Sarah Marino is a Colorado-based landscape photographer and this month’s Photographer of the Month. I’m really excited to share this in-depth interview with Sarah and I think you will love this. Sarah talks about how she got started with photography, her thoughts on photography and nature conservation, her abstract and Black & White portfolios, and much more.
Thanks you Sarah for taking the time to be so open and honest in this interview.
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got started with photography?
Thank you for inviting me to be featured on CaptureLandscapes. It is an honor to be included among so many talented photographers. As for me, I am a nature photographer based in a small town in southwestern 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.
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 at the time. 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, something I probably would have never done if I hadn’t first taken up photography).
How would you describe your photographic style?
I think of photography as an expansive pursuit, which is a core part of defining my style. I rarely go out with expectations or a specific plan. I think of my time in the field as photography by wandering around – exploring without a plan and stopping when something captures my interest. I also enjoy spending time in a very wide variety of ecosystems, from desert locations like Death Valley National Park to Colorado’s high alpine mountain scenery. I am equally inspired by grand expansive landscapes and tiny details in nature.
I enjoy presenting my work in both color and black and white, with my color photographs often having a softer, lighter, and more graceful feel while most of my black and white photographs showcase a lot of drama and darkness. My photos also fall fully across the continuum from very literal presentations of nature to abstractions in which deciphering the subject and scale is difficult. This approach means that my photographs are quite varied in terms of subject matter, point of view, and location. Some threads throughout my portfolio include simple and tidy compositions, a strong emphasis on patterns, an idealized perspective on the natural world, and general preference for soft light except for when I am presenting a scene in black and white.
A big collection of your portfolio is your intimate landscapes, which is also the subject of one of your eBooks. What is it about this type of scenes that attracts you and are there any differences in photographing these compared to the grand vistas?
I characterize this part of my photographic portfolio as small scenes, with small scenes encompassing intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and creative portraits of plants. I am attracted to these scenes for a few reasons. First, I find photographing only at sunrise and sunset to be really limiting. By expanding my interests to include small scenes, I can find opportunities for photography throughout the day. Like I discuss above, I also enjoy wandering around in nature. Through these wanderings, I find that I come across all sorts of interesting details that I want to remember through a photograph.
Some differences I see between photographing grand, expansive landscapes and smaller scenes include the following:
- Opportunities for photographing small scenes abound under almost any conditions, especially since you can create your own shade for the smallest of scenes. Light and weather are still important but not always as essential as with grand scenes.
- Developing observational skills is essential to developing a portfolio of small scenes. I have spent a lot of time on learning to see beyond the obvious, to distill scenes into smaller components that could work for a photograph, and learn to find harmony in chaotic scenes. Developing these skills has improved and significantly diversified my portfolio of small scenes.
- Paying attention to details is essential. While details are of course important for grand landscapes, something as small as an errant stick or tiny patch of bare ground can sometimes ruin a composition of a small scene. With fewer elements within a composition, each thing takes on greater importance. Thus, when I am photographing small scenes, I take a lot of time to study the details and work on refining my composition to make sure that all of the elements contribute to the final composition and that I have eliminated as many distractions as possible.
- Processing photos of smaller scenes is often easier. With scenes that include dynamic lighting, photo processing can sometimes be tricky and time-consuming, especially in balancing the exposure, getting contrast right, and adjusting colors. With small scenes, all of these same tasks need to be completed but the challenges are often less daunting. In teaching photography, I sometimes encourage participants who are struggling with learning to process photos to start with smaller scenes. This can allow a photographer to develop their skills and achieve some successes, thus gaining more confidence in processing more complicated scenes.
Black & White is also a niche you excel in. Can you take us through your process of visualizing and processing a Black & White image?
Since a departure from reality is an inherent quality of working in black and white, black and white photography feels less constraining than working in color. For example, I am drawn to dramatic scenes but often find myself struggling when trying to present such scenes in color. Instead, black and white feels like an unrestrained medium where I can feel confident in taking many artistic liberties, like dramatically increasing contrast or present a scene very darkly.
With regard to my black and white photography, I am happy that I am photographing in the digital age. I conceive of only about a fourth of my black and white photographs while in the field. The rest I decide to try out in black and white once I am browsing through my Lightroom catalog. Thus, if I were photographing in film, I would miss out on taking the vast majority of photographs that are now in my black and white portfolio.
When thinking about presenting a photo in black and white, my general approach starts with letting go of the reality of a scene. Just because a scene looks flat in person or in a RAW file does not mean that it will not make an interesting photograph with some creative processing. In visualizing black and white photos, I usually look for three things: some natural contrast in the scene (strong shadows/bright highlights or dark mountains/brighter sky), the ability to portray a strong mood (often darkness and drama for me), and strong compositional elements, like dominant shapes, dramatic lines, or repetition. Once I have a scene picked out, I make some simple adjustments in Lightroom to test out my concept. If the concept seems to work, my typical approach to fully processing a file includes simple tools in Photoshop: levels, curves, an occasional luminosity mask, and dodging/burning applied in small increments over many layers to build up contrast and emphasize/deemphasize specific parts of the scene.
You’ve been quite engaged in discussions about nature conservation and photography. How do you think landscape photography impacts nature, both positively and negatively?
On the positive side, nature photography has played an essential role in conserving and protecting many special places. On an individual level, I agree with the argument made by some conservationists that exposing people to wild places helps create a broader constituency for protecting public lands, wild places, and wildlife. Nature photography helps increase knowledge of and appreciation for wild places and thus possibly helps support conservation-related public policies. Conversely, visitation to public lands and natural wonders has dramatically increased, placing significant pressure on a lot of places. Nature photographers are responsible for some of this increased visitation by motivating people to want to see a place we share in a photo in person.
It seems like more photographers are exploiting nature for little more than likes on social media. When I took up nature photography years ago, most of the photographers I met came to photography because they started with a deep love of nature first. This love of nature that drives a commitment to outdoor stewardship as a first principle seems to be fading.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, some photographers are actively damaging the places they visit for the sole purpose of getting attention on social media (things like tagging natural features with Instagram handles, erecting tents in completely inappropriate places like lakeshores or wetlands, or creating videos of stunts that cause damage). When the resulting photos or videos get a lot of attention, it only encourages more of this kind of problematic behavior. While some of these people do not know better, too many just do not care about their impact, which is the reason I used the word “exploitation” above.
I think nature photographers can use their platforms to have a beneficial impact on these issues by encouraging positive practices and outdoor stewardship. With regard to myself, I try to minimize the negative impact of my photography through the following practices: never damage a place for a photograph, follow rules, use discretion in sharing location information, actively educate others about outdoor stewardship, follow Leave No Trace principles, and leave places better than I found them.
What advice would you give someone who’s just getting started with landscape photography?
- Cultivating curiosity will make you a better photographer. Learning more about the ecosystems you photograph can help create photographic opportunities. Exploring over the next hill might get you to a unique viewpoint. Improving your observational skills will help in identifying interesting subjects. Strive to notice details that other people will likely walk right by.
- Minimize your expectations about the places you visit and the photos you hope to take. Instead, try to visit places with an open mind. Work with what a landscape is offering during your visit. For example, instead of being disappointed by clear skies at sunrise, get out your telephoto lens and try out some smaller scenes. You might find that you like the unexpected photograph more than the photo you hoped to take.
- Spend as much time on exploring creativity and personal expression as you do on learning the technical side of photography. I think that most introductory landscape photography education focuses too much on building technical skills and teaching rigid guidelines. Focusing too much on the technical side of photography can take the fun out of the experience, discourage experimentation, and place too much emphasis on following “rules” that only lead to creating formulaic photographs.
What’s one piece of equipment that you always have in your backpack?
My iPhone. While I use the camera on my phone to document our travels (and take hundreds of cat photos), it is also home to my favorite and most used app – Gaia GPS. I use Gaia for all sorts of things related to photography, including planning hikes, recording tracks, marking waypoints, and saving photographs with GPS coordinates and notes for future use. Gaia has become a travel journal and invaluable information repository for us since we started using it a few years ago.
What inspires you to do what you do?
Being in nature is what inspires me to pursue nature photography. I find natural and wild places to be endlessly fascinating and am at my happiest when I am outside. Nature photography has encouraged me to want to know more about the natural world and I feel like it has helped me become a more curious, observant person. While I find the accomplishments of other photographers to be inspiring in terms of how to live a fulfilling life, other people’s photographs are not a significant source of inspiration for my own work. I enjoy looking at other people’s photographs more for the story they are telling about themselves and their travels.
When I was just getting started in photography, I went to hear Colorado-based black and white photographer Cole Thompson speak about his work. During his talk, he discussed his practice of photographic celibacy, which he describes in this way: “As I analyzed how I was working, I came to the conclusion that when I studied another photographer’s work, I was imprinting their style onto my conscious and subconscious mind. And then when I photographed a scene, I found myself imitating their style rather than seeing it through my own vision. To overcome this tendency I decided to stop looking at the work of other photographers, as much as was practically possible.” When I initially heard Cole speak about this practice, I felt like looking at other people’s photographs was clouding my ability to seek out my own path so I significantly curtailed my time spent looking at nature photography. This practice was really helpful in developing confidence in and affection for my own photography. While I don’t completely avoid looking at other people’s photographs, I do find that I am happier with my own work when I spend less time focused on other people’s work.
What are your future photography goals?
I try to be open to opportunities and new directions, so I only I have a few loose goals for my photography. I would like to eventually publish a physical book, either on an educational topic or a portfolio book. Ron and I are planning to devote more time to developing our printmaking skills. I have some ideas for additional ebooks, one of which I have started shaping and hope to start writing sometime next year.
My most significant goal is much more nebulous. I said yes to a lot of things over the last two years that I should have passed up. I used up all my creative energy and time on other people’s projects. Thus, I want to continue pursuing photography as both a creative pursuit and as a business more on my terms. Finally, I have years of photos that I need to process. That project feels almost insurmountable but I am chipping away at my backlog, folder by folder.
Editors note: Thanks again, Sarah, for taking the time to share your views of photography with us. Make sure to visit here Instagram, Facebook and Flickr for more images. You can find her portfolio and lots of great content over at her website.