Scott Serfas: How to be a good photographer

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Scott Serfas is one of the most prolific action sports photographers in the world. With thousands of published photos and over 100 magazine covers to his name, the Vancouver native was the principal photographer on Travis Rice’s groundbreaking snowboarding films The Art of Flight and The Fourth Phase; was a TransWorld SNOWboarding senior photographer from 1997-2017; shoots regularly for brands like Red Bull and GQ, and doesn't believe in auto-focus. For those looking to accelerate themselves from enthusiast to professional, Scott has some advice for you. 

Written by Scott Serfas
I bought my first digital camera in 2005…
I shied away from it for a long time because I knew it was going to add an element to my job that was 'easy'. The 10-15 years I had been working to that point meant you were getting jobs because you could expose a frame on film perfectly, even if you didn't know the result for two weeks. With digital you could just move dials until the exposure looked good, then even if it wasn't perfect you could just move some sliders around on a computer program until it did. So it was going to make it easier and cheaper for others to shoot, thus diluting the industry with photography, and that was scary.
What I didn't see coming was taking the digital camera and putting it in the back-pocket of everyone around me. So no matter where you were in the world, someone could, and would get a picture of whatever it was that was happening at that moment. Now there is so much being documented; some of it is great, but most of it garbage. But more than anything the attention span consuming it was gone. If it's bad, just one flick and you've forgotten you ever saw it. If it's good, you might not even see it at all.
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Photo: Scott Serfas
I can buy an entry level DSLR and learn a lot in a weekend. I can buy someone’s presets and as long as I can get something in focus and in the frame I can create a decent shot. I can buy 20,000 followers and build a platform and call myself a photographer. But there’s a cost that goes into the production of shoots that people tend to forget about. Eventually, brands will realise that the crappy image they got for free is representing them. A lot of brands don’t want to put money into photography because the guy in the office could shoot it for free. But if they don’t understand composition you still have a crappy photo, and that photo still incurred the cost of travel and production. Now, some of those brands realised that wasn’t good enough, so they started hiring professionals again. You want quality content to represent your brand, right? Otherwise your brand is just going to fall to the side with the rest of the garbage brands. You can't sustain the illusion forever.
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Left: Photo: Scott Serfas.
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Right: Portrait at Semi Permanent 2018 by Toby Peet
Challenging yourself is easy because nature always changes… 
Last winter I shot the ‘Forum Stepdown’ jump in Whistler. The older riders don’t go to this particular jump because it’s been done, but the upcoming riders that I shoot want to prove themselves on it. It’s a hard jump to shoot, and after 10 years of shooting it you realise what works and what doesn't. There really isn't a lot of angles to make it look as big as it really is.
But at the same time, advances in technology means you can go farther away, shoot with longer lenses. Snowmobiles are getting better, so you can climb higher up the hill — now you can get something different. You’ve got to find some other angles, otherwise what’s the point? If you keep doing the same thing, it’s going to get boring. These days, you won't find me going to the same place over and over and over again.
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Forum Stepdown. Photo: Scott Serfas
People often ask me for pointers…
What I tell them is the same thing I say to everyone — pick up any camera you can and just shoot. But if you keep using the same lenses, you're going to end up shooting the same thing. A different lens each time will help you to start thinking outside the box. A few years ago I was out in Australia and went to a surf break with one lens. I knew if I'd brought my 600mm lens I probably would have gone for a tight shot like what everybody else was doing, but I didn't have that with me. So I took the one lens that I had and shot the scene from further away. That photo turned into a two-page spread in Surfer Magazine (below), and it all came from not having the tools I was most comfortable with. With a lot of surf stuff I've shot in Canada, the editors love it because they're seeing pine trees, or a beach with no houses around; these wide open vistas with a black rubber suit, or cloudy, low light rainy days that makes the shot grainy — it’s just different to how they've seen surfing for years. New is cool.

Eliminate what you know and find something new, because that can change everything.

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Photo: Scott Serfas
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Photo: Scott Serfas
People often ask ‘how do I get your job?' And I have no idea how to answer… 
It's difficult to be somewhere like Semi Permanent, standing in front of people talking about my career. I feel like people are here to listen to me say something so profound that it changes their life, whereas I just picked up a camera and took photos of friends having fun. I knew what I wanted the shots to look like because I wanted to make sure they were representing the athlete well and legitimizing the sport, and that’s all I try to do. There was no schooling, I just learnt by trial and error and it happened to take 25-years to get where I am today. Obviously, you do the right things as time goes on: you say yes to the right opportunities and no to the bad ones. But I just keep trying to make something interesting.

I wasn’t looking for a job, I was just looking for a good time. Maybe when you love something so much, you put the extra time and effort into creating something that looks good, and then it evolves.

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Photo: Scott Serfas
I’ve lost big jobs from agencies that put me on a conference call with art directors and producers... 
They will say ‘how are you going to [take the shot]?’ and I'll respond ‘I don’t know’. I mean, I understand what you’re saying — you want the shot of the guy in the water, do this or that, for example. But how cold is the water? Is it sunny outside? Raining? Is the water shallow or deep? Do I need a boat? They can’t answer those questions but want to hear all the right answers. I assume they just want to hear a bunch of bullshit so they can tell their boss I am the right guy for the job. But I can’t answer truthfully because I won’t know until I’m there, or until I’m given all the crucial information. It comes down to mother nature; you get what you get and you have to be able to adjust to those conditions. So many people are used to working in a studio where everything is the same. Once you step outside, into the mountains or the ocean, anything can happen. I feel these people just want me to say ‘I’m the greatest and I’ll do this and this and that’ (and maybe I should) but I just can’t. I can’t straight up tell a client I’m the best out there and lie to them about things I’ll do on the job that I know may or may not happen. Maybe I’m just too honest?
It’s good getting away with not having to talk shit, but I might reach a point in my life where I'm starting to look for work where I've never had to before. Clients may need to be spoon fed the information that is second nature to me.
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Photo: Scott Serfas
The only way we ever get better at anything, whether it's socialising or working, is by pushing the boundaries and stepping out of our comfort zones.
There are trips that I know are going to be very difficult. This trip (to Semi Permanent) was one of them. At first, it sounded awesome. Then I was thinking ‘wait, there are going to be thousands of people there and talking in front of them is terrifying. Also, I've gone on trips where I know that I'm going to be sleeping in a tent, on a glacier in the middle of nowhere. I'm going to be freezing. I’m going to hate it. But I know it's going to be a great experience regardless. I don't really want to do it, but I should, so I commit to it so I can't back out. And it forces me to get in that uncomfortable position of figuring out a way to deal with it because at the end of it all, I’m likely not going to die. Be comfortable being uncomfortable I guess is what I’m saying. It just makes you better in the long run.
Foreword and Editor — Christopher Barker
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