Born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, Sarah Lee grew up as a long-distance competitive swimmer, water polo player and an avid surfer. She bought her first camera at age 15, and quickly became as attached to her viewfinder as she was to the sea. Photographic artistry also came naturally, and she was quickly hired to capture people’s most precious moments. While Sarah snapped her first few photos on land, as soon as she went beneath the surface of the ocean, her talent for photography and ease at working in some of the most difficult environments catapulted the demand for her work.
In the last decade, Sarah’s photos have appeared on the home page National Geographic, Instagram, CNN, and in magazines from Cosmopolitan to the covers of The Surfer’s Journal and Standup Journal. She’s also appeared in magazines like Marie Claire who featured a behind-the-scenes look into her fashion shoot for an Italian designer. Her images have a distinct style that’s also recognized on social media where she has tens of thousands of followers.
Brett Stanley: [00:00:00] This week on the podcast, we’re heading out past the breakers and chatting with surf and lifestyle photographer. Sara Lee. Sarah spends her time between her Homeland of Hawaii, the mainland or Southern California and surf trips that take her worldwide. She’s shot images for commercial brands and magazines being featured on the discovery channel and photograph pro surfer, Lakey Peterson for ESPN, the body issue.
We chat about growing up in Hawaii, learning the sharp dangers of surf photography and how much influence social media has on our views of photography. All right. Let’s dive on in.
Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah Lee: [00:00:40] Hey, Brett, how are you?
Brett Stanley: [00:00:42] I’m good, man. I’m good. I’m kind of holed up in California, waiting out this whole virus situation. Where are you? Are you somewhere fun?
Sarah Lee: [00:00:49] yeah, I mean, why back home? I’m definitely happier to be here than California, which would have been my alternative.
Brett Stanley: [00:00:58] Right. do you split your time between California and Hawaii?
Sarah Lee: [00:01:03] Yeah. Yeah. I split my time kind of, well, last year was an equal third split between Hawaii, California, and then elsewhere.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:11] Oh, nice.
Sarah Lee: [00:01:12] yeah. I mean, my plan was to be back in California now, but with everything that’s happened, I kind of came back to my family and to hide out on their coffee farm.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:22] Oh, that’s, that’s not a bad place to be.
Sarah Lee: [00:01:23] Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:24] where were you when the quarantine stuff hit? Were you already in Hawaii or did you make your way to Hawaii when you sort of realized that things were going to get locked down?
Sarah Lee: [00:01:32] Oh man, I, I was in Indonesia. I’m on it. What was supposed to be a three week surf trip where I was shooting, um, a retreat, and then I was supposed to shoot some professional surfers. And, um, yeah, six days into that 21 day trip, um, more stuff started to go into lockdown. So we all kind of made the decision to.
Leave Indo before things shut down cause we were in a more remote part of Indonesia. Um, so it was like a ferry ride and like two overnight stays to get to Jakarta and then Singapore. So yeah, we just wanted to get out of there before more stuff shut down. So.
Brett Stanley: [00:02:17] Do you think there would have been a potential to be stuck where you were if you didn’t get out.
Sarah Lee: [00:02:22] Yeah. Um, I mean, having gotten back, we probably would have had about two weeks to get out, but I’m just grateful I got out when I did and that all the flights worked out. Cause we even had a, my first leg was to Malaysia, but the day before they had shut. Down the airports there to kale. So, um, yeah, we had to like scramble the morning.
We were supposed to leave on the ferry to go back and route through Jakarta instead.
Brett Stanley: [00:02:52] Wow. So you just had to Hightail it.
Sarah Lee: [00:02:55] Yep.
Brett Stanley: [00:02:55] That’s amazing. And then so you just went straight back to to Hawaii,
Sarah Lee: [00:02:59] Yeah, yeah. I figured I didn’t want to deal with. Going through California at all. I just want her to get straight back here and then kind of do like a two week self isolation just to be safe. So it all worked out so far.
Brett Stanley: [00:03:15] So far. Well, we’ll see how this whole thing pans out, I guess. And which Island are you on in Hawaii?
Sarah Lee: [00:03:21] Uh, I’m on the big Island on the West side, and Kona.
Brett Stanley: [00:03:25] Oh yeah. I think there’s worse places to be, right?
Sarah Lee: [00:03:28] Yeah, it’s not bad. We’re really lucky to be able to have access to the water for swimming and surfing and other activities
Brett Stanley: [00:03:35] Yeah. Just to keep you entertained, at least
Sarah Lee: [00:03:38] Oh yeah. A million percent.
Brett Stanley: [00:03:40] did you, did you grow up in Hawaii?
Sarah Lee: [00:03:44] Yeah, I was born and raised on the big Island of Hawaii with my family. Um, so yeah, I’ve kind of just been basing out of here since,
Brett Stanley: [00:03:54] Right?
Sarah Lee: [00:03:55] just because I mean underwater, the access to like water and coastline and the quality of the water here is just, it’s hard to be.
Brett Stanley: [00:04:04] Oh, for sure. and is that. Where your love of the water and underwater photography came from. Did you grow up, you know, being obsessed with the water Lake most of us? Or was that somebody you came into later in life.
Sarah Lee: [00:04:16] I would say as obsessed with the water from an early age, my dad really enjoyed being in the water and free diving and. Body boarding and stuff like that. So any chance we had or the weekends on your kids? We are down on the beach and then what? I wasn’t on the beach in a swimming pool since I was five.
Brett Stanley: [00:04:40] Okay, so that’s what in Australia, we would call a water baby. And that’s what I was like, someone who just kind of lived in the water. If they weren’t asleep or at school, they were pretty much in the water.
Sarah Lee: [00:04:51] Oh, that’s great. Yeah,
Brett Stanley: [00:04:53] how did you end up getting into the photography side of stuff? Was, was that something you’d done on the land and then brought to the water or did you start both at the same time?
Sarah Lee: [00:05:01] I started photography on land and it actually came from. Swim meets, like being basically bored to death at a swim meet. Um, in my freshman year of high school, and I borrowed a camera from someone. I was like, wow, this is really fun. And then before that I had kind of spent all my free time is like.
Preteen, kind of getting into video editing and learning about graphic design and web design.
Um, and just, I spent like every waking moment learning about that. Um, so to be able to produce or like create imagery that then I could play with on the computer or incorporate into websites or my like, silly designs for projects.
Um. Yeah. It kind of took me into photography. And then water photography came probably my sophomore year when I was 14 or 15, and I saved up for one of those Eva Marine bag housings. yeah, that opened up a whole new world and I had definitely some Epic models at AK, my, friends in the pool to experiment with.
Brett Stanley: [00:06:13] Right. And what sort of timeframe was this when, did you start to do the underwater stuff?
Sarah Lee: [00:06:17] I got into underwater photography in 2005
Brett Stanley: [00:06:21] ] so, and that was probably a good time to get into it cause digital was, was taking off and you know, you’re probably doing a lot, as you say, like online and building websites and stuff. were you learning stuff online? Was there much like resources online to learn much about underwater photography then.
Sarah Lee: [00:06:37] Honestly, I don’t think there were many resources online to learn about digital photography. Um, I mean, I remember buying photo books on how to do it, but I learned, I think more by trial and error and experimenting with friends.
And I remember when I first got a telephoto lens when I was first for shooting with a rebel XT, I saved up for, I was. Zooming in on my sister, jumping off a pier wall into the water and I was like, Oh my God, background’s out of focus. How this is Epic print of it and showed all my teachers, and it was so silly.
Brett Stanley: [00:07:13] No, I love that because when I started photography and you just get with the kid lenses or whatever, and they, you know, you don’t get much of a Bowker, you don’t get much of that depth of field, and it wasn’t until I bought a 50 millimeter 1.8 and then things started to go out of focus in the back that I started to feel like an actual photographer that things started to look like I’d seen in.
Magazines and other photos and stuff. So hearing that from someone else, it’s really nice.
Sarah Lee: [00:07:40] Yeah, no, I mean the, the 51.8 was like another game changer later down the line. But yeah, I think that that’s when stuff kind of finally clicked. I was like, like learning the settings is kind of just by doing and discovering. Out in the wild. But then I’d say online education kind of came more when the flicker day started. And, um, really getting involved in spending a lot of time in flicker in different groups and communities. It wasn’t so much about instruction or, Mmm. Copying other people, setting so much is just seeing what could be done, um, in and around the water and around my Island locally.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:18] And within flicker, were you like in the forums and the kind of the community stuff, were you chatting with other people and kind of sharing ideas, or was it just from seeing what other people had done. That you kind of got inspiration from.
Sarah Lee: [00:08:30] I’d say it was mostly from seeing what other people had done. I, um. Definitely wasn’t super or engaged in the forums as much as just kind of browsing, um, and then doing stuff on my own with friends, and then just putting it up there and getting feedback and seeing what feedback people had for other people.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:53] Yeah, and I think that’s an interesting way to learn. That’s more how I learn. I’m not someone who can sit down and be taught so much. I need to kind of like kind of learn it myself, kind of pull it apart and put it back together again. And I think there’s a lot of people out there, especially in the creative side, I think who learned that way, which is kind of by doing it and by just trial and error and working it out yourself.
Sarah Lee: [00:09:16] Yeah, yeah. For me, everything kind of has to be hands on.
Brett Stanley: [00:09:19] And so when you were shooting with your friends, what sort of stuff were you shooting in the, in the pools? Was it just them kind of being and swimming, or was there some sort of concept.
Sarah Lee: [00:09:28] Okay. Uh, initially it was just being in swimming. I mean, weird after practice I’d have my stuff loaded up and we’d hop in and I would just like snap a couple photos and get super stoked cause it was such a new experience and perspective. Um, and then I’d say later in high school we would go off and kind of photography gave me and my friend groups, like a reason to explore more, obviously.
Well before we were posting it all over MySpace and Facebook, but it was just kinda like this, like, yeah, just reason to get out and. Check things out and have fun. So then we kind of did these like silly, like fashion concepts and like would bring random things we found and like our garages to incorporate in our shoots, like caution tape and guitars and whatever.
Mmm. But yeah, I kind of diverted from that through uni and then onwards to more kind of real life stuff.
Brett Stanley: [00:10:30] Yeah. Cause cause your work, what I’ve seen over the last few years is very, it’s, it’s very kind of surf. It’s very lifestyle, but very water-based like swimming and surfing and free diving. Is that what you would say as well?
Sarah Lee: [00:10:44] Yeah, I’d say a hundred percent it’s more lifestyle based than concept work, and I think that’s just kind of what I’ve been more interested in is just with surf and stuff is it’s kind of like. It kind of just happens and you have to be there and put yourself in the business, best positioned to capture it and share.
There’s a little bit of orchestration that goes into choosing when and where and whatever, but yeah, kind of letting nature decide more so than me trying to execute like a deep vision or concept.
Brett Stanley: [00:11:22] Yeah. So being more reactive to the situation then trying to try to control it.
Sarah Lee: [00:11:26] yeah. And I personally like worked better working with someone else’s vision than my own. So I love collaborating with people who do have brain now, like a story to tell or cause. Or even just a product to shoot and working with their vision more so than me. Kind of coming up with some crazy idea.
I went to school for narrative film production and just again, being a kid and being like, Oh, like this is fun. Video productions, read whatever. I got into film school and I was like, wow. Like everyone wants to be a director and they have these like crazy ideas and like stories and all I want to do is like shoot people or photograph or do like Sydney and kind of make it look beautiful, more so than really like trying to tell a story or put my kind of opinion on something.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:21] And I think that’s a really interesting thing because a lot of people that I speak to are very concept driven and they have these stories that they want to tell. but it’s nice to hear someone who is, is more happy just. Telling someone else’s story or bringing someone else’s vision to life without necessarily having to stamp it with their own, if you know what I mean.
Sarah Lee: [00:12:41] Yeah, yeah, totally. I, yeah. Found really quickly. I work better in that situation.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:47] Right. And so how did you go from some, from shooting with your friends to then ending up being a more of a, uh, I guess more of a lifestyle documentary shooter with the surf stuff? Was there a transition period where you ended up out past the breakers or how did that happen?
Sarah Lee: [00:13:04] Um. Back in college, I connected with a group of Hawaii students, who were a little older than me, and they’d take me surfing and, um, really, really found that surf photography was.
So fun and exciting and challenging and I’m kind of became obsessed with it after that. I had shot a bit of surf in high school that didn’t know much about it, except that I could be in the water easily, no matter what the waves are doing. I went to school in orange County, so I’d go down to Trestles with them early in the morning and there’s just like a higher level of surfing down there.
So. That’s kind of what got me obsessed with shooting surf was just to be in the water and to document these people, like doing amazing things on waves.
Brett Stanley: [00:13:51] Yeah. did you ever want it to shoot that from, from the beach or was it, it was just always being in the water. Was, was the, uh, the catalyst for the whole thing.
Sarah Lee: [00:13:59] it was a hundred percent being in the water. I just to shoot anything from land is just not that exciting to me. I mean, I can do it. That’s what I do at swim meets, but I don’t always, like when I was sitting at swim meets as a kid, I’d always imagined like if I could just jump in the water and not be in the way to capture like athletes in motion, like actually racing, that would have been so cool.
So in a way it’s like surfing got me that. And it’s just for me, it’s like it was all about. Like with surf photography in the water. It’s just that physical challenge, like I could control a lot more shooting from land, but I just love that challenge of having to swim and deal with different waves and maybe not getting the shot or the focus, not lining up to only be more challenged to do it right on the next wave or the next set.
And then also kind of having that. Really well, at first, at first when I was shooting surf, it was of my friends, but also a bunch of random people. And I don’t do that so much anymore. Right now. I kind of just collaborate with different surfers. And then so in a way, like when you’re shooting, surf in the water, it’s their skill and your F like both of your efforts combined that make magic.
Brett Stanley: [00:15:18] Yeah,
Sarah Lee: [00:15:19] So that’s what I love too, is just that relationship with the surfer.
Brett Stanley: [00:15:23] I guess he kind of have to be in kind of some sort of simpatico with the surfer to know where they’re going to end up and where you need to be to get the shot right.
Sarah Lee: [00:15:33] Oh, a hundred percent. But it takes time, like there’s some people or some surfers who are really used to shooting and then others who aren’t. So I’d say there’s the people I shoot with a lot. It kind of. Turns to be more intuitive, like how we work together. Um, or if I’m super psyched on a shot, I’ll be like, Hey, look at this.
Or like, this is what I really liked that you did, or whatever. Or they’ll see me like sitting too far up the section and they’re like, well, actually, that inside section is where I get to do this and this if you want to shoot that. So yeah, it’s kind of like collaborating with them.
Brett Stanley: [00:16:09] And in terms of being in the right spot, is there, is there something that, I mean, they’re probably telling you where they’re going to end up, like you just mentioned, but is there something where. They’re changing the way they serve, to kind of, cater to what you need,
Sarah Lee: [00:16:23] Um, I’d say yes, they do. The really good surfers will probably change their approach to a wave to cater to what they think will be the shot based on where I am. Um, but it really depends cause it’s like different, like the way a wave breaks isn’t the same every time. Like that’s subtly different. so I don’t always go out with like a, a rarely go out with like, uh, what I want to achieve so much as just kind of being in the right place to interpret what’s going on and changing that as much as I can to get the most shooting opportunities.
Brett Stanley: [00:17:01] And so. When you’re out there, is there much discussion between you and the surfer? Are you, are you that close that you can communicate and either direct or get some feedback from them?
Sarah Lee: [00:17:11] honestly, just depends on what the waves are doing, how many people are out, how will I know that person, and how much I’ve worked with them. And it’s, it’s just kind of reading. The situation and the person too. Like some people do want a lot of feedback and you kind of tune into that and other people kind of just want to do their own thing.
Um, and then maybe with like a couple moments of like chatting or. You know, just feedback kind of that it goes both ways. But yeah, there’s no specific strategy or structure. I mean, even kind of learning where to sit in the water is just lots of time spent in the water and then also serving myself to be able to kind of just know where to go and where to be.
Brett Stanley: [00:17:59] Yeah. Which is reading the waves, right. So you know where it’s going to break, and so you can be in the right spot and, and not get taken over the falls.
Sarah Lee: [00:18:08] Yeah. I mean, yeah. I don’t really ever get taken over the falls, but, um, but I think it, yeah, it just, it just, again, comes with spending a lot of time in the water to kind of, learn how to navigate that.
Brett Stanley: [00:18:22] are you out there when you first started shooting the surf stuff, are you out there with that IWA Marine bag, which is basically a glorified Ziploc bag? Or were you, did you end up upgrading to something else.
Sarah Lee: [00:18:32] Oh man. So I mean, it was 2008 so that wasn’t, that was like Facebook days and people just didn’t see many people shooting in the water. So yeah, I started shooting surf with the UN Marine, bag housing at Trestles. but through flicker, ended up finding a water housing builder, um, probably on one of the surf groups and contacted him and he lived in Newport.
And so I saved up. I had, I would shoot weddings and portraits, um, in my free time. So the money I’d saved up, I put towards a housing. So I got my first surf like hard case surf housing in 2009. which then definitely helps take my work to the next level cause I had flooded and even Marine housing and it’s just super limited.
With the lenses you can use and stuff. So, yeah, once I was able to invest in that surf housing, um, it, it definitely took everything to the next level.
Brett Stanley: [00:19:32] And I used to use an Eagle Marine bag myself. That’s how I started shooting underwater. But I was shooting in tanks and I would look at it and look at doing stuff in the surf and think there’s no way I’m taking this thing anywhere near waves. How was that for you taking this, you know, plastic bag with your.
Expensive camera into, into the surf. were you not really worried about it or was it like a concern.
Sarah Lee: [00:19:57] With you and Marino is a constant battle, but it was my only way to get in the water. Like other than a disposable camera. GoPros weren’t out. add, in Hawaii, it’s super humid and had no idea that if you’re. Have something in a cold environment and take it to a warmer environment that it’s going to fog up.
And the bag would always fog up when I would take it out early mornings, but I just didn’t know any better. And I’m, I think it upgraded to a Canon 40 D once we got the U and Marine. Like that camera didn’t last very long, but it was just part of the experience and learning.
Brett Stanley: [00:20:38] And then so when you went to the surf housing and surf housing is, is more like a, an enclosure with a handle on the bottom right. So you can actually kind of shoot one handed.
Sarah Lee: [00:20:47] Yeah. It has a handle and a pistol grip. and just easier access to all the settings too, just like dials and knobs on the outside. So you. Definitely knew it was not going to fog up and everything was watertight. and weightless clunky when you’re diving under waves and having to move around and stuff.
Brett Stanley: [00:21:07] Well. Cause that’s the other thing is trying to drag something with you as your ducking under the waves or, or trying to battling the current. So this kind of camera housing would have been a lot more streamlined.
Sarah Lee: [00:21:18] Yeah. It was a hundred percent more streamlined.
Brett Stanley: [00:21:20] And so how did that change the way you shot then going from that eager Marine bag to the surf housing? Did you just feel so much lighter.
Sarah Lee: [00:21:28] I’d say, yeah, I felt, felt so much lighter and I also had a higher like yield for my shot for my session, you know, cause with the and Marine it was like to line it up and to get everything shooting top side to not get it like half blurry with water drops and stuff. With the surf housing I was. Able to have a lot more usable shots, afterwards, which I think helped, like kind of develop a visual, like kind of learning what worked
Brett Stanley: [00:21:59] Watching from watching your like behind the scenes and behind the scenes of other sort of surfer typographers. There’s this very kind of like, you’re not looking through the viewfinder that much, or you kind of, I’m straight out kind of pointing the camera in the in the right direction and hoping to get something or is it a bit more accurate or refined than it looks.
Sarah Lee: [00:22:18] Uh, it’s a mix of both. Right now. Um, from that one behind the scenes video, that was a bit different. But, um, I spent a lot of time looking through the viewfinder and the housing I use now doesn’t have a pistol grip. so all like use both hands to hold the camera up to compose the shot and look through the viewfinder.
Just shoot it. but again, with the nature of moving water and stuff like that, you still don’t usually nail like a single shot. So you kind of still have to run the shutter, like one to three frames to kind of like with the water moving and stuff, like get the shot you on and the focus.
Um, so I’m not like shooting blindly like barrel shots, like Clark little does, which is incredible. It’s, like just trying to be deliberate and compose and frame stuff. But again, like if a Surfer’s coming at, you kind of have to get the shutter going to kind of track the focus.
yeah, I’m definitely looking in composing
I’m shooting on air servo and right now I’m shooting with the five D Mark four which honestly, I feel like there’s only three frames per second or it doesn’t even always run I actually don’t even know. It’s like it’d be nice to switch to Sony to have so many more opportunities. Cause like everything’s moving so fast in front of you.
But in a way too, that’s forced me to be more deliberate about kind of choosing the right moments to set the camera to start shooting.
Brett Stanley: [00:23:49] Yeah. I think that that’s an interesting kind of thing is that if you’re constrained by your equipment, it makes you a little bit more. Decisive and a little bit more prepared, I think, as a photographer, because you’ve got to mentally think about what’s about to happen and make sure you capture it with those three frames that you’ve got.
Sarah Lee: [00:24:07] Yeah, definitely. So with, super talented surfers, it’s in great conditions that that’s super easy, but that doesn’t always happen very often.
Brett Stanley: [00:24:19] Yeah. And so with the surfer tography. Have there been some situations where you’ve been in surf that has just been way too dangerous to be out there or perhaps somewhere that that seemed fine when you first got out there and then kind of picked up a little bit too much
Sarah Lee: [00:24:33] I’d say earlier on, I had done a trip to Bali and swim out at Lewa to not knowing anything in like 2011 or knowing a little bit, but again, not knowing like what the current was doing or my escape route or whatever. And, um. And with people I didn’t know very well. So they had all paddled in like no big deal, but the current just, it was a small day, but the current was so strong and it’s like a tiny key hole to get in and out.
And I’d never been out there before, so pretty much it’s just getting sucked in one direction, which was, wasn’t where I wanted to go. And just like being like, this is the first time I’ve ever questioned my swimming abilities and whatever. But, um, I mean, I’d figured out how to get out of there and luckily the tide was low enough to do so.
Um, but honestly, other than that, like I kind of, I’ve learned to be smarter about mapping out places I jump into, especially for the first time. and so I definitely. Probably have avoided a lot of bad situations just by not going out or waiting a little bit longer to go out.
Do I like sitting back and watching and talking to people and then just like learning more and more about water safety and stuff like that. So honestly, yeah, I’ve been in weird situations where it could have been sketchy, but I really liked to just take my time. And sit back a little bit and see how, what the water’s doing with the surfers in there and whatever before jumping in and also knowing like, this is how I’m going to get in.
This is how I need to get out. Like, and stuff like that. Cause it, it can get really dangerous. But yeah, I mean, even on the waves are huge and it can be scary, but it’s so fun too and exhilarating if like you have a huge wave coming towards you and it’s just, yeah. Escaping that sometimes is really thrilling.
Brett Stanley: [00:26:32] I bet. Yeah. I mean, cause you’ve got this kind of adrenaline rush and you’ve also got this , cause you’ve been so prepared, I guess you’ve got this kind of confident feeling that you get, you can make this and that must just feel amazing as you go under that wave to come up the other side.
And you know, and to think that this is something that you’ve just done by yourself. Just physically kind of conquered that.
Sarah Lee: [00:26:54] Yeah. It’s, it’s so fun.
Brett Stanley: [00:26:56] Is that what drives you? Like what sort of percentage drives you? Is it the image or is it the experience like as a kind of 50 50
Sarah Lee: [00:27:04] I say it’s 50 50 like honestly, when I think about photography, like I love the images, but I wouldn’t say I’m super attached to anything I’ve created or put out there. So much as like the experiences, like the shared experiences with the surfers and the people I’m around.
And so that’s what gets me the most stoked is just kind of the people I get to be around when I do those things.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:28] And are you feeding off each other if you are with a surfer and they’re D, they’ve done something amazing, you’ve got this amazing shot of it. I guess you kind of amping each other up, right?
Sarah Lee: [00:27:37] Yeah. There’s definitely like comradery too, that you can build, especially when you’re in the middle of nowhere to get those shots in score.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:47] Yeah. Like a lot of these secret spots and and in the middle of Indonesia or something, I guess.
Sarah Lee: [00:27:52] Yeah. Yup.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:54] So how did you go from. Shooting with your friends to then sort of traveling to these awesome surf destinations? Was there a transition there or was it just you and your friends now traveling and doing vacations or, or was there a more commercial kind of bent to it?
Sarah Lee: [00:28:10] I mean, now there’s more of a commercial bent just from time spent. Doing shooting friends, basically, who then got sponsored or whatever. but I’d say like commercially. Kind of my transition from just being like a portrait wedding photographer to then shooting more commercial projects was my last year of university.
I met this girl Allison in 2012 who is kind of starting this adventure series geared, geared towards inspiring kids about other cultures around the world. And, so being from film school and being able to shoot. Photo and video and also run audio. yeah, we became friends in Hawaii early January, 2012 and it was kind of, I was supposed to graduate that year, but then I met her and kind of was like, this is exactly what I want to do at the time, which was to like, just travel and document, you know, and like work with someone who had a vision.
And bring that to life. So we jumped over to Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and had a lot of different Epic experiences. and this like kind of right at the start Instagram before all this influencer stuff, I’d say she was like the OGE like 20 years ago when she was a kid. Her parents were adventure photographers who in order to pay for their crazy adventures, like to Peru and India and, Indonesia and wherever else they would.
Work with companies like Patagonia and North face and stuff like that. And her dad was an incredible, like commercial photographer in his own way, like kind of adventure photographer. So she had that in her DNA. so by working with her, like, cause she had the photography stuff, but she really wanted to tell stories kind of in a fantastical way too.
It was kind of fun to like work together to bring some of her ideas to like a more palatable form online at the time. yeah. And again, like work with someone’s vision,
Brett Stanley: [00:30:16] and where was that content going? Was it going to Instagram or was there other avenues that it was going out to?
Sarah Lee: [00:30:22] It was going online and then to different film festivals and stuff, at the time. But now it’s kind of all shifted to Instagram and YouTube. I still work with her occasionally, but kind of branched off in the last eight years to then work with a bunch of different people and kinda emphasize more in surf.
Brett Stanley: [00:30:42] Yeah, what was your transition into commercial work when you started getting published and, and finding your images being used for, for campaigns? What was that kind of transition like?
Sarah Lee: [00:30:53] I mean, I don’t even know what that transition was like. I feel like I’m always in that transition.
Brett Stanley: [00:30:59] Do you feel like you’re still transitioning.
Sarah Lee: [00:31:01] yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, I kind of still have to do everything to make it work. But I mean, even when I was younger, like 2010 I think I was able to license my first image to someone who wanted to run an ad in the New York times.
And then kind of through flicker days and just having like an online presence beyond flicker a little bit. I think it was just saying yes to interviews all the time
Brett Stanley: [00:31:29] And how were people finding your work to do interviews on you just was it just through that exposure of, of flicker and whatever social media was happening then?
Sarah Lee: [00:31:38] Yeah. Honestly, I think the started, it was through flicker.
Brett Stanley: [00:31:42] Are you still on flicker? Cause flick is still going right.
Sarah Lee: [00:31:44] I mean, I still have an account on flicker with a lot of older work, but I’m definitely not on it anymore. I mean, I think just it just once Instagram really took off in 2012 is kind of when I stopped kind of posting or spending time on flicker is just. And then it got bought out and yeah. Don’t even know what it’s like now.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:09] Yeah, I think SmugMug bought it out, or maybe last year, I think,
Sarah Lee: [00:32:12] Yeah, they did.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:13] I think there’s, they’re still kind of keeping it alive, which is really good.
Sarah Lee: [00:32:16] Yeah, but I mean, it’s amazing. Like when. Flicker being connected to like the Yahoo image search and Google images and stuff. Back in the day, I think by people just by all the keywords we spent putting into our silly flicker images, like people are able to Google those and find like underwater model or like surf whatever, you know?
Brett Stanley: [00:32:37] Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of exposure just to Google images. I think.
Sarah Lee: [00:32:40] Yeah, totally.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:42] What was it like being published for the first time? was there a feeling of having made it, and no matter how small that was
Sarah Lee: [00:32:48] I don’t even remember, I guess when I was published for the first time. yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s. Like, I, I’m, I’m not someone who like jumps off the walls when I do something. Cause it’s like you’ve never, never achieved. You know, like I’m not setting crazy goals and wishing or thinking I’ve made it from something.
It’s just kind of a climb towards what gets me stoked or excited. and hearing feedback from people again, which kind of would result from a feature or something is exciting. But. Yeah. I’d never say made it for in any way.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:26] Is there something that you have done that is totally, that has made you bounce off the walls? Has there been like an image or an experience you’ve had, which is kind of like, yeah, that was, that was pretty awesome.
Sarah Lee: [00:33:36] I mean, you could say like a highlight last year was being hired by ESPN to shoot all professional surfer for their body issue. Like, I was super psyched on that, but Yeah. It’s like you get psyched on it cause you get hired, but you can’t tell anyone forever. So, yeah, I mean, I was in my own way, super psyched on that and it was a huge honor to be able to do that.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:59] Yeah, I mean, those images for their body issue every year, they’re just so amazing and just such a, great collection of photographers to be involved with. I’d say.
Sarah Lee: [00:34:08] Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, all like kind of pouring through the years of that and seeing it, is always been like incredibly inspiring. So yeah, when they hit me up to do that, I was like, wait, you’re seriously asking me to do this? So I’m psyched.
Brett Stanley: [00:34:24] And as you say, that must be hard. If you get picked up for something and you can’t talk about it, it must be really weird that it, when it comes out, you know, like six months later. To relive that feeling again. Does it feel a little muted because you’ve already had the excitement of being chosen for it, or is it, is it another rush?
Again, seeing it published.
Sarah Lee: [00:34:44] I would say it’s another rash in its own way, but you know, it’s definitely muted because it’s like the experiences already been done, or the experience it’s already happened. But yeah, again, I, I dunno, I feel like I kinda downplay a lot of stuff in general, so,
Brett Stanley: [00:35:02] Yeah. I mean, you seem very chill. You seem like someone who’s just very kind of even keeled, which I think must be a very good personality trait for this kind of work when you’re in such. Possibly stressful situations does. Does that help you to kind of get through those situations?
Sarah Lee: [00:35:17] I think it a hundred percent does. Like I tell my friends or different people, like I actually love shooting weddings and my favorite part of a wedding is shooting the ceremony because it’s like there’s all this pressure to have to do it right and to be there for the right moments and everything. And I really thrive under that pressure.
So again, like that’s why surf is great too, is cause it’s like, it can be like physically challenging. There can be an element of danger, and just stuff you can’t control. And I just like that it excites me in my own way of like, it’s just, yeah, it’s like creative problem solving. So I really, really love that.
Brett Stanley: [00:35:57] Yeah. On the spot having to, having to fix this problem or solve this problem in the heat of the moment. Yeah.
Sarah Lee: [00:36:04] That’s again, like the full on the spot thing. I think that’s why I have problems like planning stuff or setting goals is cause I’m just like, Oh, I just want to like, I just need to put myself in some situation and deal with it. And then like. Create magic by just dealing with it instead of trying to have this like premeditated planned experience, which like for the body issue that was different.
And a new challenge in its own way is cause I had to, you know, cause you’re working, it’s like a sensitive topic that you’re working on, with a bunch of different people. So it was more planning and shot lists and kind of. Having to plan more around the ocean, which doesn’t always let like work out according to plan, but kind of Reish being able to like have the foresight to be ready, ready for those instead of just rocking up and shooting and coming out with something.
Brett Stanley: [00:36:57] So in terms of that, that shoot, for ESPN, cause I’m assuming a lot of your other shoots are very much just, you. In the water, like there’s not a lot of production, I guess is was there more on on that body issue one or was that still just you going out and doing your thing.
Sarah Lee: [00:37:14] well, yeah, I mean in a way kind of started off as a larger production, but due to the nature of surf and surfing and because there’s nudity involved and ended up just being me and the behind the scenes filmer who is a female and the boat captain and the surfer Lakey. So it ended up kind of turning into like what my shoots normally are, even after like months of planning to get the surf shots at least, which is great.
Brett Stanley: [00:37:42] Yeah, no, that’s, that’s awesome. And I, I mean, it’s, it’s nice when a production or a publication just lets you work the way you want to. How do you think you would feel if you ended up on a, on a set, like with a producer and with the marketing guys there and all that sort of stuff, would you, would you still work the same way do you think?
Or would it force you to kind of plan a little more.
Sarah Lee: [00:38:04] I mean recently I had Dennis shoot with Toyota to like a smaller social media campaign where there were guys from marketing there. So this wasn’t like a large scale, like commercial commercial shoot, but it’s still a commercial use. So that also is challenging because we had to plan everything, get permits obviously.
Cause there’s. Huge company involved. Um, and then have them onsite too. And honestly, I really liked that experience as well. I mean, again, cause it’s like to work with someone else’s vision, which was theirs. And there’s all the rules and technicalities of how you shoot and present a car. so I thought working with them and then going through.
Edits and revisions even afterwards is a really fun process.
Brett Stanley: [00:38:49] Yeah, I guess you’ve got them. They’re like giving you feedback constantly, which helps you to kind of
hone, that kind of thing.
Sarah Lee: [00:38:56] yeah. And honestly, I love that feedback. Like even on the spot, like, Hey, like basically you’re doing this wrong. Can you change? I mean, they’d say it in a nicer way than that. And I’m like, okay, cool. Thank you.
Brett Stanley: [00:39:08] Cause at the end of the day you’re trying to, you want to give them what they want, not necessarily what you want, which is, yeah. It’s really interesting cause that’s, that’s how I tend to work. Like I like creating my concepts, but , I enjoy more. Bringing to life someone else’s concept and knowing that I’ve got exactly what they want because, you know, because they’ve given their feedback, they’ve put it in.
Sarah Lee: [00:39:31] Yeah, yeah, totally.
Brett Stanley: [00:39:33] So how about post production for you? Are you doing much? I mean, I’m looking at your images and they seem to have a very kind of film like quality. it’s a, it’s a little bit, I don’t want to say retro, but it’s a little nostalgic to film. is that, that’s something you’ve done on icon purpose to create that kind of look.
Sarah Lee: [00:39:51] I think so. I mean, I do basic color correction in Lightroom and try not to take it to Photoshop at all, ever. and with underwater, with white balance and stuff. I do have to tweak that and yeah, I mean honestly, like the staff is a good way to put it.
For me, it’s kind of just about like the feeling of a photograph and I think is like editing in a way that it like kind of has like a feeling to it. Maybe not like a specific one that I would prescribe to it. I don’t know how to explain that more, but it’s just kind of like in the process of editing and stuff.
Brett Stanley: [00:40:31] Do you just giving it an an, uh, a bit more of an emotion that it would just straight out of the camera?
Sarah Lee: [00:40:36] totally. Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:40:38] Is there stuff that influences you in terms of the way you shoot and the way you edit? Like are you, are you looking at older, like seventies, eighties, kind of surf photography and kind of getting something from them, or is there somewhere else you’re getting inspired from?
Sarah Lee: [00:40:51] I mean, honestly, I think more I have been looking at different, I mean, again, I feel more inspired by like archival, surf photography and even like different older underwater photographs. in terms of color, but I’d say like, I’m been super swayed by like that Instagram trend right now of that look.
So I’ve done it, I think probably have taken it too far and Dan, and even more in the last two years, cause like, that’s the trend right now. And I just like, that’s all I see with my friends and people traveling.
Brett Stanley: [00:41:24] Do you find that that influences you a lot? Is what’s happening on the social media? Do you feel like you absorbed that and it influences the way you work?
Sarah Lee: [00:41:32] I’d say a little bit because brands and the different, like people I work with are kind of catering all their content to that trend anyways. So it’s kind of all about leaning into that, and providing them, like, the one thing that drives me crazy is like the wash dad beach look that a lot of people do.
It’s, I’ve been veering away from, but there’s this shoot I did yesterday with a friend underwater. And I’m like, dang. Well that’s probably the look she’s going for with her blog and like, am I going to have to edit that way or am I going to go back to like more bright, deeper blues and contrast the colors.
Brett Stanley: [00:42:10] Right?
Sarah Lee: [00:42:11] So it’s, but I kind of have been doing it by feel like it’s like all like kind of work on different, or work on the color of different photos just, and it’s just how it feels kind of. Or even how I’m like feeling in the moment, but it can’t really like put words to
what I’m going through the post.
Brett Stanley: [00:42:30] channeling your emotion and your kind of mental state through those images as you’re editing. Do you think that if you say, if you didn’t have to worry about clients, and if you didn’t have to, you know, any, weren’t looking at Instagram or, or social media, how do you think your work would evolve?
Would it, would it kind of change from what you’re doing anyway?
Sarah Lee: [00:42:50] I don’t think so. I’d say it’s trying to think how I’d word that, like, because I don’t know, maybe I’d still be doing like more orchestrated foot concept stuff that I was kind of into in high school, but. Yeah. I don’t know what I’d be doing. I feel like I’d probably probably be doing the same thing.
Brett Stanley: [00:43:11] Right? And that wasn’t a, there wasn’t a question I had written down. It was just something that popped into my head because I do wonder in this age of sharing everything, how much we kind of make this feedback loop between our photography and say Instagram, then Instagram influencing us, and you know, I kind of, it fascinates me to see how the world is influencing everybody in this creative kind of realm.
Sarah Lee: [00:43:37] Right. And is it like homogenizing Instagram and like media? I would have to say though, like. It’s through even the influence of my friends in their own aesthetics too, which have probably resulted from like online trends. I mean, it’s like fashion trends. I would say I’m very grateful to have been influenced away from the super hyper saturated colors and stuff that I was doing years back.
Brett Stanley: [00:44:06] Yeah. Um, do you have any tips for people wanting to get into this kind of photography? I mean, there feels like there’s, there’s some different kinds of genres, is that right?
Sarah Lee: [00:44:14] I’d say a little bit, I mean, you could look at the different photographers and there’s like the OG guys who just shoot crazy barrels and the top WSL pros and barrels and airs, and then you see some people who shoot surf, but it’s more like lifestyle and fashion. And then other people who just do like longboarding or whatever.
Brett Stanley: [00:44:36] And where would you say you fit into that,
Sarah Lee: [00:44:38] I don’t know. I just want to do it all. Like I want to get better at the lifestyle and fashion stuff. But I think all of it excites me, except like contest shooting. Cause you know, there’d be like, if you’re shooting sports, there’s like the guys who are lined up to shoot like sporting events and then there’s people who are doing more, I dunno how you’d say it.
Brett Stanley: [00:45:00] For lack of a better word, it a little bit more creative.
Sarah Lee: [00:45:03] Yeah. Yeah. Work creative stuff.
Brett Stanley: [00:45:06] Cause I would say like for the, for the land kind of sports photographers, they’re purely documenting what happens, right?
Sarah Lee: [00:45:12] Yeah, I’d say so, but I mean, I’ve definitely seen innovation kind of within different surf photographers, just shooting from land and having done so a lot. With like slower shutter speeds and alternate angles and whatever.
Brett Stanley: [00:45:26] Yeah. Are there, are there photographers that you’re seeing that, that you just love the work that the, or influenced by or get get excited when you see their work?
Sarah Lee: [00:45:38] There’s, I mean, it’s just, so many amazing people pumping out a big work and there’s just the different, like ocean art photographers and the different fashion photographers and just like documentary photographers, which are like.
Marvel at like, I mean, Matt, like for me, it’s like I’m marveling, like at the photography I can’t do, which I feel like is like social documentary photography, like Magnum puts out. and so, yeah. Yeah. Which I struggle with so hard.
Brett Stanley: [00:46:10] Why do you struggle with that or why would you struggle with it?
Sarah Lee: [00:46:12] That’s a good question. Um.
Brett Stanley: [00:46:15] This is a psychotherapy session.
Sarah Lee: [00:46:18] yeah, thanks. Um, I’ve always, I mean, I took, the only photography class I ever took was when I was studying abroad in Australia, and it was a social documentary photography class. and it’s just how these people would tell these stories and make you feel something in a way that wasn’t super orchestrated or set up was like beyond me.
Like. Is just like these real life things and moments happening. and like different social issues. But so like, yeah, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Maybe cause my life is so different and kind of surreal in its own way, being like around perfect water all the time.
Brett Stanley: [00:46:57] Yeah. Right. I do think it’s a very different way of shooting that whole journalistic thing, and every time I go and see the press photo. exhibitions and stuff, and I’m just in awe or of these people who can find this emotive moment in like some story and make the whole story, just work with that one image like you, I don’t think I could do that.
I don’t think I have the whatever it is to find that moment.
Sarah Lee: [00:47:23] Yeah, I mean, even street photography, like I had gone on a trip to Israel with people and a lot of them were street photographers, and I was like, how are you guys finding these incredible moments?
Brett Stanley: [00:47:35] Yeah, I think it’s a different eye or something. If they’re tuned into something that we’re not, I
Sarah Lee: [00:47:41] yeah, it’s, yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:47:43] do you have any kind of advice for someone getting into this sort of photography? So photography as a, as a whole, are there things that you think that you would have told your younger self, now that you’ve learnt a few things, what advice would you give yourself.
Sarah Lee: [00:47:58] I mean, just if it was like me when I was younger, I think, I mean. More important would the just like, I had already had a pretty good awareness of being in the water. and to me, like anyone getting into surf photography or water photography in general is just like safety and the water’s so important and things can go bad or turn bad or wrong so fast.
And, um, is again, just like, and again, just being a danger to surfers too. Like when I was younger, you’re swimming at Trestles like, sure, I could swim, but like, was I getting in the way of someone that could potentially be a danger to me and them? And so I probably would have just spent more time like out surfing in the water when I was younger and like body surfing and stuff to kind of develop more of an awareness and like, Yeah, like more situational awareness to kind of not being in the way of people and also like etiquette and how to dive under a wave properly and stuff without being a danger to yourself or other people.
Brett Stanley: [00:49:02] Yeah. I guess that understanding of the sport you’re photographing
helps a lot. Right?
Sarah Lee: [00:49:07] fully. Yeah. Yeah, it does. I mean, there’s definitely like a cool, like innocence when I was first getting into surf photography and not knowing too much about surfing.
Brett Stanley: [00:49:16] So you weren’t a big surfer when you, when you got into it.
Sarah Lee: [00:49:19] I wasn’t, I again, spent countless hours in the ocean, swimming, body surfing, but actual surfing, I didn’t get into kind of, I was into a little bit, but it didn’t really like take off until college and shooting more surf.
So, yeah, does that mean a lot of body boarders are incredible surf photographers because they have this like crazy kind of intuition in the water and knowing where to be and how to be critical and get out of that too.
But like just say with someone who’s really good in the water already. I don’t know. It’s, I think it’s just teaming up with people that you can spend time with and kind of work and collaborate with and just kind of developing your skills from there. Cause there’s only so much you can just learn on a computer or by not going out and doing it once you kind of have the water foundation.
Brett Stanley: [00:50:07] Yeah, I guess a lot of it, you just learn on the job, right? You’ve kind of get out there and, and experience these kinds of different conditions and, and kind of learn how you’re going to react to those conditions.
Sarah Lee: [00:50:17] totally. And not really going out with crazy expectations either. You know
Brett Stanley: [00:50:22] Yeah. What have you got coming up if you have, you got things, excuse the pun, in the pipeline, since you’re, you know, you’re in Indonesia and you had to cancel your trip if you got stuff planned coming up, or are you just kind of waiting to see what happens in the world?
Sarah Lee: [00:50:38] It’s kind of waiting to see what happens in the world. I mean, I was, yeah. I mean, I had some cool stuff planned this year until all of this happened, and so obviously none of it’s happening. but yeah, honestly, I feel like 2019 into 20 years, going a million miles per hour and just not really.
I mean, I was enjoying the moments, but there’s no like kind of post reflection on. Stuff, or even going back and looking at work once I kind of edited it all and delivered it to the client or the person,
Brett Stanley: [00:51:10] You’re just moving on to the next thing.
Sarah Lee: [00:51:11] yeah, it was just fully all of that. So for me right now, it’s just like beautiful opportunity to kind of slow down and shoot creatively when it, whenever it’s responsible.
With a couple of people cause I mean, being in the water is pretty incredible and you can be pretty far from someone and still make art. so for me it was reconnecting with a couple of people I trust here to shoot and then also spending time. yeah, just going through the backlog of like the last couple of years of photos to put online or in a blog format.
Brett Stanley: [00:51:44] Yeah. Nice. So has this, has this kind of quarantine made you kind of reevaluate things? Do you think you’re going to change how you work going forward, or do you think you’re, once you’re allowed out, you’ll, you’ll sort of go at a breakneck pace just as much?
Sarah Lee: [00:51:57] Oh man, I don’t think it will be breakneck though. Cause it’ll take a while for anything to pick back up. But yeah, I think just refining kind of my system with the sheets I’ve been doing and stuff to have selects that I can kind of share and use online, like later down the road. Yeah, just, yeah, just having a better system so it just doesn’t get lost and forgotten.
Brett Stanley: [00:52:19] Yeah. I think that’s, that’s a common thing. I’ve, I’ve been speaking to quite a lot of creatives over this time and I think a lot of people are, you know, kind of going back through their catalog and finding images that they haven’t, you know, didn’t even know they took or, and editing things and kind of learning from, from their archive of images, which they probably wouldn’t have looked at cause
Sarah Lee: [00:52:39] Okay. Oh, totally. Yeah. I mean, I feel like I’ve learned so much by looking through my archive and like. It’s actually been like clearing, clearing, or going through my old Dropbox of like the like quick deliverables and stuff and be like, Oh wow. Like I sent them photos, like edited like this and like, how do I like refined that further now that I can kind of look back and learn from it.
Brett Stanley: [00:53:02] So you kind of going back and going and kind of feeling a bit embarrassed about stuff, like, are you saying things and going, Oh, really? Do they edit it like that or
Sarah Lee: [00:53:09] Yeah. Or did I give them this many photos of the same thing? And I really should have just given them like 10. I definitely over-delivered a lot of shoots.
Brett Stanley: [00:53:19] right.
Yeah. I, I almost find like as a creative that it’s like, we need to do something like this every couple of years just to reset. You know, just to kind of go back and go, okay, I need to take a breath and just reevaluate stuff and learn from what I’ve done. Otherwise you keep forging forward and you don’t have enough time to look back in the learn.
Sarah Lee: [00:53:41] Yeah, totally.
Brett Stanley: [00:53:43] Not that I would wish quarantine on anyone again, but I think it’s been, I think people are kind of using it for good, which is nice,
Sarah Lee: [00:53:51] yeah, yeah, I believe that too.
Brett Stanley: [00:53:54] Sarah, it’s been awesome having you on the podcast. It’s been nice to just chat to you and kind of get an idea of, of how you kind of started your career and go to where you are now. So thanks for coming on.
Sarah Lee: [00:54:05] Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s an honor.
Brett Stanley: [00:54:08] Yeah. And I wonder for me too, you know, I’m started the podcast and it’s just kind of, it’s starting to sort of take off. So it’s, it’s really nice just to kind of chat to people like yourself and, and get a different perspective on everything.
Sarah Lee: [00:54:19] Yeah. Well, I can’t wait to hear who else you interview too in the coming months.
Brett Stanley: [00:54:25] Yeah. I’m excited too, because it’s all new to me. So. We shall see. So thanks Sarah. It’s been awesome and I hope to speak to you soon.
Sarah Lee: [00:54:33] thanks Brett.
Brett Stanley: [00:54:33] Thanks for listening everyone. And as always, if you’d like the podcast, please subscribe. If you’d like to connect with us or just learn more about my guests, you can hit our firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram or Facebook. Also check out our regular live streams on YouTube links will be in the show notes.