Sebastopol Times: Through Natures Lens

Through Nature’s Lens

Sonoma County nature photographer Marlene Ortiz Smith is taking some spectacular photos of West County wildlife

A white-tailed kite lands atop a tree branch in one of local photographer Marlene Ortiz Smith’s many West County wildlife photo stories. (Photo by Marlene Ortiz Smith)

Santa Rosa-based nature photographer Marlene Ortiz Smith spends a lot of time in West County observing wildlife. When asked where exactly, she hesitates, then concedes, “Bodega and Jenner and such areas,” but refuses to provide further specifics.

She dodges that question a lot.

“I don’t want to interrupt nature,” she says. “It’s kind of selfish, but I don’t share that.”

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Which makes sense because her photos are intimate portraits of wildlife in moments of rare majesty. Whether picturing a white-faced Ibis in flight, owls nesting or a bobcat hunting, the image stories she posts to social media are seldom-seen glimpses into animal lives.

California brown pelicans on a West County beach, as captured through Marlene Ortiz Smith’s telephoto lens. (Photo by Marlene Ortiz Smith)

Photography, for her, is an acquired skill, but one with roots dating back to her early childhood.

Born the youngest of four children in Mexico City, Marlene emigrated to the United States with her mother and siblings at age 4, after her father died. She grew up in El Paso, her mother’s native city, where she learned to speak English primarily from watching cartoons.

At 21 she met her husband, Paul, on a blind date while visiting her brother in Rohnert Park. He proposed after four days, and they married one year later. After a brief stint in Rohnert Park, they moved back to El Paso to be close to Marlene’s family and friends, where they had a daughter. In 1986 they returned to Sonoma County permanently, where they had a second daughter.

For as far back as she can remember, Marlene has had an interest in photography. At the age of 4, she chose to remember her late father by picking his camera as a keepsake, which she still has. But in spite of her interest, she lacked the funds to take the photography class in high school and was  intimidated by the complicated settings on film cameras. In fact, she used her early film cameras on their automatic settings.

When Paul presented Marlene with her first digital camera in 2007, it took her two weeks to buck up the courage to unbox it. But her first photo was so successful that she began filming local scenery and learned to use her new camera in the process.

Marlene Ortiz Smith, of Santa Rosa, takes stunning, close-up photos of local West County wildlife. She posts the images for all to see on her facebook page at (Photo by Mark Fernquest)

Having spent so much of her life in the stark desert environment surrounding El Paso, Sonoma County’s lushness and greenery impressed Marlene from the moment she first saw it.

“I was fascinated by the beauty,” she says, describing how she initially took photos of parks, water and the ocean, as well as picturesque barns and old buildings.

When the 2017 fires replaced the familiar natural backdrops she was used to with stark burn scars, she roamed farther afield to the coast, where she began filming animals from beaches and remote trails. She developed the ability to sit for long periods of time, silently observing the wildlife around her.

Bobcat in repose. (Photo by Marlene Ortiz Smith)

“I have been in locations for eight hours,” she says. She simply brings a chair and her camera with its enormous 150-600 millimeter lens, and pays attention. “The thing with nature, of course, is staying as far back as you can. Because I don’t want to interrupt what they’re doing. It’s so peaceful to sit there and observe what nature does so naturally.”

Her Canon cameras and telephoto lens are functional, but dated. Clearly, Marlene brings her own magic to her chosen hobby. 

Describing her process, she says, “There’s so much luck in photography, between the light and the timing and everything else. When I see something, it automatically becomes art to me. It’s almost like I know what I want, and if it happens I just try to capture it.”

Over the years Marlene has witnessed phenomenal moments in which animals engaged in sophisticated, human-like behaviors, which has irrevocably changed her perception of wildlife.

Last year she observed a baby owl lay down with her head on her mom’s chest for 15 minutes. The baby owl then stood up and her mom preened her. The next day the baby was gone—she’d come of age and flown the coop. Marlene had witnessed their touching goodbye.

Sebastopol’s famous owl nest beside the West County Trail (Photo by Marlene Ortiz Smith)

“[Animals] know how to scold their children,” Marlene says. “They keep everybody safe. They tell them where to go. They don’t know how to speak, but they know how to do it.”

Though she posted the owl photo story to her Facebook page, Marlene doesn’t always watch wildlife through a lens.

“When those birds will look at me eye to eye, it will actually take my breath away at times because it’s like we have this understanding,” she says.

Her online fanbase is small, but devoted—about 1,700 people. Her Facebook page, where she posts daily photo stories with accompanying descriptions, is alive with comments, and she tries to respond to each one.

“I do encourage people, if they can … just to get out and sit. It’s good for your soul. It’s good for your health,” Marlene says.

And yet, a sizable number of her followers comment that they are unable, for health or other reasons, to get outside to see wildlife themselves. Thus their appreciation for her posts.

“My happiness is truly hearing that they’re happy when they look at my stuff,” Marlene says. “I look so forward to them saying something or liking my stuff. It’s almost kind of funny — I take pictures and I can hardly wait to get to the house!”

Now married to her husband, Paul, for 47 years, with two grown daughters and five grandchildren, all of whom enthusiastically support her photography, Marlene plans to make her wildlife images even more accessible to the public.

“One of my goals is to publish a Sonoma County coffee table book and also children’s books, with my images, because many images that I’ve taken remind me of fairy tale children’s books,” she says. “I also think children from this area would love to know and learn more about nature that is local.”

She adds, “I have to take these pictures. I want to show people. Because if I tell people, they don’t get it!”

To view Marlene Ortiz Smith’s wildlife photography, visit:

Bald eagle on the wing. (Photo by Marlene Ortiz Smith)

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A guest post byMark Fernquest

Mark Fernquest lives and dreams in Northern California. He imagines he is a writer.Subscribe to Mark