- Sam Starns is a self-taught photographer who specializes in adventure elopements all over the US.
- She built her business strategically by targeting SEO phrases and giving welcome gifts to clients.
- Here’s her story, as told to writer Perry Ormont Blumberg.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sam Starns, a 31-year-old adventure elopement photographer based in Roseburg, Oregon, about her job. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m based in Southern Oregon, but I travel worldwide for my job as an adventure elopement photographer. I’m also ordained through Universal Life Church, and I officiate a more simplified version of a traditional ceremony while photographing in real-time for roughly half my couples.
So far, I’ve been to 10 states and four countries for my work, and it’s ever-expanding. My path to becoming a self-taught photographer started with my experience competing in equestrian events. I loved the movement of the horses (their mane, tail, lines when a horse goes over a jump) and my father had a Minolta that he’d use to photograph. I would borrow it and through trial and error — and after experimenting with different niches like macrophotography, landscape, weddings, and families — I homed in on weddings and then more specifically elopements. I took a more ballsy route and didn’t second shoot or assist at weddings, which many photographers do when they’re first starting out.
Instead, I soaked up information from free online resources and a few small courses and workshops and provided discounted wedding photography for my first several weddings. While I don’t recommend not second shooting to start, I knew my capacity and was prepared with dual slot cameras (so your images are on two SD cards instead of one) and backup systems so I wouldn’t lose any client images.
I started my adventure elopement photography business in 2017 after photographing weddings part-time for several years
Before that, I worked in various fields, including as an environmental education intern and park ranger on the Oregon Coast with the Bureau of Land Management.
Now, using my knowledge as a park ranger and through my minor focus in geological sciences in university, I educate my couples on the outdoor spaces we explore while capturing their “best day yet.” I provide a planning portal with location information, vendor referrals, and “leave no trace” information, among other resources for my clients before we shoot. Via email, text, and Zoom calls, the couple and I organize what I tell them to think of as “an adventure first, and a wedding second.” That way, they aren’t bogged down with the conventional ideas of how a wedding should go, and we can focus on what resonates with them instead.
My least expensive collection is four hours and starts at $6,000, but couples can book up to two full days of adventuring and beyond, which can be upwards of $15,000. The vast majority of couples opt to book a full eight-hour day or one-and-a-half days. I typically photograph around four to five elopements a month on average during peak season from May to October. I limit the number of couples I photograph during peak season in order to dedicate my focus to them.
Since 2017, I’ve photographed more than 100 adventure elopements and adventure-intimate weddings of up to 20 guests
Adventure elopements are often with me, the couple, and maybe a few other people. When it gets to 15-20 guests, I consider it more of an intimate wedding. I also do separate “adventure sessions” for engagements, “just for fun,” or anniversaries.
After regretting my own wedding and wanting to elope during the planning process, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling like a traditional wedding wasn’t representative of the relationship I had with my spouse. I now do that very thing I wish I had when I was engaged: I empower couples to have a wedding day that represents their relationship.
I was able to grow my business by homing in on SEO and providing valuable resources on my website, along with targeted Google Ads
While I have a solid 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 referrals, I target location-based keywords like “Oregon elopement photographer” and “Alaska elopement photographer.” I also keyword target useful search terms that engaged folks are searching for, like “how to elope in.” [location]” or “how to cancel your wedding and elope” by writing articles and blog posts optimized with useful knowledge, with the intent of serving the visitor.
I’ve also written a book, “Elope Your Life,” which I self-published via IngramSpark, and I gave a TEDx Talk in April 2021 about the pressures of the modern-day wedding industry and how to have the best elopement ever.
There has been an increase in bookings — my bookings for 2023 are nearly twice what they normally are at this time of year. My experience and the book and TEDx Talk have allowed me to raise prices and be more selective with whom I work with, so I might’ve missed out on some inquiries who heard about me through those avenues because I was out of budget. Ultimately, those two projects were about continuing to spread awareness about eloping and giving 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 can start before sunrise with getting ready images and catching the sunrise at a gorgeous viewpoint. It can end at sunset with a glass of champagne, or staying up late to capture astrophotography portraits. In between, there are often getting ready images that transition into a first look (if a couple decides to get ready separately), hiking, going on a tour/experience like a helicopter ride, sea kayaking, or horseback riding, having a picnic lunch or stopping by a pub to grab a pint, and carving out intentional time for their ceremony.
When I’m not in the field (which often requires me to be gone for days or weeks at a time), every work day at my office is different as well. A lot of it is spent on the computer. I may be editing images or chatting with my couples from across the country on Zoom, getting to know each other, and brainstorming about their day. I might be editing wedding albums that my couples receive as part of their elopement collection.
I also give each of my couples who book a full day or more with me a welcome box. They’re customized to some level based on the couple, and I create them after the couple fills out a “Getting to Know You” questionnaire. The box often includes products from local businesses near where they’re eloping, like glacier soap from Denali Dreams if they’re eloping in Alaska.
While I’ve had people comment that elopements must be booming, for me, that’s not quite accurate
Elopements have jumped in popularity due to the pandemic, but I’ve found there are generally two types of people who elope: There are those who have embraced the idea of adventure, making their day as intentional as possible with all the sights and experiences they love
Then there are those whom I call “Plan B Elopers,” which is the more common situation. Those are the people who are shifting their wedding plans during an incredibly difficult time and either don’t want to have a big, in-depth elopement experience, or who 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 fantastic people
A top elopement memory was Shelby and Jeff. We took a helicopter to a glacier in Alaska then zoomed up to a mountaintop, where they had their ceremony. Their families, a total of around five guests, were helicoptered up separately. Their second day of coverage was horseback riding, and their third day was back up in a helicopter to a glacier where they went dog sledding. We were able to revel in our surroundings with no other visitors around and search for moose from the air, and I was able to share geological knowledge of glaciers and how they transform the topography.
Incorporating unique and epic activities and places stimulates my artistic side. I’m able to get more epic images than if we were merely driving to and hiking a popular trail that was crowded with other visitors.
Another beautiful memory was Gabby and Lydia saying their vows among the Redwoods, before riding horses among the old-growth trees.
My best advice that goes beyond the general advice that can apply to most photographers is to make sure your niche is something you’re passionate about
While adventure elopements aren’t all hiking 10 miles up a mountain, if you don’t like being outdoors a lot, this niche probably won’t fulfill you long term. Find aspects of your niche that resonate with who you are as a person. If you love astronomy, allow that to be a sub-specialty that you can share with your subjects. Be an expert at taking nighttime portraits. If you’re obsessed with a particular national park, share that love.
You can be a specialist, but being authentic to who you are will bring you far more success and happiness than doing something because it’s what others are doing.