Posted 19 April 2018
IMAGINE MESSI TEACHING YOU TO PLAY FOOTBALL
Not all ‘pro’ photo workshops are the same – on some you just pay and hope. But what’s it like learning to get the best from your camera under water from a recognised master? HENLEY SPIERS studies at the school of Mustard
Posted 19 April 2018
Not all ‘pro’ photo workshops are the same – on some you just pay and hope. But what’s it like learning to get the best from your camera under water from a recognised master? HENLEY SPIERS studies at the school of Mustard
IMAGINE MESSI TEACHING YOU TO PLAY FOOTBALL
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. 
Sadly, this is far from reality. Underwater photography is very much a niche activity in which 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 Pep Guardiola rolled into one. 
Back in 2016, I decided to get serious about underwater photography 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 whitetip sharks, and one on Grand Cayman that was advertised as being a solid grounding in using light under water. 
The Egypt trip came first. I packed my dive- and camera-gear and rocked up at the airport, feeling a mixture of excitement and nerves. I’d never met Alex Mustard before and was a little in awe of him during our first encounter. 
I soon came to realise that while he 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. His enthusiasm for underwater photography is infectious, and it was great to see that even after 30 years of shooting he is still the first one in the water and the last out.
It quickly became apparent that most of the other 15 divers on the trip were regulars. These workshops are sold out almost as soon as they’re announced, and Alex has clearly built up a loyal following of divers who seem to do a lot of their 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 that they weren’t friendly. Indeed, a few beers with the group on the first night made for a slightly uncomfortable sail across rough seas the next day!

IT’S WORTH POINTING OUT that, unlike the formal dive-training with which most of us are familiar, Alex does not follow you around and teach under water. 
The set-up is as follows: pre-dive, Alex briefs us on photographic opportunities and techniques relevant to the site. We then go for multiple dives and capture some images.
In the evening, Alex will give another presentation and then conduct an image-review session. It will be announced earlier in the day that everyone is allowed to enter one or two photos, 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 image 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 a shame, because it is one the very things you’ve paid for. 
Don’t worry, he doesn’t crucify any images – it’s very much about looking for the positive and displaying what improvements can be made. 
You can edit your shot or not for submission, and one of the most valuable things I gained was watching Alex at work on Lightroom and Photoshop. Essentially, your image comes up, he reacts and then starts re-editing it – watch those sliders closely and your editing process will be much improved by the end of the trip. 
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 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, only disappointment if your results aren’t what you hoped for. 
In fact, I found that I learnt a great deal from the other photographers on the trip. Being based on a liveaboard is conducive to this, because we were all living in close confines and would gather side-by-side to review and edit images. 


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