Landscape Photographer Sarah Niell on How It’s a Release

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My name is Sarah Niell. Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend! As a long-time fan of The Phoblographer (amazing name, by the way), I’m super excited for the opportunity to submit my work! My passion is landscape + adventure photography. I so enjoy getting out there to a location that is maybe cold, hot, high, rainy, snowy, or remote, and getting a gorgeous shot out of it. I also really like doing product shoots, and the chance to highlight and show off an item – in this case, vintage cameras. In terms of gear, I’m a minimalist and I keep a simple kit. I think it’s about vision and talent, more than gear alone. I try to capture a moment rather than a place… an empty street that feels like a morning full of promise or an imposing mountain that makes your chest swell up a little. 

Why did you get into photography?

I got into photography through my father. He was a photographer for the Marines during Vietnam and shared his love of the art with me as a child. In fact, one of the attached shots is of a Minolta – that was actually his camera in the field. I would sit for hours picking through his huge collection of National Geographic magazines, gathering inspiration.

Which photographers are your biggest influences? How did they affect who you are and how you create?

Ansel Adams’ work has always spoken to me. Those dramatic landscapes and beautiful grading are always inspirational. I have also studied the work of Margaret Bourke-White, the first foreign photographer to be permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry under Soviet rule. I’ve looked up to Margaret because she was also the first female photographer for LIFE magazine. She’s always inspired me to take on what others don’t (there aren’t a ton of female adventure/landscape photographers out there!)

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started?

I’ve been shooting since childhood, but more intently for the last 10 years ago. My shooting and editing styles have evolved a bit, but I’m still a purist. I only use Photoshop for things like long-exposure compilations (I love astrophotography!), and the occasional touchup. 

Tell us about your photographic identity. 

As a photographer, I am always looking for awe. I see things in terms of how awe-inspiring they are. There is a Stoic concept called “sympatheia”, which speaks to the interconnectedness of everything: people, the world, the universe. I love to capture that feeling in my images; that sense of pure awe at how small we are and how big the cosmos are, and I love knowing that this particular photograph might inspire or affect someone else.

While this passion is reflected clearly in my landscapes, I also do a lot of light and airy portraits and product photography. I try to make my product images a bit ethereal in order to draw people in and make them want to search for every detail.

Tell us about the gear you’re using. 

I take a minimalist approach to my setup with an entry-level pro camera: Nikon D5200. This helps me stay creative and keeps things simple. I have a kit lens (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR NIKKOR Zoom) and a single zoom lens (55-200mm VR DX AF-S Lens). I bought the kit as a gift to myself when I finished grad school and thereby had more time to dedicate to this passion! For products, I often use fast prime lenses, namely a Yongnuo YN EF 50mm f/1.8 and a Yongnuo EF 35mm F2N 1:2. 

Natural light or artificial light? Why?

Natural, as often as possible. For one, I do a lot of outdoor shooting so lights are not needed, and it helps me to keep my gear light and simple. Even with my product photography, I set up near a window for natural light.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

It’s a release. I had a moment of realization a few years ago about exactly this: I thought to myself, “this is just a picture of the ocean from atop a mountain. Anyone could take this picture.” And then the realization came: “but not anyone does. I did the research to find the perfect timing, lighting, and setup; I made the effort and I am here capturing this singular moment for them to enjoy without the process or gear.” I love providing that service to other dreamers. Although I have to say that sometimes the thought that another person would want to own an image that represents just a millisecond of my life – not even their own life! – blows my mind.

Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this?

Documenter. Because I don’t use Photoshop, my pictures are nearly straight-out-of-camera. I make light tweaks and adjustments, but I want the image produced to truly speak to the moment it was taken.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? 

Mentally: It’s about finding that sense of sympatheia I mentioned. It’s about finding the exact shot, moment, and vibe that I want to capture. It’s all about mindset. Sympatheia.

Mechanically: I do a lot of handheld shooting and very little with a tripod. I use a tripod for product shots, close-ups, and portraits of course, but my landscapes are just a matter of “find a gorgeous shot, take a deep breath, enjoy the scene, and capture.”

Please walk us through your processing techniques. 

I start by importing my images from my memory card to Lightroom Classic, including copying them to my hard drive. Then I run Dropbox in the background to back them up while I start culling the images. I reject anything that’s under- or over-exposed or unfocused right off the bat so I can see what images I’ve really got from the shoot. I don’t use any presets other than my own. (I have one for “bright beach day”, for example). Sometimes using these presets, I make some global adjustments to highlights/shadows, contrast, white balance, etc. If needed, I’ll tweak the HSL settings and make small local adjustments, all in Lightroom Classic. I mostly prefer to let the image speak for itself.

What made you want to get into your genre?

The love of this gorgeous world, mostly. I needed to capture everything around me for those who didn’t get to see it out of their windows.

What motivates you to shoot?

Adventure! I love going out for a hike or road trip to capture remote locations. I love astrophotography, and there’s nothing quite like driving to the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, to take pictures of the sky.

Be sure to check out Sarah’s website, her Instagram. Here’s a message from Sarah: I’ve written about my astrophotography adventures here and here, and also recently wrote about sympatheia and simplification.

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