By Denise Pietsch
It had been two years since Rebecca Handler went diving, sidelined like the rest of us due to COVID-19 precautions. But recently she got the opportunity to get underwater to photograph the cover of New Jersey Monthly Magazine. Being from New Jersey myself, I was excited to pick Rebecca’s brain about her experience. She shared some behind the scenes secrets to photographing an underwater editorial shoot, how to navigate murky situations (literally), and why scuba diving is her ultimate form of Zen.
The finished product: the cover of New Jersey Monthly Magazine's Thrills and Chills issue. Image by Rebecca Handler.
Thrills and Chills
“The shoot was for their Thrills and Chills issue, the basis of it was showing some thrilling things you can do in New Jersey versus some relaxing things. For this feature the thrill was swimming with sharks . . . There’s an aquarium in New Jersey where you can go and swim with sharks.” The chills section of the article featured a tiki bar, among a myriad of other adventures. With a concept in mind, Gail Ghezzi, artistic director for New Jersey Magazine, hired Rebecca to help bring her vision to life. Beyond just photographing the cover image, Rebecca also arranged the style board, picked out clothes and props, and sourced all of the stock images of sharks that would be photoshopped into the cover image.
Rebecca’s known for her surreal imagery, mixing underwater images with digital manipulation to create a dreamy final image. She dubs this, “kitsch with class.” The New Jersey Magazine cover was exactly within that wheelhouse, an amalgamation of underwater portraiture and photoshopped shark images. “I don’t get jobs like that very often, a conceptual shoot for a magazine cover. And that’s kind of my jam, putting together weird conceptual pieces.”
One of Rebecca's award winning underwater images. Mixing folklore and fantasy, Rebecca's work has a classic yet ethereal beauty to it. © 2022 Rebecca Handler
While Rebecca’s work might feel dreamlike, there is a ton of hard work and organization that goes into it. Her typical photoshoot is mapped out with lighting sketches and notes on all her settings. Underwater or otherwise, Rebecca has a plan for it all. “When I shoot in a pool I kind of set it up the same way I would do a photo studio outside of the pool . . . We used a light stand and tripod that I put together and everything was synced with two strobes, we used the DS160s.” For her camera gear, Rebecca used the Canon 5D Mark IV with a 16-35mm lens.
“It’s a really niche thing and I feel like there’s not many people that teach how to light and how to do things underwater because there’s so any challenges with color, how light travels, but that actually lends to being able to do a lot of experimental things”
Rebecca came stocked to the gills with sync cords for her photo shoot.
Buoyancy: A Balancing Act
“It’s different photographing people than fish, people you can get to stand still, fish you can’t. And it’s a whole different experience directing models.” While fish might not take direction well from a photographer, they’ve certainly mastered buoyancy, which is not always the case with an underwater model. “If you can’t figure out your buoyancy underwater and you keep floating up it’s a mess.” The key, Rebecca says, is letting all the air out of your lungs. “It’s an instinct to hold your breath, but if you blow your air out, you’ll sink.”
“There’s that struggle, I think weighting people down is a must. And I usually try to shoot with people that are either ex-Olympic swimmers or synchronized swimmers.” From a safety standpoint, working with models who are comfortable in the water is integral. From an artistic standpoint, this level of comfort can also enhance the final product. “You have a model, every once in a while, that’s just inspiring. You just sit there, you don’t have to even have to talk to them, you just let them do their thing.”
Rebecca's model had plenty of experience in the water having been a junior Olympic swimmer in the past.
Navigating Murky Waters
In editorial shoots Rebecca notes that you’re sometimes limited on time and location, so you’ve got to use your photographer’s instincts to work around any problems that arise. “The water was so murky sometimes I couldn’t see what I was shooting. It was like shooting in the dark and then we would come up and see what we got.” To combat the murky waters in her image, Rebecca went for a close and wide shot.
Another curve ball Rebecca had to adjust for? Extremely shallow water. “We had [the model] probably not too far away just sitting in a beach chair and used so many weights around him and the chair just to keep it down. But we were in a relatively shallow pool, I think there was just about a foot [of water] above his head. I was not expecting it to be so shallow but sometimes you need to work with what you have.”
You don't always get a choice of location on editorial shoots and you have to roll with the punches. Manipulating lighting, the distance relative to your subject, and having a keen understanding of your camera settings will give you a leg up though.
Zen and the Art of Underwater Photography
While the location might not have been ideal, staying cool under pressure is a lesson Rebecca learned from scuba diving. “It’s kind of a Zen experience. As long as you don’t panic underwater and you can figure out how to equalize, there’s nothing so calming. Its complete quiet and you can just focus on what you see.” Rebecca’s next moment of Zen is her trip to the Domincan Republic, a first post-COVID vacation that’s much deserved. Stay tuned for some underwater portraiture Cheat Sheets from Rebecca, and we hope some more magazine covers too. In the meantime, check out more of Rebecca Handler's work on her website, and social media.
Denise Pietsch (pronounced “Peach”) currently manages Ikelite’s Photo School and social media presence. Denise hails from New Jersey, where she obtained a degree in Dance Therapy. After years teaching dance she migrated into the corporate world and eventually came around to Ikelite via the natural career path of fruit distribution and early childhood development. In the end, her lifelong love of photography and octopuses combined into the work she does now. In addition to sharing her energy and enthusiasm with the underwater community she also manages social media for her dog, Joe, collects vinyl records, and enjoys creating memories with her friends and family.
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