Interview: Sarah Marino

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino

Nature Photographer

Tell us a little about yourself (who you are, where you are based, what you shoot, etc.)

I am an almost full-time nature photographer based in southwest Colorado. My husband, fellow nature photographer Ron Coscorrosa, and I travel about half-time in an Airstream trailer, mostly with a focus on the American West. I am in the process of transitioning away from my career in nonprofit and philanthropy consulting to focus on photography, photo education, and writing on a full-time basis. My photography focuses exclusively on the natural world, with my interests ranging from the grandest of expansive landscapes to nature’s smallest scenes.

How and why did you get into landscape photography?

Around 2008 or 2009, my choices led me to a broadly stressful life.

After a financial crisis developed at my then-employer, a co-worker and I volunteered to lead an organizational turnaround as co-executive directors. While this resulted in saving the organization, it also resulted in 70 to 80-hour work weeks, endless travel, and a lot of stress since I was also finishing graduate school. Being outside hiking or backpacking felt like one of the only pressure releases I had in my life at the time. I started bringing along a camera and soon found the experience of immersing myself in photography to be one of the few times I could ease my constantly racing and stressed out mind.

As I spent more time focused on photography, I realized that what I thought I wanted for myself (an entirely career-focused, high-achieving life) was actually making me constantly miserable. Finally realizing I had a choice in the matter, I started a consulting business so I could have more control over my time. This decision allowed me to devote significant time to developing my photography skills and traveling more (including a year and a half living and traveling full-time in our Airstream trailer, something I probably would have never done if I hadn’t first taken up photography).

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

What does photography mean to you?

Photography started out as a meditative, relaxing pursuit that I casually practiced on the weekends. It has turned into a lifelong passion and in many ways, a lifestyle. I met Ron through photography and most of the people we spend time with are photographers. Most of our time beyond work is focused on photography or being outside, exploring the natural world.

Although it sounds like a cliché, photography brought a kind of happiness into my life that I had not experienced before.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, a very close friend and a cherished pet both passed away suddenly in 2017. In both cases, photography and being outside were the best ways for me to cope with and heal through these losses. Photography has also provided a way for me to express myself and my interests in a way that is continually challenging, messy, frustrating, and ultimately joyous.

Have you had any formal training in photography?

I have taken a lot of art classes throughout my life and I have participated in three location-based photography tours. These experiences are the closest I have gotten to formal photography education. I learned through studying photography books and avidly reading posts in the Nature Photographer’s Network critique forums, plus a lot of trial and error in the field and in processing. I have never felt like this lack of formal photography education has held me back in any way.

Beyond the actual art and craft of photography, I think my master’s degree and consulting experience together have done more to help my photography career than almost anything else. While the field of study for my master’s degree (public affairs) had little to do with photography, I spent a lot of time studying public policies related to managing wild lands and honing my writing skills. Both of these experiences have helped direct my focus as I transition to a career based in my photography.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

How do you further your photographic education?

I am at the point with my photography that I feel fully proficient with the technical side of this pursuit and pretty confident with my photo processing skills. Aside from watching processing tutorials here and there, I do not regularly pursue any type of photography education.

I spend some time looking at photography books and the websites of individual photographers but generally, I feel like looking at a lot of other photographs clouds my ability to focus on my own interests. Thus, the most valuable form of photographic education for me right now is time spent in the field, exploring new places and different ways of looking at familiar subjects.

How do you recommend getting over G.A.S.? (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

I am lucky that Gear Acquisition Syndrome has never really affected me. I grew up in a household with two frugal parents, so I have never been oriented toward acquiring the newest and best photography gear.

I am using a Canon 6D that is more than five years old and most of my lenses are at least that old. While I like reading about new photography gear and talking about it with photography friends, I only buy gear when I feel like my current equipment is holding me back.

For example, I purchased a longer telephoto lens last year because I often felt like I wasn’t able to take the photos I wanted to take with my then-longest lens. Being in a two-photographer household helps restrain purchases as well, since outfitting two nature photography kits with new equipment on a regular basis would be quite costly.

If a photographer has the financial resources to buy the latest and greatest gear, I don’t think Gear Acquisition Syndrome is that big of a deal. For photographers with more limited financial resources, I would advise them to focus more on investing in experiences rather than new gear.

Experiences and time in the field will do so much more in terms of helping a photographer develop a portfolio or stronger photography skills than most new equipment ever will.

A simple kit of used gear is more than enough to create inspiring nature photographs.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Are there any other genres of photography you practice?

I focus exclusively on nature photography, which I define as being inclusive of natural grand landscapes, intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and creative portraits of plants.

I sometimes photograph wildlife if the opportunity presents itself.

The only other subject that has ever interested me is creative architectural photography, mostly because of the abstractions and patterns that can be found in some manmade landscapes but I haven’t actually pursued it.

I am also hoping to get started with aerial photography this year (using a drone), again because of the opportunities to view landscapes in a more abstract way from the air.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Do you believe there is a way for photographers to help the world become a better place? How so?

I think this is a really important question for nature photographers to carefully consider. Since this topic is quite wide-ranging, I will focus my answer on one specific thing I have been thinking about a lot lately.

Through a confluence of complex factors, public lands and wild places are under tremendous pressure right now from industrial tourism, lack of funding, and development (like the energy industry lapping at the borders of many national parks in the American southwest). Nature photographers have played a major role in inspiring people to visit these places, which I think it positive.

Public lands benefit from a constituency that cares about their preservation.

On the other hand, I do not think that nature photographers overall have done enough to use their photographs to convey messages that help protect and preserve the places we photograph.

Instead, some photographers who practice and encourage abhorrent behavior have massive social media followings and rarely face consequences for their actions. This dynamic is having a massive negative impact on our public lands.

Thus, nature photographers have the opportunity to be much more vocal about protecting the places we love, modeling positive behavior, and more proactively talking about outdoor ethics when sharing our photographs. These individual actions, when actively practiced across a broad community, could go a long way in reversing some of the negative impacts that we photographers have brought to the places we love.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

How do you stay unique in a world where (almost) everyone has a camera in their back pocket?

In developing my portfolio of photographs, uniqueness has never been a goal for me, mostly because I think it is unattainable. Instead, I have been more focused on developing a portfolio that expresses my personal view of the natural world.

By photographing the things that interest and inspire me most, I think I have been able to develop a portfolio that feels like it represents my interests, visual preferences, and personality pretty well.

How important is having a good website?

It depends entirely on a photographer’s personal goals.

If a photographer wants to earn income through their photography, a professional, easy-to-navigate website is essential.

For hobbyists, I think creating a website can be a very helpful creative experience but certainly isn’t a necessary step in developing as a photographer.

For example, photographs on Facebook, Instagram, or 500px are typically presented in a stand-alone way. This is one of the major flaws of these platforms, as photographs can often amplify one another when carefully curated and presented in a portfolio of work. Thus, a major benefit of developing a website is learning about how to develop portfolios and present photographs in a visually cohesive and impactful way.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

If you had to choose one location to photograph forever, what would that be?

This is another impossible question to answer!

With one exception, I have thoroughly enjoyed every place I have visited for photography. I typically find that a single visit to a location doesn’t make me feel like I have photographed that place but instead that I have just scratched the surface and want to get back again and again. Thus, I feel like every place I have visited is an unfinished project that is drawing me back for more.

My finalists would be the mountains of southwestern Colorado, Iceland, Zion National Park and Death Valley National Park, primarily because I consider these my most significant unfinished projects (and also the places I have spent the most time).

If I had to choose just one of those places, I would probably choose Death Valley National Park. I am endlessly fascinated by the park’s surreal landscapes and after spending months there, I still find new things on every trip.

What message do you wish to send with your imagery? How do you make sure your images convey this properly?

Although it is really basic, I want my photography to convey my love for the natural world.

When I am out exploring, I am continually in awe of the elegance, complexity, mystery, and magnificence of the natural places I visit. I see my photography as an extension of these experiences and interests.

I also want viewers of my portfolio to see nature as more than epic grand landscapes. The intricacies and abstractions present in the natural world are fascinating and deserving of photographic attention, as well.

I used to care a lot about how my photographs would be received. After significantly lightening up my social media and photography viewing diet, I care a lot less.

Over the last few years, I have been pursuing photos that bring me satisfaction and joy. Thus, I am not as concerned about my ability to convey these things to an audience. I am happy that some people appreciate my photography and want to learn from me, as it allows me to pursue photography as a career. However, I want my interests to drive me, not reactions from the people viewing my work.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

What advice would you give to yourself if you could turn back time?

Listen to your own voice earlier in your photographic journey.

During my formative years in nature photography, I let external voices and trends have way too much influence on my work.

A few examples…

Because grand landscapes under sensational light got the most attention on 500px, I only processed and posted those kinds of photographs even though I enjoy photographing smaller scenes more.

Because a photographer I respected shared a post mocking flower photography as boring, I shared fewer of my plant photos.

Since black and white photography is often dismissed as a pursuit of the past, I didn’t share that work either.

I was still taking black and white photos, photos of plants, and photos of smaller scenes, I just wasn’t spending time to process the photos, pull them into portfolios, and then share them with confidence.

Although I am generally a confident person, I didn’t have enough confidence in my photography to pursue my own vision for my work and too often let external judgements and influences drive my focus.

Although this phase was essential in getting where I am today, I wish I could have gained more confidence in my work more quickly so I could have spent those years pursuing the things that interested me most instead of the things that would bring the most external validation.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

If you could only take one more picture, what do you think it would be of? How would you begin to make that decision?

This question is diametrically opposed to how I think about my photography, so it is very difficult to answer.

My portfolio is diverse because I think of photography as an expansive pursuit. I photograph grand landscapes under dramatic light, nature’s smaller scenes, abstract views of natural subjects, and portraits of plants. I photograph in all different kinds of light and appreciate all different types of ecosystems. I also enjoy creating photographs in both color and black and white. Thus, there is no single concept or approach related to nature photography that most draws me in or motivates my pursuits.

Thus, I will turn to my portfolio to help me answer the question.

My favorite photos of my own are my black and white work, specifically photos in two portfolios – grand landscapes featuring dynamic light and difficult weather, and portraits of desert plants.

Wild weather always makes for an intense, energetic photography experience whereas photographing small subjects like plants is more meditative. I think I am at my best as a photographer when I am creating these kinds of photographs under such conditions and presenting them, in black and white.

So, if I could only take one more photo in my life, I would probably choose one of those subjects.

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

Sarah Marino - Nature Photographer -

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