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Beneath the waves with the Nikon D2X - Continued

School is in: Nikon D100 + 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S DX (at 12mm) w/ URPRO CY filter attached, ISO 200, 1/40th at f/4.8. Says Mustard: "Underwater flashguns are the easiest way to producing colourful underwater images - but lighting is limited to the area that they can illuminate and falls off very rapidly with distance. Filters were never practical on film, but the adjustable white balance of  DSLRs makes them very useful. I photographed these Snappers with the filter so I could get the colour penetrating deeper into the school of fish."  (Photo by Alex Mustard)

Mustard is also using the power of white balance adjustment in RAW conversion to change his fish portraits. These shots have historically been done with ultra wide-angle lenses such as the full-frame fisheyes, using flash, from only a foot or two away from the fish. The short roundtrip through the seawater keeps the light from the flash from going too blue, which preserves both color and contrast. But the necessity of shooting this way has meant that "underwater photographers were always stuck with the same perspective," Mustard says.

Now, he has begun backing off and using his 105mm Micro-Nikkor for fish portraits. "I'm not talking about shooting from miles away," he says. "I'm talking about [going from shooting], say, a foot away from the subject to [shooting] three to six feet away from the subject." It leaves the picture somewhat too blue and low in contrast, but he can correct this during RAW conversion with very little quality loss.

"It allows me to take wildlife portraits of underwater animals that don't look like anyone else's photos," he says, meaning that he gains the virtues of land portraits: telephoto perspective and isolated depth of field.

Telephoto Snapper: Nikon D100 + 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro, ISO 200, 1/45th at f/13, photo lit by two Subtronic Alpha underwater flash units. This picture won the Animal Portraits category of the 2005 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Says Mustard: "Digital has made new techniques available to the underwater photographer. This is an example of my telephoto technique - using the flexibility of RAW files to warm up the colours and increase the contrast during the conversion to compensate for shooting through too much water. These Snappers are 70cm long, and normally underwater photographers would use a wide angle lens to photograph them. Knowing the capabilities of RAW conversion enabled me to try a much longer lens to capture the subject with an original perspective." (Photo by Alex Mustard)

Smile: Nikon D2X + 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro, ISO 100, 1/125th at f/11, photo lit by two Subtronic Alpha underwater flash units. Says Mustard: "Underwater photography pushes autofocus hard, because our subjects are generally in low light and low contrast. Getting sharp, tightly cropped images of moving fish has always been a challenge (this image is uncropped). When shooting moving fish I use the grouped sensor mode on the D2X, with closest subject priority. This setup gives me a big advantage for this type of image." (Photo by Alex Mustard)
Sticking Together: Nikon D2X + 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF-S (at 17mm), ISO 100, 1/100th at f/6.3, photo lit by two Subtronic Alpha underwater flash units. (Photo by Alex Mustard)

With these techniques as background, it's no surprise to learn that Mustard chose his RAW conversion program, Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop CS2), because he greatly prefers its white balance controls. He finds Nikon Capture an "absolute nightmare", owing to its pokey operation when setting a grey balance on sometimes hundreds of underwater pictures in a session. He uses Capture occasionally when he needs its noise reduction features, however, which he feels are superior to those in Camera Raw.

Noise reduction is not a big part of his workflow because he shoots mainly at ISO 100 with flash. Occasionally, when shooting with available light, he will use ISO 200, but since his pictures are judged on their absolute quality, he's better off sticking with the fish that are swimming in shallow water and good light, he says.

For sharpening, Mustard uses Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter. Though he has looked at Smart Sharpen in CS2 he says he needs "to do a little more research and find out how other people are using it" before he'll give up his tried-and-true Unsharp Mask. One place he will undoubtedly look for help is a website called, an online community of underwater photographers from around the world that has been "incredibly invaluable" to him, he says.

The careful use of good resources like, combined with prudent equipment expenditures, are a critical part of Mustard's strategy for making a living in a difficult niche market. "Underwater photography is expensive," he explains. "It not only involves buying the same cameras as [land photographers], it also involves buying an underwater housing for that camera, and then traveling to somewhere rather nice to go and take pictures with it.

"Unfortunately for underwater photographers a lot of the big, lucrative shoots, of which there aren't very many, tend often to get farmed out to land photographers who are known to the agencies who are commissioning them. Several times a year I'll end up going to assist a land photographer [on an underwater shoot] because his budget can afford to pay me for a day. That's often one of the better paid days of my year. The reason I mention this is that as an underwater photographer, I'm not in a situation where I can justify massive equipment purchases on a whim."

On the Move: Nikonos V + 15mm UW, f5.6, recorded on film. (Photo by Alex Mustard)

Moving from the D100 to the D2X was expensive, to be sure, but he's figuring it will help him reel in more of those lucrative shoots. "I was feeling, personally as a photographer, that I was slightly pushing it a bit with some of my advertising clients," he says. "When they're paying good money for images to use in a variety of media, and the original was six megapixels, you're [thinking] that's possibly not the best product you could give them. That was my main motivation for going over to the D2X, from the resolution standpoint. For shooting the advertising stuff, it's really nice to say, look, you know, no one's really going to produce anything better than that."

Alex Mustard's web site is

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