Beginner’s Guide to Cameras & Equipment
for Shooting Mushrooms
Recently, a discussion came up on the MSSF Yahoo list about what to buy if you want to get into mushroom photography. As somebody who majored in mycology in graduate school, but also has a couple of years of photography education under his belt, I have some definite opinions about what kind of equipment performs well for mushroom photography and what doesn’t.
Camera types: digital minis v. SLRs
First there’s the issue of whether you want to get a digital minicam or a digital SLR. If you’re just starting out, the decision really depends on how deeply you think you want to get into photography. If you’re not sure, Mike Wood’s advice, with which I definitely concur, is to get a digital mini-cam and a small tripod so you can “test the waters” and see whether you like it and how far into it you want to get.
I would definitely avoid digital mini-cams that are strictly “point and shoot”—you want to be able to use manual functions if you expect to take good pictures beyond the likelihood of pure chance. The better digital mini-cams are pretty good and can take some nice macro shots (close-up or small object photography). However, there is a mistaken perception that a good digital mini with a lot of manual functions is more-orless the equivalent of an SLR for a lot less money. Having used both, I think there are some real downsides to digital minis. Notably, they have the distinct disadvantage of only allowing you to view and focus on your image through the digital view screen, and that’s inevitably a lousy image. Manual focus on these cameras is rudimentary, and auto-focus is really hit-ormiss, so, basically, a fair number of out-of-focus shots (ones you thought were in-focus when you looked at them through the view screen) are par for the course with digital minis. Not to mention all manner of clutter in your image that you didn’t even notice on the tiny screen. What you (think you) see is not necessarily what you get! An SLR actually allows you to see directly through the lens when you look through the viewfinder and, based on my experience, I really can’t emphasize enough what an advantage that is.
One of the major areas of dubious information around digital cameras is the issue of “megapixels.” On one hand, they are often seen as all-important to the exclusion of all other factors, and on the other hand, there’s the erroneous idea that resolution beyond X megapixels is superfluous. First, the number of megapixels is one factor that goes into making a good image; however, the overall quality of optics is certainly another concern, and this is an area where SLRs are overall better, even though better digital minis (such as the Nikon Coolpix series) do shoot some very nice images. (And minis actually have one distinct optical advantage over larger SLRs: they are able to get a lot of depth-of-field even with a moderate aperture.) Another important factor is bit-depth, which I’ll return to shortly.
One statement made during the Yahoo list discussion, with which I took strong issue, is the idea that over 6 megapixels is “overkill” if you don’t intend to make large prints. First, just in terms of side-by-side comparison, I don’t think that anything less than 8 megapixels equals the resolution of modern ISO 100 color film (and I’ve seen tests that have clearly borne this out)—something that’s kept me basically a film photographer for a long time. Also, I contest the idea that there’s a maximum number of “useful” megapixels. Well, if you’re not going to do very much with Photoshop, sure, but if you get serious about digital photography at all, (and its easy to get hooked, believe me) you will definitely end up using Photoshop quite a bit, and will definitely appreciate all those extra megapixels. Quite simply, just about every piece of manipulation/correction you do in Photoshop results in a loss of data, so having as much overhead as possible—even beyond the image’s final print resolution—is very helpful indeed.
Bit depth is the other important factor in terms of how much “information” is in an image. 16-bit has tremendous advantages over 8-bit in terms of manipulability of the image. Most new digital cameras are 16-bit capable, but many that are more than a couple years old are not—be sure to ask about this. And of course, any discussion of digital photography brings up the issue of film versus digital. In my opinion, film cameras are hugely underrated. Shooting on film means, of course, you don’t have a digital image unless you have a way of scanning your slides, so that’s a real downside. On the other hand, film cameras are such a great bargain these days it’s not even funny. I learned photography on a Canon Elan I bought 4 years ago, and can’t say enough good about it. In fact, I still prefer it for things like black-and-white and infrared photography.
Camera and lens recommendations
If you want to go the digital mini route, I think the clear choice in this category is the Nikon Coolpix S10. It’s the latest in the Coolpix “twisting body” series (I have an older one, a Coolpix 4500), with 6 megapixels and 16-bit, it is small and light, and—new to the Coolpix series—has image stabilization, which allows for handheld shots at surprisingly long exposure times. And like the earlier generations of “twisting body” Coolpix cameras, it shoots great macro, notwithstanding my earlier caveats about out-of-focus images and shooting through a view screen, of course. (The view screen on the S10 is larger than the one on the 4500, so that helps.) They can be found for under $300 and are really a great buy. They come with a plethora of features, so be absolutely sure to read your owner’s manual.
If you do decide to take the dive into a digital SLR, it pretty much boils down to Canon or Nikon—I don’t think other brands of dSLR and accompanying lenses are even in the same league at this point. You need to decide early whether you’re going with Canon or with Nikon, because lenses and flash and some other parts of your “kit” are specific to each and are not interchangeable. For various reasons, I think as far as newer macro lenses go, Canon has an edge, so that’s what I recommend—either the Canon 40d (10.1 megapixels, not full-frame) or Canon 5d (12.8 megapixels, full frame).
If you’re interested in film SLRs, the Canon Elan 7 would be my recommendation, which you can find for around $200 or even considerably less on eBay, depending on whether it comes with a lens or not and whether it has the (not-very-useful, in my opinion) eye-controlled focus feature. (Canon Elan II’s, which is what I use, routinely sell for less than $100 these days.) Other than the fact that it’s not digital, this is a superb camera. As for the film itself, my favorite for mushroom photography is Fuji Astia 100, which is an incredibly high-resolution film with highly accurate color.
With an SLR, you need to have a set of separate lenses, as well. First is the basic lens or lenses you use for general photography— either a zoom lens of some kind or a fixed “normal” lens. (Fixed lenses, though less flexible than zoom lenses, offer very nice optics for the money.) From there, a 100mm macro lens is a necessity for shooting mushrooms smaller than a typical Agaricus. Canon makes a top-notch one, though it’s pricey; Tamron also makes an excellent lens, also pricey, but a few hundred less than the comparable Canon macro lens. (I don’t know what’s standard for Nikon, though I do know the Tamron 90mm macro also comes in a Nikon version.) A 50mm macro lens is also good to have. For even larger mushrooms, a regular mid-range lens with a close-up filter can be very useful, and I’ve taken some of my best mushroom shots with a 50mm “normal” lens/close-up filter combo.
Lenses will have a differing effective focal length depending on whether your dSLR has a “full frame” sensor (basically, the same size as a 35 mm film frame) or a smaller one, as on a Canon 40d. The small-frame sensors increase your effective focal length by something like 1.6 times, which can be an advantage in macro photography.
One constant of mushroom photography is low light conditions, and that means two things: flash and tripods. I’ll cover these fairly substantial topics in part 2 of this article.