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Review: “Underwater Photography Masterclass” by Alex Mustard
By Joseph Tepper, September 15, 2016 @ 04:00 AM (EST)

I’m not sure you can fit into a book all it takes to master underwater photography. Few publishers would be keen to invest in a 32-volume encyclopedia on underwater photography ranging from A (aperture) to Z (zoom lenses).

And yet, renowned underwater photographer and marine biologist Alex Mustard has tackled this very challenge in Underwater Photography Masterclass, a 200-page instructional “field guide” that is aimed at elevating your underwater imagery, regardless of your experience level.

Meet the Author: Alex Mustard

I mentioned one reason that writing a comprehensive underwater photography book is challenging—limited space. But perhaps the real obstacle is in the medium itself: Learning the intricacies of underwater photography is difficult to soak up through the written word.

No one knows this challenge better than the book’s author, Alex Mustard. Alex (Dr. Mustard if we must be proper!) probably runs more workshops and teaches more students annually than anyone else. As mentioned in the book’s introduction, he averages 365 dives with his camera every year. Many of these dives are alongside students, helping hands-on to improve their imagery.

As a result, Alex understands a key fault of many instructional books limited by word counts: They teach beginner techniques—what Alex calls “half-truths”—that ignore the how and why behind each method (see below, “Teaching Technique: Show, Don’t Tell”). Sure, they can help you get a decently exposed and composed image right away, but failing to understand why you are making a decision can stall progress in the future.

As a result, Alex doesn’t take the “f/8 and be there” approach. In fact, there’s very little formal instruction on things like manual exposure or dome port theory. Rather, Alex’s teaching style takes his gathered knowledge through tens of thousands of dives and concentrates it into practical advice on a topic—be it housing maintenance, mastering ambient light, or advanced techniques like long-exposure macro.

Book Breakdown

As mentioned above, Underwater Photography Masterclass doesn’t dwell too long on introducing the reader to underwater imaging. But that’s not to say it’s not suited to beginners: In fact, it’s quite refreshing that Alex doesn’t labor the nitty-gritty topics that might overwhelm (or even bore) a novice shooter.

The first 30 pages of the book are what one might call “introductory,” teaching the reader the holistic approach to underwater photography—from differentiating the mindset from “just a diver” to environmental considerations. There’s also a useful introduction to the required gear, with up-to-date (as of 2016) information on cameras, ports, housings, strobes, and building your ideal rig. If you already have a setup for underwater photography, this section might not provide too much more insight, but it’s definitely key for building from the ground up.

From here, Alex’s genius for providing a unique, practical way to present a topic is really evident. Instead of initially branching out into wide angle, macro, super-macro, or any other classifications of underwater imagery, he presents underwater photography in terms of lighting—a theme that drives the whole book.

Alex describes the only three types of underwater photos: ambient light, strobe lit, and balanced light images. That’s it. Why does he start this way? Because, as he writes, it allows his students to “understand light underwater and how to control it.”

In fact, even when Alex delves into specific macro or wide-angle techniques, they are classified as “mastering” specific lighting situations. For macro, there are sections on “Standard Even Lighting,” “Creating Texture” and “Shaping Light.” Wide-angle lighting topics covered include “Inward Lighting,” “Continuous Lighting,” and “Backlighting.”

The way I approached this book as a reviewer is not how you should as a student and a reader. The structure and specificity of the chapters really lends itself to be approached one topic at a time. After all, it is aimed to be a masterclass—and it takes time to master one of these topics, much less all of them.

Here’s what I would suggest: Start by familiarizing yourself with Alex’s theory of teaching and framing underwater photography techniques in Chapter 3: Controlling Light and Camera. This ideology is the frame for the rest of the book. Then, pick and choose where you want to enhance your knowledge or improve in a particular field. Spend some time reading that section—and ideally practicing in the field—before moving on to a new topic.


Teaching Technique: Show, Don’t Tell

In all, there are more than two dozen sections dedicated to specific lighting and situational techniques. The diversity of topics covered in such a compact book is achieved through Alex’s knack for merging theory with practical advice.

As mentioned above when describing the book’s structure, it might be better to take bite-sized pieces of information in areas you are seeking to improve—the scope of this improvement will vary greatly between photographers of different levels.

For me, I chose one topic out of curiosity about its name: “Rabbit Ears.” As it turns out, it’s a topic that addresses a weakness in my own imagery—using strobes to light a scene with subjects both close and far from the lens. The solution is rabbit ears, which describes positioning the strobes high above the housing or slightly drooped. It’s a strobe position that I’d experimented with, but never really understood why.

So there’s the practical advice: Use rabbit ears in these situations. And then there’s the “why” behind the technique that provides the “Aha!” moments sprinkled throughout this book. Essentially, by raising your strobes high above the housing, you can provide a more even pool of lighting because the strobes are almost as far away from the subjects in the foreground as those in the background.

This is just one example where Alex is able to “show” a solution through his images and practical advice. So much of underwater photography instruction is just “telling” someone to do something. This “show, don't tell” mission is continued online, as Alex has paired much of the material in the book with “Masterclass Tutorial” videos. For anyone who learns better from hearing and seeing something demonstrated live, rather than through the written word, these videos are a valuable addition.


Writing Style

There’s a reason why so many people skip the instruction manual when putting something together—it’s boring! And this is the case with much of the underwater photography instructional writing in books throughout the years. If you asked me to describe Alex’s writing style in this book in one word, I wouldn't use “informative,” “educational,” or “professional,” although all those apply. Rather, I would just say, “entertaining.”

I read a lot of instructional photography writing (and have authored my fair share), and it is clear that Alex invested a lot of time not only on how to describe photography techniques, but also how to make the writing feel more like casual reading than a school assignment.

This is accomplished by Alex’s ability to successfully weave together different styles of prose, including quotes, personal anecdotes, and even a joke or two. Being able to pair his instruction with quotes from famed shooters really adds credibility that Alex’s instruction is in keeping with a larger photography culture—it’s inspiring and even a bit nostalgic in some instances.

Another nice creative writing tool employed by the author is the addition of anecdotes featuring students, other underwater photographers, and even topside shooters. This strategy not only makes the writing more interesting to read, but it’s also a nice way to reinforce the notion that our photographic technique doesn’t come from a single source, but is a culmination of knowledge accrued through the years by following true masters like Alex Mustard.


Who Should Buy Underwater Photography Masterclass?

Truthfully, Underwater Photography Masterclass is probably aimed more at someone who already has some experience (even if only a few dives) using a camera underwater. The opening chapters are more of a great refresher course on gear and photographic ideology than a cut-and-dried introduction. For a book where you want to start at the very beginning and read through the end, with more instruction aimed at a wider audience, Martin Edge’s well-known The Underwater Photographer may be the better choice.

But I believe Underwater Photography Masterclass is an excellent choice for existing underwater photographers looking to improve specific areas of their imagery. It’s light and compact enough to bring with you on your next trip, but packs a punch with all the practical advice and detailed tutorials on advanced technique. I would highly recommend investing in a copy as a way to inspire improvement in your underwater imagery.

“Underwater Photography Masterclass” is published through Ammonite Press, and you can get your copy both online and in store through retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $24.95.



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