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How I got the shot: A winning shot

This shot won the Plants and Fungi category of the international Close Up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY) in October 2021 and was taken on an E-M1 Mark II. For most of my photographic life I have concentrated on landscape but once I discovered focus stacking, macro has really opened up new dimensions for me.

E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro • 1/10s • F4.0 • ISO200

Holly parachute fungus, Marasmius hudsonii are not listed in many fungi field guides. They are quite common but rarely recorded due to their diminutive size and their habit of growing on dead holly leaves under holly trees or hedges. Who wants to crawl around on prickly holly leaves?

The cap diameters of the fungi in this shot are between 2 2.5 mm. The tops of the caps are convex initially, as in this image. They flatten out when mature. The caps and stems are covered in bristle-like, sharply pointed, red-brown hairs or setae.

How I took the image.

In December 2020, while I was cutting the hedge in my back garden, I noticed white dots that I thought were slime moulds, growing on a dead holly leaf. I went to get my camera gear. The first thing I did was to examine them with my x 10 loupe magnifier. It was plain to see that they were not slime moulds, but tiny, parachute shaped fungi, covered in spiky setae.

Composition was key to this image. It took some time to find exactly the right angle, to include the sharp points of the holly leaf as a frame and to echo the spiky bristles on the fungi. Fortunately, the fungi were on a leaf, so I was able to take the leaf inside my greenhouse, out of the wind, and experiment. The dead leaf was placed on a dark piece of wood. I set my camera up on a tripod, to shoot from a low angle in order to reveal the gills of the fungi. I then used some dry moss and dead leaves to create a natural background.

I often look at my subject from above to check the nearest focus point to the camera. In this case the holly leaf spikes in the foreground were the closest focus point and the back edge of the tallest fungus was the furthest focus point. I always use manual focus. I have the Fn2 button on my Olympus E-M1 Mark II, set to magnify, which enables me to check focus accurately. Once I have established sharp focus on the nearest point, I often pull the focus back a very small amount, just to ensure that I will not miss the crucial first point of focus.

It is easy to discard unwanted pictures in a series but very frustrating to find that the front of the image is not pin sharp. I will also always set the number of shots to more than I expect to use. I then watch the bracket being taken on LiveView and press the shutter again (to stop the bracket) just after the focus has gone past the last point that I want to be sharp.

For this image, I set a differential of 2 and the number of shots to 100. I actually stopped the bracketed series in this one after about 50 shots and used 42 of those shots to compile the stack. I always have the ISO set to 200 for this kind of bracketed tripod work. I usually shoot at f3.5 or f4, which I find to be the sweet spot of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm F2.8 Macro lens. In this case I used f4 as I was able to keep the background at a reasonable distance from the subject, to create a pleasing, diffuse bokeh.

The 50 bracketed images were then reviewed in Lightroom and 42 of these images, that had sharp focus from front to back were selected. I made basic global adjustments to white balance, highlights and shadows, to balance the overall exposure, then synced the series of images, and exported them to Zerene Stacker. I prefer to do as much retouching as possible in Zerene Stacker. I edited the stacked image in Photoshop, to clean up any artefacts that were not possible to be retouched in Zerene. Finally, local adjustments (dodging and burning plus a vignette) were made in Lightroom to produce the finished image.

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