A little mermaid kneeled at the edge of the sand at Sunset Beach, scooting on orange, fin-clad legs to the position into which photographer Bella Michele Milo coaxed her.
"Come, on, do the mermaid shuffle," Milo told 6-year-old London Roesch as she repositoned the tripod her off-camera flash balanced on. Milo turned toward London's mother, Kristy Begerow, and laughed as London nearly forgot she was wearing a fin and tried to stand up.
"It's funny that they always try to get up and walk," Milo said.
Last Wednesday evening was one of many photo sessions Milo schedules at the city's beach park with clients. Her speciality is mermaid photos for fans of the mythical creatures and feminist symbols of beauty and power, Milo said.
London's room is mermaid-themed, Begerow said, and she thought it'd be perfect to frame a photo of her daughter in mermaid accouterment to hang in her room.
"She's a great photographer," Begerow said as Milo settled into the sandy water beside her daughter to snap a photo, despite wearing wearing capri jeans and tennis shoes.
"I think we go through fads," Milo said about popular culture's current fascination with mermaids. "I think people love the magical world of mermaids and fairies. I think people want these photos, because they see them and they know that it is something different."
Milo recommends that her clients come to the beach with two-piece swimsuits under their clothes. Once there, she fits them for fins by size and style, then adds a matching bikini top decorated with shells and beads.
"This is as close as you're getting to a bikini, sister," said Erika Stigleman to her 7-year-old daughter, Aubrey, as she was getting fitted for her top. Milo also shot a group photo with London, Aubrey and Aubrey's sister Madie, 4.
Milo adorns her subjects with handmade jewelry and "mermaid makeup" in the form of colorful eyeshadows and glitter to compliment the fins, which Michele purchases online through a company called "Fun Fun Mermaid."
The company has featured photos London has sent it on its website.
Milo resigned in April from her job as a certified nursing assistant after eight years. Her experience working as an alternative model and shooting photos of her children and friends with a borrowed digital camera led to her taking a leap of faith into full-time photography.
Now, Milo shoots with a Nikon D1500 and a variety of lenses, using off-camera flashes and reflectors for a polished look often shot during sunsets.
Milo started shooting mermaids because of her own interest in the fictional, sea-dwelling creatures, two of which she has tattooed on her leg and one on her arm. She researched tails online and bought one for her and one for her daughter, Chloe.
"The night after I received them we had a wonderful storm, and I knew the clouds would be glorious," Milo said. "We went on a whim and shot about 15 minutes of photos. I posted the photo, and everyone started saying they wanted photos like that so I started sign-ups with eight people. Before I knew it, it turned into five months, and over 100 mermaids so far."
All of the mermaid shoots have been in Milo's hometown of Tarpon Springs, with most of her clients driving from Pasco and Pinellas counties, and some from as far as two hours away. Soon, she plans to travel to other local cities for sessions.
Despite the complications of shooting outside - bad weather, shooting around sun positions and the chance that a beach-goer will accidentally walk into a shot - Milo said her favorite part is the "looks on the little girls' faces when I put their fins on, and they see it all come to life, and they feel like a mermaid. Seeing them beaming, watching the mothers and daughters hold each other and capturing the moment and expressions for a lifetime. It's something that they will always remember."
The shoots also sempower the women and young girls Milo photographs in their fins, splashing around in the water and sand.
"My goal is to allow females to feel good about themselves, Milo said. "You can be beautiful no matter your size or skin tone"
Although based in Tarpon Springs, Milo has opened a photography studio in New Port Richey at 6611 US 19, Suite 206, where she shoots portraits, boudoir, pinup photography and themed shoots for holidays. She also holds ladies nights with drinks, costumes and photos.
For information on "Photography by Bella Michele" visit http://www.photographybybellamichele.com or https://www.facebook.com/photographybybellamichele.