Glowing Mushrooms Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus)

The bioluminescence Bitter Oyster mushroom (Panellus stipticus), growing on a dead Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

About Glow-in-the-Dark Mushrooms

I have seen mushrooms that glow before when I was a kid, and since I have longed to see them again, and to photograph these fungi.  The glowing of mushrooms, and animals is sometimes called of foxfire and more scientifically — bioluminescence.  In mushrooms it was first thought to be just some strange byproduct of some other function, but more recently it has been linked to attracting insects that help spread the mushroom’s spores to new locations.  The cold light produced by mushrooms is one of nature’s truly amazing sights.

The Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus) is an unassuming drab brown mushroom in the daylight it lives on several species of dead and dying hardwood trees.  In this case, I found the fungus on a Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) tree stump.  I had actually photographed that tree when it was alive and well 13 years ago.  Anyway, these mushrooms are not always luminous.  Not every year will the conditions be right for them to make light.  They will usually glow only on damp or humid nights.  I was fortunate enough that it had rained heavily the day before, and we had light rain that same day.  

Finding the mushrooms is not easy because even when they do glow, the light is very dim to human eyes.  On a moonlit night the speckeled moonbeams can be brighter than the fungus.  On the cloudy night I was out conditions were good for spotting the light.  I left my flashlight in my pocket and allowed for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I could barely see anything, so I stuck to a dirt road I new was pretty flat and walked slowly to avoid tripping up.  I was lucky, and after only a 100 yard walk I could see the faint glow 50 feet way.  Had I used a flashlight or even if a crescent moon had been out I likely wouldn’t have seen them.

Bitter Oyster mushroom (Panellus stipticus) during the daylight.

How to Photograph Bioluminescent Mushrooms

Two things are absolutely essential to photograph these glow-in-the-dark mushrooms 1) A tripod, and 2) Long exposures.   There is no getting around a tripod, exposures will run way past one second.  While in the photos the mushrooms are bright, the light given off by the mushrooms are actually quite dim to human eyes, and hard to spot.     Most cameras will allow for exposures up to 30 seconds, and this is workable with very high ISO setting.  Better is a manual mode for longer exposures.

Turn off Vibration Reduction

Turn off vibration reduction modes.  The vibration reduction function is great for handholding, but on a tripod it can confuse the software and try to compensate for movement that isn’t there, leading to burly photos.

Triggering the Shutter

A remote trigger release is nice, but for very long exposures it is not necessary.  A second of camera vibration does not amount to much information being recorded over 30 or more seconds.  Even so, I set the camera’s timer to its lowest duration, just to be safe.  Some cameras have a bulb setting that is can be triggered by pushing the shutter once to open, and once to close. This will also work well for very long exposures.

Shooting modes and ISO Speed

ISO speed depends on how much time you’ve got.  If you are using a noise reduction function, the noise reduction processing is equal to exposure time, so if your exposure was 10 minutes you’ll have to take wait another 10 minutes in dark for the processing.  This can test your nerves out in the wilderness on cloud-filled moonless nights.   Photographing such a dim subject is something you probably don’t often do, so if you are like me, you’ll bracket your photos which means many long exposures.  Shooting at ISO 100 at f16 to get plenty of depth of field, and trying different compositions could take until sunrise.  That’s fine if you can stay awake during exposures, with bears, and wolves testing your nerves, even though you are well aware you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than bothered by a bear.  The only animals I saw or heard was a curious woodland jumping mouse and a northern flying squirrel in the distance.

As stated in the caption I compromised, for the sake of time on a and exposure of 30 seconds at f 2.8 at ISO 6400.  If had shot at f16 using the 100 ISO setting the exposure would have been 2 hours plus another 2 hours if I used noise reduction!  Even though the photo is grainy it works for the subject.  Automatic, in-camera, noise reduction settings are great, but RAW camera files can be just as good with post process and the photo above is indeed from a RAW file.  With such an unusual phenomenon to photograph, for me at least, I took no chances and had set the camera to take both RAW and JPG with the in-camera noise reduction.

Suitable Cameras and Lenses

Most digital dslr’s these days are up to the task.  It helps to have one with great high ISO capabilities if you decided to go the high ISO route.  For these photographs, I used a Sony SLT A65, and a Sony 100mm F2.8 macro. Some digital point-and-shoot cameras may be up to the task if it has a macro setting and manual controls. For best results, a dedicated macro prime lens is the best.  These lenses allow the photographer to get in close to the Bitter Oyster Mushroom and other small bio-luminescent fungi.  Not everyone has one of those, and the next best option is a sharp, fast lens and closeup lenses that screw onto the filter threads.  Extension tubes and bellows will also work, but they reduce the light getting to the sensor, making a long exposure even longer.

Other Things to Keep in Mind for Long Exposure Photography

Have fully charged batteries.  Long exposures and the following noise reduction periods will use up more battery life than regular photography.
If possible return the next day to photograph the mushrooms in the daylight.
Last be sure to take a minute or two and actually enjoy the sight!  Too often we get caught up in taking a photograph.  Don’t forget to take in, and complement this amazing phenomenon.  I hope you enjoyed this article, thanks for visiting.

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