Madison cinematographer goes viral on TikTok

MADISON, Wis. — If you’ve spent any time on the popular video-sharing app TikTok, you may have seen drone shot videos of Madison and the UW Campus. The cinematographer making it happen behind the scenes? Sam Li.

Li graduated from UW-Madison in 2018 with degrees in Communications and Strategic Communication. Today marks two years since he posted his first drone photo, inspired by those he saw of Chicago and New York. He said it was during his sophomore year of college that he first held a camera, inspiring his now full-time job.

“After that class I bought my own camera… like a cheap $300 dollar camera and that summer I ran around shooting videos with my friends,” said Li.

Although he is known for his drone content now, Li explained that it hasn’t always been clear to him how he could make his passion into a career. It wasn’t until he understood his business potential and the role of social media in promoting his art that his business truly took form.

“I think the one word you hear a lot is viral. You want your content to go viral. And that’s something that takes a little luck…but it’s also really knowing how social media operates and kind of using it to your advantage,” said Li.

Social media did indeed end up playing to Li’s advantage. With Instagram and Twitter already popular when he started out, Li said he spent years growing his following there. This was not the case with Tik Tok.

“It took me four years to get to 10,000 followers on Instagram…it took me two weeks to get to 10,000 followers on Tik Tok,” said Li.

Growing his following was especially crucial for Li during the pandemic, as he quit his previous full-time job just five months before quarantine began. Now he’s focusing on selling prints and licensing his work, a pivot he said prevented him form truly feeling the negatives effects of the pandemic that other creatives have.

His biggest advice: “Let people know what you’re doing. If nobody know what you’re doing, nobody’s going to hire you.”

Li hopes to eventually start a production company, but for now seems like he’s doing pretty well for himself. His work can be found on his Instagram account and at his website,