- Sam Starns is a self-taught photographer specializing in adventure getaways all over the United States.
- She built her business strategically by targeting SEO phrases and offering welcome gifts to customers.
- Here is his story, told to writer Perri Ormont Blumberg.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sam Starn, a 31-year-old escape adventure photographer based in Roseburg, Oregon, about her work. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m based in southern Oregon, but I travel all over the world for my work as an adventure photographer. I am also ordained by Universal Life Churchand I officiate a more simplified version of a traditional ceremony while photographing in real time for about half of my couples.
So far, I’ve been to 10 states and four countries for my work, and it just keeps expanding. My journey to becoming a self-taught photographer began with my experience competing in equestrian events. I loved the movement of horses (mane, tail, lines when a horse crosses a jump) and my dad had a Minolta he used to photograph. I would borrow it and through trial and error – and after experimenting with different niches like macro photography, landscape, weddings and families – I focused on weddings and then more specifically on runaways. I took a more cheeky route and didn’t take second pictures or attend weddings, which is what many photographers do when they’re just starting out.
Instead, I absorbed information from free online resources and a few small courses and workshops and provided discount wedding photography for my first weddings. While I wouldn’t recommend starting a second shot, I knew my capability and was prepared with dual slot cameras (so your footage is on two SD cards instead of one) and backup systems for do not lose client images.
I started my adventure escape photography business in 2017 after shooting part-time weddings for several years.
Prior to that, I worked in a variety of fields, including as an environmental education intern and ranger on the Oregon coast with the Bureau of Land Management.
Now, using my knowledge as a ranger and through my minor major in geological science in college, I educate my couples about the outdoor spaces we explore while capturing their “best day yet.” I provide a scheduling portal with location information, vendor referrals, and “leave no trace” information, among other resources for my clients prior to filming. Via email, text, and Zoom calls, the couple and I plan what I tell them to consider “adventure first, and wedding second.” That way they aren’t bogged down by conventional ideas of how a wedding should go, and instead we can focus on what resonates with them.
My cheapest collection is four hours and starts at $6,000, but couples can book up to two full days of adventure and beyond, which can cost upwards of $15,000. The vast majority of couples choose to book a full day of eight hours or a day and a half. I generally shoot about four to five elopements per month on average during peak season from May to October. I limit the number of couples I photograph during the high season in order to devote my attention to them.
Since 2017 I have photographed over 100 adventure elopements and intimate adventure weddings for up to 20 guests
Adventure runaways are often me, the couple, and maybe a few other people. When it comes to 15-20 guests, I consider it more of an intimate wedding. I also do separate “adventure sessions” for engagements, “just for fun” or birthdays.
After regretting my own wedding and wanting to run away during the planning process, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt like a traditional wedding wasn’t representative of the relationship I had. had with my wife. I now do this thing that I wish I had when I was engaged: I allow couples to have a wedding day that represents their relationship.
I was able to grow my business by focusing on SEO and providing valuable resources on my website, as well as targeted Google ads.
While I have a strong social media presence of around 7,500 followers, I’m not what you might call “Instagram famous”. Instead of relying on my followers or word of mouth, I target location-based keywords like “Oregon elopement photographer” and “Alaska elopement photographer.” I also target by keywords the useful search terms sought by the people engaged, such as “how to run away [location]” or ” how to cancel your marriage and your elope ” by writing articles and blog posts optimized with useful knowledge, with the aim of serving the visitor.
I also wrote a bookRun away from your life“, which I self-published via IngramSparkand I gave a TEDx Conference in April 2021 on the pressures of the modern wedding industry and how to have the best wedding ever.
There has been an increase in bookings – my bookings for 2023 are almost double what they normally are at this time of year. My experience, the book, and TEDx Talk has allowed me to raise prices and be more selective about who I work with, so I may have missed some requests that heard of me through those channels because my budget was exceeded. Ultimately, both of these projects were meant to continue to raise awareness about the leak and give resources to couples considering it.
The beauty of adventure elopements and helping couples see what’s possible is that every day is different.
A typical day might start before sunrise by prepping images and catching the sunrise at a great vantage point. It can end at sunset with a glass of champagne or go to bed late to capture astrophotography portraits. In between, there are often images of preparation that morph into a first look (if a couple decides to prepare separately), a hike, a tour/experience such as a helicopter ride, sea kayaking, or horseback riding, a picnic or stopping at a pub for a pint and setting aside some intentional time for their ceremony.
When I’m not in the field (which often means I’m away for days or weeks), every working day at my desk is also different. A large part is devoted to the computer. I can edit pictures or chat with my couples from across the country on Zoom, get to know each other and reflect on their day. I may be editing wedding albums that my couples receive as part of their wedding collection.
I also offer each of my couples who book a full day or more with me a welcome box. They are personalized on some level to the couple, and I create them after the couple completes a “Getting to Know You” questionnaire. The box often includes products from local businesses close to where they are escaping, such as Glacier Soap from Denali Dreams if they are escaping to Alaska.
Although people have told me that elopements must be booming, to me that’s not entirely accurate.
Elopements have grown in popularity due to the pandemicbut I’ve found that there are generally two types of people who run away: There are those who have embraced the idea of adventure, making their day as intentional as possible with all the sights and experiences that they like.
Then there are what I call “Plan B Elopers”, which is the most common situation. These are the people who change their wedding plans during an incredibly difficult time and don’t want to go through a deep runaway experience or don’t realize it’s an option. Either way, they aren’t as invested in the idea of an elopement.
My career has taken me to some amazing places and allowed me to share my outdoor knowledge with some of the most amazing people.
One of the best runaway memories was Shelby and Jeff. We took a helicopter to a glacier in Alaska, then we climbed to the top of a mountain, where they had their ceremony. Their families, a total of about five guests, were airlifted separately. Their second day of coverage was horseback riding, and their third day was riding in a helicopter to a glacier where they went dog sledding. We were able to revel in our surroundings without any other visitors and search for moose from the air, and I was able to share geological knowledge about glaciers and how they transform topography.
Integrating unique and epic activities and places stimulates my artistic side. I’m able to get more epic footage than if we just drove and hiked a popular trail crowded with other visitors.
Another beautiful memory was Gabby and Lydia saying their vows among the redwoods, before riding their horses among the old trees.
My best advice that goes beyond general advice that can apply to most photographers is to make sure your niche is something you are passionate about.
While not all adventure elopements are 10-mile hikes up a mountain, if you don’t like being outdoors very much, this niche probably won’t satisfy you in the long run. Find aspects of your niche that resonate with who you are as a person. If you like astronomy, make it a sub-specialty that you can share with your subjects. Be an expert in taking night portraits. If you’re obsessed with a particular national park, share that love.
You may be a specialist, but being authentic to who you are will bring you much more success and happiness than doing something because other people are doing it.