I am Sarah Marino. You can see my photography here:
(I am reorganizing my galleries so they are a little out of order right now…). NPN played a huge role in my development as a photographer so it feels like coming full circle to be here answering questions today. Ten years ago, I would never have imagined I would be doing this full-time!
I live in a little tiny town in southwestern Colorado with my husband and fellow nature photographer Ron Coscorrosa. Since we both have flexible jobs, we travel a lot for our photography, mostly in our Airstream RV trailer. (We spent about a year and a half living out of the Airstream full-time, so I am happy to answer any questions about what full-time #rvlife is actually like.) With my nature photography, I enjoy everything from grand landscapes to tiny macro subjects, but mostly focus on nature’s smaller scenes (intimate landscapes, abstracts, etc).
Before I transitioned in 2020 to a full-time career focused on photography, photo education, and writing, I worked in various leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, including most recently as a management consultant and executive coach. Although this work all took place in “nonprofit” organizations, I learned a lot of skills that have helped me run a viable photography business. On the photography side, I have a lot of experience in teaching, speaking, selling products like ebooks and video tutorials, and getting my work (writing and photography) published. So, if you have a business-oriented question, I am happy to answer it, too.
I’ll be answering your questions for 24 hours starting at 9:00 am Eastern Time, June 2. Here are a few rules:
Please only ask one question by replying to this topic a single time, using the yellow Reply button at the bottom. It’s also helpful to scroll to the bottom while reading the topic to make sure nobody else has asked the same question first, before you ask.
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@Bill_Pelzmann shared this question yesterday, so I’ll start with it. “Sarah, I heard you will be backing away from leading workshops to spending more time on books and writing. If so, will you still have a reduced workshop schedule, or will you discontinue all workshops?”
At this point, I have discontinued teaching small group workshops. While I like teaching, planning and running small group workshops has been a pretty stressful experience for me. I do not want to do them by myself, mostly because I am naturally introverted and have a hard time keeping my energy high for the duration of a workshop all by myself. I could (and have in the past) teach workshops with my husband Ron but he has a full-time job and we would prefer to keep his vacation time open for other things. I have partnered with a few friends on workshops that went really well but then COVID tossed a wrench into those situations. And, to be successful in attracting participants, I needed a full slate of on-going offerings and I couldn’t figure out a way to make that happen. After a lot of attempts, workshops just were not working out for me so I decided to move on and try some different things.
Right now, I have found a good balance in teaching at some of Out of Chicago’s photography conferences. The events are a lot of fun because they include great groups of instructors along with very friendly, enthusiastic attendees. They are also lower pressure since I am not solely responsible for the event going well. I do want to spend more time on writing and I have two big projects in the beginning stages. I want to fully revise our “Beyond the Grand Landscape” ebook and possibly publish it as a printed book (depending on how publishing costs settle out over the next year). Ron and I would also like to publish a top-quality hardcover portfolio of our work from Death Valley National Park. So, I am trying to keep my schedule a bit more open so I can bring those two projects to life over the next few years.
Thank you for doing this Sarah! I read an interesting conversation on Twitter recently where you said that you don’t view your photography as art which surprised me. I respectfully disagree with that assessment , but I would like to hear more about why you have this belief?
For some context, I added a screenshot of my Twitter response below (the thread is interesting to read through for the diverse range of perspectives). Most importantly, I do not think my photography has to be “art” to be valuable or meaningful (and I do not think it would be any MORE valuable if I considered it art). And, I think photography can be art but I do not think of my own photography as art.
I have tried a lot of creative and artistic pursuits (pottery, watercolors, drawing, acrylic painting, knitting, jewelry making, metal work, printmaking, etc). When I compare my nature photography to something like watercolor painting or printmaking, some important differences come through. With watercolors, for example, the result derives much more from ideas mostly conceived in my mind. For photography, I am working with elements of nature that exist as fully independent from me. My photography represents my connections with and interpretations of these elements of nature. Some of these connections and interpretations feel unique to me but many do not. With painting, the result feels much more like an expression of me, compared to photography being all about interpretations of the things around me. These differences are what separate a pursuit like painting from my style of photography.
Photography is definitively a creative experience for me but I do not see the result as art. And, these distinctions, especially since they are so nebulous, do not personally matter to me as photography fills me with joy, frustration, motivation, and all sorts of other emotions that make it feel like an entirely worthwhile pursuit, regardless of how I think about the categorization of the result.
A tough question, David! I reserve the right to modify my answer before this thread closes.
When I was talking with Ron (my husband) about doing this AMA, I asked him what question he would want to ask me and he said, “Which of (NPN owners) David and Jennifer’s cats do you like best?” Seems like your question is offered in the same spirit of divisiveness as Ron’s question. I’ll offer you compliments for embracing the Pandemic Style of long hair and wearing it well. I will compliment John for the distinctive flair of his bangs. Beyond that, I will not wade into this battle between the two of you…!
Looking back on how your photography has evolved from when you first started until now, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? In other words - what advice would have been most helpful early on in your nature photography career?
Hey Sarah, thank you so much for doing this! I have a lot of questions but the two that are most important for me at this time are somewhat related and I’d love to hear your input. 1. I few like I’ve crossed the initial “easy” learning phase of photography. The technical aspects are there and I feel pretty confident with my camera. I make some processing errors from time to time and my eye is still developing there a but. My question is, once someone has mastered the “easy stuff” what’s the next best step in your opinion. I’m prepared for the growth to slow down but I’m not exactly sure which direction to go next.
I often hear photographers assigning emotional qualities to their work. I have a really hard time with this…do you have any suggestions on developing that emotional awareness in my work?
Really interested in your evolution towards the more intimate scenes, plant macros, abstracts, etc…
I think most of us understand the importance of great light when it comes to grand landscapes, how does that compare to your plant images and similar intimate scenes. Do you only have a few minutes to work with as is sometimes the case with a grand landscape at sunrise/sunset, all of golden hour or is it entirely different more overcast times of the day when you find is best for these subjects?
Do you have a go to focal length for your plant images?
Does editing of the color of these type of images often use color filters and similar color grading changes or do you typically just edit the HSL type values to get the palette you desire and work with what is naturally in the raw?
In the ten years you have been pursuing photography, you have found immense success in the field (or so it at least appears, from the outside looking in). Between your working with Out of Chicago to judging the NLPA inaugural debut to recently striking a multi-article deal with Elements Photo Mag, it is incredibly impressive the accomplishments you have garnered. My question regards what advice you may have for making such accomplishments happen. Of course, many are likely to come on their own, but what steps have you taken that, in hindsight, helped these opportunities come to life?
As sole business owners, we photographers get pulled in many different and often competing directions for our precious time, energy, and resources. Some are more productive and fruitful than others for moving us in the right direction.
Could you please describe a decision that proved to be one of your best and why?
Thanks for the question, Ron! I wish I had started following (and believing in the validity of) my own interests sooner. When I look at my earliest work, I see glimmers of the ideas I pursue today (small scenes, abstractions, patterns, etc). I was taking these photos at the earliest stages of playing around with a camera, and before I ever started deliberately looking at other people’s photos of nature. Then, I started participating in online communities, looking at photography all the time, and observing interactions online (like seeing what types of photos attracted the most attention). I didn’t have enough self-confidence to continue pursuing the subjects that interested me at the time and I turned more toward seeking external validation. I started focusing almost exclusively on photographing grand landscapes under impressive, colorful clouds.
After spending more time thinking about my motivations and goals, I realized that I enjoy that type of photography here and there but it isn’t what I find most fulfilling. While this phase was important to get where I am today, I wish I would have known earlier how unfulfilling it is to constantly chase praise from others. If a photographer’s primary goal is commercial success, external feedback and being in line with market trends makes sense. For personal expression though, that all that feels like a dead-end. I wish I had seen the value in personal satisfaction being enough earlier on in my photographic pursuits.
Hi David! Thank you for the question. It is great that you are thinking about the next phase of development for your photography. At least in my experience, this period was both extremely challenging and simultaneously rewarding, at least in retrospect. When I decided that I wanted to create more personally meaningful work, I spent a lot of time on introspection and answering hard questions. Some examples: Why am I doing this? What are my motivations for spending nearly all my free time on nature photography? Do I have any goals for my photography? In terms of the photographic experience, what is most rewarding? When do I feel most excited? Most challenged? Most engaged? Most frustrated? Most unfulfilled? When I look at my photos, which ones do I love the most? Do I see any themes I want to explore more completely? Should I start focusing more, like on specific places or subjects? I used questions like these to help guide how I was spending my time.
I’ll also offer the piece of advice that was both most helpful to me and elicits the most almost-condemnation from some other photographers in response. I heard Cole Thompson speak when I was first getting started in photography and his message didn’t resonate at the time because I think I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. But, as I started seeking more through my photographic work, his photographic celibacy practice became essential for me. I spent at least a year deliberately avoiding engagement with social media and other people’s photos. This allowed me the mental space to hear my own voice more clearly. While a lot of photographers do not seem to need this kind of space, I found it to be so important in learning more about myself, my motivations, and my interests with little outside noise. While Cole practices photo celibacy more consistently, I found that I only needed it for a period of time.
With regard to your other question about developing emotional awareness, I think it is something that comes with the type of introspection I discussed above. For example, one of the themes I see in my own work is consistently seeking out patterns, organization, and simplicity. This comes, I think, from having a mind that never stops. So, an emotion that comes through in my work is seeking peace and order. If you think about your motivations for photographing nature and the related emotions, you might start seeing some of those themes in your work. Choose a set of ten of your favorite photos. What emotions come through in terms of subjects, composition, technical decisions, presentation, and colors? The act of putting some of these things into words can be very clarifying, or at least it has been for me.
Hi Matt – Thanks so much for the kind comment about my work. I appreciate it. I often talk about taking the “expansive approach” in my photography, which means I can find things to photograph in any natural landscape at any time during the day—and not feel like I am compromising or making the best of “bad” light. For plants, intimate landscapes, and other smaller scenes, I generally have a preference for bright overcast light and what I think of as “edges of light” (like the last bit of light on a subject or a bit of light accenting an important part of a scene) but I am happy to work with all other kinds of light, too.
Direct bright light during the middle of the day can bring translucent subjects or fuzzy subjects to life (I was just in the Smoky Mountains and bright midday light was so fantastic for photographing fresh green leaves because they absolutely glowed). Direct light can also create interesting contrasts between shadows and light, which I love for my black and white photography. This is one of the main benefits of enjoying all kinds of nature photography. On the few days of the year where I see incredible light, I will focus on grand landscapes. During the rest of the time I am outside, I will look for smaller scenes that can work in all different kinds of light (or I will use a coat or my backpack to create a bit of shade over an interesting plant). I have spent the last few years learning to work with ALL kinds of natural light during the day and I find that this versatility has greatly increased my satisfaction with my work and my experience.
For plant photos, I use all focal lengths, from 14mm to 500mm+. If I could only select one lens for plant photography, it would be my 100mm macro but my 100-500mm telephoto is also a fantastic tool for plant photography. And also my 24-105mm lens… I use them all!
For my editing with my plant photos, my process is very simple with regard to color. I have a strong preference for cooler colors so I almost always shift the color balance to blue, at least a bit. I also occasionally use the selective color tool in Photoshop, desaturate colors that are not harmonious to the rest of a scene, or lightly clone soft colors over areas that are distracting. I would need a ten-minute video to teach my approach since it s really simple.
Hi Cody – It is interesting that you see me as being immensely successful since I feel like I struggle with this career every day. I was very good at my previous career. I feel like I am middling at best with this one…
For the three things you mention in your question, I’ll be honest and say that being a woman is probably what opened the door. I think my photography, writing, and teaching is as good as what is being offered up by male peers but I stand out because of my gender. Although I do not know for sure for all of those examples, I know of quite a few times when I have been asked to be involved in something because the organizers are trying to present a more diverse range of perspectives and experiences.
Beyond that, I’ll credit my “success” to a few things. First, I feel comfortable expressing a point of view. There are definitely pros and cons to this approach since I have also attracted some unfortunate nastiness and know some peers just don’t like me and my opinions. Generally, though, I think having a distinct point of view has helped attract people who are interested in amplifying my work in some way (having me teach at conferences, write in their publications, talk about myself in threads like this, etc).
I have also put a lot of effort into creating high-quality offerings. If you pay $20 for one of my ebooks, you are going to get that much value and more. Coming from a very different kind of field, I am sometimes shocked at what qualifies as “professionalism” in this field so just doing things at a high level of quality and meeting deadlines will make someone stand out. I also try to be somewhat original in my thinking. When I put together a presentation or article, it is a reflection of the things that are genuinely most important to my photographic practice, not just a rehash of someone else’s ideas (and when I use other people’s ideas, I always try to give credit—another thing that is lacking in this field). And finally, persistence. I wrote a lot of really boring, bad articles and delivered some embarrassingly bad presentations early on. Those failures helped me get better by learning, adapting, and trying again.
And I guess I will add one more practical thing… The diminishing importance of gatekeepers has created tremendous opportunity to create your own destiny (and ruin democracy, but that is a separate discussion). I recently told an elderly neighbor how many people are on our mailing list and he was really surprised because his experience in reaching an audience with his speaking has always been through intermediaries. It is a joy to not have to care about pleasing those gatekeepers all the time! I have been able to create a viable business by directly reaching people who are interested in my work through inexpensive technology. So, building that mailing list has been essential, too.
First, I am really excited for this AMA! As you know, I personally think you are one of the most talented and influential nature photographers on earth, even though I know you’ll find a way to disagree with my assessment!
My question is multi-faceted and I hope not to offend anyone by posting it…
We have known each other a very long time and I consider you one of my best photo friends, so I think you can handle it!
I see you as a champion for women in nature photography, something we have discussed numerous times on my podcast and offline. I have also first-hand seen how your comments about certain controversial topics (NFTs, etc) are taken completely out of context and that people have made negative comments about you and your opinions, to a degree far exceeding what people say about my own personal opinions and comments about those subjects, which also happen to be strong. Meaning, your comments are seen far more negatively than mine, even though they are presented in the same fashion.
So - my question is this - what role do you feel gender plays in how photographers are perceived in online communication and in how their photography is received by the public? We recently saw a female photographer in Australia receive multiple comments and private messages implying that the only reason she won an award in a competition was because she was a woman and because she “slept with the judges” which is completely unacceptable in my view. I would be curious if you could find a way to explain your views and experiences in a way that doesn’t seem defensive but rather illuminates some of the ways you are treated differently as a woman in this space as compared to your husband (you have a uniquely qualified view about this because of that). I hope my question makes sense.