Where we’re going, we don’t have roads. The North Face sent photographer Celin Serbo on assignment to an area near Canyonlands National Park to capture stills of Alex Honnold, Daniel Woods, and Matt Segal establishing new climbs in a place called Labyrinth Canyon. In this post, Celin reveals the challenges of shooting a 10 day expedition, and shares his amazing images.
I met Celin last year in Boulder, Colorado and interviewed him for a post on Fstoppers about shooting images in the field and the work he has to do on the business side of photography. We caught up with each other when Celin told me about a project he recently did for The North Face, involving some of their athletes taking a climbing trip along the Green River. When I inquired further, I discovered that the athletes included the famous free solo climber Alex Honnold, national-champion boulderer Daniel Woods, and trad climbing master Matt Segal, so it quickly became obvious that this was a serious project. I asked Celin about the process for getting an assignment like that, and he told me that projects for The North Face are often pitched by the athletes themselves.
“I've know Alex Honnold for several years and I always thought he would love this area so we started talking about possible time frames to make this TNF trip happen. I guess you could say that I pitched Alex on this trip with me as the photographer. Once I got Alex interested he proposed the expedition to TNF and after several rounds of approvals we got the green light.”
Celin, the athletes, and the rest of the crew had to bring in 10 days worth of supplies for this trip. Packing and shopping were more of a challenge than hauling, since their canoes and raft were able to handle the load. This ultimately made it a bit easier to focus on the photography that he was there to. Celin explained to me how it’s important to capture images not only of the climbing, but also of everything else the athletes are doing, to get a sense of lifestyle.
“The athletes definitely picked up some slack for me with regards to cooking and clean up to allow me the time to shoot those activities. As a photographer you are definitely getting up earlier than everyone else to eat, be packed, and ready to capture the athletes getting ready for the day. At night myself and Renan were usually the last ones to bed as we download files and prep gear for the next day. They are long days no matter how you slice it but well worth the effort.“
Celin often found himself alongside Renan Ozturk and John Dickey, who were shooting footage for video projects. Forcing out of my mind the image of vertical paparazzi following climbers on a rock face, I asked Celin what it was like to manage what he was doing along with a couple of videographers who would be shooting some of the same subject matter. Celin suggested that communication was very important, and that each team member needed to understand the objectives that everyone was working toward.
“It was great to work with Renan and John. They both come from a solid photography background and I have shot a fair bit of video so it was very easy for all of us to be on the same page in regards to our individual objectives and staying out of each others shots. An added benefit was having two extremely talented people to bounce creative ideas off of. Renan and I were definitely in some pretty close quarters when shooting from fixed lines above the climbers. Zoom lenses certainly help to crop out feet and ropes. It was all about communication and checking in with each other to make sure we were both getting what we wanted."
To work in places that are as remote as this, power is always an issue. Solar charging technology has been coming along very well in the last 5 years, and Celin relied on this tech to keep the batteries for his camera charged. While his camera clicked away with fresh juice though, he almost wasn't able to power his laptop to offload each day's images.
“Power was definitely an issue for this trip. We relied 100% on solar power to recharge. I went in with the Goal Zero Sherpa 50 and the Nomad 27 solar panel. This was great for recharging camera batteries but wasn't really enough to power the laptop throughout the trip. Luckily Renan came in guns blazing with the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 due to the heavy power requirements of his Red Epic. It's heavy but it kept us all up and running the whole time.”
So even though there has been all of this packing, coordinating, shopping, gear management, etc… Photos still need to be shot! I asked Celin how an image like the one above is created, from finding the location to getting in place to capture the moment the athlete is there.
“When shooting first ascents much of the setting is dictated by the athletes selection of route. Their decision process tends to revolve around aesthetics, rock quality, and safety. First ascents usually require a fair bit of cleaning and sometimes equipping the route with bolts for protection and/or anchors. This process can take anywhere from an hour to several days. They use fixed static lines to allow for efficient movement up and down the routes to prep the routes (for climbing). These fixed lines also allow photographers the most efficient way of capturing the athletes when they are ready to make their first ascent attempts for an on-route perspective. Other perspectives require setting up fixed lines on neighboring routes, scrambling up a gully, or simple walking to a near by ridge. It's all relative to how you want to capture the climber and route. With the majority of the routes I wanted to give a strong sense of place to the images."
For those wanting to know what gear Celin shot with, here’s his list:
"Pelican 1490 for my laptop, external drives, card reader, etc... and a pelican 1550 for camera gear. I transported camera gear to the crags and shot from fixed lines with the Mindshift R180 pack. My camera gear included 2 Nikon d800 bodies, 2 Nikon sb800 speedlights, Nikon 16-35mm f4, Nikon 24-70mm f2.8, Nikon 70-200mm 2.8, 3 pocket wizards, 1 tripod, 1 light lightstand, 1 collapsible chimera beauty dish, 1 California sunbounce reflector, and a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter.”
In the end, Celin said that the trip was a success, and the climbing team established 10 new climbing routes in the area.