Born in Muccleston on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border, Samuel Bourne began his working life as a bank clerk, but as early as 1853 photographed in the Lake District, north Wales, and the Scottish Highlands. In 1857 he abandoned banking for photography. In 1859 the Nottingham Photographic Society mounted an exhibition of some 2,000 prints, including Bourne's. George Shadbolt, then editor of The British Journal of Photography, who had earlier considered Bourne's work artistically inferior, praised his contributions to the 1859 exhibition. Bourne's correspondence with Shadbolt during his journeys to India appeared in The British Journal of Photography between 1863 and 1867.
In January 1863 Bourne sailed to India as a professional photographer. He soon made the 1,200-mile journey from Calcutta to Simla, the summer residence of the viceroy of India. Yet the town and surrounding countryside did not correspond to Bourne's notion of the "ideal landscape," and he left on a ten-week expedition into the Himalayas, photographing the River Sutlej in the Kulu and Chini regions.
In 1864 Bourne entered the photography firm of Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson, which had just moved from Agra to Simla. The company, which ultimately became Howard, Shepherd, and Bourne, operated until 1870. During this period Shepherd managed the studio and printing enterprise while Bourne photographed in the field, as evidenced by Bourne's nine-month expedition into the Kashmir region in 1864. In 1866 Bourne made his final expedition in India. Accompanied by Dr. G.R. Playfair, a botanist and geologist from Agra, he traveled for six months to photograph the source of the Ganges.
In 1867 Bourne returned to England to marry Margaret Tolley, then went again to Calcutta to open a branch of Bourne and Shepherd. In 1870 he took up permanent residence in England, and finally withdrew from the firm in 1874 after establishing a cotton doubling mill. In 1892 he became president of the Nottingham Camera Club and Society of Artists and in 1896 retired from business to devote himself to watercolor painting.