Alex Mustard: Photographing Special Moments Underwater
Founder of Underwater Photographer of the Year and leading the underwater photography industry for close to two decades, Dr Alex Mustard MBE needs little introduction.
Taking photos since he was just 9 years old, Alex has become one of the world’s leading underwater photographers. He has a myriad of awards under his belt, including several Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, six-time category winner in the British Wildlife Photography Awards, European Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2013, and the ADEX Award for Extraordinary Contribution to Underwater Photography in 2016.
A few years later in 2018, Alex was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his achievements as an underwater photographer. Alex is also a published author and frequently shares his passion through masterclasses and workshops.
We had the great pleasure of talking with Alex about his journey in photography, his hopes and goals behind each photo, his favourite underwater location, and more!
How did your journey into underwater photography begin?
My whole photographic journey started underwater. My first interest was in underwater photography, not photography in general.
I started taking photos underwater when I was 9 years old and, naturally, at that age my audience was my family. They didn’t like snorkeling, so I was motivated to record so that I could share with them what I saw underwater.
This desire to communicate my insights and experiences in the underwater world has remained a driving force in my photography ever since. With that being said, I never expected to be a professional photographer.
I wanted to be a marine biologist, discovering things about the ocean and sharing them with people. This is what I have ended up doing, just as a photographer.
With a BSc and PhD in marine biology, you have had peer reviewed articles published in Nature magazine. How does your background in marine biology tie in with your photography?
I’d be lying if I said that it is not a great benefit, and many leading nature photographers have backgrounds linked to natural sciences. Firstly, the things you learn while doing an undergraduate or postgraduate degree definitely inform who you are and how well you understand a subject.
Our knowledge, interests, and passions impact massively on how each of us chooses to shoot the world around us.
However, rarely is any fact I learned during those years critical to getting a specific shot today.
Far more valuable to an underwater photographer is the field-craft, the naturalist knowledge, that you build up through spending time with and observing marine life.
People always say I am very lucky with cooperative marine life, and particularly capturing behaviour.
Like many photographers who have spent lots of time with wild animals, you just learn how to behave in order to be able to keep their close company without disturbing them.
It is not one thing; it is lots of experience informing you almost subconsciously.
As long as you are open to it and always motivated to keep learning, this continual gain of knowledge from experience becomes like a sixth sense. And when it comes to getting the shot, knowledge is always faster than reflexes!
Do you have any photographs of the same animal that you can share with us to show how your style and technique developed over time? What would you say had the biggest influence on you when developing your underwater photography?
That’s an interesting question. I know it’s traditional to choose an early crummy shot and then a new one to show how good I am these days, but I’ll try a different tack. I’d rather talk about the way in which I have tried to evolve my shooting style with all my subjects, to diversify my portfolio and avoid repeating myself.
It feels slightly myopic with just one example, but here are two photos of hawksbill turtles taken on the same reef in Egypt, about 15 years apart. I feel both images are strong, I like both equally, and both sell well, to this day.
The older image is an eye-catching portrait, full of eye contact and personality. The newer image shows the role of the turtle in its environment, placing the animal within a bigger picture. It takes time to learn not to simply zero in on the subject.
Overall, I would say that while I still try and take attention grabbing images, my photography is always evolving. It would bore me if it didn’t.
I try and tell different visual stories, compose differently, use light differently, use depth of field differently, use intentional camera movement differently, use different lenses, and process my pictures differently.
Finally, I should mention that the pandemic gave me lots of time to dive into my archives, and because of this drift in my own ‘style’ I found images from shoot after shoot that I preferred to the favourites I processed at the time. They were shots I liked at the time but were not the shots I liked the most.
Where is your favourite place to dive and photograph, and why?
Either my current location or the next place I am headed. I am not being deliberately flippant. I am a great believer in shooting with passion as a photographer. So, I always try and direct my enthusiasm towards whatever I am photographing at the time, rather than dreaming about another subject or assignment.
So, whether it is shooting tiny sea slugs in freezing fjords, or giant blue whales in the tropical Indian Ocean, I try to make whatever I am doing my favourite. At least until the next shoot comes along…
Do you have a most memorable shoot or animal encounter from the past few years?
Before the pandemic, much of my photography was overseas and tied to workshops. Far more people are interested in workshops in the clear, warm waters of tropical reefs, than in murky and chilly British seas.
But all that stopped in April 2020 and, between the lockdowns, I tried to get out and shoot in the UK. I couldn’t go mad, as I needed to be home as much as possible with my primary school aged daughter, but I managed a lot more British photography than I had for years.
I loved it, from shooting elegant blue sharks in Cornwall, to humble seaweeds in the Hebrides.
People expect you to create beautiful underwater images on a coral reef, they are much more surprised when you show them stunning images from our wild British seas.
What is an accessory you recommend all underwater photographers take with them on a shoot?
Quality diving equipment – it keeps you alive and you want it to work flawlessly so that you can focus on your photography. That’s the boring answer, and I am sure everyone would rather I talked about photo gadgets!
So, I’ll plump for underwater strobes. One of the common mistakes when people get into underwater photography is to buy the most expensive camera they can, and then try and skimp on everything else.
The physics of light imposes major constraints when shooting through water, and it is optics and lighting that really transform what you can do as a photographer. Both areas have seen serious advances in the last few years. I use Retra strobes that give me so many options for lighting my underwater pictures.
If you could give our audience one piece of advice to help them progress in their underwater photography, what would it be?
Get close, then get closer – this is the classic soundbite that will always serve you well underwater. However, the question I am most regularly asked is how to make photography your career.
The most important advice is to remember what ‘pro’ stands for – PROFIT. Turning pro isn’t about dedicating your time to photography, it is about dedicating your time to making a profit from photography.
The easiest way to stay in profit is to control your expenditure. Turning pro doesn’t mean going out and buying every lens for your camera or booking every trip.
It is about working out where you can go and shoot without racking up big bills, and making saleable images by working to the strengths of the gear you have.
You have won several impressive awards over the years – how important do you feel photography competitions are in a photographer’s journey to becoming a professional?
Very. Everyone knows social media likes are a very poor measure of photographic excellence. So, contests that are judged by peers and industry professionals are perhaps more important than ever as a stamp of approval that your work is noteworthy in your field.
The bigger and more important the contest, the more industry people will notice and the more doors open. This is why the really big contests that top professionals enter, like the ones you mention, are the ones that matter.
Club competitions are good practice, but when your name is in the big contests alongside leading lights, and you start doing this regularly, it’s like rocket fuel for a professional career.
I also love that contests bring the community together and help you get to know other photographers. And, of course, they are an amazing platform for our images.
When we win big, shots get seen by millions and millions of people. That animal you spent time with, and the issues you wanted to communicate, suddenly reach a massive audience.
Something I love about the Wildlife Photographer is that by winning, you become part of the history of the contest. Older images are not forgotten; those that stand the test of time get seen for decades.
I’m very proud that nobody has more underwater pictures than I do in the latest ‘best of’ collection – the 55 Years of the WPY book.
But the key message about contests is that the results will always be subjective. So remember if you don’t win, you might next time. Many of my favourite images are contest losers – that doesn’t stop them being my favourites. And if you do win, enjoy your success, but don’t grow an ego that could capsize a boat!
What do you hope people will think or feel when they see your images?
Simply that they will be interested in the underwater world. Some images show people what this is like, others reveal the beauty of a location, the character of marine life, or their seldom seen behaviours.
Some of my images speak to the problems that the ocean faces. But across all of them, I hope that the pictures have that raw visual appeal to pull someone in and make them want to find out more about what they are looking at.
We love your work and are always excited to see new images of yours – what can we expect to see from you next?
I’m happily starting to get back out on the road since the pandemic. I’m really enjoying the privilege of travel and bringing stories back with my camera. It is wonderful to reconnect with the friends and fish around the world I have missed. I’d really like to do something with all the UK images I shot during the last two years.
I have a book proposal out there at the moment, but now I am travelling again I have too much on my plate for all the leg work that is needed to find a publisher. Maybe I’ll just have to content myself with sending them in to BWPA!
At time of writing my next trip is heading to the East Pacific off Mexico, my first time back in our planet’s largest ocean since 2019. The destination is famed for the sea’s bigger creatures, so I am hoping for some good encounters.