Tuesday December 1, 2020

By Justin Lutsky

Natural, freshwater environments provide some of the most uniquely stunning underwater settings to shoot in. The water is usually crystal clear, and the visibility seems to go on for miles in every direction. On top of that, there’s natural beauty, both below and above the water, everywhere you point the camera. It’s almost impossible to find a bad frame.

Two of my favorite freshwater photography destinations are the cenotes in Mexico and the springs in Florida. I had been to the cenotes several times before, but this past October was my first time visiting the legendary springs. They did not disappoint.

Prepping your gear and planning your wardrobe the night before a shoot is a must if you want to arrive early enough to beat the crowds. Photographers and models should be ready to jump in the water as soon as possible to find magical moments of opportunity. Dogwood spring had a school of fish gathering just below the surface bathed in sunlight. Our intention was to shoot inside the nearby cavern, but once we saw this, we quickly spun around and Abbey slipped effortlessly into the mix. Amazingly, these little guys hung around just long enough for a quick series of photos.

Early morning is also when the position of the sun has the most potential for dramatic light rays. My favorite setup was to use the sun as a backlight, still low on the horizon bursting through the trees. Staying low and wide while tilting up also meant capturing two worlds in a single frame.

My camera is a Sony A7Riii in a Nauticam housing, with a Sony 12-24mm lens. I usually shoot between ISO 100-400 at 1/200th shutter. In the springs, I also had one Inon strobe attached directly to my housing, armed off to one side for frontal fill most of the time. I had aspirations of setting up strobes on light stands originally, but without a dedicated assistant and limited windows of opportunity to shoot, that wasn’t practical.

Generally, I’d jump in first and do a quick scout for an ideal background or natural feature to incorporate. Then Abbey would jump in and meet me in the water. Moving slowly and carefully was important to avoid stirring up sand and silt which can quickly ruin visibility.

A session might last for 20 minutes or so. Abbey and I would dive down on breath hold and come up together in between shots to review, discuss, and adjust before diving down again. All of the shots featured here were captured that way. However, there were a few times I used SCUBA gear to go deeper and stay down for longer periods of time.

Collaborating with an experienced underwater model is also essential, both to capture wonderful imagery and for safety. Abbey Boutwell is one of the best! Fabric like this can be quite heavy underwater which is challenging to work with and also poses a significant drowning hazard. Models need to have prior experience working with fabric in a pool before jumping into the springs. Abbey and I have shot together many times prior to this. I know her experience and comfort level well enough to trust she was safe to work in open water with all that fabric. I was also shooting close enough to Abbey that I could intervene and assist if anything went wrong. The other issue to consider when shooting with models in the springs is water temperature. Low 70’s is quite refreshing for a quick dip. However, working in those water temperatures for even a few minutes without a wetsuit can be quite chilling. A true testament to Abbey’s dedication as an artist. As the photographer I wore a wetsuit, but Abbey did not. Each session required real mental fortitude to stay relaxed and look graceful the entire time. Being respectful of that is an important part of underwater collaboration. Being prepared as a photographer and working as efficiently as possible helps minimize time a model has to endure frigid water. And if you can have someone on land ready and waiting with dry towels and warm clothes, it makes all the difference.

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