This past November while on a trip to Colorado, I had the chance to meet up with Celin Serbo, an outdoor lifestyle photographer whose client list includes the likes of Nikon, Backpacker Magazine, Nat Geo Adventure, and First Ascent, among many others. We spoke about the challenges of capturing images in the field, the importance of being business-savvy, and the obstacles of incorporating filmmaking into the services he offers.
Celin Serbo is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has been shooting since the early 90s. A hard-working, business-smart artist, Celin has brought himself into working on some amazing photography and video projects for commercial and editorial projects, large and small. His client list is impressive, but he maintains a humble perspective and realistic approach to his work the industry.
Fstoppers: What's the industry opportunity like in Boulder, for both the outdoor adventure shooter and the commercial shooter?Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Sterling Rice Group calling Boulder home. Several smaller ad agencies doing great work have popped up as well.
Fstoppers: There seems to be a lot of outdoor adventure photographers saturating the market, especially in a place like Boulder, Colorado. How has this affected your business and the local industry?
Celin: I think it's amazing to have so much creative talent in a relatively small city like Boulder. If anything, it has drawn attention to this area and we can all benefit from that. It has made it more challenging to distinguish yourself but that comes with the gig. Overall, it has a positive affect.
Fstoppers: What are some of the challenges you find when shooting stills or video in a distant location, where you can only take in what you can carry?
Celin: In many ways it's nice not to have all the bells and whistles. It forces you to simplify and shoot with what you have. When working within those constraints for a client I find it very valuable to manage expectations on the front end just so everyone is on the same page with regards to production value. This certainly doesn't mean that you can't create great content but it is different.
Fstoppers: You've got some killer outdoor adventure photos! Would you say that there is a particular style you strive for, or a particular approach that you take when it comes to capturing your images?
Celin: Thanks. I strive to capture authentic moments and then add a level of production value to it. It's a constantly evolving thing. I don't really have a term to describe it but maybe it could be called "polished reality".....? sounds silly. I'm not a very good photo journalist. I usually have an idea of the images i want to make before I head out and I tend to be drawn towards graphic and clean compositions. I'm not always successful at creating the images in my head but i enjoy that creative process.
Celin: With so many incredible places to shoot I can't say there is one favorite but I always seem to drawn towards desert environments. I love shooting locally around Boulder as well. You get a more intimate knowledge of locations close to home with regards to, light, foliage, conditions, etc... then you can integrate that into your concepts and revisit these locations easily.
Fstoppers: When we talked, you spoke of the necessity for photographers to be business-savvy. You even suggested that someone who is a smart business person and a mediocre photographer might do better than someone who is a mediocre business person and an excellent photographer. Why do you think this is so?
Celin: That is a generalization but yes. Certainly the work needs to be to a certain level of professionalism but then there many other factors that determine success. It's a strange profession in the fact that you need to be equal parts artist and business person. The vast majority of us get into photography from the art perspective for creative reasons, but to make it a sustainable profession we need to understand the business and marketing side of things and it's not very sexy.
Fstoppers: In your career, have you ever reached a point where you were struggling to make ends meet, or to get inspired? What happened or what did you do to persevere on?
Celin: All the time. I drove school buses part time for 5 years while I was trying to get my photo business off the ground. It was a great job for extra income and health insurance while allowing me time to work on photography. Even now there are good months and bad months. It's important to be able to put some money away in the good months to ride out the bad ones. You have to able to ride out the highs and lows both financially and emotionally. This industry is not for those who need stability.
Fstoppers: What was your first "big-break" in the industry?
Celin: It's hard to say that there was a "big break". A lot of little breaks that add up is more accurate in my case. I was fortunate to shoot an assignment for First Ascent when they were first starting out. That lead to several bigger jobs with them and allowed me some financial freedom to quit the bus driving gig. I'm still waiting for my "big break".
Fstoppers: In the last few years you have begun to offer video as a service to your clients. What kind of obstacles did you encounter while trying to learn a new craft?
Celin: Lots! It was (and is) a steep learning curve. Although there are many similarities with photography, there are many differences as well. Sound is huge and something we don't think about much with photography. Being able to visualize a complete story vs. moments is a big shift as well. Then throw in all the additional gear for motion and a relatively complex editing system and your head will surely be spinning. That said, I really enjoy shooting video and I encourage other photogs to jump into it. I would say that 80-90 percent of my assignments in the past 2 years have included both stills and motion.
Fstoppers: Where do you see the industry moving in the next 5-10 years for photographers and commercial filmmakers?
Celin: That's a good question. I see the two merging, and what was once a successful photographer will be called a director. It's happening already with many of the top dogs and as technology improves and prices come down it will only accelerate. It's hard to imagine that photography in it's current state will exist ten years from now. With cameras shooting 4k at super high frame rates now, I can't help but think that in ten years most still images will be frame grabs from video as that technology improves.
Fstoppers: What video/stills cameras are your favorite? Any particular lens favorite?
Celin: I have really been impressed with the Nikon d800 recently. Both the stills and video are incredible and perfect for the type of work I do. As for lenses, I love the Nikon 24-70. I can't tell the difference between it and primes in that focal length. It's definitely my work horse lens.
Fstoppers: What advice would you have for someone looking to get into adventure photography?
Celin: I'm a little hesitant to give too much advice as I'm still figuring all this out and everyone's path to success is different so my advice would be: Get a part time job for the first few years. Develop a compelling body of work with a consistent unique style. Spend the money to market yourself properly to a wide variety of clients that value visual content.