Making the Most of Mushrooms with Macro
One of the fascinating aspects of photography for me is giving people a glimpse into a world that they would not otherwise see or giving them a new perspective on something familiar. The former might be the Milky Way towering over the Dolomites, the Norther Lights over Norway or even hammerhead sharks in the Red Sea. But when it comes the familiar, the best way that I know of for presenting it in a novel way than with a macro lens, exploring the little world around us.
Last year I picked up a used Olympus M. Zuiko f/2.8 60 mm macro lens and have had a lot of fun exploring gardens in spring or the forest floor in autumn, in fact one of the impulses that led me to buy the lens in the first place was to capture fungi in the forest. I posted back in 2020 about my first foray into fungal photography including some artificial light composites but those photos were all taken with the M. Zuiko 12-100 mm. In the meantime I prefer natural light fungal photography, perhaps with a little help from a touch of light from beneath.
Getting the Most out of Macros
The most boring way of shooting mushrooms (of flowers for that matter) is top-down. I mentioned before that one of the fascinating aspects of macro photography is giving people a new perspective on familiar objects. Everyone knows how mushrooms look from above, so the trick here is to get down low, either with an inverted tripod or lying down in the dirt/moss. All of the images here were taken hand-held, even the focus-stacked ones, which mostly meant lying on my front on the mossy forest floor and trying to look up the skirts of the fungi.
Of course mushrooms aren't the only interesting things on the autumn forest floor. This 1" frog would have remained invisible if it hadn't jumped out of the way as we approached. Once we stopped moving, the frog didn't seem worried any more and settled down once more on the moss. After a couple of more cautious shots I was able to wriggle forward and catch this as the light broke out between the clouds.
This rain-covered downy feather lying in the moss also caught our attention. This image was focus-stacked (see more below) to maximise the depth of field. I just love how the focus carries on through the water droplets as well as the detail in the moss and feather tines. All hand-held (did I mention that already?). I'd always thought that focus-stacking required a rock-steady tripod, but I digress.
Parts of the woodland have clumps of this club moss (below), which forms these spore heads in the autumn. This is the advantage of a relatively old forest floor, pioneer plants like this have time and space to grow. Many forest plantations are tightly planted and regularly harvested for the wood. Although this piece of woodland is felled and planted, for the most part it is relatively wild and overgrown. There are enough old stumps and rotting trunks that there is a lot of moss and a good mix of mushrooms.
These sulphur caps or sulphur tufts are very common to my local woodland. They grow in clumps and the caps are not as translucent as I'd ideally like - my favourite mushrooms are ones with prominent gills and caps that let some of the light through such as the ones at the very beginning of this blog post.
I had branched off the main path by this point, looking for a couple of spots that I'd shot in previous years. There's nothing like a bit of local knowledge to enhance your photography. In this instance it let me down though; there was still too much undergrowth and the thin-topped mushrooms that I was looking for weren't growing out of the rotting logs yet. Whilst futilely searching, the wife and boy-child had found a huge clump of these sulphur tufts on a rotting stump right next to the path. These examples were growing in a cleft between two parts of the stump. To emphasise the scene I have darkened the wood left and right.
More sulphur tufts on a rotting stump.
The problem with mushrooms is that they're yummy to slugs and the window for catching an intact example can be very narrow - sometimes as little as a day and so when the conditions are right, you have to carpe diem. This time I caught the slug In flagrante delicto, or at least about to be.
Technical Aspects of Macro Photography
As well as its rewards, macro photography definitely brings some new challenges with it and many of these have to do with the reduced depth of field - the amount of the image in front of and behind the focal plane that is acceptably in focus. As we all know (😜), depth of field is dictated by three factors; distance from the camera, focal length and aperture. The closer you are to your subject, the longer the lens and the more open the aperture, the shallower the depth of field:
The mushrooms at the beginning of this post were shot at f/16, a relatively narrow aperture to maximise the depth of field, but you can still see that the focal plane is relatively narrow; the two main mushrooms are in focus but the back row is clearly not. Closing the aperture even further would degrade the sharpness of the image (keyword diffraction), so the question is, how can we extend the depth of field if we've maxed out the available parameters? The answer is a technique called focus-stacking.
So what is focus-stacking and how does it help? Focus-stacking involves taking multiple shots with the focal plane shifting incrementally between each shot. Don't worry, most modern cameras offer an automated process for doing this. All you'll have to do is define the first (usually closest) point of focus, the number of shots to be taken and the increment between each shot. This process is known as focus bracketing. The camera will then take a series of images focusing incrementally further into the scene. These will then need to be assembled/compiled as a single image somehow - this is focus stacking.
Olympus In-Camera Stacking
In addition to focus-bracketing (taking multiple images), the top-end Olympus cameras also offer in-camera focus stacking (compiling said images), provided the images are taken with certain lenses. The advantage of course is that there's less processing involved, the disadvantages are that the image is cropped (the camera clearly indicates the size of the final image in the evf) and that the output is a jpeg rather than a RAW file, meaning that the post-processing options are limited.
In the following image there was no way that I would be able to get front-to-back sharpness with a single image so I took 15 images at an increment of "5". This is the in-camera focus stack. Look at the left-hand edge of the mushroom carefully and you'll see a darker fringe of focus. Below the mushroom there are also some unsightly blotches.
ON1 Photo Raw 2022 Stacking
Those who are familiar with my blog or have read any of my articles will know that I describe myself as an Adobophobe; not because I think poorly of their products, but because I object to having to pay a subscription for software. When I was in the market for post-processing software a few years ago I arrived at ON1 Photo Raw. This otherwise very powerful editor offers a number of options for assembling images that work well, including panorama stitching, HDR imaging and focus stacking.
Although I've generally had good experience with the panorama and HDR editing, I've never had a good result from focus-stacking. I always get blotches like you can see where the program mis-selects the areas from the various images to be used. Even tweaking the three sliders 'Despeckle', 'Threshold' and 'Sensitivity' I either get more unsightly blotches or huge areas that are unsharp.
As a last resort, I went to an external software option. I've got a few of these for other specialised processing requirements such as astrophotography (Sequator and Registax) and particularly awkward panorama stitches (PTGui). Looking around at the focus-stacking market, there are only two serious options that I'm aware of; Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus. Given that a friend uses Helicon and has had good experience with it I thought I'd give it a go. Unfortunately, like with PTGui there is a price-tag attached - € 113 for a lifetime license (that covers upgrades).
Although I am a confirmed proponent of the digital darkroom - I strongly believe that being able to make the most of ones images in post processing is an essential skill for a good photographer - I do prefer keeping things as simple as possible and so I was gratified that Helicon was able to provide a cleanly stacked image out of the box without having to adjust any settings. No more fringes or blotches. Exporting the result as a Tiff file (or DNG if you pay for the Pro version) means that you keep most of the dynamic information of the original images for further processing, a huge plus.
So what's the bottom line Mike? I'm glad you asked. Summarising the above we arrive at the following:
ON1 Photo Raw 2022
If nothing else, the two positives 'best results' and 'TIFF output' mean that the € 113 was money well spent to my mind. Googling [focus stacking software] leads to a site detailing the four best stacking programs in 2022. The list consists of Photoshop, ON1 Photo Raw, Zerene and Helicon. I'm satisfied that I've found the optimal solution for my macro photography for now.
TLDR; neither the Olympus in-camera or the ON1 Photo RAW focus stacking cut the mustard, both systems leaving unsightly fringes around objects. Helicon is the only one of the three methods to reliably arrive at acceptable focus-stacked images.