Shooter: Becky Kagan Schott

Steamer Detroit: Each time I dive a wreck I challenge myself to create a new shot. The steamer Detroit was built in 1846 and even after sinking has intact wooden paddle wheels. The walking-beam engine is in the middle, so I decided to shoot from the center as my models (Jim and Susan Winn) got into position and lit a piece of each wheel. Time is always limited on the deep wrecks, and communicating before the dive is key to executing these shots. Photo by Becky Kagan Schott

Images from the edge

I occasionally see great photographs in print or on social media that I categorize as my “if” shots — as in “I could have taken that photo if…” For the images where the technique is transparent and the execution is predictable, it comes down to if I had been there at that time. Proximity and the right lens could have brought home those shots.

Then there are images that rise to another level. These are the photos I could have taken if I could have dived to that depth and stayed that long, if I had the skills to penetrate that deeply into a cave system, if I had been willing to dive in water that cold and unforgiving or if I had been able to previsualize that particular wreck and bring a lighting and model team to help me achieve a specific and preconceived concept. These are the shots I see and think, “I could have taken that photo if I were Becky Kagan Schott.” The images she captures are that unique, and her diving skills are that significant.

Her path to this unusual niche in the underwater imaging pantheon began as an 11-year-old child in landlocked Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her dad helped her set up her first saltwater aquarium, and she became a self-described “dork at the fish store.” Schott was single-mindedly passionate about the fish in her aquarium, but her parents wanted her to know about the underwater world beyond the confines of her little tank. For her birthday, they bought her a subscription to Skin Diver magazine, which set the hook for her taking a Discover Scuba Diving resort course during a family holiday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Breathing underwater and seeing the tropical fish that she previously knew only from the aquarium industry convinced her she should get certified. Certification for her at age 12 in Pittsburgh in 1994 took her to a “cold, yucky, brown quarry,” as she recalls; her advanced certification was in Lake Erie on a shipwreck she couldn’t even see and in water so cold she shivered painfully through her entire checkout dive.

A tragic fork in her road happened at age 13 when her father died. That left the family without an anchor tethering them to Pittsburgh, so they moved to Orlando, Florida. Schott speaks of the irony: “The worst event of my life changed my life, because now water was nearby.” Diving was a distraction for her from that bad time in her life. She took her first cavern-diving class at age 14 and was soon a regular in the freshwater springs dive community in northern Florida.

Photography was a natural extension of her dive passions. Her trial-and-error approach to photography segued into formal instruction when she enrolled in black-and-white photography and video production classes in high school. She learned how to write, shoot and edit news broadcasts for her classmates, which was a perfect educational foundation for her future career direction.

Stephen Frink: I’m intimidated by all the time that goes into video editing, plus I fear that if I were shooting video I might be missing a still shot. How do you so artfully navigate these two worlds of underwater imaging?

Becky Kagan Schott: I separate my brain into stills or video before I ever get in the water. I tend not to shoot both mediums on the same dive, but I believe that what I’ve learned from video editing has made me a better still photographer. I develop a clear idea of what it takes to tell the story of my subject. Video has lots of images to tell the story, while with photos it may distill down to a single shot. But either way there is a shot list and a plan to execute in advance of the dive. As a stills photographer, I want one image that is so far above the rest that it thoroughly stands out.

Cornelia B. Windiate: The Cornelia B. Windiate was the first shipwreck in the Great Lakes that inspired me. It mysteriously disappeared in 1875 and was long thought to have sunk in Lake Michigan, but divers in Lake Huron discovered it in 1986. The wreck is remarkably intact with three standing masts, a complete cabin, sealed cargo holds and a spiral staircase inside. The 136-foot-long ship sits in 185 feet of water, and it took a team of five experienced tech divers to help achieve this image. I let each diver know where to pose and where to position the lights. To make it work, a diver had to be inside the cabin constantly moving the lights to get the right angles. Another model had to light the yawl boat, which is ominous because the crew of nine was never found; the boat lies next to the shipwreck.

Did your diving career immediately migrate to photography?

Parker Engine: I had the unique opportunity to be one of a handful of divers who have dived the A.A. Parker in lower Lake Superior. The ship broke up in a storm and lies scattered on the bottom, but the engine still stands tall even though the hull around it has fallen away. It took me about 15 minutes to set up this shot in a depth of 200 feet and get the correct angles to make it work.

Not at all. Even today it isn’t all photography all the time. I teach a rebreather class every three months and am quite active in technical diving instruction. I enjoy the teaching; it is not theoretical for me — it’s what I do — and I think it makes me a better instructor. This is life support for these students, and I want to prepare them for success in their environment.

I enrolled at the University of Tampa with a major in marine biology and minor in communication. I was fortunate to get an internship at the National Undersea Research Center (NURC), which gave me six weeks in Key Largo, Florida, working with researchers at the Aquarius Habitat. I figured out then that I wouldn’t be content as a scientist studying algae. I loved photography and video, so I thought I would combine them and try shooting some documentary projects. 

During my internship I also had a job at the Florida Aquarium. When a crew from Animal Planet was there shooting a story, I asked how they got their big break. They all started shooting by doing TV news. I changed my major to communication, which gave me experience writing for TV and radio news, building websites and writing for magazines. It also led to an internship at WFLA, the NBC affiliate in Tampa. I soon had a reel I could use to get other broadcast opportunities. My next gig was in Fort Myers, Florida.

Even when working for TV news, I was still diving every weekend. During the week I’d be shooting depressing or mundane stories about hurricanes, alligators in someone’s backyard pool, or the local grow houses. Then on weekends I’d be in the water somewhere shooting, learning and improving. I was (and am) very self-critical, so 2004 and 2005 in Fort Myers were important years for me.

I eventually wanted to work in a bigger TV market, so I moved back to Tampa. My salary doubled, which allowed me to get the underwater camera gear that I needed to take my skills to the next level. I later worked for WTXF Fox 29 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

What career highlights or early triumphs defined your progress?

I’ve won five Emmys for underwater camera work, and I’ve shot for National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Travel Channel. My husband, Dave Schott, and I own Liquid Productions, a company known for capturing images in extreme underwater environments, including caves, deep shipwrecks and under ice. My greatest photographic passion is my work with the various shipwrecks of the Great Lakes. Each one tells a powerful story of tragedy and mystery, and I enjoy the historical aspects as well as the technical challenges in these places that are deep, dark and cold.

Gunilda Parlor Room: The Gunilda is in a remote part of northern Lake Superior and sits in complete darkness in 270 feet of 38°F water. It’s known to be one of the most beautiful of all Great Lakes shipwrecks, but it sees very few divers a year due to the location and highly technical nature of the dive. Time is extremely limited at that depth in such cold water. Peering inside the windows into rooms is like going back in time. My vision was to light it as if sunlight was pouring in through the skylight and the yacht was sailing on the surface again. I used no lights on my camera because there was a lot of particulate in the water and instead had two highly experienced tech divers assisting with the lighting.

I’ve worked in all five of the Great Lakes, filming shipwrecks in 3-D off Isle Royale, Michigan, for the National Park Service and searching for new wrecks in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan as part of a team. In 2011 I worked on Project Shiphunt, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Sony; we found the schooner M.F. Merrick, which was lost in 1889, and the steel freighter Etruria in more than 300 feet of icy water off Presque Isle, Michigan. I was part of the team that first documented the Alice E. Wilds in about 300 feet of water in June 2015. We were the first people to see the ship in 133 years. Those are the kinds of expeditions that light a fire in me.

Tell us about some of the tech dives you do for your work.

I’ve shot in 400 feet of water several times — at the bottom of the Great Blue Hole in Belize, for example. At this point in my career I have to weigh the risk and reward for pushing the limits. The reward has to be high because it’s a big risk to go that deep. I’d say the most extreme shoots I’ve done have been in 34°F water at 320 feet in the Great Lakes in May. It’s not the deepest I’ve been, but water that cold makes it extreme. There weren’t thermoclines, so the dives were about two hours constantly in those temperatures.

I’m most comfortable in the 200- to 250-foot range in 38°F — comfort being a relative term. Greater depths limit the time we can spend on the bottom and add a lot more decompression obligation. I’ve done a lot of shoots in that depth range, and I take it seriously. I’ve been diving caves for 20 years; while I treat them with respect, I feel a level of comfort there as well. 

Ghost Ferry: I’m always looking for a unique way to bring a shipwreck to life. The James W. Curran and John A. McPhail were car ferries that were being towed to Kingston, Ontario, but sank in a storm. Today they are in 210 feet of icy-cold water in Lake Huron, still attached by their tow lines. My motivation was to illuminate the Curran, which plowed down into the lakebed, as if the lights were still on.

I’ve had my share of scares, and that’s why I now take a safety diver with me if I’m shooting video for a documentary. I’ve shot at both the North Pole and South Pole but never deeper than 60 feet there. David and I did a season of Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice for Discovery Channel. The ice in Alaska was more than 5 feet thick, and the water was 27.5°F our gear would suddenly free-flow. We were never more than 100 feet away from an ice hole, but filming in water that cold, in thick overhead ice in the Bering Sea, was intimidating. The producers even asked me to shoot a night dive under the ice at midnight to film the gold miners. That night my full-face mask’s regulator froze shut on me as I was heading to the surface. That got my adrenaline flowing. I’m very aware of the dangers. No photo is worth my life — and I’m prepared to drop the camera if I have to — but I also like to push my own limits to see what I can achieve. I like environments that are challenging and hard to capture. 

I’ve been fortunate to film a lot of different projects: cave exploration documentaries for Red Bull, Mayan remains in cenotes for National Geographic as well as mines and shipwrecks for the Travel Channel. I recently filmed a new shipwreck discovery for Smithsonian Channel in 250 feet of cold, low-visibility water. I’ve worked with archaeologists on many wrecks (including the USS Monitor) and documented the German submarine U-869 for the History Channel. I recently shot stills and video for OceanGate to document their new manned submersible that will be going to the Titanic this summer. 

Your technical-diving prowess clearly contributes to the success of your photo missions. Does having these skills help define the projects you embrace?

I think so. I tend to seek shipwrecks or caves that are rarely seen or never photographed. Most of those are out of recreational diving range, so I use a rebreather, which allows me to have more time at deeper depths to capture the images I want. I may get only one chance to shoot on a particular wreck, so every minute counts. I also often use trimix to have a clear mind at depth so I can direct a team, ensure the lighting looks good and capture the shot I’ve previsualized.

Devil’s Eye: After spending hours underground inside the Devil’s Cave System in High Springs, Florida, my husband, Dave, hovered in the clear fresh water while decompressing. I wanted to showcase that the water is so clear that you can see the leaves on the trees above. After spending time in the dark caves, it’s refreshing to exit and see a blue sky from 30 feet below the surface.

The biggest advantage to using a rebreather is if it’s my only dive on a wreck and the conditions are nice, I can stay a little longer without a pressure gauge inexorably dipping and forcing me off the bottom. I take a lot of bailout gas with me to allow for extra time if everything is going well. When diving open circuit I’d always be in a rush to get my shots because the clock was ticking. Using a rebreather has changed the way I can shoot. I now take my time, and if I need to make adjustments to strobes or move around divers, we have that extra time. I can get the shot I’m after with less stress than when I was diving using open circuit.

I started diving to see fish and colorful coral reefs; along the way I’ve evolved into someone who loves freshwater caves and shipwrecks with little life. My photography work in caves made me appreciate light, because there I had none aside from what I brought to the scene. It was difficult, and my photos weren’t great when I started. I learned how to work with light and the importance of it — not just having a lot of it, but more about what it’s focused on. I began to thrive on the challenge of trying to capture that feeling you get while cave diving. It’s not just a bunch of wet rocks. It’s the feeling you get when your training, experience and skills come together and you’re gliding through the center of the Earth. Your light is piercing the darkness, and you see incredible geological formations. It’s hard to capture that in one photo, but I try.

In 2007, after leaving Florida and moving to Philadelphia, I rediscovered the Great Lakes, where there are incredible shipwrecks with powerful stories and stunning visuals preserved in time. I can’t say I enjoy the cold water, but I like the idea of shooting those shipwrecks. It’s been a great challenge to combine trimix, rebreathers, coldwater diving, drysuits, drygloves and a camera to produce images. Similar to my philosophy about cave photography, I try to capture those haunting shipwrecks the way I see them in my mind. Even though there aren’t many people photographing these extraordinary shipwrecks, I try to push my own creative limits to create even stronger images every year. Maybe it’s a new way of lighting an engine room at 200 feet or something similar. I like to keep it fresh.

Finally, I like to challenge myself in locations that are dived frequently, like Chuuk Lagoon. Thousands of photographers go there every year, and I see a lot of similarity in the images in magazines and on social media. I love areas that are frequently photographed so I can push myself to look at it in a new way and image it differently — at least that’s my goal. 

Breakthrough: One of the wildest feelings is swimming through thick, tannic river water that’s the color of iced tea until you break through into clear water. It’s like going through a portal into another world. As the divers enter the cavern, the red tannic water above creates rainbows of color that change with every shot. This photograph is all ambient light to capture the natural colors of the water mixing in Florida’s Little River Cave System.

When I’m shooting, so many things are going on in my mind. I’m simultaneously evaluating the conditions, visibility and currents and looking at angles and the position of the sun, assuming there is any sun at depth. Where is my model, where is their light pointing, what are my camera settings, is my rebreather working, what’s my partial pressure of oxygen (PO2), how much time have I been here, what’s my ambient light versus my artificial light, where is my model now? Do I need to change my position? I keep looking at the environment, the model, my own life support and my camera, trying to pull it all together in what is often less than 20 minutes on a deep, cold shipwreck. Sometimes I’ve never been on the wreck before, and I’m just hoping conditions will allow for the shot we want to do. I’ve been told some shots aren’t possible, and I hope to prove that wrong. I love the dark, and I’m not afraid of it.

Explore More

See more of Becky Kagan Schott’s work in this video.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2019