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Beneath the waves with the Nikon D2X
Sunday, January 22, 2006 | by Eamon Hickey

There's no way to be sure, but Alex Mustard could well have been the first person to jump in the ocean with a Nikon D2X. He got his camera in late February 2005, on the first day they were available in Britain. More surprisingly, he was able to get an underwater housing for it almost simultaneously. The Austrian housing manufacturer, Subal, had used the nearly identical body and controls of Nikon's D2H to develop a housing for the D2X before it had even shipped. A plane ticket to the environs of the Red Sea completed the recipe, and a week after taking delivery on Nikon's flagship digital SLR, in early March 2005, Mustard had it submerged in seawater, just where he wanted it.

The results of those initial dives made Mustard very happy. He was impressed first with the D2X's image quality, a "massive jump", in his words, over his previous digital SLR, a Nikon D100. "The D2X is better pixel-to-pixel than the D100 by a clear margin, and it's got twice as many of those pixels," he says.

"Another thing that I think is a massive advantage to the D2X is the large viewing screen," he continues. Even inside the housing, it's easy to see in good detail, which allows Mustard to make faster and more definitive judgments about his images. On dives, where time is the rarest commodity, any feature that improves efficiency takes on much greater importance than it might on land.

"The [camera's] viewfinder is very bright," he goes on, "and that's [a big help] for viewing underwater." Equally important, "the D2X has very fast and accurate autofocus for underwater photography. Underwater photography is often in low contrast water and in lower light than land photography, and [autofocus] quality is really important."

mustard_and_gear.jpg
Above the water: photographer Alex Mustard

Mustard's biggest fear about the 12.21 million image pixel Nikon turned out to be not much of an issue. "What worried me initially was it's a big camera, and for underwater photography a good small camera is always better than a good big camera." It's a simple fact that a large apparatus is harder to push through the water than a small one. But after you've added the housing, underwater flashes, and the brackets for those flashes to the D2X, "you don't really notice the size of the camera anyway," the photographer says.

The good results from that early trip to the Red Sea were especially gratifying to Mustard because the purchase of the D2X was an important element in his plans to build and expand his relatively young professional underwater photography career, which traces its roots to his boyhood love of the ocean.

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Mustard, now 30, began taking pictures underwater before he was in his teens, hoping to show his family, who were mostly indifferent to the sea, the amazingly cool stuff he was discovering in the water. He even tried to take a camera on his scuba certification dive, which he made when he was fourteen, but this plan was rejected as a bit presumptuous.

In his early twenties, while still in college studying marine biology, Mustard began publishing images, and his work has now appeared in more than 30 magazines and newspapers around the world. His stock photography is marketed by a U.K. agency called Oceans Image Pictures. He shot much of the wildlife section of a 2004 book on camouflage called DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material. And in February 2006, Ultimate Sports Publications will publish Mustard's first solo photo book, The Art of Diving, a celebration of the activity of diving with text by author Nick Hanna. Mustard also frequently gives lectures and teaches field seminars on digital underwater photography.

More recently, he has begun shooting advertising for clients such as the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. This work is often used for multiple sizes and types of printed output, including large posters and the like. It was primarily for these better-paying clients that the high resolution D2X would justify its cost, in the photographer's reckoning.

Mustard piled up these photo credits and clients despite the fact that photography was, until recently, something of a stepchild to his other job. He ultimately earned his Ph.D. in marine biology and then worked as a scientist at the U.K.'s National Oceanography Centre, Southampton for four years, doing research on how underwater ecosystems function, how marine creatures interact and how their lives are impacted by their ocean environment. Although he still lives in Southampton, he took a leave of absence from the Centre last year in part to spend more time on photography.

In the months since he first bought his D2X, Mustard has experimented with its features and capabilities in over 150 dives in the Red Sea, off the Cayman Islands, Maldives and Indonesia.

His two bread-and-butter lenses for the camera are the Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro. This reflects the almost incontrovertible rule that underwater shooting must be done very close to your subject with either a very wide-angle lens for medium to large subjects or a macro lens for very small subjects. Mustard normally does not correct the curvilinear distortion of the 10.5mm lens, as is possible in Nikon Capture, because most underwater scenes don't contain the straight lines that would show the distortion. The exception is shots inside a sunken ship where he will sometimes use Capture to "de-fish" the image.

Mustard has tried the Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S DX, but "I'm not very happy with it for underwater use," he says. "It's far less impressive underwater than it is on land." The lens interacts strangely with Subal's dome ports for wide-angle lenses, Mustard says.

He also owns the Sigma 28-70mm F2.8 EX DG, the Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro, and the Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF-S but uses them rarely since switching from 35mm film to the cropped DX format of the Nikon digitals.

Mustard's D2X is configured to shoot simultaneous NEF (RAW) + JPEG Basic files. He uses the JPEGs for quick viewing and initial editing, and records them with the camera set to Color Mode III, Adobe RGB. He will sometimes set a custom white balance (called a Preset WB in Nikon's digital vernacular) prior to making pictures, in hopes of getting the color somewhere near right, but white balance is so variable underwater that this only partially works. It is in large part to overcome that variability that Mustard shoots RAW files, and he makes all of his final images from those NEF originals.

mustard_twofish.jpg
Angelfish: Nikon D2X + 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro, ISO 100, 1/10th at f/7.1, photo lit by two Subtronic underwater flashguns. Says Mustard: "Unusually, I chose to process this RAW file in Nikon Capture to make advantage of the excellent Noise Reduction feature. Taken at dusk, I wanted to show the yellow of these mating Angelfish against a blue background. This required a long, hand-held exposure in low light. Under such conditions the D2X can be a bit noisy in the blues, but I knew I could counteract this with Nikon Capture." (Photo by Alex Mustard)

Mustard uses the D2X's autofocus system in two basic ways. In the first, he uses the camera's Group Dynamic-AF mode, which he calls "one of the great things about the D2X." This mode provides eleven different subsets, or groupings, of the camera's AF sensors (of which there are also eleven). He uses the groups that incorporate five sensors (Pattern 1 in Nikon terminology) and sets them for closest subject priority. He was initially worried that closest subject priority would be fooled into focusing on the assorted detritus that is always floating between an underwater photographer and his subjects, but it hasn't been a problem. "Once [the D2X] is on to a subject, it knows what's going on very well," Mustard says.

For very small macro subjects he uses single-area AF and freely switches among the camera's eleven AF sensors (generally, he's zeroing in on the eyes of a small fish). Many underwater photographers use the center AF patch combined with AF-lock to lock focus and recompose, Mustard says, but he doesn't prefer this. "I'd much rather use the off-center AF, and the spread of the AF sensors on the D2X is fantastic for that."

With both of the above setups, Mustard tends to use continuous AF, rather than single-servo, because "even if the subject is still, I'm not always." The natural surge of ocean currents can cause even experienced divers to be constantly moving back and forth.

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