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Natural Light Only: A Candid Interview With One of the 30 Most Socially Influential Photographers, Jake Olson

By Hanssie on September 18th 2014

It’s hard to believe that Jake Olson only picked up a camera 3 years ago. Recently named by Huffington Post as one of the 30 Most Socially Influential Photographers with the likes of Zack Arias, Jeremy Cowart, Joe McNally, Trey Ratcliff and more, Jake’s images have gone viral many times over, has been seen all over the major online publications, and also on dozens of book covers internationally.

Jake’s distinctive style of portraiture uses solely natural light. In fact, he doesn’t even own a reflector or any flashes. He lights all his subjects in camera and in post. Also, a minimalist in gear, there are only three items in his camera bag: a Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II.



I’ve gotten to know Jake a little bit via social media after I featured his photography in this article back in March and I can tell you that he is a photographer who is down to earth, funny and very open about his life and struggles. While on a flight back from the Dominican Republic, Jake shared with us candidly about where he started – from rehab battling an alcohol addiction to an award-winning, much published photographer, who is literally booked SOLID, shooting portrait sessions 7 days a week, with images seen millions of times around the world. Here’s how he did it.



Jake, tell us a little about yourself and your experience with photography. How did you get started?

I got started after I got out of rehab for an alcohol addiction three years ago. I was sort of at a loss at what I was going to do with my life as well as for fun. I had a little Sony NEX 5 laying around I had used to sell things on Ebay and when I was having a tough time, I would take a walk with it and just take pictures of landscapes. It was a very therapeutic activity for me and still is to this day. It wasn’t until two years ago, I decided to incorporate people into my Nebraska landscapes and I’ve been extremely busy with portrait work ever since.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a successful internationally known photographer. How did you go from the starting point to being booked the entire year, one year in advance?

Well, the journey began just from doing what I love every day and sticking with it, no matter what anyone told me I could or couldn’t do. People can tell when they’re working with someone who is passionate about their work and in a small community like Blair, Nebraska word spreads quickly. I started to book out probably due, not only to the quality of work, but the low price points at first.

I wanted to stay busy and make a simple living doing what I enjoyed. I never looked at photography as a way to become rich and I still don’t. Even though I’ve raised my prices substantially since starting out a few years ago, I see the cost purely as crowd control. The main reason I was able to advance so quickly was due to wanting to improve every day. That’s still my mentality on each and every shoot. BETTER IMAGES! That’ll never change no matter how many times I’m published or interviewed.



What were some of your pitfalls, disappointments or things that slowed you down? What were some key things that you did to help you become successful?

I honestly haven’t had anything slow me down except for having to learn basic computer skills. I took to Photoshop fairly quickly and my brain just understands the process. There was a short period where maybe I couldn’t bring a vision to fruition in the form of a finished image, but I just kept at it and had patience with myself. I’ve been very lucky in terms of having my images published or being viral. Again, I’m very new to this art form and I’m sure there will be some frustrations upcoming, but so far I’ve just enjoyed the ride and keep learning every day.

I have a long way to go in terms of technique and post production skills, so I’ve kept grounded and cut myself some slack. I think my best work won’t come out for at least another four years.

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Describe the  moment you realized that you made it. How did you celebrate?

I celebrated after my now ten month old son Adam was born and I realized I had turned my life around. That’s the only time I’ve ever felt victorious. The published work and viral images are great, but again I feel like my best work is a ways down the road. I’m not 100% happy with any of my images right now, but I’m still very inexperienced in this industry. I’ve had images I felt good about, but not a single one I didn’t think could be improved. I supposed holding my first book cover was great, but again I saw subpar and older work in the image on the cover.

How do you stay motivated?

“IMPROVING.” I go out every night with the words “BETTER IMAGES” in my head. Even if it’s a shoot (Location and Light) I’ve done a hundred times. My post processing skills have always been good, but my in camera images are getting much better week by week. Last year, my in camera exposures were just brutal. I feel much better about them this year. I’m making some equipment upgrades and I’ll learn a lot this winter after I sit back and reexamine this portrait season.

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Will you share with our readers how to get clients and create a consistent stream of income?

YES! Love what you do and love the people! It’s also important to identify your client base. You’re not going to be for everyone and the sooner you accept that the quicker you’ll start to build a loyal future clientele. Identify who you have chemistry with and invite them back! The clients will get better images and you’ll have a better time capturing them. I want to offer my clients an experience and not just a service. We have a great time! It’s not the stuffy studio experience most people think of when they think about portraits. QUALITY WORK is the most important and just overall caring about what you hand the client is obvious.


What has been your favorite project or can you give us a hint on what you’re working on in the future?

I don’t have a favorite. I approach every situation with the attitude that today I want BETTER IMAGES THAN YESTERDAY.

What is your best tip for photographers?

DON’T LISTEN TO OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS IN TERMS OF YOUR WORK. Isolate your vision and your brand and build on it with consistency. DO A FEW THINGS UNTIL YOU DO THEM WELL! Be evocative! Be yourself! Cause a stir! And most important have fun!

Thanks Jake for your advice and honesty! Best of luck in future projects and yes, one day I will make it out to Nebraska for a photo shoot with my Kidlet!

See more of Jake’s work on his Facebook page and on 500px.

CREDITS: Photographs by Jake Olson are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.




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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Grisel Kastre-jon

    He might be a “great” photographer but he’s a horrible human being for sure. Read below.

    Olson frequently boasted about his “fame,” and on his website he claims
    the Huffington Post named him as one of the top 30 most socially
    influential photographers in the world.

    When WOWT 6 News contacted the Huffington Post
    asking if they stand by their ranking of Olson, a representative said
    the list “was compiled by a blogger,” and not the Huffington Post.

    Further digging showed the Top 30 list
    initially appeared in a blog written by Mark Fidelman, a contributor to A Forbes representative told WOWT 6 News that Mr. Fidelman
    “quoted Mr. Olson about social media as one of several photographers
    briefly interviewed for the piece. Mr. Fidelman… is not a full-time
    Forbes staff journalist.”

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  2. desmond chislom


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  3. Rafael Steffen

    What a great inpirational and goal setting article for this year! One of my favorites. Thanks so much! I love this!

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  4. David Hall

    I would so love to see the before/after photos in this stream. These finished images are beyond stunning.

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  5. Aaron Cheney

    I love natural light. This was a beautiful article!

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  6. Jill Schindel

    I love this. I am trying to wrap my head around flash photography, but it is refreshing to see such a talented natural light photographer. Having heard from so many people that a “natural light photographer” is just a kind way to say “somebody too lazy to learn flash properly”, it’s good to see that some brilliant work can be produced without the gadgetry (not that I don’t want to continue learning flash – I think it is very valuable). I don’t think anyone would dare accuse Jake Olson of being a lazy photographer, or an unskilled photographer. His work just a few short years into his craft is mind-boggling.

    I guess it all comes down to passion, vision, persistence, and an understanding of light (in whatever form). And maybe, just maybe, a bit of luck :).

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  7. Phil Bautista

    I’ve been impressed by Jake’s pics for quite some time now but this back story is really impressive. I never knew he was this new to photography and the way he picked himself up is also very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Una Hannigan

    Excellent article!…thank you.

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  9. Anthony McFarlane

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Isaak Kwok

    Great interview! Learnt quite a few things.

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  11. Doug Smith

    My daughter is the 8th photo down in this article. My wife’s friend, who is friends with Jake, had her daughter’s senior portraits taken by Jake. Immediately upon seeing those shots, my wife wanted my daughter’s pictures taken by Jake. I saw some previews and thought, “ok”. (I’m a guy, we don’t get so excited about these things.) They had the shoot with Jake and he posted a few online and I was completely stunned. It brought tears to my eyes, and those are just the “previews”. I’m hoping Jake will fit the rest of my kids in when the time comes (they’re 4 years apart), because I think he’ll have a waiting list from when the kid is born soon.

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  12. Asad Qayyum

    Excellent interview. Very inspiring. Thank you for posting.

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  13. Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    I love his candor and conviction! Bravo!

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  14. Moses Wabwire

    There aren’t many natural light photographers in my country, Kenya. these are amazing!

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  15. Peter McWade

    Very encouraging being I’m getting back into photography. I love natural light and thanks for posting this interview.

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  16. Ant Motton

    Not listening to other photographers regarding your work is great advice…everyone and I mean EVERYONE cares to some degree about what others think….I’ve tried to put that to the back of my mind this year and I’ve felt much better about it and felt my work has improved, great interview too :)

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  17. John Cavan

    Those are some gorgeous images, he has quite the eye. The light in them in is spectacularly positioned, I’m quite impressed, thanks for bringing him to our attention here!

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  18. Vince Arredondo

    Wow! Great pictures! Hanssie great work! I really enjoyed it.

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  19. Daniel Thullen

    Hanssie, thank you for profiling Jake Olson! What an inspiration he is. I love his philosophy. I WANT BETTER IMAGES THAN YESTERDAY TOO.

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    • Hanssie

      You’re very welcome! If all of us photographers strived to be better than yesterday and ignored the critics and naysayers, what a different community this would be!

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  20. Steven Pellegrino

    Inspiring interview! One of my favorites on the site. Thanks for posting this.

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    • Hanssie

      You’re welcome and thank you for the kind words. It was one of my favorite interviews as well :)

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