What's it like on an Alex Mustard workshop? / by Henley Spiers

I’m prone to daydreaming and sometimes imagine what it would be like if underwater photography was a globally recognised activity with the same kind of following as football. Billions of people would be familiar with the top underwater photographers and the announcement of big competition results would be televised. This popularity would of course bring commercial benefits too and the likes of Tony Wu and Paul Nicklen would be earning £200k a week. National Geographic would spend £100 million poaching the hottest young photographer from a smaller publication…Sadly, this is far from reality, underwater photography is very much a niche activity where the celebrity of the top ‘players’ doesn't extend too far outside a small community of insiders - at least they don’t have to worry about the paparazzi!

 

Now I bring this up because one of the benefits of underwater photography being a niche activity is that as a fan it’s easier to get access to the top dogs. As a budding image-maker, you can quite easily sign up for a workshop with the Lionel Messi of the underwater photography scene. For me, the Ballon D’Or of underwater photography goes to Alex Mustard, in fact as both the best player and coach I guess he’s kind of like Lionel Messi and Josep Guardiola rolled into one. Back in 2016, I decided to get serious about underwater photographer and duly signed up for two of Dr. Mustard’s workshops. I figured it was an investment in my education, the closest you can get to doing a degree in underwater photography.

 

I’d signed up for a Red Sea trip, headlined by the possibility of seeing Oceanic White Tip Sharks, and one on Grand Cayman which was advertised as being a solid grounding in using light underwater. The trip to Egypt came first, I packed my dive and camera gear and rocked up at the airport, feeling mixture of excitement and nerves. I was travelling alone and wasn’t sure if the group would be assembling at the airport or on location. As it turned out we would formally gather once in Egypt and I spent the trip trying to guess who else was on the workshop. John Parker, carrying his Aquatica housing in-hand, was an easy one to spot. 

 

I’d never met Alex Mustard before and my fiancee Jade is fond of making fun of my fan-girl fascination with him. I’m usually pretty blasé about ‘celebrity’ sightings but in this case it was ALEX BLOODY MUSTARD! tried to play it cool initially with a friendly hello but, come dinner, and graced with his presence at our table, I decided the time was ripe to come out of my shell. An awkward first conversation then ensued as I gushed something along the lines of “I really enjoyed Reefs Revealed and Secrets of the Seas’, to which Alex could only reply something like “err thank you Henley” and that was it. Over the course of the two workshops I came to realise that whilst Alex is a seriously impressive photographer and teacher, he’s also just a nice guy who likes to have a few laughs along the way, and you needn’t be intimidated.

 

You needn't be intimidated by Alex Mustard (seriously).

One thing which quickly became apparent is that most of the other 15 divers on the trip were regulars. I think only two or three of us were on our first ever workshop with Alex Mustard. These workshops are sold-out almost as soon as they are announced and Alex has clearly built up a loyal following of fans who seem to do a lot of their dive trips under his guidance. The regulars are of course familiar with how it all works, as well as with each other, so as a newbie you may feel a little behind the curve at first, I certainly did. That’s not to say they weren’t friendly, indeed I made the mistake of having a few beers with the entertaining duo of Paul Pettit and Dave Baker the night before leaving port. The next day’s long sail on rough seas was noticeably less comfortable as a result (and no, I wasn’t chundering everywhere if that’s what you’re thinking). I felt much better once we got in the water for a check-dive which was not only a chance to see if everyone remembered how to dive, but also to cross our fingers that no housings flooded. That evening we began a format which would be followed for the rest of the week, with Alex giving a presentation and then an image review.

 

A few things to note here:

  • Alex Mustard does not follow you around and teach you underwater. I wasn’t sure if this would or wouldn't happen prior to attending and indeed was struggling to get my head around how it would even be feasible with a large group. As a dive instructor, you go where your students go, supervising, evaluating and coaching. As far as formal diving education goes, that’s what most of us are used to. This is a very different set-up. You go and do your dive, get some images, then the formal instruction from Alex is through slide-show presentations and him reviewing your images.
  • Everyone is buddied up but this is in a very loose sense. You will be pretty much diving on your own in the search for images and, if you’re not comfortable with that, you’d better bring a buddy (and potential model) on the trip with you.

 

So image review: Alex will announce earlier in the day that everyone is allowed to enter 1 or 2 photos for the image review that evening and he needs them by such and such a time. Officially, there is no competition and the idea is that we all learn from the critique of not just our own photos but those of the rest of the group too. I really enjoyed this concept and learnt enormously from it. To have your photo come up on screen and then hear the immediate reaction and feedback from one of the top wildlife photographers in the world is fantastically valuable. Some people get a bit shy at this point and don’t enter their photos to the review. To me this seems like a great shame as this is one the very things you’ve paid for! Oh and don’t worry, he doesn’t crucify any images in his comments, it’s very much looking for the positive and displaying what improvements can be made, but not in a soul crushing manner. I found the language he used to describe different images interesting, for example: “it’s a graphically strong image” or “it tells a story”. You can edit your shot or not for submission, and one of the most valuable things I gained all trip was watching Alex at work on Lightroom and Photoshop.  So your image comes up, he reacts and then starts basically re-editing it, watch those sliders closely and your editing process will be much improved by the end of the trip. 

Hmm should I enter this into today's image review?

 

A word on the competitive aspect, Alex does as much as he can to make it a friendly exchange of ideas but hey, you can’t hold back human nature. I hold my hand up to feeling like the evening image review, at least at first, was an opportunity to see how I measured up against the other shooters. Even so, this doesn’t result in any feelings of animosity towards other photographers, just disappointment when your results aren’t what you hoped for. In fact, I found that I actually learnt a great deal from the other photographers on the trip. Being based on a liveaboard is conducive to this as we were all living in close confines and would gather side-by-side to review and edit images. I guess a kind of hierarchy does form, with the most experienced shooters acting as mentors to the less. That particular group included some heavy-hitters from the underwater photography scene such as Mario Vitalini and Nick More. Mario was named most promising British underwater photographer of the year in the inaugural UPY with a cool shot of a backlit goby on a seafan. He makes his living teaching underwater photography and is now one of Scuba Travel’s Photo Pros alongside Alex Mustard, Martin Edge and Martyn Guess. In between his day job as a dentist, Nick More has been dominating the BSoUP competitions for some time now and, to my mind, has created some of the most original and exciting underwater imagery around. Their submissions to the image review drove me to become better and they were on hand to help out with little tips too. Mario in particular was very helpful and shared some editing advice which I still use to this day. There were many other talented photographers on hand and one of the pleasures of these workshops is walking away with a whole new network of people who share the same passion. Social media makes it so easy these days to stay in touch and your newsfeed becomes even more clogged up with fish porn (which is a good thing).

 

Fish porn.

I walked away from that first workshop inspired and excited for the next. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret, I was wondering if Alex Mustard was as good as he was built up to be. You see, I had seen Nick and Mario’s beautiful shots from the trip and could tell I still had a way to go to reach that level. However, I hadn’t really seen Alex underwater much and we hadn't seen any of his photos from the trip. We had seen beautiful shots in the presentations, but these fall under the “something I prepared earlier” umbrella and I was curious to compare what he achieved in the exact same conditions as us. Well, the Grand Cayman workshop would quickly put those doubts to bed. Like pretty much every other underwater photographer, I’d bought Alex’s new book, ‘Underwater Photography Masterclass’. In it was described a technique called ‘inward lighting’ and I was determined to add it to my repertoire. It basically involves pointing the strobes back towards the camera which enables you to isolate wide angle subjects against a dark background. Sounds fairly straightforward right? I’d swatted up on the technique in the book and felt sure I could figure it out. Unlike in Egypt, we were now based in a resort and this workshop is recommended as the first to attend as it’s more geared at getting your fundamentals right. As such, on the first day Alex held a pool session to make sure everyone’s cameras were set up and working right, and to go through some lighting basics. This was also a chance for any of us wanting to practice a particular technique to do so. I arrived a bit early for my pool appointment and Alex suggested that I start practicing inward lighting on a plastic toy he had set-up. I confidently swam to the deep end and started shooting. And shooting. And making small adjustments. And shooting again….for a frustrating while…never quite getting what I wanted. Alex eventually swam over and had a look at my LCD. Clearly not too impressed he borrowed my camera, adjusted the strobes, took a shot…reviewed…took one more shot…then passed it back to me to see. A beautifully lit toy and perfect black background were on the screen. Wow! This guy knows his stuff!

Practice makes perfect - inward lighting from pool...

to open water.

His mastery of technique and speed were also abundant in another memorable moment. We were on the house reef shooting macro, in fact super macro of a Roughead Blenny at the top of a block of coral. Alex had mentioned to me before descending to follow him and he’d point out its location as, due to the positioning, you could shoot this fish against the water column. This meant that you could either shoot it as a black or blue background. We descended and Alex quickly found said blenny. He then spent maybe two minutes shooting it. He comes over, shows me the blenny and two shots on his screen, one exposed for a blue background and the other for black, both beautifully crisp. I thanked him and settled down to try and replicate it. It took me about twenty head-ache inducing minutes! I had no more doubts, the man was fully deserving of all the accolades.

Alex takes this shot in his sleep, it took me twenty headache inducing minutes.

The second workshop had quite a few first timers and I enjoyed finding myself in the position of ‘old hand’. More at ease, I also didn't see the image reviews as an opportunity to flex photographic muscles and would enter photos which I wasn’t sure about rather than the best of the day. The nightly presentations were very informative, they often touch on similar subjects to what is in his book but take you much further, and are focussed on the local marine life. That being said, the workshops tend to attract an older crowd generally (I guess that makes senses considering the required combination of enough spare cash for photo gear and enough time to enjoy it), and some of them had a hilarious habit of dozing off during Alex’s talks. Luckily this was taken in good humour, far better I imagine than if a Man United player had fallen asleep during one of Alex Ferguson’s team talks!

 

Random remark:

  • The thing with being exposed to Alex’s stunning images and him deconstructing how they were created, is that most of the time we all go off and try to replicate them. It’s often very easy to see photos online or in competitions and know “oh that was done on an Alex Mustard workshop”. There is some satisfaction to be gained from mimicking his images but I started to realise that it’s a not very useful if you’re seeking success in big competitions. The judges are looking for something new and original, they don’t want a copy of the Mona Lisa, they want new, astounding art. Alex has recently written a piece bemoaning the lack of British photographers winning in the major contests and urged a greater pursuit of originality. Ironically, I think the magnetism of his images has probably played a role in this issue! I reckon the best way to approach it is to take the techniques he teaches and apply them to something new (easier said then done).

 

On this second workshop I found myself missing Jade, my usual dive buddy and model. Some of the attendees had come as couples and in a few rare cases one partner was camera-less, just diving and modelling. The thing is we were so absorbed in our individual photographic journeys that we would go off on each dive determined to maximise time taking photos, no one willing to sacrifice a minute of precious clicking for modelling purposes. On the other hand, almost every wide angle shot would benefit from having a person in it to add interest. This was particularly the case when we were shooting reef scenes where a diver’s silhouette would have been the cherry on top. About halfway through the workshop, I found myself bemoaning this state of affairs with Brook Peterson, a professional Californian shooter. She was feeling the same way and so we decided to spend a portion of each dive from there on posing for each other. Yes, it meant 10-15 minutes in the water where you weren’t using your camera, but our images started to have a bit more life to them and it was well worth it. I would definitely look to do the same on any future workshops and can highly recommend this system.

 

Some shots just need a model - nice pose Brook!

A little aside:

  • There is a lot of value in having a dive itinerary built for photographers, visiting sites when the light is best and having the freedom to dive as slowly as you need to take photos. The flip side to this is that on every dive you have somewhere between 10 and 16 other underwater photographers, all of you looking to make the most out of the opportunities available. When you’re all going for the same subject, say a wreck, or a shark, or a particular cavern, it gets crowded and frustrating. This is why I would not advise doing all of your photography in a workshop environment. Sometimes it’s nice to be the only underwater photographer on a site and lap up the available opportunities, even if the drawback is not having a world-class coach to guide you.

 

All in all, these workshops were a game-changing experience and imparted a lot of knowledge which has served me well since. Learning from one of the leading lights of underwater photography is an opportunity which you don’t find replicated in many other fields so I’d strongly urge you to make the most of it. I think what i like best about Alex is that he clearly loves what he does. Unlike some other photo pros I’ve encountered, Alex is the first one in the water and the last out. It’s a rare level of passion and great to see, no doubt it has played a big role in his success. Alright, I better stop the fawning over Alex Mustard there or Jade will be making fun of me again.

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