Close-Up: Photographer Rebecca Handler on Shooting NJM’s First Underwater Cover

Go behind the scenes of our “Thrills and Chills” cover shoot.

A collage featuring two images: New Jersey Monthly's May issue cover and a behind-the-scenes shot of photographer Rebecca Handler shooting it underwater.
Photographer Rebecca Handler shot the cover photo for New Jersey Monthly's May issue underwater at a hotel pool, then Photoshopped in the sharks (and the drink umbrella). Photo courtesy of Trevor Nathan

Photographer Rebecca Handler captured New Jersey Monthly’s May “Thrills and Chills” cover underwater at a pool inside the Hilton Short Hills.

She arrived at the hotel armed with weighted belts, scuba gear and, of course, her camera, where she got to work shooting model (and former junior Olympic swimmer!) Bradley Carney. The goal? To fuse both elements of the cover story—the Garden State’s most exhilirating adventures and peaceful pursuits—in a single image. Carney’s lounge pose, beach chair and cocktail were inspired by the mobile tiki bars in our roundup of relaxing activities, while the sharks (later Photoshopped in by Handler) are a nod to our associate editor Gary Phillips’s nail-biting encounter at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium.

We recently spoke with Handler by phone from her Brooklyn apartment about the experience.

Could you talk a bit about how you got into underwater photography? It’s somewhat of a rare specialty?
Yeah, especially in New York, where it’s not warm all year-round. I think I bought really cheap plastic housing—almost like a bag that you put your camera in—and I was just playing around in one of my friend’s pools. I ended up getting these really, really cool images [and post-productions illustrations] from it. And I was like, OK, this is interesting, this is a totally different way to explore the medium. Everything changes—lighting, color, how the subject moves—and the whole process is slowed down. 

Model Bradley Carney poses underwater during our May cover photo shoot. Video by Trevor Nathan


I was also an avid scuba diver, so I would just take pictures of fish, and play underwater. It was unrelated, but what it did help is understanding how light travels underwater. I ended up getting very technical—researching a lot about housings, trying to figure out how to light things underwater. As you go down, you lose the color spectrum: First red goes away, and then orange, so it was all about learning how to reintroduce light underwater. It was always interesting how the shadows would slowly fade to blue and green when they weren’t lit as much. 

From there, I ended up connecting with Ikelite, who sells underwater housing and lighting, and they made me an ambassador for the brand. They allowed me to try different gear out and helped me through the process a lot. I guess I’m probably one of the few people in New York that do underwater. I shoot mostly on land, so it is a rare treat to be able to do a shoot like this [cover].

Photographer Rebecca Handler, donning scuba gear, takes photos underwater at the Hilton Short Hills pool.

Handler dons scuba gear while shooting underwater. Photo courtesy of Trevor Nathan

How do you prep a pool for a shoot?
Everything floating in the pool between you and the lens gets in the way. If it’s a dirty pool, it’s like shooting through a snowstorm. If I have the opportunity to clean the pool beforehand, that’s great, but most of the time, I don’t. … The more chlorine, the clearer it is, but the worse it is for the equipment and the model. Once we went into a pool that was so chlorinated that all of the equipment metal oxidized after the shoot. It’s bizarre… Indoor pools, there’s a lot less light to deal with, so you have to add lights kind of coming in from the side.

Had the model for this cover shoot, Bradley Carney, posed underwater before?
He was a junior Olympic swimmer back in the day, so he was really comfortable underwater and extremely enthusiastic. I kind of pushed him for this shoot because he was so excited. And anyone who has underwater experience, like being a swimmer or scuba diver, is a lot easier to work with, because there is a bit of a learning curve at the beginning of the shoot where you have to work with them keeping their eyes open, not squinting, not holding their breath with chipmunk cheeks—staying down, not flailing their arms. We actually weight the models down so that they don’t have to fight with oxygen pulling them up. So we have a weight belt around him and the chair and everything to keep them comfortable and down.

I’m weighted, too, and I have full scuba gear… It’s a cute little set-up. My assistant’s usually next to me—in this case, he was holding a flashlight the whole time so that I could focus on the model. Because in this one, I remember, the pool was actually so dark underneath that I couldn’t see what I was shooting while I was shooting it. So I had him kind of lighting it, and I was looking at the pictures after. I put the camera on a tripod underwater and set him in place so that it was like a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. It was just very pale fluorescent lighting, but it was such a pretty location.

Is the umbrella floating out of Bradley’s drink Photoshopped in?
It’s Photoshopped. We shot all of that separately. The fear was if we went down with the fruit—I don’t think the hotel would like it if they were finding maraschino cherries in the pool filter the next day. [Laughs.]

Photographer Rebecca Handler in her Brooklyn studio.

Rebecca Handler edits and illustrates photos from her Brooklyn studio. Photo by Josh Andrus

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the job?
I mean, I love when the image is done. [Laughs.] Everything leading up to it is so much work. And it’s not the most enjoyable thing, but you have to do it to get there. And it’s so exciting when you have the final image–you completely forget about how challenging and how much work it was to get there. I feel like the job is maybe, like, one percent pushing the button on the camera. The rest of it is retouching, pre-production, getting everything in order. 

I used to enjoy the actual shoot the most: I enjoy interacting with people, and every time it’s a new experience where I almost feel like I make friends out of it. Now I know [NJM art director] Gail [Ghezzi]; she’s amazing. I know [Bradley], who’s still texting me—I know all about his family now.

And at the end, there’s this image that exists that wouldn’t be there if you weren’t there. It’s something that you create that’s out in the world. And that’s still a magical thing that I still get a kick out of after all these years. I still have enthusiasm. I thought it would go away after, like, I turned 40, but no. I’m still super enthusiastic, and I get giddy after completing a shoot.

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