#Goals: Zak Shelhamer, Photographer, Filmmaker, & World Traveler
Only in our wildest dreams can we imagine making a living by traveling, exploring the great outdoors, and taking pretty pictures, but our next #Goals series participant, Zak Shelhamer, has done just that.
Zak is a freelance filmmaker and photographer with a seriously impressive resume. He’s developed a devoted Instagram following, and a quick scroll through his feed provides a glimpse into a planet-wide pursuit of adventure and natural beauty. In between the breathtaking mountainscapes and gorgeous coastlines, Zak uses his platform to inspire others to pursue their passions. Forbes named him ’#1 Instagram Photographer to follow’ and Huffington Post has given him the title of ‘Best Adventure Traveler.’
On the surface, Zak is literally living the dream, but his path hasn’t been easy. From giving up most of his possessions and living in a camper van (before it was cool) to suffering devastating personal losses, his journey around the world started with his own personal journey.
So, read on to learn more about Zak, and how his life-long passion for adventure combined with intentional living (and spending) habits have helped him turn his dreams into a reality...
NB: Zak, your adventures make us seriously envious of your lifestyle! Tell us a little bit more about how you got started and involved with photography and cinematography….
ZS: I certainly feel blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity for my passion be my career. I guess it all started back when I was a kid: photography was a hobby that my father did and he taught me how to develop black and white film in a little photo studio we had. So from growing up I knew how to take photos but it wasn’t until I started shooting outdoor sports that I found my style of photography and video. For me, I can tell a huge difference in someone’s work whether they just captured a technically perfect piece of content—lighting, composition, etc…—or someone has put their heart into it. And I think this is where style and emotion comes in, the two most paramount aspects of content creation. I’d say that from a very young age I knew how to take photos, and take them well, but the style and emotion in my content didn’t start to shine until I added passion. So, for me, I always loved getting outside and when I realized that I could go climb, or hike a mountain and snowboard down, or surf and bring my camera to capture that experience and share it with the world, I was like instantly hooked.
NB: Pursuing your passions and chasing your dreams sounds great and all, but I’m sure the road to success hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Can you recall any particularly difficult times that tested your strength, or made you question your career choices? Were there any people, products, or resources that helped you through this?
ZS: This is going to sound wrong but believe me, it’s true. Going through difficult times is the best thing that can happen to us. Uncertainty, doubt, struggle, these force us to examine our motives behind whatever we are doing at that time, whether in life or in career, and when you’re walking through that opposition, it’s an opportunity to grow. I had a season of complete confusion: I was washing golf clubs at a golf course and shooting a few weddings, a summer. I wasn’t making enough to get by just on my photography alone, and even if weddings took off for me, I didn’t feel like it was what I wanted to do. My future was looking grim. I made the choice to get rid of almost everything I had and move into my campervan—this was before living in your van was socially acceptable, and at the time it was most certainly frowned upon—but I knew that it offered me the freedom I needed to shoot the type of content I was passionate about. It was weird, the more possessions I got rid of, the more free I felt. So for me that is what I needed to do to follow my passion and eventually, through a few years of creating content, I landed a full time job creating content for an outdoor and adventure company. Without stepping out and going through that season of questioning my career choice I think I’d probably still be where I was 10 years ago.
NB: What about financially? How were you able to successfully manage your money to help fund your travels? Any financial tips or advice you can share with others out there trying to pursue their passions, and stay afloat, financially?
ZS: Well there has got to be a financial risk evaluation taken into account when thinking about jobs or traveling. A good way to keep from taking a financial loss is to pursue projects that offer either 1) content that will better your portfolio or, 2) projects that will help build professional relationships. After these are taken into consideration you just need to judge the financial risk involved and if the project benefit (Portfolio or Relationship) is greater than the financial risk, then you must DO IT! Or find a way to do it. For me it was selling everything I had and living in a van for a few years.
NB: One thing we talk about a lot is the importance of your mindset. How important is it to have a “healthy money mindset” when it comes to pursuing your dreams?
ZS: I think that goes back to some of the same issues: making good business decisions based off the benefit of portfolio or relationships. It’s important to follow your dreams boldly and confidently but also be wise. Look, to be frank (instead of Zak for one second 😏), if clients are not wanting to hire you it is either because a) you’re not there with your skills, yet, or b) you aren’t marketing yourself correctly. Use your time wisely to hone your skills so that you can be excellent at whatever you’re pursuing. Once you’re excellent, hopefully you’re choosing projects that not only check the portfolio and relationship boxes but also bring in a financial profit, too. That is the most healthy place you can be in your career.
NB: Love your website, by the way! In the video on your homepage you say:
“It’s really hard to just let go sometimes, and I don’t think that means giving up, or not caring, but– it’s important to let go of certain things that are really temporary that might be causing you to lose focus on what’s really important.”
We love this! Can you elaborate on this a bit more, or give us an example of the kinds of things that you’ve learned to let go of, in order to focus on what’s important?
ZS: Yes, I love thinking about this and I’m glad you brought this up. I think it’s important to perceive the difference between what is ‘temporary’ and what isn’t. Things like family, community, faith —these are all things I would consider eternal and I would never let go of. But on the other hand, there are things in our lives that cause us tons of unnecessary stress: remodeling my house, my car, not looking ‘cool’ ... Some of the ‘things’ in our lives are great to have and to put thoughtful time into, but when they cause us to have a negative emotional reaction, it’s not right in it’s right place. I’ve heard it said like this: ‘Never let your possessions possess you.’ So yeah, I think it’s important to let go of some of those temporary feelings, or things so that we can focus on what really matters in life: loving and being kind to those around us, being patient with others, and, when it comes to things that are out of our control, being grateful for what we do have, and just being the best version of our uniquely made selves that we can be.
NB: In that video, you also talk about having to frequently experience unfavorable conditions (it’s not always sunshine and rainbows!) Given that, how important would you say that having a positive, and healthy mindset is? What does having a healthy mindset mean to you?
ZS: This is a tough one, I know the easy thing to say would be to just say, ‘Yes, stay happy, stay positive, stay grateful no matter what.’ But, I know life can be hard, and there will be a time in everyone's life when we realize that this isn’t all just fun and games. For me I learned that from a very young age: I lost my brother to suicide what I was 11yrs old. He was just 15. That same year I lost both of my grandmas and two dear friends in separate, tragic accidents. Life is hard. Life is hard for everybody, and the older you get, the more you will experience pain, loss, hardships... it’s just the way life is. What is vital will be how you handle those circumstances: Are you going to get angry and frustrated or are you going to hold on to hope? And if you choose hope, what are you going to put your hope in? Is it something that will be temporary or something eternal that will not ever let you down? We have to hold on to hope—I cannot express how important that is. If you’re reading this and thinking that you want to have hope but you don’t know what to put your hope in that won’t let you down, then please message me or my wife (@whitneyshelhamer) and we’d love to talk with you about what you’re going through and where you can find hope in the darkest of times.
NB: Wow, thank you for sharing that with us. Along with learning from your personal experiences, I’m sure traveling the world has taught you a lot. Are there any specific lessons that you can pass along?
ZS: The greatest lesson that traveling the world has taught me is that it is not where you are at, it’s who you are with. You can be on your absolute dream trip and it will suck if you’re with negative people or traveling alone without anyone to share the experience with. I can tell you this from experience. I’d rather be at home with people I love than anywhere in the world traveling alone or with the wrong people.
NB: 3 places we must visit and why?
ZS: My must visit list would include: India - people, food, culture. Greenland in August for Icebergs and serenity. Hawaii, the big island - access to beautiful beaches, swimming, surfing, cliff jumping :)
NB: Any favorite travel hacks you can share with us?
ZS: The best travel hack that I can offer would be to get in the car and drive! Grab a friend, stay up all night driving if you have to, but pick a spot within 12 hrs or so and just go! It doesn’t take much planning, time or effort and the experience will be well worth it. I can almost guarantee!
NB: Finish this sentence, “I never take a trip without these 5 things…”
ZS: Headphones, camera, skittles, downloaded podcast, wallet. If I have those things, I can go anywhere in the world and have a good time. :)
NB: Where’s next on your bucket list?
ZS: I love southern Utah. It’s so beautiful and there is such good access to some amazing scenery, I’d love to go explore there some more. But if I had to pick somewhere I haven’t been... perhaps Rome. It has a nice ring to it.
NB: Any final tips or advice you have for other adventure-seekers out there, looking to turn their dreams into a reality?
ZS: This might sound cheesy but I believe it’s true. Follow your passions with excellence, and help others along the way. :)
Zak, this has been awesome! Thanks so much for sharing with us!