During a trip to Colorado last November, I had the opportunity to meet Celin Serbo, an outdoor lifestyle photographer whose list of clients includes Nikon, Backpacker Magazine, Nat Geo Adventure, and First Ascent, among others. We spoke about the challenges of capturing images in this space, the importance of business acumen, and the barriers to incorporating filmmaking into the services it provides.
Celin Serbo lives in Boulder, Colorado and has been a photographer since the early 1990s. A hardworking, enterprising artist, Celin has brought himself to work on some amazing photo and video projects for commercial and editorial projects, big and small. His client list is impressive, but he maintains a humble perspective and realistic approach to his work in the industry.
Fstopper: What are the industry opportunities in Boulder for both the outdoor adventure shooter and the commercial shooter?
Celin: The possibilities have really changed in the last 10 years. Many outdoor-related businesses and non-profits have either founded or relocated to Boulder. There is certainly no shortage of incredible athletes or beautiful locations. Commercial opportunities have also opened up with advertising agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Sterling Rice Group calling Boulder home. Several smaller ad agencies doing a great job have also popped up.
Fstopper: There seem to be plenty of outdoor adventure photographers saturating the market, especially in places like Boulder, Colorado. How has this impacted your business and local industry?
Celin: I find it amazing to have so much creative talent in a relatively small town like Boulder. If anything, it has drawn attention to that area and we can all benefit from it. It has made it harder to stand out, but that comes with performance. Overall it has a positive effect.
Fstopper: What are some of the challenges you face when shooting stills or video in a remote location where you can only shoot what you can carry?
Celin: In many ways, not having all the bells and whistles is nice. It forces you to simplify and shoot with what you have. When working for a client within these constraints, I find it very valuable to manage expectations on the front end so everyone is on the same page in terms of production value. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t create great content, but it’s different.
Fstopper: You have some killer outdoor adventure photos! Would you say there is a particular style you aspire to or a particular approach you take when it comes to taking your pictures?
Celin: Many Thanks. I strive to capture authentic moments and then add production value to them. It’s a constantly evolving thing. I don’t really have a term to describe it, but maybe you could call it “polished reality”…..? sounds silly. I’m not a very good photojournalist. I usually have an idea of the images I want to take before setting off and I tend to gravitate toward graphic and clean compositions. I’m not always successful in creating the images in my head, but I enjoy this creative process.
Fstopper: Where is your favorite place to take pictures?
Celin: With so many incredible locations, I can’t say there is a favorite, but I always seem to be drawn to desert environments. I also enjoy shooting on location in Boulder. You’ll get a better knowledge of places near your home in terms of light, foliage, conditions, etc., then you can incorporate that into your concepts and easily revisit those places.
Fstopper: As we spoke, you spoke of the need for photographers to be business savvy. They even suggested that someone who is a savvy businessman and a mediocre photographer might do better than someone who is a mediocre businessman and an excellent photographer. Why do you think that is?
Celin: That’s a generalization, but yes. Certainly the work must demonstrate a certain level of professionalism, but there are many other factors that determine success. It’s an odd job as you have to be equal parts artist and businessman. The vast majority of us come into photography for creative reasons from an artistic perspective, but to make it a sustainable profession we need to understand the business and marketing side of things and that’s not very sexy.
Fstopper: Have you ever reached a point in your career where you were struggling to make ends meet or find inspiration? What happened or what did you do to persevere?
Celin: The whole time. I drove school buses part-time for 5 years while trying to get my photography business off the ground. It was a great job for extra income and health insurance while also having time to pursue photography. Even now there are good and bad months. It’s important to be able to put some money aside during the good months to get through the bad ones. You must be able to weather the ups and downs both financially and emotionally. This industry is not for those who need stability.
Fstopper: What was your first “big break” in the industry?
Celin: It’s hard to say there was a “big break”. Lots of little pauses that add up is more accurate in my case. I was lucky enough to be shooting an assignment for First Ascent when they first started. That led to several bigger jobs with them and gave me some financial freedom to quit the bus driver gig. I’m still waiting for my “big break”.
Fstopper: In recent years you have started offering video as a service to your customers. What obstacles have you encountered when trying to learn a new craft?
Celin: Many! It was (and is) a steep learning curve. While there are many similarities to photography, there are also many differences. Tone is tremendous and something we don’t think much about in photography. The ability to visualize a full story versus moments is also a big change. Then when you add all the extra gear for movement and a fairly complex editing system, you’re bound to get your head spinning. That said, I really enjoy making videos and I encourage other photographers to get involved. I would say that 80-90 percent of my work over the past two years has included both still and motion.
A place of honor by Celin Serbo on Vimeo.
Fstopper: Where do you see the industry 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 is called a director. This is already happening with many of the top dogs, and as technology improves and prices fall, it will only accelerate. It’s hard to imagine that photography in its current form will still be around ten years from now. With cameras now capturing 4K at super-high frame rates, I can’t help but think that ten years from now, as that technology improves, most stills will be stills from video.
Fstopper: Which video/still cameras are your favorites? Any particular lens favorite?
Celin: I’ve been really impressed with the Nikon d800 lately. 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 to Primes at this focal length. It’s definitely my workhorse lens.
Fstopper: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into adventure photography?
Celin: I’m a little hesitant to give too much advice as I’m still figuring this out and every path to success is different, so my advice would be: get a part-time job for the first few years. Develop a compelling work with a consistent, unique style. Spend the money to market yourself properly to a variety of clients who value visual content.
Thank you Celin for taking the time to answer my questions! You can see more of his work on his portfolio website and some of his video work on his Vimeo page.