Creative Lives — Lifestyle photographer Sam Robinson on building a career and portfolio full of shared experiences

Posted 02 July 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

Photographer Sam Robinson’s all-embracing, fun-loving approach to life is palpable from his energetic portfolio. Capturing images that put people, their personalities and movement centre stage, his lifestyle and advertising work has attracted a huge and wide-ranging client list, including adidas, Apple, Coca-Cola and Sony. But photography isn’t the only string to his bow: After finding the prep side of the job lonely, he invested in a studio space in London. The project has since developed into Paper Mill Studios, and now houses 14 companies and 40 creatives, from film editors to retouchers. And if that wasn’t enough, Sam is also part of a collective behind shoe label Primury, is a partner in an eco brewery, and balances all of this with family life. We find out what he loves about the job, and why he thinks it’s important not to become too distracted with what other people are up to.

Sam Robinson

Job Title

Photographer

Based

London (mostly)

Previous Employment

“I was a lifeguard for a few years in high school, but I have pretty much done this as long as I have done anything.”

Education

BA Photography, Nottingham Trent University 

Representation
Clients

adidas, Apple, Chase, Coca-Cola, Dell, Gore-Tex, Grolsch, Hilton Hotels, Jamie Oliver, John Lewis, Johnnie Walker, Lufthansa, Marks & Spencer, Next, Nike, Range Rover, Starbucks, Sony, Vodafone

Website
Social Media

Sam Robinson

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
I am a lifestyle photographer, specialising in photographing people and storytelling, with a nice broad selection of advertising clients. 

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I shoot as many days as I can in a week; the rest is split between travelling to jobs, prep and post on shoots and then as much as I can with my lovely family. It is a random mixture – some weeks can be back-to-back shoots, and others are more relaxed, with one or two shoot days. I have a small space in Paper Mill Studios, where my team and I are based.

Could you tell us a bit about The Paper Mill, and the idea behind its founding? 
I originally had a studio called The Shop Studios, it was in an old shop off the high street in De Beauvoir. I would spend all this amazing time on set with lovely people in a really social environment, and then come back to my empty studio. I found the prep side of photography quite lonely, and it made no sense to me… I wanted to be around people. So when the unit next door to my studio became available, I decided to buy it to be able to build some desks and spaces to rent out.

In 2014 my wife and I decided to make this a larger project, and bought an old paper mill in islington. We wanted to convert this into a larger version of the creative workspace, to include a photography studio, a couple of kitchen studios, editing suites, a post-production space, retouching studio, lots of desks to rent and a self-contained flat on the top. 

It's been a lovely place to base my businesses and share creative projects with the 40 people and 14 companies that are all based from here now. It is a magic place to be, and a great home for creativity.

“My work is about the natural quirks of life, capturing and creating authentic images of real moments.”

Paper Mill Studios, a shared working space that Sam set up together with his wife, in London

Paper Mill Studios, a shared working space that Sam set up together with his wife, in London

Paper Mill Studios, a shared working space that Sam set up together with his wife, in London

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How collaborative is your role?
Very, is the simple way of putting it... I have some shoots that are smaller-scale projects, but for some we work with a team of 50 to 100 people; it really is job dependent. 

The best part of the job is 100% the people, everyone we work with and the teams we build. It is a very, very exciting part of the job. All the best ideas I have ever been a part of come from this way of working, so it's how I like to work.   

But this is just taking into account the photography and directing. I am also part of a collective that makes sneakers, I am a partner in an eco brewery and we own a creative work studio, too.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I know this is a cliché, but this is not just a job – it's a passion of mine. I get to create images and work with inspiring people every day. The challenge is finding the time to do all the projects and personal work around all the commissioned work; creating the right balance of work and personal projects. 

My family and home life is not what people would call ‘normal’ but I have a lot of intense work periods and a lot of long family time… Life is all a balance, and if I have enough time, I'll do it all.

Sam describes his creative journey

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I worked on a large live action and stills project for a rebrand of an active clothing label. It was two weeks filming in Canada with so many incredible locations and people, including two months of planning. Some days we had a cast of over people and extras. It was a fun project to be a part of, from the creative all the way to the post-production. 

Also, I always enjoy every shoot I do for shoe brand Primury. I am part of the collective that makes them, and we all work on the creative – from the design of the actual shoe all the way to the shoot. It's a total team effort, and I have the pleasure of shooting all the photography for the brand.

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
For me personally, it’s all about people. I like to have fun and for everyone there to have fun, too. I’m a tech geek like all the other photographers I know. I obviously love all the cameras and nerdy stuff, but really they’re just the tools. The rest comes down to having a good time and working with great people, so really the most important skill is being able to enjoy whatever comes my way on set; everything happens for a reason.

“For me personally, it’s all about people. I like to have fun and for everyone [on set] to have fun, too.”

Personal work, ‘July 4th’

Personal work, ‘Tramontana’

Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Yes! Always. I’m making a short film I wrote about my grandma, a sports film about the 100-metre sprint, a photo story about the Catalan human towers and a list of lots more that I am itching to get started.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
Cameras! I’ve kept every one I have ever owned, and it’s so nice to bring all of my film cameras back into action for commissions as well as personal work.

A shoot for Primury, a shoe brand Sam helps run

A shoot for Primury, a shoe brand Sam helps run

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
An architect for a long time (well, more of a Lego architect). Then I got a camera, and from then on I basically wanted to take pictures. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I realised I could actually do photography as a job, and that changed my life.

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
More than influenced it, my family and my upbringing totally encouraged me to pursue my creative path. My parents have been the biggest support and inspiration I could have ever wished for. Now that I’m a father, I can see how my goals have changed from professional achievements to being the best dad I can possibly be. It’s way harder than this photography business!

How useful have your studies been to your work?
I’m not sure I learned much of the technical side at college. The most important part of it all was the networking and meeting people; learning how to collaborate. I’m sure if I had gone straight into the industry I would have learned it all in a different way.

What were your first steps after graduating?
I was lucky enough to find a job assisting full-time, I learned loads about the business of photography – it was like walking out into the big, real world, it was amazing. I worked there for three years, and learned so much that it definitely shaped my direction. Since I left and started out on my own, I have always had full-time assistants and members of my team. I love having a big team – it means we can achieve so much.

Work for Veon

Work for Perfect Moment (left), and Hoka

Was there a project that particularly helped your development?  
So many! It’s all about luck and timing. There’s always a new project that helps me develop; it’s the wonderful thing about the job. Every year I think back and say to myself, “If I shot that again I would do it differently.” I love that I’m learning every day.

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I’ve made so many mistakes (probably best not to share client names, but so many!). I think the biggest challenge for me is still getting over the nerves of working on a new big campaign. The night before is still restless and sleepless, but every morning I get back into the rhythm. It’s amazing that I still really get hyped up before a shoot, but thankfully it’s always the same happy result.

“The biggest challenge is getting over the nerves of working on a new big campaign. The night before is still restless and sleepless.”

Work shot in Tokyo

Work for Hoka

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
Give my kids the same opportunities and love I was given; this is really the main focus. Then, I am shooting a lot more film work and am working towards a feature of some kind, and would like to make a film one day… It’s a distant dream, but I will do it – I’m sure of that.

Could you do this job forever?
It’s never the same job – it changes every year, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing it long enough to change. My passions change and they inspire my images, so the clients will change and my work will adapt. So yes, I think I will always work in this world. I’m sure I would miss it if I didn’t.

Work for Black Magazine

Work for a project about parkour, captured in Cape Town

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer, or someone wanting to start their own business?
Love what you do, and do what you love. That’s a cliché, but I find it hard to tear myself away from my job – and that is surely an inspiring thing to be able to say. I think something we see a lot of is a lack of inspiration from life. Try and focus your energy around you and the world; this is an amazing place we live in, and too many people seem to be inspired by what other people are doing. 

Stop and look at the rain, look at the plants growing through the cracks in the pavement, take a moment to just sit and look at the sky; something that doesn’t involve you making a plan. I say this as I’m sometimes a victim of the competitive world we live in, but when you can break away and enjoy something real – for yourself and not social media – you are rewarded with something fresh.

Posted 02 July 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Sam Robinson, Paper Mill Studios
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