Q&A with Alex Mustard - SSI PP 5000 and Award-Winning Underwater PhotographerDecember 5, 2022
What happens when a love for the ocean meets a passion for photography? You get an award-winning underwater photographer with a deep understanding of the complexities of ocean ecosystems producing captivating underwater images.
SSI Platinum Pro Diver, Alex Mustard, has been doing just that. With a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology, Alex worked as a marine scientist until 2004, when he changed careers from scientist to photographer. Taking his first photo at nine years old, Alex could no longer deny his passion for underwater photography.
And now, as an SSI 5000 Diver, Alex has over 5000 logged dives, making him a true expert in everything related to the underwater world. We caught up with Alex to ask him about his favorite diving memories and how diving has shaped his life and his work.
Do you remember when and where you did your landmark 100th, 1000th, 2000th, 3000th, 4000th, and 5000th dives?
Alex Mustard: I didn’t know the answers to these questions from memory, so it was fun to dive into my logbooks and relive them. Dive 100 was in 1993 at a site called Grunt in Antigua. I remember it had tons of spiny lobsters. Dive 1000 was in 2004 at Ras Mohammed in Egypt where I spent the entire dive swimming inside a huge school of Bohar snappers. Dive 2000 was in 2008 at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas. Dive 3000 was in 2012 and was a shore dive at Sunset House in the Cayman Islands. I spent 100-minutes photographing hamlet fish spawning at dusk with my wife. Dive 4000 was in 2017 at Los Isoltes, a sea lion colony near La Paz, Mexico where there were playful seal pups. Lastly, dive 5000 was in 2022 in Misool, in Raja Ampat Indonesia.
What was your childhood like? Did you have any contact with photography or underwater life as a kid?
Alex Mustard: I grew up in the UK and have been fascinated with aquatic life all my life. I don’t really know when it began, but there are photos of me as a two-year-old looking at one of Cousteau’s books filled with pictures of fish. I have always loved the ocean, which led me to snorkeling and then to diving. My parents were always supportive, but they didn’t share my passions.
As a kid, I knew the names of all the fish, and it was a family joke that I would return from any holiday with a brown back and legs with a white front because I was always head down snorkeling in the water! Once I got my first underwater camera, I just wanted to record everything I saw, mainly to share with my family, who never joined me underwater. I guess my job today is pretty much the same. I go exploring underwater and try and produce eye-catching images to interest and share my love of the oceans with people – it is just a bigger audience these days.
Why did you start diving?
Alex Mustard: I started underwater photography before diving and was desperate to learn to dive because I knew it would allow me to get more types of photos. Since my parents didn’t want to dive, I had to wait until they felt I was old enough to do something on my own that they didn’t want to do. I first breathed underwater in a pool at 13 and in the sea at 14.
What pushes you to keep diving?
Alex Mustard: Photography. There is always something new to find, something new to photograph. It might be an object on a wreck nobody noticed before or a fish behavior that hasn’t been recorded. Also, no photo is perfect, so there is always a motivation to dive again and hope to improve a shot of something you have photographed before. Each photo dive leaves you even more motivated for the next one. Underwater photography keeps many people addicted to diving.
How did you become an SSI Platinum Pro 5000 diver? Were there any certain qualities required?
Alex Mustard: There are two ways to become an SSI Platinum Pro 5000 Diver. One is aimed more at industry professionals like me, which is to make over 2500 dives and to apply by demonstrating how you have significantly contributed to the diving world. The other method is to log 5000 scuba dives. I definitely wanted to follow the second route. The magic of this special award is that anyone can do it as long as they have a massive passion for diving.
Are there any influential people who have inspired you?
Alex Mustard: I feel that my passions for diving, marine life, and photography are innate. They have always just been a part of me. However, my diving and photography benefitted from important mentors to learn from and friends to exchange ideas with. I must mention two names: Peter Rowlands and Peter Scoones, who both shaped my career and were part of the inaugural class of PP 5000 divers when the award was first introduced. The two Peters are grandees of British underwater photography and have greatly influenced my career. I think my desire to emulate them meant I have always had an eye on this diving milestone.
Do you have a favorite moment underwater? What was it?
Alex Mustard: The next one! I am always most excited about what I am doing right now. An attraction of diving is that it allows us to escape from the distractions of everyday life and makes all experiences more intense. I very much like to live in the present through my diving experiences. That said, I am very grateful that I have had the chance to swim with many of the underwater world’s most amazing creatures: leafy sea dragons, blue whales, marine iguanas, saltwater crocodiles, orcas, pygmy seahorses, mimic octopus, and great white sharks to name a few.
Take the SSI Fish Identification specialty course to learn how to identify all the awesome marine life you see underwater.
Do you have a favorite underwater picture/video that you have done?
Alex Mustard: I used to. In my early years, I definitely had my favorite shots. These days not so much. I think I have photographed so much, so many different subjects, so many different techniques, that it is hard to compare them. One favorite is my photograph Night Moves, which won me the title of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2013, and remains the only underwater winner of that award. However, I very rarely show that picture. As a photographer, I want to be known for the range of my work, not one shot.
What do you think is the most challenging part of being an underwater photographer?
Alex Mustard: I find the most challenging aspect of underwater photography these days are all the problems facing the ocean and how to cover these in my work. If I just shoot beautiful images, people could get the wrong impression that there are no problems. However, if I only shoot the problems, most people won’t look at my pictures, and then I cannot entice them to have their own passion for the ocean. The solution is to take both types of images to show the best-suited image to the audience at the time.
The free SSI Blue Oceans program helps to bring awareness to divers about our ocean’s current issues.
What are some important skills for an underwater photographer?
Alex Mustard: The most important skill has nothing to do with cameras; it is developing good diving skills. The best way to be a better underwater photographer is to become a better diver, particularly your in-water skills when diving with a big camera rig. We often take images close to delicate marine life, and our skills need to be top-notch to avoid damaging the creatures we are trying to photograph. If you want natural behaviors to play out in front of your camera, you must ensure that you dive in a way that keeps the wildlife happy. And when shooting high magnification shots, a stable camera, which comes from a stable diver, will make it much easy to frame and precisely focus on the subject.
Improve your buoyancy skills with SSI’s Perfect Buoyancy course.
What do you shoot with?
Alex Mustard: I currently shoot with Nikon SLR cameras (Nikon D850 and D5 to be specific) in Subal housings. I also own a Mirrorless Olympus system in a Nauticam housing, but I am yet to take the mirrorless plunge for my primary system; however, it is the future. I also am fascinated with light underwater and think that most other underwater photographers are too obsessed with cameras and not enough with their lighting. My strobes are from Retra and Seacam. I also enjoy available light photography, and more than 15 years ago, I invented the Magic Filter for working without strobes, which I still use.
Any advice for beginners on becoming a good underwater photographer or even making a career out of it?
Alex Mustard: The key element to becoming an excellent underwater photographer is practice. You need to put the time in the water to get to know your subjects, your camera, the lighting, and to take all the standard shots so that you want to push on and create original images.
In terms of a career, the most important thing I would say is that it is possible. Many people told me it wasn’t when I started, which could have quickly put me off. But if you are willing to work hard, suffer some hard times, and have talent and dedication, you can make it work. You won’t be rich, but you can have a happy life filled with amazing experiences.
Learn more about taking beautiful photos and filming videos underwater with SSI Photo & Video Specialty course.
Alex is well-known as a master of his craft through his best-selling book Underwater Photography Masterclass (2016). His accomplishments include winning international photography awards since his teens and being featured as Wildlife Photographer of the Year, where he was featured in 15 different portfolio books of winning photographs over the last 20 years. In 2013, Alex was named overall winner of the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year and is still the only underwater winner of that title. He is also a founder and chair of UPY: the Underwater Photographer of the Year competition.
To learn more about becoming an SSI Platinum Pro Diver, SSI specialties you can take, and the exciting locations Alex has been diving, visit divessi.com today!
You can learn more about Alex and view his work at www.amustard.com.