By Denise Pietsch
I’ve always loved the ocean. I grew up in South Jersey, just an hour away from the beach. That meant family beach vacations every summer and day trips as often as I could convince family or friends to drive “down the shore” with me. I’ve loved the serenity of lapping waves and swimming in cool water for as long as I can remember. What I don’t remember, however, are crystalline waters and colorful fish. In parts of Jersey you’re lucky if you can just see your toes in waist-high water.
That all changed when my partner and I took a trip to Turks and Caicos. I’d never seen water or fish like that outside of Netflix documentaries. We spent every day snorkeling the shoreline and eventually took a boat trip for a full-day snorkel excursion too. I was a full convert. Now I not only loved the lapping waves, I fell in love with the world hiding beneath the waves too.
Being a topside photography enthusiast, I bought a disposable underwater camera for the trip and excitedly captured images of the brain coral, lemon sharks, and barracuda we were seeing every day. At the time this just seemed like an exciting way to show our families what we'd seen in Turks and Caicos. Little did I know I'd eventually be fully immersed in the underwater photography industry and those Turks and Caicos images would serve as reminders of all the lessons yet learned.
Turks and Caicos with a disposable underwater camera © Denise Pietsch
Underwater in the Midwest
Fast forward about five years and my husband and I find ourselves land-locked in Indianapolis. I had just finished reading Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus, which cemented my love for and obsession with octopuses and their alien-like intelligence. I found a job posting for a role with a company called Ikelite - who knew an underwater photography company existed in the midwestern US? Plus, they had a huge octopus mural on their building. I had to apply.
Right away I was learning so much with Ikelite. From manufacturing logistics to the properties of light underwater. “Be a sponge” was my mantra – I was excited to be surrounded by so much knowledge. Not only did my coworkers love the ocean too, they could regale me with stories of dive trips for days. Imagine my elation when I found out a scuba certification was one of the benefits of joining the Ikelite team!
One of Ikelite's many underwater photography themed murals. The mural was painted by the Ikelite staff and volunteers with the Eli Lilly Day of Service in partnership with Keeping Indianapolis Beautiful. No doubt the octopus mural is my favorite.
Transcendence in the Kelp Forest
This May, I joined the Ikelite crew in Long Beach, California, for the annual Scuba Show retail dive convention. The closest ocean shore is over 700 miles from Indianapolis, so the team was eager to jump in the water and shoot some of the latest camera models. Since Catalina Island is just a hop, skip, and ferry ride away from the Long Beach Harbor, we made it a point fly in early to spend a few days diving the kelp forest. I was still in the midst of my scuba classes, so diving with the rest of the crew was out of the picture. But, Diving Catalina offered a Discover Scuba opportunity. Having already taken multiple “dives” in the pool and practiced a lot of safety exercises, we were able to get underwater and exploring pretty quickly.
At this point I didn’t have any other open water diving experience to compare to other than my snorkeling excursion in Turks and Caicos many years earlier. But diving the kelp forest off Catalina Island was nothing short of magical. I might even go so far as to say transcendent? I guess those are the words of every newbie who finally discovers what it’s like to breathe underwater and get a fish’s-eye view.
This image by Ikelite Ambassador Gary Burns perfectly encapsulates the wonder of the kelp forest. Bright fish, cascading light rays, and kelp cathedrals. © 2022 Gary Burns
The bright and sprite Garibaldi pepper the cool waters of Catalina like glitter. They’re abundant and not shy. The kelp fish are harder to spot, but with a good guide like I had we were able to see some of these too. Being as obsessed with octopuses as I am, my sole intent was to hopefully see one. Alas, it was daytime – the time nocturnal octopuses sleep - and try as we might, my octopus interaction would have to wait for another dive.
The truly transcendent part of diving Catalina? Looking up and watching the light rays dance through the kelp. I almost cried. If that view could have a sound it would be one of those benevolent-sounding Gregorian chants or some other vaguely spiritual and uplifting hum.
The smile of a neophyte diver still basking in the glow of underwater light rays.
One of our Ikelite customers, Douglas Klug, recently shared some images of a trip to Kona with me. He said, “I can’t get over the color of that water, or the way the light washes across the shark’s back in the images. If everyone could have an experience like that just once in their lifetime, the world’s oceans (and their critters) would be far more protected than they are.” That was exactly how I felt in that moment, looking up at the streaming light rays. As I watched the kelp dance and the Garibaldi glitter a vague notion came over me. I was becoming aware of beauty hiding in plain sight - if only everyone could see this.
Douglas Klug captured this image off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. His excitement recounting the experience was palpable, even through email. © 2022 Douglas Klug
The Power of Underwater Photography
I’ve been interested in photography since I was about 12 years old and got a digital camera for Christmas. I’ve enjoyed capturing memories with friends or vignettes of beauty that caught my eye. I’ve never had any real idea what I was doing other than figuring out what I thought looked good, reading photography books, and looking up camera setting cheat sheets. It’s always been a point of nostalgia for me, or revelation. Not in the melodramatic way. In the I-want-to-remember-this-moment-forever way. Who knew the shadow of a flower could stir such emotion?
I love photographs that tell a story, that leave you with a question or some feeling that you’re connected to something larger than yourself. Photos that evoke a sense of empathy. And now I understand that’s what underwater photography does in the broader sense of conservation and environmental awareness. In addition to the memories we take back to the surface with us, it’s a way to share with the larger world what’s so precious about the ocean. To show others why it’s so important to protect it. At least that’s what underwater photos have done for me.
Ikelite Ambassador Lorenzo Terraneo's article Every Little Stretch of Coast is Dying, We Need to Act Now! is filled with images that leave a visceral impact and underscore the power of underwater photography. Here an octopus is imprisoned by a discarded fishing net. © 2022 Lorenzo Terraneo
My First Underwater Photoshoot
I look back fondly and with humility on the images I took during my snorkeling excursion in Turks and Caicos. They’re green. I mean really, they’re basically seven different shades of green. I didn’t know then what I know now. About depth and color loss, strobes, much less that I could even put a camera in a housing. But now I do.
I wasn't joking about the seven shades of green... Turks and Caicos © Denise Pietsch
Recently I got the opportunity to put this new knowledge to the test: an underwater portrait pool photoshoot. I’m still gathering my thoughts on buoyancy and composition underwater, and I’m still trying to gain my sea legs. But in the meantime, my images are a lot less green (thanks mostly to the DS160 strobes I used).
Now I’ve officially completed my scuba certification, which means I get to go diving with the team - and on my own adventures - from now on. To keep learning, and growing, and hopefully becoming less green (pun intended).
From green to a full spectrum of color and light! I captured this image using a Canon EOS R and dual DS160 strobes. Get a behind the scenes look at my first underwater pool photoshoot and all the lessons I learned along the way. © 2022 Denise Pietsch
The Inspiring Nature of the Scuba Industry
I say this unabashedly: the work I do with Ikelite is a point of honor. Running our social media and facilitating our newsletter puts me in touch with Ambassadors and customers around the world every day. I get to help people bring their memories to the surface, to help them tell and share their stories, to help keep the oceans safe, one image at a time.
My work is also a source of inspiration. I'm lucky to interact with so many different people in the underwater photography community. And the one thing I’ve noticed? They’re always excited about their work. Whether it’s the technical side of digital photography, the artistic mixed media, the portrait photographers, the sentimental scuba divers, the conservationists… they don’t seem prone to the same burnout that is so common in other industries. There’s always a sense of wonder and exploration on the horizon. It’s contagious, and it makes my job fascinating.
From the film days to digital, from the Red Sea to the polar ice caps, from research facilities to fashion magazines, underwater photography has the ability to tell a unique story... to evoke empathy, and wonder, and environmental activism. I’m just excited to be part of it all, to tell my story, to help share yours, and, maybe one day, to see an octopus too.
Taking my final Open Water Evaluation dive at the quarry in Muncie, Indiana. I was about the 1500th student certified by Ikelite resident Scuba Instructor Robert "Stubby" Stubbs. He and his wife Rhonda (pictured) are also full time Ikelite employees in our customer service and production teams. Thanks to both of them for their guidance, support, and wealth of knowledge. © 2022 Logan Wood
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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.