"No professional soldier is sent to war without extensive training.…
We’ve talked a lot on the PhotoShelter blog and in guest webinars about the role passion plays in any photography career. As winter hits the US, harder in some places than others, one of my personal passions shifts into high gear; snowboarding.
I’m always amazed at the skill, both athletic and artistic, that photographers and cinematographers display in capturing this extreme sport, played out in some of mother nature’s harshest climates. So when I saw the 200th cover of Transworld magazine had been shot by Scott Serfas, I thought here is the perfect excuse to chat up a photographer and learn more about how it’s done.
A veteran in the extreme sports industry, with over 60 covers under his belt, Scott carved the
path for many of the photographers working in the field today. Scott was willing to give me a few minutes to ask him how he captures the sport he loves through his lens.
photo by Scott Serfas
What was your first love, photography or action sports?
Sports for sure. When I was young I quit playing hockey so I could ski every weekend, and that quickly turned into snowboarding. I always liked having a camera with me though, so I could shoot photos of my buddies and have them shoot a few of me. That camera and all the photos were more for bragging rights than anything else. To see who went bigger and looked better in the air. There was never any interest in photography beyond that.
How did you get into photographing this extreme subject?
As the years passed my friends and I improved a lot, and sponsorships started to come our way. Although I dreamed of being a professional snowboarder, I knew it wouldn’t go further than a few free jackets and some boards. Some of my friends started to do really well in the local scene, and they started drawing the attention of major international sponsors. When those deals were signed I was standing there holding the photos. Back then, in 1991, there were not too many people shooting snowboarding. And why would they, snowboarding was just a “fad”. I also shoot skateboarding and surfing, but to keep this simple I will keep my answers related to just snowboarding.
Photo by Scott Serfas
What was it like learning the ropes in this particular niche? Did you assist under someone? Have a mentor?
There were no ropes to learn, the handful of us doing it were laying the ropes ourselves. Learning day to day, trial and error. There was nobody to assist under and nobody to be a mentor. I look back on it now, and I laugh because I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I remember sending a board manufacturer 4×6 machine prints, developed at a 1 hour drug store, hoping they wanted to use them. They told me that if I had shot them on slide film they could use a few. “What is slide film?” was my response.
Talk us through a typical shoot (if there is such a thing), soup to nuts.
Yeah, there is no real typical day. It generally starts out days or even weeks in advance. Watching the snow and wind forecasts on the internet and then trying to figure out when the sun will poke through. When a day or group of days look good, a date is set and we meet in the morning, before the sun is up. Generally all my shots are taken in the backcountry around British Columbia or Alaska, and we access most of those zones with snowmobiles.
Usually I carry one big bag on my back with a bunch of other gear strapped to the machine. We drive to work like everyone else but the difference is our office is 60 miles into the middle of nowhere. The snow is fresh and the air is clean. I talk with the riders and we all point out different terrain possible to shoot as a group. I tell them what will make a good photo and if they are up for it, they ride their machine, or hike to the top and jump. Or, we could spend 4 hours building a jump and decide to shoot it after lunch. Out there, the day can start out sunny and cloud over in minutes and we’re done. Or we can find and shoot 10 different natural features and have the most productive day ever. Or we can trigger an avalanche just getting into a zone and spend the day…well lets not get into that. Point is, you never know what the day will bring.
Photo by Scott Serfas
Do you work with a team?
Yeah right. (laughs) This job is far from what most people consider normal photography. The more people out with us the harder, slower and more dangerous things get. I carry everything myself. When we are in a zone and have features to shoot, I hike all my gear there myself, some times that can take an hour. Set up, shoot, pack up and load up. We are off to a new zone, and quickly because the days are short and there are not many of them.
What’s always in your bag?
2 digi bodies, 15mm fisheye, 21mm, 50mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, 50+ gigs of memory, gaffer and electrical tape, tool kit and leatherman, shovel, probe, first aid kit, gas station lunch, extra gloves and goggles, balaclava, rope, and a spare down jacket. And in some cases when we decide to shoot on bad weather days I will pack out a large Pelican case with a Profoto 7b, 2 heads, extension cord for one head, Pocket Wizards and a couple small light stands.
Photo by Scott Serfas
What is the most dangerous/exciting shoot situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
There are too many situations to mention. As for danger, it could be anything from an avalanche, to really bad weather moving in and we cant see our way out, to me finding myself in a zone that I have to ride my board down to get the shot, and its a bit more extreme than I want to get. The exciting stuff, well that could be the bottomless pow runs I get, or watching hands down the best snowboarding happen right in front of me and knowing that just our crew of 4 or so got to witness it.
I’ve been lucky to travel all over the world, and see all kinds of great places with such different cultures. For shooting great snowboarding, I would have to say the Whistler backcountry on a snowmobile and Alaska by helicopter. With that said, Iceland, Patagonia, and Japan have to be some of the more unique, standout places I’ve been.
What’s your relationship like with the athletes?
They are all friends but in different ways. Some are drinking buddies, some are business partners, and some are acquaintances that I only see when the snow is good.
Photos by Scott Serfas
Movies are another major presence in the action sports world. Have you been involved in any motion shoots?
Yes, a lot of my photos come from working with the movie guys. I have worked alongside all the best movie companies. This year I was lucky to work with the TWS guys, the People crew, Standard Films and Brain Farm Cinema. Sometimes it makes my job a lot easier because they do all the planning and I just have to show up but the downside is I don’t get a lot of creative control.
Have you shot any video on your camera?
No, not really. Just some after hours party footage (laughs). My team, or lack of team actually, means there is no time for me to shoot video. A snowboarding trick that is worthy of being in a movie these days may only happen once so I need to make sure I get that shot. I need to be ready when the rider is ready. It’s cold up there, on top of a ridge, and when they are pumped up and ready to drop they don’t want to see me still hiking into position, or filming the ravens hunting for our sandwiches.
Photo by Scott Serfas
How many magazine covers do you have under your belt?
Around 60, but who’s counting? (laughs) 5 so far this season.
Who do you work most closely with: brands, publications, team managers?
I work with all kinds of brands and publications, endemic and non endemic. To name a few; Transworld Snowboarding Magazine (USA), Pleasure Magazine (GER), Whitelines Magazine (UK), Snowboard Canada Magazine, American Photo Magazine, ESPN, Ripzone International, The North Face, Red Bull, Endeavor Snowboards, Burton Snowboards, Airhole Face Masks, etc.
Photo by Scott Serfas
What is your relationship like with the other photographers in your niche? How many of you are out there doing what you do at the level you’re at?
I think the relationships amongst photographers in our industry are pretty good. We are a small group, maybe 10 to 20 top guys, so I feel its important for all of us to work together to build a proper business structure. No one benefits from undercutting each other. I am constantly in touch with other photographers and sharing general business info.
How do you market yourself?
That’s a great question, something I keep asking myself actually. Marketing my photography is not a strong point in my business. Like almost every other photographer out there, I just like to shoot and don’t really have interest in the business side of it. I have a Facebook account, twitter a blog and a website. I try to update those as often as possible with the jobs that i am doing. I’m not really sure if those tools really create new business for me, or enough new business to justify the amount of time it takes. I know it does for some. Almost all of my work comes from word of mouth. Its a small industry so I already know most of the people involved in it.
How do you keep your relationships with photo editors/buyers etc… strong? I just try to be fair when quoting rates, respond to requests quickly and supply photo submissions that are well edited. Keeping a photo editor’s attention when looking through your submission is key.
Photo By Scott Serfas
What’s the next step/level in your career?
I think I’m there. I know other photographers that have used snowboarding as a stepping stone to get into fashion or commercial photography but I’ve never really wanted anything more than what I am doing now, shooting friends snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. I will always push myself to shoot things differently, try new ideas, and to keep things fresh. Try to always improve on what it is that I am doing.
With that being said, I love the challenge of shooting other things and I will continue to do so. This year I shot a few different catalogues including Ransom by Adidas, Eira, and Ripzone where I wasn’t just shooting action but also the fashion side too. When it comes down to it though, action sports is where my heart is at. I would love to publish a book after 30 years but that is still a ways away.
Photo By Scott Serfas
Knowing that you came up before shooting boarding was really a full developed niche, knowing what you know now, what would your advice be to photographers looking to get started doing what you do?
I would say it’s best to be a snowboarder first and know the subject/sport you’re shooting inside out. If you don’t live to snowboard, your photography will show it. It’s obvious to the industry when photos are shot and/or published by someone that doesn’t ride. It’s hard work, in tough conditions and you dont get paid a lot, so you really have to love it.