Monday February 1, 2021

By Justin Lutsky

Photos by: Justin Lutsky | photo.justinlutsky.com | @jlutskyphoto Model: Hannah Mermaid | @hannahmermaid

Working with experienced underwater performers is one of the most exciting aspects of my journey through underwater photography. This month’s column features a recent collaboration with a true legend of the aquatic realm. Hannah Fraser, known professionally as Hannah Mermaid, is a model, actress, dancer, and performer who specializes in underwater and oceanoriented freediving performances. She is a central figure in modern mermaiding and passionate about ocean ecology activism.

This underwater garden concept was one of the last photo shoots I managed to squeeze in before temperatures in Southern California became too cold to work comfortably in an outdoor pool. Hannah and I met one afternoon with a general theme in mind, not knowing quite how all the elements would ultimately go together. Like most underwater shoots, you never know how things will look until you jump in and see how objects and materials behave once submerged. Underwater concept shoots are very much an exercise in creative problem solving. Having a collaborator as creative and easy to work with as Hannah makes the entire process so rewarding.

The backdrop was an artificial plant wall that came in small sections that snapped together to form one large surface. The plan was to attach one end to the pool deck and let the rest hang vertically underwater. However, I discovered that the entire wall was actually very buoyant once fully assembled. To get the wall to sink, I had to add nearly 50 pounds of lead weight along the bottom edge. After that, I maneuvered a metal footbridge into position and finished off the underwater set with various pieces of artificial greenery. Some pieces hung down from the surface while others were weighted and floated up from below.

Working in a pool environment, as opposed to open water, has the added benefit of lighting control. My lighting setup started with a large, white silk that spanned across the entire width of the pool. This softened the natural sunlight and created a nice, ambient fill everywhere. For a key light, I used one studio strobe shooting through a softbox that was aimed down at Hannah from the surface. I also used two underwater strobes for subtle backlight and additional fill light.

Hannah’s talent was the final ingredient in creating these enchanting images. We’d submerge together on a breath hold and shoot a series of photos each time. Hannah would seamlessly transition from one pose to the next and could do so effortlessly for minutes at a time without coming up for air. She’s amazing to watch, slipping smoothly underwater in total control of her depth and body position. With her eyes open underwater, Hannah’s vision was nothing but a blur, but she still knew exactly where to pose on the bridge, how to find the best light, and instinctively blend herself perfectly within the underwater environment we created together.

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