We first met Sam Elkins back in 2014 when he was just starting his journey into photography. Back then, we referred to him as “Young Skywalker” because, at a mere 17 years old (a high school junior), Sam was on the fast track to becoming a renowned photographer – possibly one of the greatest of his generation. Back then, Sam was bustling with excitement for his craft, eager to learn and grow. He was young, talented, and trying to figure it all out.
Fast forward to three years later, and Sam is absolutely crushing the photography game. With over 700,000 Instagram followers and countless commercial, agency, and brand shoots under his belt, it’s safe to say we called this one.
At any age, in any career field, Sam’s story hits home for anyone who is a dreamer at heart. Every life goal comes with its own set of challenges, but only in confronting those challenges do we learn what is possible. Sam is a great example of what happens with the right mix of hard work, taking risks, and creativity.
We recently had a chance to catch up with him and get some advice about building a career out of a passion.
For those who don’t know you, please introduce yourself and what you do. Who is Sam Elkins?
Hey, all! I’m a 20-year-old photographer, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve been freelancing full-time for the past two years, doing a lot of portraiture and lifestyle work.
When we first met, you were 17 and just starting this journey. What did your first steps into full-time freelancing look like?
When I first began my photography career, I used all my savings to buy some gear (camera, etc.). Then I made the move from Seattle to Portland and started working there, out of my little, cheap apartment. It was a lot of hard work and hustle in those early days. There’s so much work and time that goes into freelancing and shooting that people don’t see.
The behind the scenes can be really rough. I’m not going to lie to you; when I moved to Portland, I had $2,000 in my account, and I was like, “I hope this works out”. I took a leap of faith and just went for it. That’s not a part of people’s journeys you usually hear. On social media especially, you really just see people’s highlights, and not the full picture of what they are going through.
After I moved, my first focus was just making a lot of connections. That part has really paid off and helped me to land more jobs. The most important part about meeting people is being confident when you talk about your craft. As cheesy as it sounds, you really have to believe in yourself. That is what inspires others to believe in you too. It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly, the connections I made helped me get where I am today.
When you decided to freelance full time, it meant skipping college. What advice do you have for someone who is struggling to decide between college and going straight into the field?
I was originally going to go to art school in Seattle, but one day, this idea popped of “Why don’t I just go for it, and start my career now?” I first brought it up with my parents and explained that I was serious; I wanted to do it right — move out, start paying for things myself, and build my career — and they got on board.
I moved out and moved to Portland. It was my first time living on my own. I got a small, cheap apartment and started traveling around and doing jobs. I just kind of went for it. It was scary at first, but I dove in. And I think if you’re considering skipping college, that that is what you have to do. Make the decision and then dive straight in.
My path obviously isn’t the right one for everyone, but the way I see it is that school can’t teach you experience. You have to go out there and try on your own — learn and fail — until you do succeed. School can’t teach you how to make it work. You have to learn that all on your own, either way.
It seems like Instagram has been a big part of your photography journey. How has it helped you throughout the years?
Instagram has definitely had a huge role in my journey. In the early days, I just wanted to put my work out there for the people to see. I didn’t really have a vision or plan back then, but over the years I’ve worked to develop something more cohesive. Instagram is a great tool, and I like to think of it as a living portfolio. I always put my best work on there — the work that will grab people’s attention.
I realized quickly that it’s also important to post the work I want to be doing. Like, if I want don’t want to be a wedding photographer, I shouldn’t post wedding photos. I should be posting portraits, commercial stuff, etc. The most valuable and hardest thing to do is to set yourself apart from everyone else. Figuring out how to do that took a while. But once I found my groove, social media helped me get my name and work out there. And it also helped me meet other creative people and network.
On the “Post what you want to shoot” note, it seems like your work has shifted from mostly landscape to more portraiture. Why is that?
I think the evolution in my work has to do with what I love to shoot — as well figuring out what I can make money shooting. Almost anyone can take a nice photo of a mountain, but not everyone can take a great portrait. So for me, I wanted to refine my skills and discover how I could get better at portraits and other subjects outside of landscapes. I really enjoy working with people, meeting new people, the creative process of it. Gradually, my work has shifted, and I think now I have more of a specific style and direction to my work.
Agreed — your photos definitely have a specific look and feel. If you had to describe that style, what would it be? And how did you develop it?
That’s a tough one. I would probably best describe it as: Airy. Flowy. Natural. I really love the natural aesthetic.
I’m really picky about who I shoot. Like, I don’t like to shoot people who wear a lot of makeup, if I’m being honest. I like things to feel candid and natural. I always try to get the best possible light, and I only shoot in natural light. But natural light is hard; you can’t control it, and you have to really plan around the weather and know when the light will work for the shot you want.
Not everyone is great at that, so that’s another way I’ve tried to separate myself from other artists. I did a studio shoot once, about a year ago, and it was so much easier, but I didn’t like the end result as much. I love shooting outdoors, in the wilderness. I mean, there are times we might drive 4-5 hours to a location just to get a few shots. Most people aren’t willing to do that.
Speaking of long drives, you’ve been traveling a lot more over the past year or two. How has that impacted your work?
Traveling has been amazing. I’ve gotten to see a lot of really cool places, meet new people, make memories with friends. Traveling with other people is great — you get to know them so much faster and you have those shared memories forever.
It’s also definitely inspired me. I’ve gotten to live in 3 different cities in the past few years and travel abroad. I think that this time in my life is important, because in my younger years I didn’t get to see much outside of the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. Growing up in Seattle, there was so much to see, right in my own backyard. I didn’t need to travel very far to see beautiful things. Most people don’t. But it’s also really great to experience different kinds of beauty elsewhere.
So what has been the most challenging part of freelance photography?
People say it all the time, and it’s true. The hardest part is always the craving for consistency. Not knowing when you’ll get hired for the next job can be tough. But it does make you work harder. The uncertainty pushes me to market myself better, network more, all that stuff. But even that stress is a blessing in disguise — it means that you also make your own schedule and have “free time” mixed in with the work.
Favorite shoot ever?
Just a little while ago I went to St Lucia to shoot for Royal Caribbean (cruise line) and did a campaign with a friend there. It was such a gorgeous place. It completely blew my mind while I was there, looking around and thinking, “Wow. I’m traveling and exploring and shooting in the Caribbean, and I’m getting paid to do it!” It was like the big moment you consciously realize your dreams are coming true right before your eyes. That moment alone made it my favorite shoot.
What about craziest shoot?
Actually, the craziest trip was when I went to Norway with my friend Griffin and worked on that story for you guys!
Basically, we didn’t have anything planned out — hah! We flew into the southernmost airport (I have no idea why we did that) and wanted to go visit the Lofoten Islands, which is this incredible, scenic stretch of small islands.
But we found out it was a 26 hour drive (each way!) from where we flew in. We thought about changing the plan, but we ended up just throwing our hands up and going for it. It was a serious haul to get there, and most of the drive wasn’t even scenic like other parts of Norway. Hah! It was just farmland for hours and hours.
When we arrived, it was totally worth it. We ended up staying there for a few days, but man what a trek. What awful planning, haha! Now I tell everyone I meet to plan their trips well so they don’t end up like us.
You’re still so young, with so much ahead of you. Where do you see your career going?
Right now, I’m just trying to enjoy the moment I am in. I really love what I do. I think I see myself continuing with portraiture and lifestyle, but on a bigger scale.
Maybe more commercial shoots and less social media related jobs. But man, right now I’m really having a blast. I’m exactly where I want to be, doing what I love. So I’m content for now. The uncertainty is as exciting as it is unnerving, but I’m learning to welcome it.
Think you’ll do video? Vlogging?
I’m starting to get more into video now. I’ve had a few video jobs this year already. I think it’s exciting in that you can tell a different story through video, in a way you can’t with photos. I don’t see myself vlogging or anything like that anytime soon — because, honestly, I don’t think my life is really that interesting outside of taking photos. Hah, I’ll leave the vlogging up to people who have a more interesting story to tell.
Best advice for those who are trying to make their photo/video career a reality?
I think It’s important to understand that a freelance career is not for everybody. There’s the crazy schedule, long hours, late nights, and the uncertainty of when you’ll get the next job or receive payment. It’s important to have realistic expectations.
But on the other hand, I think it’s the best job in the world. There’s so much freedom in working for yourself. The flexibility to be able to travel and do what you love is so great.
Once you’ve decided to go for it, I think you need to know exactly what you’re working toward. Set manageable goals. That’s something I’ve been learning. It’s tough, but it helps you actually progress and get where you want to be. You have to set benchmark goals in order to know how you’ll reach those loftier ones.
Lastly, there’s working hard, and there’s also working smart. Don’t put your time and effort into things that aren’t worth it. Develop your skills and shoot and work on the things that bring you the most satisfaction. Those are the ones that will pay off.
Last question. A lot of aspiring creatives don’t have a nice camera at first (much like you!). Any advice for someone who only has a phone and is wanting to build a photography career?
As far as gear goes, even with an iPhone, you can produce amazing content. I know several people who shoot only iPhone, and their work is really good. Consistency, I think, is the key. You have to constantly create and put your work out there, even if it may not be the best.
The most important thing to remember is that gear doesn’t limit you, unless you let it. Whatever you shoot with, just keep shooting and keep creating. Stay consistent and your work is bound to get better and better.