LUTZ - They met as teens and shared their passion for the ocean. So when Rich and Laura Howard took the plunge 22 years ago, it launched a partnership that has taken the couple from the reefs of the Caribbean to the Sea of Cortez, Fiji and beyond, capturing dazzling underwater photographs of colorful fish, crabs, coral and other marine creatures.
Their shared fascination with the ocean evolved into a photography business with a portfolio of 2,000-plus images featured in national publications, on calendars, in product packaging and on canvas. Locally, 17 of their large photos grace the Coral Reef Gallery at The Florida Aquarium.
Their fish tales are numerous, from stalking and photographing eels in the South Pacific to captivating video of killer whales surfing the wake of their charter boat off the Mexican coast. The video, taken three years ago but posted on You Tube only recently, has drawn more than 1.1 million views and attracted national television attraction from "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" to "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
The couple began their marine-based business in 1996 from their home of 17 years, Centerville, Ohio, 50 miles northeast of Cincinnati, where Rich grew up.
"That was the ongoing joke: two land-locked people who loved the ocean," said Laura, 44, who dived the cold waters off Catalina Island while attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying biology and working toward her goal of becoming a dolphin trainer.
"I started to take pictures at 21 because I couldn't explain to people what I was seeing underwater," said Rich, a self-taught photographer who began diving at age 13. Later, as a scuba instructor, he helped Laura earn her dive certification at age 19.
Friends began asking to buy prints of underwater photos the Howards brought home from twice-yearly dive trips - vacation time from their pharmaceutical sales jobs. The sideline photo business expanded to selling color prints at Ohio art festivals.
"We'd stick out like a sore thumb, because all around us were people selling all these homemade crafts," candles and other Midwestern items, Rich said.
That exposure led to their work being discovered by Pet Warehouse. The Ohio-based pet supply company asked to feature their photos on its product packaging, calendars and catalogs. That landed more work, including photos for Red Sea, producer of saltwater formulas for home aquariums.
Rich is devoted to underwater subjects. "I do a little bit of nature photography," mostly colorful exotic birds, but he has no interest in portrait or landscape photography. It lacks the excitement he craves.
"When you go underwater, you never know what you're going to see," he said. "You have to search for your subject and once you find it you have to coax it to come and take a picture."
Marine photography poses a host of problems, aside from being unable to change lenses underwater. "You have to have perfect buoyancy," Rich said. "You have to be a good diver before you ever try to pick up a camera."
And creatures are understandably frightened by a diver armed with camera and flash. "They don't sit still," he said of marine subjects. Seawater is not always clear. "If I'm not working within 12 to 18 inches of something, forget it," he said. "It required 45 minutes to capture one of his favorite images, a small red crab peeking out from a crevice in a reef.
Such patience is sometimes impossible. Anxious to photograph a blue-ribbon eel while in Fiji, the Howards prevailed upon a local dive instructor who directed them to a reef inhabited by one. Rich could remain at that 95-foot depth only 10 minutes, precious little time to spot the small eel and, hopefully, see it emerge from its rocky home. Luckily, that day, the eel was ready for its close-up.
Technological advancements have helped. "With digital you can shoot all day long," limited only by those pesky underwater time limitations, he said. Instead of a camera holding 36-exposure slide film, he now uses a Nikon D7000, allowing him to capture 260 high-resolution images on a single dive.
Oceans of Images Photography has evolved into a family adventure. The couple's children, Zachary, 14, and Rachael, 13, are certified divers who accompany their parents on journeys to exotic dive locales such as Thailand's Phi Phi Islands.
"It's something the family does now, together," said Rich.
Zachary recently began taking photographs and is devoted to maintaining the 120-gallon reef aquarium in his bedroom, one of three tanks in the family's Cheval home.
"They both share our love," Laura said.
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