Photographing Glowing Mushrooms in Singapore

Singapore is home to a number of bioluminescent fungi. Out of over 148,000 known species of fungi across the world, over 70 of them are known to exhibit bioluminescence.

All known luminescent species are white-rot fungi, which means that it breaks down lignin in wood. Lignin is responsible for the support tissues in plants and lends rigidity to wood and bark, which is why trees and logs with white-rot fungi tend to be moist, soft, spongy, or stringy. This wood decay forms a critical component in the forest’s nutrient cycle.

Why Do Mushrooms Glow?

There are limited studies done to determine the reasons for the glow. The most commonly suggested hypothesis is that the light attracts other invertebrates which help to disperse its spores. Experiments had been done with plastic mushrooms with and without lights, where the one with simulated lights attracted a lot more insects. However, using plastic mushrooms left out many other factors so it was still inconclusive.

I’ve had a number of readers asking which UV light I used for the photos in this post. Please note that the bioluminescence is naturally occurring and does not require any UV exposure. We can see the glow with our naked eyes!

Which Bioluminescent Fungi Can We Find in Singapore?

The 2 most commonly sighted species of bioluminescent fungi are Mycena illuminans and Filoboletus manipularis. The flowering bodies of both species are umbrella-shaped and relatively small at 1 to 2cm in diameter. Mycena illuminans is gilled and depressed in the center, while Filoboletus manipularis is pitted and has a slightly pointed center. I’ve encountered other species before but had been unable to determine their IDs.

Family: Mycenaceae Overeem (1926)

Mycena illuminans Henn. (1903)
Mycena illuminans Henn. (1903)

Family: Tricholomataceae R.Heim ex Pouzar (1983)

Filoboletus manipularis (Berkeley) Singer, 1945
Filoboletus manipularis (Berkeley) Singer, 1945



Are Bioluminescent Fungi Rare?

Bioluminescent fungi are seasonal and tend to flower during the rainy season. A nice big cluster with bright bioluminescence is considered rare as most would only last for a day or two before losing its glow and wilting. Because of that, we rely heavily on sightings among friends and photos from hikers in Facebook groups.

How To Photograph Bioluminescent Mushrooms

For those new to photographing these amazing fungi, here are some basic tips.

Tripod. A small tripod is essential. Most of these fungi are found on fallen logs at a low height, which means that a large tripod would restrict your angle for composition.

Behind the scenes: After many years of attempts, I’ve learned to be prepared with a chair, and a tiny tripod loaned from Chris.

Cable Shutter Release. Use a cable to trigger the shutter release, and use the mirror-up mode for DSLRs. This reduces any camera shake when the shutter button is pressed.

Lens. For large clusters, bring a wide-angle lens. Sometimes there may not be enough space to position your camera if you used a long lens.

Camera. A full frame camera will be very helpful for clearer photos at high ISO. Unfortunately, this rules out many of the entry-level cameras.

Settings. I typically use f/8, ISO 1600, 30s. It will vary somewhat, depending on the brightness of the glow and focal length of the lens used. I’d try to avoid exposures over 30 seconds as that would almost always generate hot pixels.

Small Group. It would be much easier to photograph this with a friend or two, but not in a big group. It is difficult to ask everyone to remain in the darkness for extended periods while one or two are taking photos.

Oops. Many years of experience couldn’t prevent the pants from tearing after squatting in odd positions.

Stray Light. Check for any equipment that emits light as any light could affect the resulting exposure. e.g. flash or camera LEDs, mobile phone screens, etc. This is another reason for going in smaller groups.

Bioluminescent Mushrooms Gallery

Throughout the years, I’ve been on the hunt to photograph the largest and most beautiful clusters of bioluminescent mushrooms, envisioning a scene of Pandora from the movie Avatar. Here’s a quick summary of my sightings so far.

Mycena illuminans. My first sightings of bioluminescent mushrooms were with the help of James Koh way back in 2012 when I first saw photos of them on his blog. He kindly found some for me during a hike, and despite just a few individual flowering bodies, witnessing them for the first time was really difficult to forget.
Mycena illuminans. It wasn’t long before I found myself stuck with these glowing mushrooms, figuring out different compositions to accentuate its beauty.
Mycena illuminans. These fungi are usually found on fallen logs. Occasionally we would find them on upright trees. It usually means that the tree is already dying or dead. This cluster has exceptional bioluminescence!
Mycena illuminans. View from below.
Filoboletus manipularis. First time encountering this species. The cap has already lost some of its glow.
Filoboletus manipularis. To help others visualize this sight, I did an animation to show how the scene looked like before and after switching on the lights.
Filoboletus manipularis. Before long, I was out in search for the next bigger cluster.
Filoboletus manipularis. I also experimented with wide angle shots to include the entire scene into the background.
Filoboletus manipularis. On one occasion, my friends had found a huge cluster while I was overseas. I could only see their photos and hope that some would be left when I returned home. As soon as I put down my luggage, I rushed to the spot (got lost a few times with various different directions) but was disappointed to find that most of them had wilted. However, there were more little spots of flowering bodies coming out! It was like a little galaxy of mushrooms.
Filoboletus manipularis. The next giant cluster that I encountered was just a few months after the last one. Not the freshest nor brightest, but the biggest!
Filoboletus manipularis. Again, an animation to visualise the scene.
Filoboletus manipularis. I then tried to mix in some light to capture both the forest and bioluminescence.
Filoboletus manipularis. It was after another year before I found the next cluster, while I was reviewing the Laowa 12mm F/2.8 Zero-D lens.
Filoboletus manipularis. I had a bioluminescent mushroom drought for 5 years and was alerted to a beautiful cluster in some mushroom groups on Facebook, thanks to Bennett Tan. However, most of it had already wilted by the time I got there.
Filoboletus manipularis. The last attempt reignited our interest in these shrooms, and with some luck, we found the biggest and brightest cluster yet! Thanks to Chris for the heads up!
Filoboletus manipularis. Closer view of the cluster.
Filoboletus manipularis. Animation again, always helps.
Filoboletus manipularis. Luckily, I had the Laowa 15mm 1:1 macro lens with me. This cluster was barely 30cm from the ground, so taking shots of it from below and getting most of it in focus proved to be very challenging.
Filoboletus manipularis. Wide angle close up from the side.
Filoboletus manipularis. Finally, a shot of the entire scene with some accidental blue LED exposure from my flashlight’s battery indicator. Looked interesting enough for me to keep the photo.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series!

About the author: Nicky Bay is a macro photographer based in Singapore. You can find more of his work and follow along with his adventures through his website and Flickr photostream. This article was also published here.