Sarah is a Hawaii/San Diego based commercial photographer, best known for working in and around the ocean and her instantly recognizable style. Sarah’s work has been featured by National Geographic, Instagram, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Pelican, H&M and many other international brands.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Sarah and her work. Her work is absolutely breathtaking and I love that she’s been able to build a successful career around such a niche subject that she clearly has a profound passion for. I find her approach to photography and the industry very inspiring – I hope you do too!
Q&A With Water Lifestyle Photographer Sarah Lee
1. What is your specialty? What do you love to photograph?
What I do is 90 percent focused around the water and ocean. I grew up around it — and in it — and it’s very important to me. I would describe what I do as water and lifestyle photography. It’s people interacting with nature, in water. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than someone being fully in their element in the ocean.
2. How long has it been since you first started taking photography seriously – what has that progression been like?
I started taking pictures in high school, and I never expected to be doing it as my “career” 13 years later. I grew up surfing for fun and swimming competitively. Someone handed me a camera during a swim meet one day, so I started taking pictures. When I started shooting, I really enjoyed the way it allowed me to interact with people and capture what was happening. I quickly was hired to photograph high school senior portraits, couples, and weddings throughout high school and college and figured everything out as I went. I started taking underwater photos when I was able to buy a one size fits all “bag” water housing and was hooked.
I took photography more seriously in 2012. The enquiries for portrait sessions and weddings kept coming in, and some work with brands started trickling in as well. I was working toward my Undergrad in Documentary Film Production at the time and when I only had a semester left I got an opportunity to travel around the world with Alison Teal to shoot photo and video of her adventure series. Between our trips and projects together, I focused my energy on commercial and brand photography. I went back to finish my degree and do water-based cinematography work every now and then but really love photography.
3. Are there any particular images you’ve captured that stand out as being especially meaningful or satisfying for you?
One Monday morning, while most people were probably heading to work, a few lucky locals scored an unbelievable abundance of picture-perfect barrels, somewhere in Australia. This is one of my favorite water shots because the entire morning was too good to be true alongside surfer Johnny Abegg and photographer Alex Frings and I’ll never forget it. This photo was taken with Canon 7D, Canon 50mm f/1.4, Kobetich Water Housing. May 2012.
World traveler, talented long boarder, and board bag maker, Anna Ehrgott, duck diving through a wave off the Kona Coast during golden hour. Winter waves were a little big and scary for a mid length board over razor sharp reef at this particular spot, but she fared pretty well. This photo taken with a Canon 5Ds + 15mm + Kobetich Water Housing. January 2016.
Talented songwriter/singer, Kimie Miner, swimming above a coral reef on the Big Island of Hawaii. Unfortunately, less than one month later, this section of reef was bleached from extremely warm water during the last El Nino season in 2015. The Big Island always holds a special place in my heart since I grew up and spent a lot of time in the water. This photo, in particular, reminds me of how much of a privilege it is to have grown up there enjoying the ocean and reef and to capture a place like this in all its glory before it dramatically faded away. This photo was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III + Canon 15mm + Kobetich water housing.
4. What challenges do you face capturing the shots you want to capture?
When shooting, I just wear swim fins and drag around my 10lbs of camera equipment. Shooting underwater really forces you to be in the moment. My only real worry in the water is the current. You don’t want to swim against the current for two hours, so you just have to time it right. When I’m in big surf, I just take a deep breath of air, sink underwater and enjoy the ride beneath the turbulent clouds. I find it both exhilarating and peaceful.
5. What motivates you to put in the effort to overcome those challenges?
To me it’s just a game that involves treasure hunting; there’s so much to discover and uncover in and underwater. The play of light with the human interaction with the water and how it all combines is just always fascinating and I feel that there’s endless possibilities with how I can capture it.
6. What gear do you use? Why?
I go between a full frame Canon 5Ds and a Canon 5D mkIV, depending on what I’m shooting. I’ve been using a 8-15mm fisheye for underwater, 16-35mm or 24-105mm when I’m mixing top-side and underwater, 50mm for topside sunset shots, and 70-200mm f/4 for in-water surf action. I go between an Aquatech surf housing and an Outex water cover. Other than camera gear, I rely on Dafin body surfing fins to get around in the water, heaps of reef-friendly sunscreen like MANDA sun paste, a low volume free dive mask, and occasionally a weight belt in non-surf situations to sink down to desired depths.
7. Is there a market for your work? How do you make money?
I feel like I could be working 24/7 because the possibilities with the type of photography that I do are endless. I do commercial photography, non-commercial photography, underwater/surf cinematography, fine art print sales, and rights-managed photo licensing. It can be overwhelming at times because I kinda like doing it all!
8. How do you promote yourself and your work?
9. What are your goals for your photography career in the next year, 5 years, long term?
I personally want to keep shooting anything in and under the water! To be able to travel and share experiences with other highly passionate and talented water people, whether it’s surfing or free diving or something else keeps me really busy, inspired, and excited. I’m very “in the moment” so for the time being, I thoroughly enjoying just traveling and creating art and collaborating with these people who are intimately connected with the water.
10. Do you have any tips or advice for photographers who love your work and would like to photograph something similar?
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