Interview With Mauricio Handler: Underwater Photographer Shares His Passion

It was taken freediving and on the surface as two sailfish, male and female came to the waters surface. Nikon D3 w/ 17-35 mm lens and 2x Ikelite strobes.

This photo was taken freediving and on the surface as two Sailfish, male and female came to the water's surface. Nikon D3 - Nikkor 17-35 mm lens and 2x Ikelite strobes.

What lies below the sea seems a mystery to many of us land dwellers. However, marine photojournalist, Mauricio Handler, does an incredible job of capturing the deep blue sea and shooting images of what occurs beneath the surface. He uses light in an incredible way to portray the creatures that live beneath the surface most beautifully. Handler has had photographs published countless times and is a well known marine photo journalist, represented by the National Geographic Image Collection.

Handler is among the most talented and talked-about underwater photographers of his time. In the following interview, he shares with us his passion for revealing what happens in and around all bodies of water.

This is one of the most famous and recognizable underwater images of our times. The photo of me working underwater was taken by Brian Skerry.

This is one of the most famous and recognizable underwater images of our times. The photo of me working underwater was taken by Brian Skerry. I was with him in Auckland Island, Sub Antarctic, New Zealand covering a feature for National Geographic Magazine on Right Whales. Photo credit goes to Brian Skerry.

 

Have any underwater or marine photographers inspired you?

Though Handler’s work is extremely unique, he credits part of his initial success to other photographers who have greatly influenced him. Chris Newbert, Bob Talbot, Howard Hall, and David Doubilet, with whom he worked for in the beginning of his career, were all great inspirations to Handler. He says, “Hall’s guide to underwater photography was a classic in a time where there was little printed matter on the subject. David Doubilet in particular influenced my visual refinement and I have to credit him for my initial photography perspective”.

 

Handler has now grown to also greatly respect and admire many other photographers, in particular from the National Geographic realm. “I have gotten to personally know cold water specialist Paul Nicklen and my friend, one of the best in the business, Brian Skerry who I worked in the field for many years. I love their essays on wildlife and the dedication they have given their particular stories”.

 

He also looks up to underwater black and white photographer, Ernie Brooks, who he claims has greatly moved him. “I would have loved to have been part of his original student base at Brooks institute in California way back in the 80’s,” says Handler of Brooks.

 

Rolex add campaign poster. Campaign ran for 7 years worldwide from 1998-2003 (more or less).

Rolex add campaign poster. Campaign ran for 7 years worldwide from 1998-2003 (more or less). The image is that of David Doubilet surrounded by Galapagos Sea Lions- Galapagos Islands. Image is from the Nat Geo story we did in 1998.

 

Can you talk a little bit about publishing your underwater photography?

Handler was first published when he lived on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. He had become seriously interested in photography and had spent countless hours practicing his new passion. It was in the country’s tourist magazine, “The Welcome Magazine”, that Handler first was published. “I made $50 for my effort and I was hooked! I could now make a living….”.

Since then, Handler has been published in many magazines and books and has worked with commercial clients of all types. “I work closely with National Geographic books and National Geographic Digital media who use my work regularly and my images are represented exclusively by National Geographic Stock. I no longer keep tabs but especially now with the digital age, my work is in print all the time somewhere.” describes Handler.

 

One of his favorite published works was an ad campaign done for Rolex watches in 1997. Handler remembers it fondly, “It showed an image I made of David Doubilet surrounded by sea lions in the Galapagos Islands and the image ran for 7 years across the globe. It was a sepia tone image done on film and it remains one of my favorite campaigns”.

 

One of my expedition guests and photographer Jim Rakowsky is encountered head on by a giant Whale Shark of the coast of Mexico.

One of my favorite moments. One of my expedition guests and photographer Jim Rakowsky is encountered head on by a giant Whale Shark of the coast of Mexico. We are in about 20 feet of clear blue water.

 

On your Wale Sharks assignment, were you free-diving while taking photos? What diving gear do you recommend for those serious in underwater photography?

Handler leads many underwater photography expeditions amongst which are two back-to-back Whale Shark photography trips that he leads every summer. Describing the expeditions, he says, “There is no SCUBA diving on either one. All images are taken while snorkeling and most images are really done on the surface as the giant fish come right up to you! You can achieve professional images on these trips and you will only need mask, fins and snorkel”. Handler believes the key to good underwater photography is to be comfortable with the gear and to be comfortable in the water in general. “You do not want to be dealing with a foggy mask or loose fins when the action is happening in front of you. For underwater photography on SCUBA the key is buoyancy and being, again, very comfortable in the water. You need to know your gear inside out so you can concentrate on image-making,” he advises.

Handler also says it is extremely important to float, drift, rise, and fall without disturbing the surroundings. From experience, he knows how necessary it is to observe and understand the behavior of the animals one is photographing.

I have many memorable images, but  I like to bring the newer work to the forefront. This is a large gathering of Sailfish feeding on a baitball of sardines. Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  This has been the direction my work has been heading.  Telling stories of special moments....

I have many memorable images, but I like to bring the newer work to the forefront. This is a large gathering of Sailfish feeding on a baitball of sardines. Isla Mujeres, Mexico. This has been the direction my work has been heading. Telling stories of special moments....

 

What advice do you have for anyone that may want to become an underwater photographer and maybe even try to earl a living as one?

Most importantly, Handler emphasizes, “First rule of thumb is DO NOT quit your day job”. Handler’s advice is quite risky and it is clear he is extremely passionate about his career. He jokingly advises, “Keep your day job, dive and take pictures for the fun of it and slowly see what happens. In time you will sell a few prints and show your work to others. Earning a living is another thing. Seriously, unless you have a trust fund (and many of my counterparts do) take it slow before you jump in and keep that job. If you are single, then stay so! Marriage, a dog, a house and life, will get in the way of this career path” He then shows his true colors, saying “Now, if you really, really want to be a professional underwater photographer, then go out and do it and forget all I just said”.

Please note that Handler is happily married, has twin girls and yes, has a dog! His wife Julia is his business partner and an essential element to his success. To Handler, photography involves taking risks but risks that are worth being taken.

 

Do you have any advice how emerging photographers can publish their work and stay ahead of the curve?

 

Harsh but realistic, Mauricio Handler does not tiptoe around the possibility of failure. He is an example of success, however, and gives some tips as to how to go about publishing.

“If you simply get into underwater photography to sell your work you will most likely fail. Take pictures first of all for yourself. If someone wants a photo you took, sell it as a print- never let go of the original RAW or JPEG files. The photo stock market is indeed cluttered and even the best in the business are struggling to move their images through stock”. He also suggests self publishing a portfolio photo book using a company such as www.blurb.com to showcase your work to others but advises the photographer to remember an important rule of thumb, “Not everything we do in life needs to have a financial reward attached to it. Diving and photography can be done for the simple pleasure of being out in the wild, underwater”.

Suppose National Geography would sponsor one and only one photography expedition, what would that be?

“I would like to document the complete coast of Chile and the many natural history and human stories within this, one of the longest coastlines on the planet. I was born in Chile and have always wanted to return for a very extended stay”.

 

An unfulfilled dream of Handler’s is to document and tell the stories that lie within Chile’s coasts, rivers and lakes. “Chile is an amazing place. I think more than a National Geographic story assignment, I think I would like to convince them to do a book on the country- A book and series of documentaries. That sounds like a project indeed!”.

Handler’s excitement for his passion is contagious and it only creates anticipation to see what he will come up with next.

You can read more about Mauricio Handler and view samples of his work at his homepage, www.handlerphoto.com . You can also join his professional Facebook page Mauricio Handler Photography where he posts short essays and photographs from his many adventures.

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