Real Mermaids

There are real mermaids swimming out there in the world. Some are in the US, but there are three of them living here in the UK. Francesca Dubery, Mairead Kelly and Demelza Hillier recently hosted a Mermaid themed photo shoot in Peterborough. A company there has a large aquatic tank with glass windows, making it possible to photograph people swimming underwater without requiring special gear. If you are curious to do something similar yourself, then have a look at Merlesque’s webpage. Renting the tank is quite expensive, so to finance it we were three groups of five photographers that had been invited. This was the first time I have paid to attend a workshop. I was booked in for the second session, but arrived a bit early so I could spy on the previous group and get some inspiration. Not very British of me. Each group would photograph one model as mermaid and one model as human, to mix things up a bit.

I was hanging back when the first group of photographers were shooting, but here I snuck up and snapped a shot of Demelza Hillier. If you look closely you can see that only part of the foot is visible. I had to remove the window frame and another photographer’s head that were obscuring the view. To spice up the photo a bit I added some light rays.
Mairead resting after finishing the first group of photographers. The tank needed 15 minutes to flush with chloride before our group could start. One good thing with showing up early is that you get a chance to get to know the models and get some inside tips.
This is what the tank looked like. There was one window panel on the short side, and four panels on the long side. This was one of the first photos I took, just testing my settings and to show what it looked like. Here the first group of photographers were waiting to get started.
A behind-the-scenes shot to show you how much a few metres extra of water degrade the quality. Here I was shooting from the short side. You do not get the same sharpness in the image. If you look in the centre of the frame you can see the reflection of one of the mermaids resting between shoots on the sofa in the background.

Below are the photos I took from our shoot. By standing on the long end we had much less water between the camera and the model, which made for much clearer photos than the few snapshots I took while waiting. One thing to watch out for if you decide to do something similar is the reflections in the glass. There were quite a lot of my photos where I in the post processing needed to remove either a photographer or something else behind me that was visible. Also making sure the window frames were not visible was important.

In the morning before our three groups of hobby photographers arrived Merlesque had had their own photographers, and I had a quick chat with them before our session started. They had used different lighting setups using strobes. One of them recommended shooting half portraits, which I was thinking of trying but after getting splashed by one of the mermaids I decided not to swap lenses to avoid getting moisture in the camera. At the end of the day I was quite happy with having my wide angle shots. There was a bit of juggling with the other photographers to make sure we were not in each other’s way, but it went quite well. Another tip I got was to shoot a lot of photos, since there are so many variables you cannot control: air bubbles, the model’s positioning in the tank and little debris floating around. There is virtually no communication with the model while she is underwater. She simply can’t see or hear us under water. So you need to be ready when all the things fall into place.

I was trying to be a bit selective in which photos I was sharing, so I asked a few friends which of three photos of Francesa Dubery they preferred. Turns out each one of them had a different favourite, so I’ll just put up all three photos here. In this photo I am happy with everything but the fact that I cut off the tip of her fin. The light falls nicely on her face, and her tail is clear against the background. The pose is also quite nice.
One of the tricky bits was getting good light. We had two big spotlights mounted above the pool, and then there were some sky windows providing additional light. Here the light turned out quite good mostly thanks to the way her head was turned.
This one is turned 90 degrees. The light falls nicely on her hair, but I had to brighten her face considerably. In a lot of shots I was struggling to get the models completely in the frame.
One of my favourite shots from the day. The tank normally has a pump working that circulates and cleans the water. For this shot we turned off the pump, this allowed the water surface to settle, and we could get this beautiful reflection shot of Mairead Kelly. I darkened the edges and did some curves and white balance. I felt that by having natural colours it would not be immediately obvious that it was shot under water. Also by having it darker I hoped to create a more intimate feeling in the shot.
We did a similar reflection shot with Francesca Dubery. Here I decided to keep the window frame to the left. On my way back from the shoot I realised we should have done our version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam instead. I guess I have to come back in the spring for the next underwater shoot.
This photo feels like there is a story behind it with the bride in the water, and the roses slowly falling down. It is tricky to get the white balance right, you want it to look like it is underwater, but at the same time you want natural skin tones. Here I gave up and just did the shot black and white. This was one of the first shots I edited, after a while I became braver and as you can see above I ended up doing most of my shots in colour.
I was shooting most of my shots with the 35mm lens which allowed me to get all of the models in my shots. Here in this photo of Mairead I have really darkened the blues when making the photo black and white, and then added a little bit of black around the edges to give her more breathing space in the picture. There is also a bit of the window frame removed on the left side which I did by using a mix of content aware fill and clone stamp. This was the first time I used the clone source dialogue to rotate the source material before stamping it. Note to future self: windows -> clone source.
One last for this time, here I choose to keep the frame in the photo.

An hour of photography goes really quickly. Going to Peterborough was a bit of a trip, but I am really happy with how it turned out. If you are in need of Mermaids for some event, then I can recommend talking to Francesca, Mairead and Demelza, their webpage is linked in the introduction of this post. Thanks to everyone that helped make this happen!



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One Comment

  1. Cathryn Kemp
    August 28, 2014


    These are beautiful photographs and I particularly love the ones of my niece Mairead. You are very talented, thank you so much.

    Cathryn Kemp

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