Stories can be told in so many ways. The story behind PEARL Photography by Elena is more than memorable—it is, frankly, breathtaking. Ferndale’s Elena Slesarchuk has built a career as a photographic perfectionist, and her stunning work now appears on the covers of magazines.
A Squalicum High School graduate, Elena was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States at age eight. She married at 17 and has been married 17 years. Her children are now 16, 12, and nine. The oldest is often her assistant, occasionally traveling with her to watch over the gear, and bring her lenses. “God put me in this career,” says Elena, who is currently booked through 2021.
Elena didn’t train to be a photographer. Wanting to help people through her work, she planned to study nursing. But then photography came along. Having given birth to two sons and a daughter, she wanted to take professional-looking photos of her kids. Her supportive husband, Oleg, bought her a basic kit DSLR camera—a Canon 60D—from Costco.
Her reaction: “I had no idea how to use it.”
Like most new users, she put the camera on its auto setting and played around with free amateur editing software. She quickly went from learning how to photograph her own children and posting shots on Facebook to being asked to photograph her friends’ children. Requests rolled in from friends—and then friends of friends…
In three months, she was a full-time photographer, though she admits she still felt like she had no idea what she was doing.
With this new developing skill, she put college aside. Her first paid shoots were maternity and family.
Elena initially charged around $40 for a sitting and marketed by simple word of mouth. A tech-savvy client acquainted her with the next-level tools for her blossoming career: Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, and systems to book clients.
While noted for her wedding shoots now, when clients first started asking Elena to photograph their weddings, she initially refrained—she had young children, was shy, and “I had big stage fright. I was scared of weddings [photography].”
After turning down many requests, Elena caved for one persistent potential client who said she’d give her an entire year to prepare. Elena agreed—and soon booked seven more weddings. But she still had a lot to learn.
“I had a fear of screwing up,” Elena says. This client said it was okay if she did, which alleviated some of the stress. She’s now an expert photographer and truly enjoys it, but there were a few sleepless nights that first year.
Elena had her one Canon camera, two lenses, and no assistant—but she had a strong desire to learn. “I messaged a photographer in Portland,” she says, and asked what types of photos were expected from wedding shoots. She also signed up for a class. She found a second shooter to join her team who brought additional lenses. Her current second shooter, Leo of Portland, was in high demand but she offered to pay him double to retain his services. “He knows it all,” she says.
Always a quiet person, Elena says she’s had to learn to take command of shoots and be heard. “You have to have a voice so they will listen,” she says. “Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. A new personality has come through.”
To take her photography business to the next level, Elena and Oleg did something extreme: they sold their home to have working capital to buy eight lenses, three cameras, lighting equipment, and additional software.
In a matter of a few years, Elena has become noticed for her unusual images, often snapped in places such as mountain tops that require a hike to get to. But it’s more than just spectacular locations that set her apart. “I plan everything,” she says. “I vision with them. Clients bring photos of what they like and I see who they are. We look at places, budget, and travel costs.”
She also works with a dress designer for custom-made gowns, a hair stylist, makeup artist, and floral arranger. She’s far from the typical photographer who shows up, takes photos, leaves, and edits. Elena researches every detail, such as the time of sunrise and sunset for a location shoot.
For a Los Angeles-area shoot in late May, she hired a Las Vegas florist willing to drive over. From her list of vendors, a number are willing to work for free to bolster their portfolios from the collaboration.
And while others in the industry often outsource editing of final images, Elena does that, too. “I’m picky,” she says, “and I hand edit. I’m not using pre-sets. Each location is different.”
Elena now mentors others who are starting to learn photography. “I don’t hesitate to help,” she says.
At the time of our interview, she was between trips to destination weddings in different states. One week she was in Texas; the next would take her to a beach in southern California. Clients pay travel costs for Elena and her team for each shoot. She’s also shot in New York City, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Hawaii, and will reconsider international destination travel once her children are a few years older.
Elena acknowledges she isn’t the photographer for everyone. “Rattlesnake Ledge is a two-mile hike. It takes time. They change in a pop-up tent or with a blanket,” she says. “I’m not for everyone. I am for someone wanting something epic.”
To get the right perspective on a mountain, she has positioned a couple at the peak, and then climbed onto a ladder to rise above them. This spring in Death Valley, California, she and her team took multiple one-mile trips into the desert to haul not only their gear but also a piano. She had seen certain ridges in the ground, so they had to go to that point to get the perfect shot.