hole so I was nearly level with the subject. My goal, in most cases, was to highlight the mushroom(s) by focusing on them and letting the background go out of focus.

Tiny Mushrooms
Some tiny mushrooms along the trail. None of these were more than 2 inches tall. They were growing out of moss and yes, those are fir needles around them.

More Tiny Mushrooms
And more tiny mushrooms. I think I succeeded in getting that one mushroom in decent focus, but the white piece of lichen nearby creates a bad distraction.

For the shoot, I used my “go to” lens, an AF-S Nikkor 16-85mm ƒ3.5-5.6, which was one of the three I had with me. I did not have any fixed focal length lenses with me. This turned out to be the best lens (I had) for the job since I couldn’t get my big tripod anywhere near the mushrooms. In most cases, I had to zoom in to 85mm to get the closeups I wanted. I tried my 70-300 lens to see if I could get even closer shots, but was set up too close to get the mushrooms in focus. The forest isn’t a tripod-friendly place and it seemed silly to set up 10 feet away from mushrooms sometimes only 2 inches tall.

I don’t have a macro lens. This is something I need to remedy one of these days because super close shots would be nice — although I suspect that a really close look at some of the edibles I pick might make me less likely to want to eat them. (Think bugs.)

Anyway, here are a few of my shots from the trip. Are any of them worthy of being framed and hung? I doubt it. But it was good to get out with my camera and a mission again.

Many Mushrooms
Another photographer and I saw these mushrooms at about the same time. She shot them from the left; I shot them straight on. Fortunately, they were growing at the base of a tree and I was able to get down into a hole in front of them. I think I could have done a better job focusing on the big one. And maybe some shade on the scene to avoid the glare? Experimentation is part of the learning process.

Coral Mushroom
This is a coral mushroom — a beautiful specimen larger than a man’s fist — and it is edible. I didn’t find it so I didn’t get to take it home.

Chanterelles
The leader of the group found two small and partially crushed chanterelles right along the roadside. But what he missed is this one and the slightly smaller one behind it. I had to lay prone on the ground with my camera in my hands to get this shot — and it isn’t even very good. Can you see the second mushroom to the right, out of focus? After everyone shot these mushrooms, I cut them off and took them with me.

My First Stab at Night Sky Photography

What I learned at a North Cascades Environmental Learning Center photography class.

I love the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, which is not far from the Diablo Dam on Diablo Lake on the North Cascades Highway (Route 20). I got my first glimpse of it during a camping trip last summer and later that year returned to take a three-day course about mushrooms. This year, I returned for one night of Base Camp right before an overnight seminar titled “Wilderness Photography: Washington Pass at Night.” Here’s the course description, since I can assume the link to the course page will eventually break:

In the grandeur of the North Cascades, moonless nights with clear skies offer fantastic opportunities to capture vivid images of the galaxy.

Join photographer Andy Porter on this specially-scheduled evening expedition to capture images of the Milky Way on this moonless night. We’ll begin the adventure with a short evening workshop on night photography at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Then we’ll head to Washington Pass where, under the towering peaks of Liberty Bell and the Early Winter Spires, Andy will guide us in capturing our own images of the night sky.

I could go into a lot of detail about my stay at the NCELC and the other things I did while I was there, but I’ll try to stay focused for this post. But I do need to talk briefly about the weather, since it did play a major part in how the course went.

The weather was not very good. It was overcast all day and rained more than a few times. Although the clouds were relatively high, there wasn’t a single clear patch in the sky. It was like this all day, which really didn’t surprise me — it rains every single time I come to this area. I like the rain, mostly because I don’t get much of it at home, but I really wish it wouldn’t rain in the mountains when I’m there.

Diablo Dam to Washington Pass
Washington Pass is a 35-mile drive southeast from Diablo Dam on Route 20.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to take pictures in the Diablo Lake area. We were supposed to go to Washington Pass, about 35 miles east. I’d driven through the Pass the day before on my way to the NCELC and it had been partly cloudy, with smoke from a fire I later discovered was burning near Mazama. But the weather information we had showed that Washington Pass was likely just as bad as it was where we were. And there’s nothing worse than making a 70-mile round trip drive to take pictures and not being able to do so.

There was a short classroom session after dinner. Andy introduced himself and showed off a few slides of his work. Most featured an easily identifiable foreground object that was often lighted — like a tent with kids in it or the roots of a fallen log — and a magnificent night sky. He briefly explained how he accomplished the lighted part of the shot by illuminating it for only about a second during the long exposure required to get the night sky. He also admitted to doing a lot of post processing and even showed us before and after shots.

Then he gave us the details on how we needed to set up our cameras for nighttime shooting. Here’s a brief version of his instructions. I’m not giving away any secrets here — all this information is available in a wide variety of places online.

Required Equipment

Before I detail the settings, let me start with the basics. If you don’t have this equipment, you probably can’t do this kind of photography. Or at least I won’t be able to explain how.

  • Camera. At the very minimum, you need a camera capable of setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually. Most DSLRs can do this, although lower end models might have limitations. These days, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, but I’m pretty sure my old Nikon D80 could do the job. And yes, a film camera could work, but the ability to immediately see results and adjust settings make it really impractical.
  • Wide-angle lens. The wider the field of view, the better off you’ll be. In case you don’t know, the lower the focal length, the wider the field of view. I used a 10-24 mm lens for this shoot and set it to 10 mm. Because I don’t have a full-frame sensor in my Nikon camera, that’s equivalent to a 15 mm focal length. There were people shooting with everything from 10 mm to 28 mm in the class.
  • Tripod. You need a good, sturdy tripod. There’s no getting around it. I use a Manfrotto with a ball head and I love its flexibility. If you have options, use one that can be extended so it’s tall enough for you to look through the lens and check image results without having to bend over. Sturdy is especially important if there’s any wind — although this isn’t something you’d likely attempt with anything stronger than a light breeze.
  • Cable or remote shutter release. My camera won’t support a cable release, but it does support a remote shutter release, which I have. If you don’t have either, there is a workaround: use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter. (This is what I wound up doing when my remote crapped out for some unknown reason during the shoot.) Under no circumstances should you be pressing the shutter release button by hand; it will definitely shake the camera, even on a tripod.

What’s interesting to me is that just about all of the people who took part in the class — and I think there were nearly 20 of us — had brought a bunch of camera equipment. I didn’t bring all of mine, but I did bring my camera body and three lenses. In reality, all we needed was what I listed above. So when it was time to get on the van to drive out to our shooting destination, I secured my camera on my tripod, rested the top of the tripod on my shoulder, and left the rest of my gear behind. I like traveling light.

Camera Settings

The tricky part of shooting the night sky is setting up the camera properly. Andy, our instructor, had us do this in the classroom so we wouldn’t be fiddling with settings in the dark. If you set the camera up right in advance, there’s only one thing you might have to change out in the field.

  • Widest field of view. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom out to the widest field of view (smallest focal length number). Again, I used 10 mm.
  • Widest aperture. Set your lens so it’s wide open (smallest f-stop number). This enables the camera to take in as much light as possible during the exposure. For my lens, that was f3.5.

  • Manual focus. This can be a setting on your lens or camera or both. (It’s both on mine.) You definitely do not want the camera trying to automatically focus, especially if your camera won’t make an exposure unless focus is locked in.
  • Lock it in!

    This is where I really wish I had some gaffer’s tape with me. This is special tape used in film production; it makes it possible to secure things like you would with any tape, but when you pull the tape off, no sticky residue is left behind. This would have been very helpful for me to lock that focus ring down, preventing me from accidentally moving it during the shoot.

    Focus to infinity. This is actually a lot trickier than it sounds and it took a while for us to all get it right. Simply dialing the focus ring as far as it goes on the infinity side isn’t necessarily correct. You need to play with it a little at a variety of settings out near the infinity symbol (∞). After each setting, snap a photo of something at least 50 feet away and then check it in the review window. Zoom in to see how crisp it is. Then try another setting to see if it’s crisper. Repeat this process until it’s dialed in perfectly. On my lens, the tick mark was lined up with the center of the infinity symbol but it might be different for yours. If you don’t have focus distance symbols on your lens, you might have to use autofocus to get the right focus setting before setting manual focus. I’m pretty sure that’s what Andy helped a few people do.

  • Manual exposure mode. You must set the camera for manual exposure so you’re in charge of how it takes the photo.
  • Calculating shutter speed with the 500 Rule

    If you want to do the math, it’s pretty simple: 500 ÷ Focal Length ÷ Crop Value

    So if you have a high-end camera with a full frame sensor and you’re using a 12 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 12 ÷ 1 = 41.66, which you can round down to 40.

    With my camera’s 1.5 crop sensor and 10 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 10 ÷ 1.5 = 33.33, which I rounded down to 30.

    Maximum shutter speed per the 500 Rule. Okay, this is where it gets a little complicated. Andy gave us a handout with a table of settings for the 500 rule, but never explained what the rule was or why it’s important. I did a little research this morning to learn more. We all know that the earth rotates, which means that the stars appear to move across the night sky. They move slowly so we don’t actually see them moving, but if your camera’s exposure is too long, you’ll get star trails — lines made by the stars as their light moves across the camera’s focal plane. To avoid star trails — which is what we wanted to do — you need to set your maximum shutter speed in accordance with the camera sensor size and lens focal length. You can learn more about this on Petapixel, which is also where you can find a table of values. Keep in mind that the shutter speed is in seconds, not fractions of a second. So when I set my camera’s shutter speed, it appeared as 30" in the settings screen. Exposures longer than that require the “bulb” setting on my camera, which means I’d have to manually open and close the shutter based on time I keep with a stopwatch or something.

  • ISO to 2000. This is a good starting point. Of all the settings, this is the one you might be fiddling with in the dark, so make sure you know how to change it. On my camera, it can be done with a combination of buttons and dials but it’s actually a lot easier to just go into the settings menu. I found that my best shots were done at 5000; more on that in a while.

Shooting

Once we had set up our cameras, we all climbed onto the NCELC’s shuttle bus, filling every seat. Andy took a few people in his car. Although it was difficult to see the sky through the tall trees around the campus, it was still pretty cloudy and none of us had very high hopes of getting good photos. They’d decided to try a closer viewpoint: the Diablo Dam Overlook. This offered views of the main lake and dam, as well as up the Thunder Creek arm of the lake and Colonial Peak. With few trees, we’d have a clear view of the sky.

As we drove over the dam, I was looking out the window and saw a single point of light. “I see a star!” I called out. Other people looked but I’m not sure if they saw anything.

Get away from the lights!

Incredibly — to me, anyway — one of the class attendees had to ask the instructor where the Milky Way was. He could see it, but he didn’t know that that the bright band of stars he was looking at was what’s referred to as the Milky Way — the galaxy our tiny planet is part of. This made me sad. I remember my grandfather pointing out the Milky Way when I was five or six years old, sitting with him on the front lawn of his house in suburban New Jersey, long before light pollution hid it from view. Yet this man, in his seventies (!), had spent so much time in the city that he couldn’t even identify the Milky Way when he saw it in the night sky.

Less than ten minutes later, we were at the overlook, which was understandably deserted. It was well after 9 PM and quite dark. But once our eyes had adjusted after the lights from the bus we saw it above us: the Milky Way.

I beelined it to the corner of the overlook where I’d get a good shot up the Thunder Creek arm. My camera was already on my tripod; all I had to do was extend the legs and neck and get it in position. I might have been the first person to take a shot.

And this is where patience is important. Each of my shots was 30 seconds long. Once the shutter closed, the image did not immediately appear. The camera, which is nothing more than a computer with a camera attached to it, had to process all the information it had just collected. I think this took longer than the exposure time — perhaps as long as another 40 seconds. So from the time I started my shot to the time I was actually able to see it in the review screen at the back of the camera was more than a minute.

Thunder Arm at Night
A look up Thunder Arm at night. The cars driving by on the road often ruined shots by illuminating landscape features we wanted to be kept dark.

My first shot came out dark. Yes, I could see the stars, but no, I couldn’t see them well. I thought it might have something to do with my reading glasses, which seem to make things look darker than they are. But Andy took a look and recommended bumping up the ISO, which he’d originally advised me to start at 1600. So I tried 2000. It wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, other photographers were snapping away, emitting occasional oohs and aahs and cursing at the cars that drove past the view point, illuminating foreground items we wanted to be kept dark. One woman near me had very good luck with her camera ISO set to 5000 so I gave it a try. (My camera goes up to over 24000.) That looked much better, so I stuck with if for the rest of the shoot.

Keep in mind that the higher the ISO setting, the more light is processed in the camera. There is a cost to this, however. High ISO settings lead to grainy images or “noise” (digital artifacts) in the images. Ideally, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible to get the shot you want. But since you can’t open the lens any wider (aperture setting) and can’t lengthen the exposure any longer (shutter speed setting), the ISO is the only thing you can change to vary the brightness of your shot.

I moved around to a variety of places. The Milky Way was mostly overhead, but it did dip down to the horizon in the south. A handful of light clouds drifted by, sometimes obscuring stars.

Diablo Dam at Night
I took a few shots of the dam. The lights reflected off the clouds, reddening them. I think this is the image where digital noise is most apparent, especially in the clouds. (A few people mistook the reddish clouds in their pictures for the aurora. Sorry, but no.)

We shot for well over an hour. I captured about 40 images. I haven’t looked at all of them on my big computer yet; these are pretty much decent random images I grabbed for this blog post. All of these are edited to make the stars “pop” more than they do in the original. If you have good image editing skills, you’ll definitely use them if you do night sky photography. I prefer to minimize editing.

Sky Through Trees
This was shot almost straight up. I think the trees and clouds offer a sense of three dimensionality.

For the most part, the photographers were good to work with. The only real problem we had was with light — too many of them wore headlamps. The trouble with headlamps is that they point wherever you look. So if you look up, your light flashes up, possibly illuminating trees or other foreground object people want dark. This got a bit frustrating and, more than a few times, I called out, “Lights down, please!” One photographer seemed to think that no lights should be on at all and rudely yelled at anyone who used a light, even if it was pointed down at the ground. Sorry, but when walking on uneven terrain in the dark I’m going to use a light — in my case, my phone’s flashlight. If the light doesn’t shine on the subject, it should not affect the photo.

The End of the Shoot… and Beyond

We went back to campus in two groups. I was in the first one. I’d had enough. My remote shutter control had died about halfway through the shoot and I had to rely on the camera’s self-timer to activate the shutter, adding another 20 seconds to each shot. I was burned out and, unlike most of my companions, I live in a dark sky area and can try this again anytime, right at home.

There was no follow-up lesson — although I really think there should have been the following morning. A chance to review and critique what we’d done. I did spend some time at breakfast with other students and got signed up for a Washington State Astrophotography group on Facebook. I’ve already swapped photos and comments with a few classmates there.

Could my images be brighter? I think so. Next time I try this, I’ll do more experimentation with ISO settings. I might need to pop it up some more.

And yes, there will be a next time. I’m thinking of giving it a go on my deck tonight. And I’m definitely looking for companions on overnight outings, possibly with the Turtleback. Washington Pass would make an excellent subject area, especially with the fresh snow I saw on the peaks on my way home. Anyone game for an overnight road trip this coming week?

A New Camera

Will it take my photography to the next level or have I gone as far as I can go?

Desert Still LifeLast spring, I shot one of what I consider one of my best photographs. I’d been “photojeeping” out in the desert when the hedgehog cacti were blooming. I stopped the Jeep on the two-track I’d been following, grabbed my tripod, camera, and cable release, and set off on foot across a relatively flat area peppered with pink blossoms. When I saw this cactus, my eye began a search for an interesting composition. I had to get down on the ground, with my tripod’s legs as short as they could go, to frame this shot. Although I let the camera handle the exposure (as I usually do), I fine-tuned the focus and depth of field using aperture settings. Said simply: I put a lot of effort into this shot — a lot more than I usually do.

And I was very pleased with the results.

Until I looked more closely at the photo in Photoshop, using 100% magnification. That’s when I could clearly see that the image lacked the kind of sharpness I wanted in my photos. It was as if nothing in the photo was in clear focus. Given the depth of field, that just didn’t seem possible.

I had done just about everything in my power to get the best shot I could and I’d fallen short of desired results. It was like being slapped in the face.

Nikkor 16-85mm LensI started doing research. I knew it wasn’t the lenses I was using — this particular image was shot with my Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor lens, which was still relatively new at the time. Although this is not a top-of-the-line Nikon lens, it is not a junk lens. The low ISO settings on the camera should have prevented the graininess I observed. That left the camera or me.

I didn’t think it was the camera. After all, I’d come into photography the old fashioned way: using film. When dealing with film, the camera is just a mechanical device to get the exposure — at least at the level of camera I could afford. The lens handles the clarity of the image, so we normally put our money into good optics. Processing and printing (in the case of prints) are also important for the final result.

So it must be me, I reasoned. I resolved to try harder.

Time passed. I took a lot of photos. I started getting accustomed to disappointment. It was taking a lot of the joy out of photography. I’d do a shoot at an amazing place and get ho-hum images.

Nikon D80Then I started thinking more about the camera. I knew that my Nikon D80, which I’d had since 2007, had a 10.2 megapixel Nikon DX format CCD imaging sensor. Newer cameras offered higher resolutions (more megapixels or “piglets,” as my family calls them). They also offered different sensors. My husband’s D90, for example, has a 12.3-megapixel DX-format CMOS imaging sensor. And I knew that there were also cameras that had film-frame size sensors. Why the differences? Did it really matter? I began to get an education about how cameras differ in the world of digital photography.

By the autumn of 2010, I was convinced I needed a different camera. I was limited, however, because I already had a huge investment in Nikkor DX-compatible lenses. That meant that I couldn’t go with a film-frame size sensor in a new camera without buying new lenses. That also meant that any thoughts of jumping the good ship Nikon and boarding the S.S. Canon were not entertained. (Don’t get me wrong: Canon makes excellent equipment, too. But I know Nikon and have an investment in Nikon equipment; it makes no sense for me to switch.)

In November, I went to Tempe Camera to learn more. I was about 75% ready to plunk down up to $1500 for a new camera. But the sales guy educated me some more. Although I’d always seen my husband’s D90 as a minor upgrade to my D80, the sales guy told me that the software was far superior in the D90. I’d get better, clearer images from a D90.

Of course, my husband already had a D90, so it didn’t make sense to buy another one. I’d give it a go with his camera.

That didn’t work. When we went shooting together, he wanted to use his camera. Can you blame him? So I’d be stuck with mine and wouldn’t get the opportunity I needed to experiment with a different camera.

Nikon D7000I heard about the Nikon D7000 in, of all places, Wilson Camera on Camelback Road in Phoenix. We’d gone in there to get passport photos taken and the guy at the counter had been almost drooling over the D7000. I started doing some research. I liked what I read. Not only was it another [big] step above Mike’s D90, but Ken Rockwell, a highly respected camera reviewer, said:

The D7000 is Nikon’s most advanced camera at any price. The fact that it sells for $1,200 make [sic] it a no-brainer, which is why it’s sold out. The D7000 is Nikon’s best DSLR ever.

Holy cow. That was quite a statement.

I did more research on Nikon’s Web site. (That site, by the way, is an excellent and well-designed source of information about Nikon products and photography in general.) I liked the feature list. Better sensor, higher resolution images, programmable custom settings, more scene modes, true 1080p video capabilities — hell, it could even do time-lapse photography without an add-on intervalometer. There are a lot more features; if you’re interested I highly recommend reading up on Nikon’s Web site.

But Mr. Rockwell wasn’t kidding when he said the camera was sold out. Once I decided I wanted one, I spent two hours trying to track one down. Amazon.com was selling one for $100 above retail price. (I don’t pay more than retail for anything; heck, I seldom pay retail for anything.) Tempe Camera only had a kit, which came with the Nikkor 18-105mm lens. I don’t have that lens but I don’t need it either — and was not interested in spending $300 more for the camera with lens. A dozen calls all reported out of stock, although many dealers were willing to let me place an order anyway. But like the true American I am, I wanted immediate gratification — or as close to it as I could get. I was going to San Francisco in a few days and planned to use my new camera there.

I wound up on J&R’s Web site. I used to shop in the J&R store on Park Row when I worked in downtown Manhattan years ago. This was back in the mid 1980s, before digital cameras, when personal computers were in their infancy. J&R then was what chains like Best Buy and Fry’s Electronics are now. (Would love to walk through J&R again; maybe the next time I’m in New York I’ll make the trip down there.) I’d bought other camera and computer equipment from them in the past. Their Web site said they were out of stock on a D7000 body only, but I called anyway. The guy who answered in Maspeth, NY (in the borough of Queens, in case you’re wondering) said a shipment had just come in and the Web site evidently hadn’t been updated yet. They were selling at retail. Brand new, in an unopened box, packaged for U.S. sales. (I asked, of course; I know what goes on among some NYC camera dealers.) Free shipping would get it to me by Friday or Monday. I asked how much overnight shipping would cost. $27.27. Sold!

I expect it to arrive this afternoon.

Nikon GP-1 GPSIn a fit of crazy shopping mania, I also ordered the Nikon GP-1 GPS from Amazon.com. This device, which can attach to the camera’s hot shoe, will automatically geotag my images. This will seriously reduce my geotagging workflow and ensure that all of my photos are properly tagged. I even coughed up the $4 for overnight shipping to get that today.

Once I get the camera and learn to use it, the ball will be in my court. No more excuses; I’ll have good camera equipment and should be able to take better photos. If I can’t — well, I’ll only have myself to blame.

It’ll be interesting to see whether this camera takes me to the next level as a photographer. I’ve got my fingers crossed.