With a lifelong love of skiing in the Wasatch Range, emerging ski + outdoor photographer Sam Watson is forging his own path in the outdoor sports industry. His easygoing nature, close-knit relationships with premier athletes and willingness to consistently hone his skills has allowed him to consistently grow his business.
In our conversation, Sam shares:
- Why persistence + follow through creates more opportunities
- Why you’ve got to love what you’re doing
- Which skill is most useful when working with clients
Can you give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do?
Yeah, I’m 27 years old and I’ve lived in Salt Lake pretty much my whole life. I lived in Bellingham, Washington, for two years right after high school, I was going to school up there. Partway through I realized I missed Utah and ended up moving back and finished at the “U” [University of Utah] here.
I’ve had a season pass to Alta pretty much since I started skiing. It’s kind of my home away from wherever I’m living in Salt Lake. I ski all winter long, and the past seven years I’ve worked in southern Utah guiding mountain bike and river trips. I shoot a lot of photos on those trips as well. I always just bring a camera along because it’s a cool way to sort of look back at what I like to do and it’s a lot easier than keeping a journal.
What’s your focus right now when it comes to your photography career?
I’d say skiing is the main focus but I can’t do that year round. I’ve never been down to South America or New Zealand in the summer to keep shooting skiing in the summer and so, I guess right now, my focus is branching out and trying to get some other clients in the outdoor industry, which I’ve had a little bit of success at. I’d love to shoot some more mountain biking, backpacking and things like that throughout the summer too.
What’s your process like for finding those additional clients in the summer? We’ve seen you’ve done some fly fishing-focused work and some work with Chums.
A lot of it is just kind of keeping an ear out and reaching out if I hear about an opportunity and really being persistent. If I know some company is in need of a photographer for a certain shoot, I’ll just keep bugging their marketing guy until I get a yes or no answer.
Occasionally I get approached by a certain company, which is really nice, it’s a little bit less work on my end. But mostly just persistence and looking for companies I want to align myself with and think my photography would be a good fit with.
For the companies who approach you, how are they finding you — through other people, Instagram, your website?
I think it’s a combo of all of that, but primarily it’s word of mouth.
I’m lucky to live in Salt Lake, it’s got such a vibrant outdoor community and quite a few friends and acquaintances I’ve met over the years are involved in some way with certain companies in the outdoor industry. A couple of times I’ve had a certain friend who’s in some role at a company and they’ll be at a board meeting or whatever and hear that they need a photographer for a certain shoot and they’ll throw my name out. Then from there whoever the marketing guy is or whoever is in charge of the shoot will be able to look at my website or my Instagram and if they like what they see, then they typically contact me about it.
What inspires you as a professional photographer?
I get inspiration from a lot of other photographers in the outdoor industry. Salt Lake is a total hotbed for outdoor photographers, which is good and bad. But it’s really good on the creative side because you can always see what other people are doing and it’s really easy to talk to other people who are in the same spot.
So inspiration definitely comes from other photographers and it’s just kind of the place that I live in too. Salt Lake is beautiful, especially the Wasatch Mountains where I like to ski mostly. And just trying to show that in a good way with some ski action in there, it’s pretty fun.
What’s your creative process?
It kind of varies. If I’m just going out trying to shoot some cool ski photos to use later for magazine submissions or something like that, I’ve got kind of a loose hit list of stuff I want to shoot throughout the season: stuff I saw the year before and didn’t get to shoot or stuff I think I could shoot better than I shot the last year.
A lot of times I’ll have a rough idea of a certain shot, but conditions change constantly and so it’s just going out, ski touring a certain area, and if I’m with a skier and I see something cool, then we’ll go shoot it. Some of my favorite shots have been stuff that Drew [Petersen] or whoever else I’m with will see — a cool little spot for a turn, some good light — and I’ll end up shooting that and it’ll be a winner.
You’ve mentioned before that shots based around sunsets down Little Cottonwood Canyon are pretty big for you too.
Yeah, definitely shooting early morning and sunset too. The more I’m out skiing, I’ll just keep a little mental checklist of like, Oh, this certain area gets killer light this time of year at sunset, and then try to go back there when conditions line up and get something good.
Are you able to make a full-time living from just your photography?
I haven’t delved into it full time in the summer yet because I’ve got that guiding job which I quite like and want to keep. That job is nice because I have zero cost of living in the summer if I’m able to sublet my room in Salt Lake, which I have for the past couple of summers.
It’s a super busy summer but all our living is covered down there. So besides my cell phone bill and health insurance I don’t have any other expenses, really, throughout the summer. And that just allows me to save a bunch of money so I can have a little bit of a buffer when I start shooting again in the wintertime.
In the wintertime the past two years I’ve been doing photography full time. And that’s enough money to continue to do it and to do what I like.
Two years ago when you did switch over to full-time photography in the winter, how did you know you would be able to support yourself?
I’d say it was more of a gamble than anything. I worked in Southern Utah all summer through the end of October and had a good bunch of money saved up from that — enough that I knew that even if I didn’t land any photo jobs throughout the winter that I could continue to pay rent and eat.
And the winter prior to that I’d gotten some decent photography jobs and a couple of them carried over to that next winter. So I knew that I always had a little bit of photo work and I felt like I could get quite a bit more. I just kind of went for it.
What are those winter jobs you’re referring to? Are they freelance, one-offs or does it depend, winter to winter?
It kind of depends winter to winter. There are a few organizations that I shot for for a few years, like 4FRNT [Skis], and that’s contracted. It’s not a salaried job or anything like that, it’s as shoots come up.
How do they pay you?
I get a day rate for X amount of days for a shoot somewhere.
Is that similar for Giro and Alta Ski Area?
No, Alta’s just for a season pass. They’ve got a good photographer and skier team that they hook up with passes for the season in exchange for the understanding that those people will shoot photos or video within the resort boundaries and promote Alta on Instagram and send Alta photos and video for Alta to use on their social feeds.
And then the Giro thing’s fairly low key. It’s kind of similar to what’s going on at Alta but just for product, basically. So they’ve given me helmets, goggles and stuff like that for the past couple of years in exchange for a couple of photos a month here and there.
4FRNT’s sort of my main retainer client, I guess you’d call them.
And this winter, I shot a bunch of stuff up in Deer Valley for their [Deer Valley Resort] marketing team, which has been good.
Other than that, it’s kind of just random jobs throughout the winter for certain ski companies or whoever else is in need of a shoot at a certain time.
With Deer Valley Resort you were doing two shoots. How are your jobs structured with them?
It was for the wintertime. They’re sort of revamping their whole website and social channels — they’ve been using the same photos for quite a while now. The first week I was up there I had a shot list of all these different ski shots we needed to get and athletes lined up for each day. Then the last time I went up I was shooting winter lifestyle sort of stuff — a bunch of restaurants and après skiing, stuff like that. And I think I’ve got some stuff lined up with them for the summer shooting some mountain biking and summertime concerts and activities up there.
Is that a day rate with them?
No, it’s per shoot. It’s a set amount we’ve agreed upon beforehand for each five-day block that I’ve shot up there.
How did you find them?
They approached me. I got hired via an ad agency that Deer Valley hired. Their ad agency is based out of San Diego and they do a bunch of stuff in the outdoor action sports industry. Deer Valley approached them saying, Hey, we’d like a little life injected into our photography and videography. And so the agency found me via Instagram and my website and the head of that ad agency liked my style of shooting and thought I would be a good fit for shooting up there.
Are you doing video work for them too or is it just photo stuff?
No, they’ve had a separate videographer for each shoot.
Did you have to line up any of the talent or athletes or just go up there and shoot?
Nah, their shoots are great, they have everything lined up. We’d roll up there and they’d provide nice housing each time and all the meals would be taken care of, they serve incredible food.
That sounds great.
Yeah, I ate like a king for a week and I’d give them my memory card at the end of the day and they’d download photos from the card and their in-house editor and processor at the ad agency would take care of all the editing and processing, so I didn’t have to stare at a computer screen and do all that after the fact.
Have there been any key skill you learned dealing with Deer Valley, Giro or 4FRNT that has really helped you with the business side?
Photography skills help, but I think the most important thing is just being a nice person. Being able to go with the flow and just being able to get along with other people is probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned is valuable to have. Because you can be the best photographer in the world, but if you’re a total pain to shoot with and hang out with, no one is going to want to hire you.
How do you market yourself? Do you actively market yourself to businesses?
Yeah, I guess I don’t really think of it as marketing, necessarily, but updating Instagram certainly can help. I have mixed feelings about Instagram, but it can help in certain instances.
And then having a good, polished website I think helps quite a bit too. It’s just a good sort of overview of my photography and style that someone can take a look at and just sort of see how I like to shoot and what kind of stuff I like to shoot. Having that as sort of a marketing piece that you can show someone you’re trying to get a job with is a huge help.
I’m also constantly checking in with old and new clients and seeing if they need anything else and just being persistent.
How often do you update or change your portfolio or just your site in general?
I’d say every three months or so maybe. I’m not on a total schedule but the fall after each ski season, after I know which photos are picked up by magazines and after stuff gets published somewhere, then I’ll put those images up on my site.
For contracted shoots with specific clients, after the client is done with those photos and it’s okay for me to show them to the world, I put my favorite shots into galleries on my website. So if another prospective client is going to go take a look, they can see I shot photos for another company and produced good deliverables.
So with Deer Valley you didn’t do any post-production work, but what about for other clients? How much additional work do people not see?
Quite a bit, I’d say. I usually budget a day of post-processing and editing for each day of the shoot, if it’s a full-day shooting.
On an outdoor-oriented commercial shoot it’s so easy with digital photography to shoot as much as you want because you don’t have to worry about burning film or anything like that, so I’ll easily shoot 2,000+ photos a day. And then going through all those and renaming everything, and then keywording everything — that’s definitely what takes the most time. I assign certain keywords to photos or groups of photos so I can find them later.
Have there been any key peers or mentors that have helped you?
Yeah, absolutely. I had a really good internship with a guy named Scott Markewitz. He’s kind of one of the OG ski photographers.
I had a good internship with him for six months a couple of years ago, working in his office three or four days a week and then I’d help out on shoots too. It gave me really valuable insight into how to run a photography business because he’s got it very dialed and makes a good living off of it and shoots a lot of cool stuff. And so that was pretty inspirational, to see that and to be able to talk to him and ask him millions of questions about how everything works.
What were some of the key insights or advice he gave you?
You can never be too organized. And then having photos backed up on several different platforms just in case the worst happens.
Seeing him in action on shoots, too. It really goes back to what I mentioned earlier about being a nice person and being easy to work with. He’s super laid back, fun to hang out with, easy to get along with, but still able to get everything done super efficiently and super well.
How did you land that internship?
I’d met him a couple of different times by basically being in the same sphere in Salt Lake. And then I saw via a Facebook post that he was looking for an intern. I applied, interviewed and ended up getting hired.
Was it a paid internship?
No, that was unpaid. He offered me a job to continue working there paid, after my internship was over, but I wasn’t able to do it because it was only three days a week, I think, and then it would have just been impossible guiding in the summertime.
When it comes to your commercial, retainer, fine art and any additional photos you’re selling, how does that all break down for you percentagewise?
I don’t know exactly off the top of my head, percentagewise. I sell a few prints, which helps out quite a bit.
It’s mostly contracted work throughout the season and then a little bit of retainer stuff. 4FRNT’s really my only paying retainer. Hopefully I can make Deer Valley a retainer for coming years too, it’s a nice job to have.
But I’d say the majority of my income in the winter comes from basically contracted one- or two-time hired shoots throughout the winter for different ski companies or ski-related companies.
How do you figure out pricing and contracts?
Before working on pricing it’s important understanding what a shoot will consist of. So everything from deliverables and client needs to how much work I’ll have to do getting models or skiers, or if it’s during a set amount of time or if it’s conditions-dependent, like a lot of stuff in the skiing world. And sort of based on those factors, I’ll typically let the client make an offer first. Because a lot of times it’s more than I would have charged them, which is pretty nice when that happens. I’ll have an idea of what I would want to get and I’ll be stoked if I get that amount per day or for the shoot. But it’s the ski industry and stuff’s kind of loose, so I’ve got to be willing to potentially take a little bit less sometimes.
In regards to having them say the price first, is that something Scott taught you or is that just something that you instinctively did?
I don’t think I ever really talked too much about money with Scott. That piece of advice came from one of my teachers at the University of Utah. I got a journalism degree there and took a couple of photo classes as well. One of my teachers for two of those classes, Pat Cone, super great guy, he’s a little bit retired from his professional photography career, but he shot a ton of commercial and editorial stuff throughout the ’80s and ’90s and that was his piece of advice — to make sure to always let the client make an offer first, just for that very reason. A lot of times they’ll offer you more than you would have asked for.
It’s good advice. And have you had any other learning experiences or things that didn’t go smoothly?
I haven’t had any totally nightmare shoots or anything like that, but I’ve had a couple of shoots where they had to be finished during a 2- or 3-day stretch and the weather didn’t cooperate. So learning how to make a good photo in less-than-ideal conditions has been a big learning curve. I feel that’s a great skill to have as far as being marketable in the photography world, and that’s another thing Scott taught me. Scott is really good at that — even in the worst conditions he can make a really crappy, boring scene look amazing, whether it’s bringing lights in or just a crazy unique angle on something.
Since you’ve had photos published in POWDER Magazine, Backcountry Magazine and other media outlets, have those been good marketing pieces for you?
I think it’s a good piece of cred to have. Especially POWDER because it’s sort of an OG ski magazine and they’ve been known for a long time for having great photography. So to have a shot in there is an honor and it’s a good thing to be able to say that I’ve been published in POWDER because that definitely makes people’s ears perk up.
How did you get your images published?
Those have just been from end-of-the-ski-season magazine submissions. So in May, typically, whenever I’m done skiing and shooting for the year, I’ll sit down and put together selections of photos for different magazines to their specifications and send them out. And their editors are usually pretty good —POWDER’s really good — about getting back in a timely manner with which photos from the submission they think they might want to publish. I’ll send them 20 to 30 shots throughout the winter, my A-grade stuff, and they’ll hold onto maybe 10 that they say they might want to publish. And if they do end up publishing something, then they’ll let me know ahead of time and check in to make sure that it hasn’t been published anywhere else.
When it comes to your photography business, what are some of your biggest challenges or struggles?
Probably marketing myself and working on self-promotion. The biggest thing that I would like to get better at is putting more effort into promoting myself and putting the value of my work into a pitch to certain companies. I’m pretty happy with what I can put together from a shoot, but I have a hard time telling companies that they should hire me based on that. That’s just my personality, I have a tough time really selling myself.
And being active on social media because I think that can be a really valuable tool, but I don’t know, I always have a hard time promoting myself, it just feels strange.
How are you going about potentially changing that for the future?
Kind of just changing my outlook on it and realizing that it’s not a bad thing to say, Hey, my work is sweet, you should take a look at it.
For the clients you’ve worked with, how long has it taken to actually start working with them after your initial reach outs?
It really varies, but it’s been from a couple of weeks to up to a year, in my experience.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your photography career so far?
Being able to continue to ski and be outside, definitely.
I love photography and skiing and that’s why I continue to do it. I want to be able to continue to ski and be in the mountains all winter long and photography is a great vehicle for that. It’s really cool on a lot of levels — from being able to produce something from my winter, a set of photos, a great thing to look back on and remember certain days in the mountains that I might have forgotten otherwise. And then being able to support myself with it is pretty incredible. It’s a great way to spend the winter and to keep skiing, which is what I want to do, first and foremost.
Are you going out in the mountains almost every day in the winter with your gear? Or are there certain days where you’re just skiing?
If I’m ski touring I pretty much always bring one camera body and anywhere from one to four lenses. It will vary from day to day. If I’m going out on a total A+ grade blower powder day where I’ll want to shoot a bunch of photos because conditions don’t get that good every year, I’ll bring a bigger lens selection and know that I’m gonna be shooting more. If I’m just going out on a less-than-ideal conditions day I’ll bring a pared-down lens selection, usually, and just go out and ski something or just go walk around and look at stuff.
When it comes to storms and having athletes to shoot, do you have a list of people you’re communicating with regularly throughout the winter?
Yeah, pretty much. I shoot mostly around here in the winter, it’s where I’m based out of, I know it the best and if it’s good in the Wasatch it’s where I’d rather be than anywhere else in the world pretty much.
I’ve got a good core group of friends like Drew [Petersen] and a few others who like to ski the same stuff that I like to ski and shoot on, which is backcountry, powder conditions ideally.
Are there any questions we didn’t ask but you wish we had?
Maybe about specific camera gear. I’m not a huge gearhead, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, camera-wise and lens-wise. But I always do love hearing what other photographers take out as far as the camera body and lens selection goes for a certain day or things like that.
I shoot all Canon stuff and I really like it. Usually I like my 70-200 lens and typically bring a 24-70 and a 15mm fisheye too. And I just got a longer lens that I’ve been having a lot of fun with, a 100-400, which you can line up cool shots and faraway things. I’ve been having a lot of fun with that recently.
For the 70-200, which one do you have?
I have the f/4 which I prefer over the f/2.8, considerably.
For the weight or what reason?
Yeah. I think the f/2.8 stabilizer and f/4 stabilizer version of that lens are just as good optically and I never shoot my f/4 wide open. So if I had that 2.8, I’d never shoot it at 2.8. And the f/4 weighs half as much as the 2.8 and that’s pretty big for skiing.
The 2.8 is huge, yeah.
Yeah, it’s a tank.
If you had to pick just one camera/lens combination, what would it be?
It would be my Canon 1DX body and Canon 70-200 lens with it.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I’d like to shoot a cover for POWDER, that would be a life goal for sure.
I’d love to go to Alaska and shoot some skiing up there — the spines and terrain in Alaska are a photographer’s dream. And shooting out of a helicopter or doing some extended camping trip or ski touring trip up there.
Sounds like good goals.
Yeah. And then on the non-skiing side of photography, just continue to shoot more of the things that I like to do in the summertime, like mountain biking and backpacking, stuff like that. I think that you’ve got to know what you’re shooting. I sort of live and breathe skiing all year long, especially in the winter.
We keep hearing that too, especially from action sports-focused photographers, that you’ve got to love both photography and the sports.
Yeah, gotta love it because if not, you’ll be freezing your ass off skiing and not sell a photo for that day and be bummed. But if you love it, then it’s just part of the deal. And if you’re out skiing in the mountains every day, you’re pretty lucky and you should act accordingly.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s photographs courtesy of the artist. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- 4FRNT – skis
- Alta Ski Area
- Andrew Pollard – skier
- Backcountry Magazine
- Chums – eyewear & outdoor accessories
- Deer Valley Resort
- Drew Petersen – pro skier & Artistic Ally
- Giro Sport Design – ski helmets
- Golden Alpine Holiday’s Meadow Lodge – British Columbia, Canada
- Grant Gunderson – photographer
- Karl Fostvedt – skier
- Patrick Cone – photographer
- Pep Fujas – skier
- POWDER Magazine
- Sam Cohen – skier
- Scott Markewitz – photographer
- Thayne Rich – skier