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Interview with Alex Mustard

As a marine biologist Alexander Mustard uses his unique understanding of the underwater world to create imaginative and innovative shots that seem to escape many other underwater photographers. In this interview he describes his background, motivations and workflow which has helped him become one of underwater photography's most recognisable image makers.
When did you start taking photographs?
I don’t remember taking pictures on land until later, so I am pretty sure that my first pictures were underwater. As a child I was a mad keen snorkeller – but the rest of my family hated the water. When I was 9, my father brought me a basic 110 film waterproof camera. Back then I knew the name of every fish in the sea and spent hours in the water. I’d come home from holidays with a brown back and a totally white front! My photos were also very poor, although I had the time of my life taking them. I was a keen amateur photographer for a long time and was very proud to be so. Amateur photographers have the chance to follow their ideas and experiment much more than pros, whose artistic intentions are usually corrupted by the need to take images that sell. I think this allowed me to play with light underwater and try lots of different ideas. This also allowed me to develop my own style of shooting free from deadlines. Then when I turned pro people came to me because they wanted the creative and original images that I was getting known for. So by garnering a reputation for being different actually means that I now get encouraged to be creative by clients.

Are you currently working on your photography full time or are you still working in marine science?
Until 2004, I worked as a marine biologist at the University of Southampton. I took pictures in my spare time – and was starting to get frustrated because I had to turn down opportunities for shoots because of the day job. So I took the big decision to become self-employed – with the intention of dividing my time equally between marine science and photography. But when I started doing it, I found I was being offered lots of photography work and not that much science. And obviously I had to do what I was offered to earn my money. So I almost became a full time photographer by default. I guess the world prefers me more as a photographer than a scientist (or maybe they just don’t like me as a scientist). Of course much of what I write draws heavily on my background as a marine biologist. My recent book Reefs Revealed was an ideal combination of my scientific background and my photography.

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Tell us about your background and how that has influenced photographic journey?
For a wildlife photographer, I think having worked as a scientist is a big advantage in many areas. And indeed there are plenty of wildlife photographers who at least have degrees in biological sciences. That said I think a lot of wildlife photographers are too keen to demonstrate their biological credentials. This leads them to place too much importance on capturing something rare or academically interesting and possibly not enough on capturing a powerful image that will engage the audience. Perhaps the greatest blessing of coming from an academic background is that I don’t feel that I have to prove it. This gives me permission to take very unscientific images. If I can frame or light a subject to imply more personality than is really there – then that it’s great. Fish need all the friends they can get. Of course I love to take biological themed images that communicate how these species live their lives, how they interact with other species, how changes in the environment affect their lives etc. It is no revelation that the knowledge, contacts and experience of working in marine biology are very useful for telling such stories through images.

We constantly hear our environment changing at a rapid rate due to climate change and other human impacts: The worlds oceans are at the forefront of this change particularly our coral reef systems – does this create a sense of urgency for you in your work as you may be among the of people chronicling this change through your photography.
Wildlife photographers in all environments are certainly highly motivated to produce powerful images that communicate the effects of climate change and I definitely belong to this group. This specific issue was of course a major motivator for working on Reefs Revealed during the last few years and is the main theme of the text of the book. Taking photographs of environmental degradation is a particularly challenging area of photography. The first difficulty is to communicate changes in a single image, where a pair of before and after images are much more informative. The second challenge is to present these images in a way that will get people to look at them. Magazines and book publishers are generally not keen to publish images that will put off readers, and collections of images of destruction may appeal to those already convinced of the cause but they will turn off the general public. So the biggest challenge is to produce images that will appeal to the general public and still get the message across. After all these are the people we want to influence with our images.

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Underwater imagery would generally be considered a niche market in the photo industry - where does the demand for your images come from?
The most surprising places. I am constantly shocked by the people who find me and want to use my photographs. Obviously scuba diving, travel and wildlife magazines are major users of underwater images. But these days you will see underwater photographs in a wide variety of publications - my job is to make sure that they are mine!

Underwater photography is a real unknown to many photographers - do you have any advice to those who want to have a go at it?
Before getting into underwater photography you need to be completely comfortable and experienced in the water. If you plan to SCUBA dive to take photos – learn to dive well before you take a camera in. If you have the basic skills then taking pictures underwater has fantastic possibilities. It is another world of subjects and light. Furthermore you can move in three dimensions. Imagine how your land photography would be different if you were able to fly! Taking pictures underwater is not difficult, but the restrictions of shooting in a murky, colour sapping medium impose strict rules on what and how you can photograph. The main rule is get close – shoot through as little water as possible and you minimise all your problems. Technically there are only three types of underwater photos – 1) flash-lit, 2) ambient light lit and 3) mixed lighting between 1 and 2. Learn how to control and exploit these and you can take any underwater photo you wish. Many people start by taking flash-lit close-up pictures. But wide angle ambient light shots of wrecks or large marine life are probably even easier – as long as you have the right lens! And of course, shoot digital. The instant feedback will mean you will hone your techniques so much faster.

What would recommend as a kit for people wanting to dive into underwater photography?
It depends how much you want to spend. If you want to give it a try I would suggest a 6-8 megapixel digital compact camera in a plastic housing. Personally I favour Canon and Fuji compacts, but most work very well. These take really good pictures for the amount you will spend and will let you know whether underwater photography is for you or not. If you want to get into it seriously then you need to house a digital SLR camera. Generally, smaller cameras are better than pro-bodies with vertical grips incorporated. Vertical grips cannot be accessed through the housing and just mean you have a bigger, heavier housing to drag around the world. So smaller bodies like the Nikon D300 and Canon 5D are best, at the time of writing. I'd also recommend sticking mainly to Nikon or Canon as housings are most easily available for these models. The best housings are made specifically for your camera and give full access to all the camera's controls. To really get the most out of a DSLR underwater you need the right lenses. Ultra wide angle lenses, particularly fisheyes, are standard kit. They allow you to photograph large subjects from as close as possible. The Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom is one of the favourites at the moment. There are few straight lines underwater so fisheyes have few drawbacks. The other group of popular lenses are macro lenses: 50/60mm are favoured in murky waters, and 100/105mm macro lenses are favoured in clearer water. Most underwater photographers regularly use both. Lighting is also essential. Most serious photographers use a pair of underwater flashguns or strobes to add colour to their images. Without them the underwater world is monochrome blue. The strobes must be positioned a little way out from the camera on arms to avoid lighting up particles in the water and creating an unsightly snow-storm effect called backscatter. The other way to get colour into underwater images is to use a filter. Filter photography is limited to shallower depths, but it is a techniques that is particularly suited to digital cameras and is being used widely no by underwater photographers to create types of images that weren't possible a few years ago.

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A lot of photographers, particularly underwater photographers, are gear obsessed for other things are just tools - which type are you?
Kit is important in underwater photography. Without the right lenses, lighting and underwater housings you will not get the shot. It is often said that when art critics get together they talk about art, but when artists meet they discuss brushes. That said it is important not to get too obsessed with the minutia. It seems to me that too many people in the photography world think that it is megapixels and not great lighting and an amazing subject that make a stunning photograph. For me the right balance is to be interested and knowledgeable enough about the gear to make sure you have all the right tools, but not to be into the gear for the gear’s sake. The most important thing is to get the kit and get it out there working. Take pictures. One area I differ from many underwater photographers is in the number of lenses I use. I am always looking for new optics to help me create new images. Partly this is driven by the demands of creating the larger portfolios required for books. Using a variety of lenses gives these the visual variety that they need. I really get excited about kit is when something comes along that can dramatically expand the types of images you can take. One example of this underwater is the Magic Filter that I developed myself a few years ago. This has revolutionised available light photography underwater – allowing photographers to capture large scenes in full colour – images that until the filter came along were recorded only in blue on transparencies. This for me is the ideal piece of kit – that sums up my attitude towards equipment. You are not going to get bragging rights by having one. It is cheap, only £19, and it doesn’t look sexy. But it allows you to take photographs that you never could before.

So what's your favourite photography related toy?
This would have to be the Nissan NV200. This is a concept car that Nissan designed and built around my needs as an underwater photographer. It has storage for all my dive gear and cameras, and a built in computer for reviewing images. But it very much falls into the toy category because it is a one off and (unsurprisingly) they did not give it to me when they finished.

The Nissan NV200 - I wanted to ask about this - how did this come about this and when does the Alex Mustard helicopter or submarine go to the drawing board?
The NV200 is a concept car that Nissan designed and built for the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2007. It is a light commercial vehicle that was developed specifically around my needs as an underwater photographer. Such an unusual design brief is very stimulating for the designers and can bring up a number of innovations that in less specific form can be transferred to production cars and vans. The project started by Nissan sending me an email saying that they have a very unusual proposal for me! I am sure I won't do anything like it again, but I am also sure I will be involved in some equally barmy projects. In my line of work these things just seem to come up!

When you are photographing on a reef in the middle of nowhere and you really quite vulnerable and more so than what many terrestrial wildlife photographers - have you had any scary experiences, you know coming face to face with a great white?
Yes and no. Certainly I have met some pretty big creatures underwater, and been unnerved from time to time. I have a great video of me free swimming with a tiger shark that is clearly 5 metres long. Great for impressing my friends down the pub. But situations are rarely dangerous – just scary. Like walking through a deserted house at night – you are scared, but it is not actually dangerous. In fact, when working with big animals the most important thing is to do everything you can to minimise risks. It is good to be scared. But if it is actually dangerous then you really shouldn’t be doing it. My natural tendency to be a chicken is most useful. There are many potentially dangerous animals in the ocean, but very few are actively aggressive. Most poisons, toxins, bites and stings are used in defence and if you leave them alone – then they will leave you alone. A common expression amongst divers is “If something moves slow enough for you to touch it. Don’t. It probably has good reason to be so self assured.” Getting stuck in Category 5 Hurricane Ivan while in the Caribbean photographing coral spawning in 2004 was a fairly extreme experience, though.

You travel widely for your images and i am sure you have been to some amazing places but what is your favourite place and why?
Like most photographers I am far more excited about the future than the past. The place I am most excited about visiting is the next one. In January I am off to the US and Mexico. First to photograph manatees (sea cows) in Florida and then to the remote Revillagigedo Archipelago in the Eastern Pacific to photograph manta rays and other large pelagic creatures. When the next trip sounds that amazing it is hard not to get excited about the future! I really enjoy all my travels underwater creating images. Although, paradoxically, I do not enjoy being away from home. Working in the field is also stressful – with pressures to produce results as you see the costs in time and money mounting. I never feel any pressure on myself to create the images – as long as I can get in the water I know I will get the shots – but I am always worrying about gear failure or other travel problems, which would stop me shooting.

Visit Alex Mustard's website.