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The Amazing Miniature World of Mushrooms and Myxomycete
Under Alison Pollack’s Camera Lens

By Adelina, 03-06-2020
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Alison Pollack’s enthusiasm for hiking led her into the world of tiny organisms, called Myxomycetes (Myxos for short, or commonly called slime molds), exhibit utterly fascinating structures and colors. With her sense of exactness (she trained as a mathematician) Alison has taken a hobby and turned into a profession taking macro photos of the Myxos. Alison’s astounding images of Myxomycetes have won her recognition throughout the California Bay Area and the world at large and helped the public open their eyes to these magnificent organisms living all around us.

Myxobacteria

Courtesy: Alison Pollack

It was during a hike in Northern California two years ago when Alison noticed some beautiful tiny organisms sprouting on a tree log. Using just a cell phone, she took some pictures of them. After she went home, she did a reverse Google image search and learned that  these organisms were Myxomycetes. She was so intrigued by the information she found for these tiny slime molds that she kept researching right through the night until early the next morning. She was so drawn to their delicate structures and colors that she decided to introduce the public to the fascinating world of Myxos. 

Chlorociboria aeruginascens (fungus)

Courtesy: Alison Pollack 

In pursuit of her new hobby, Alison taught herself how to take macro photos of these slime molds.  With such tiny subjects, and powerful macro lenses, the depth of focus of a single image is very small.  Alison uses a technique called focus stacking, in which she takes many images of the subject, changing the focal point very slightly in each image.  She then composites these images into a single photo with sharp detail throughout. Her painstaking efforts paid off and her perfectionism in producing such fine images has resulted in many followers on her Instagram account (the latest count, more than 20K). 

Comatricha nigra (Myxomycete)

Courtesy: Alison Pollack

Myxomycetes are one of the least noticeable organisms in nature. They are a small group of monocellular organisms with an average size of a few millimeters tall that live on decaying tree logs or leaves. Though slime molds are tiny, they provide a vital function in the ecosystem by consuming bacteria at the same time providing shelter for other species such as beetles (sources: https://medcraveonline.com/JBMOA/the-roles-of-myxomycetes-in-ecosystems.html). According to Alison, there are Myxos in every single color of the rainbow. The shapes of slime molds vary depending on the stage in their life cycle. Sometimes, Alison can find different stages of the same type of slime mold on the same tree log. To Alison, it is absolutely fascinating to see how they change shapes and colors at the same location. 

Didymium Squamulosum (Myxomycete)

Courtesy: Alison Pollack 

Often times, it takes a special effort to find these intriguing and amazing organisms. According to Alison, she usually spends hours hunting for these slime molds after it rains in open spaces or forests near where she lives. Walking very slowly is the key. She carries an LED-lit 10x magnifying lens and looks for dots of colors on decaying tree logs and in leaf litter. Once she finds a subject to photograph, she uses tweezers and very small paint brushes to clean them. Then she sets up a sturdy tripod with a camera and a macro lens to take up to 100 images of different parts of the object to create a composite image. In the field, this is all done manually and so requires a lot of patience. If the organisms are very tiny, Alison will take them home where she uses an automated system with specialized extreme macro lenses to take 100 to 500 images for compositing into a single image with fine detail and enhanced depth of field. Typically, it takes Alison five to ten hours of work to produce an image of good quality.

Cat's Tongue (fungus)

Courtesy: Alison Pollack 

Besides Myxos, Alison also takes images of tiny mushrooms that share a similar habitat to that of slime molds. However, slime molds and mushrooms belong to different biological kingdoms. To Alison, tiny mushrooms are just as pretty in colors and intriguing in their patterns and structures. They are easier to spot because they are larger and there are more of them, with a greater variety – there are probably millions of species of fungi in the world while there are only about 1,000 species of Myxos.

Physarum viride (Myxomycete)

Courtesy: Alison Pollack

For a beginner, Alison advises people to first start taking images of larger objects and then work their way into taking macro images. Lately, there are some cameras equipped with automatic photo stacking functionality such as the Olympus TG-6. It is a lot easier to take good quality photos for beginners by using these kinds of cameras. 

Polycephalomyces Tomentosus (fungus) on a slime mold

Courtesy: Alison Pollack 

It is worth noting for people in the Bay Area that on Thursday evening March 12, 2020 between 6:00 to 10:00 pm, Alison will be showing her photos at the After Dark evening on fungi at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. Her photos will be displayed on a 70-inch monitor, and she will be talking about the photos and her techniques. For people who want to learn more, Alison also provides private instruction.  As for prints, people can reach her via her Instagram account.


We look forward to her new discoveries and images of these slime molds and tiny mushrooms in the near future.

Alison's Instagram account: @marin_mushrooms