Carlos Serrao

From intense sports action to high fashion Carlos Serrao has a distinct look that elevates his subjects to visual stardom.  His crisp light and subtle color palette have illuminated the faces of Jack Nicholson, Will Ferrell and Kobe Bryant and have brought him a list of advertising and editorial clients including Sony, Nike, GQ, and TIME.

Recently I interviewed Carlos Serrao about his career, craft and the creation of our featured image. We begin discussing the clever problem-solving and technical achievements that went into creating this series that was shot for a Nike ad campaign.  The latter part of our interview details Serrao’s creative inspiration, post-production methods and recent motion projects.

Seckler: Tell me about the concept for our featured image you did for Nike .

Serrao: The concept was for this Nike Pro under-apparel for use in cold weather. The (ad agency) wanted to illustrate it in a way that was obviously a little bit exaggerated. So, I came up with this concept of cold-looking vapor trails coming off the body. In effect, it showed not only the motion of the athlete but also displayed the cold.
Seckler: Did they have an idea of how they wanted to execute it, or did they come to you and say, “Hey Carlos, how are we going to do this?”
Serrao: They didn’t really have an idea how do it… this could go really well or this could look really cheesy. It’s just one of those things where it sounds great but can work without looking crazy.
Seckler: And so what were your ideas?

Serrao: Well, I don’t like it to look digitally composited at all, if possible. So funny enough, I had just watched the DVD of one of my favorite movies from the ’80s, John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” They shot that movie partially in arctic-circle country, but some of the stuff was shot in Los Angeles in a freezer. They actually built some of the sets in a freezer. I was like, “Aw, so cool, we can shoot in the freezer!” So we gave it a little bit of a run-through in a small freezer, just to make sure it would work. It was one of those things where you can’t really test it until you’ve shot it.

Seckler: So how did you shoot it?

Serrao: We shot the athletes for five days in a soundstage in Oakland, just to get the black background. We laid down either astroturf or real turf so they can actually (perform the action) and then the rest was shot on black. We’d be shooting these stadium plates at night, so it’s lit more harshly because I always try to match what lighting we are going to do even though we hadn’t even shot the background yet.

We used mostly brocolor lights so we could control our flash duration. Since we knew we were going to be putting them into stadium situations in post, we light to mimic the hard direct lighting of Musco lighting at a nighttime match. We used p65 large reflectors high in a semi circle behind athletes as the keys, and set up three12x12 silks in a semi circle in front of athletes and behind camera for a soft fill in front…and to also give us a bigger sweet spot. We shot it around f 5.6-f 8, with the flash duration set on the packs at no less than 1/2000 of a sec.  We shot with a hasselblad H3 31mxpl camera, using a range of prime lens

es 100mm to 250mm.  We set up 20×20 duvetyne to stop balls from flying everywhere and also protecting the set.

Then we did the nighttime plates at universities or high schools, from let’s say 10 at night to 6 a.m. Originally, we dressed the sets to be a little bit colder, with snow on the ground… in the middle of the summer. We had a lot of moisture, which filled the air with haze and fog. But at the last minute, the (marketing) client decided that we had to take all that snow out.

Stadium background plate

We did that all night, and then that morning we had to go to the freezers because that was the only time it was available. We rented in San Francisco’s meat-packing district a huge walk-in freezer. My prop guy would jump in the shot, quickly spritz the (athlete) down with hot water, and steam would rise off his body. And then he would do a kick. Also, to get a really exaggerated breath, we had a mannequin head that our prop guy had bored out the nostrils and the mouth, and we actually stuck the steamer through there and had that coming out with a little bit more pressure. We backlit that for a decent exposure of vapor. And then we had the athlete moving, doing the kick. At that temperature it shows up quite a bit. So all of the elements you see of the vapor and smoke are actually vapor that we reused.

Seckler: And you had the Astroturf in the freezer too?

Serrao: Yeah. I never have anybody doing fake stuff, so if they’re kicking a ball they’re kicking a ball. If they’re running, they’re running. And the pro athlete we were shooting was a rookie on the U.S. men’s soccer team who had never been photographed before. He kicked the ball as hard as he could. He slipped, and the ball careened into the camera, smashing it into pieces. The pocket wizard snapped off and cut me to the bone, right underneath my eye. So I, um, was knocked out for a second and blood gushed out and was all over the place. And I turned to the athlete and was like, “Oh, dude, it’s cool, man.” And he’s like, “It’s not cool (laughs).” So I had to go to the hospital and get stitched up. So next time I shoot a rookie maybe I’ll just use a longer lens.

Seckler: So what did you do exactly to get this stadium to look so cold?

Image from Carlos Serrao’s portfolio

Serrao: We had an Igeba, a heavy-duty fogger that’s really loud and noisy. I think it uses oil instead of water vapor… to kind of get that mist in the air. We were hoping — shooting in San Francisco — to get that gloomy marine air, even in the summer. It didn’t cooperate with us, so we had to make our own with the fogger, which is why you have that sort of flarey look off the stadium lights. We also wet down the grass, giving us a sort of frost. And the rest of it is just kind of giving it a profile with a lot of shifting the blacks to a little blue, making it a little bit more open.

Seckler: Your color palettes are really unique and beautiful, and obviously that comes into play in retouching. So tell me about your relationship with the retoucher and how you come up with a color palette for a project.

Serrao: I’ve work closely for years with both my digital tech and the retoucher. I originally started, like a lot of people, with film. I would go print it myself at the lab. I would do my own palettes in actual analog color printing, so I already had an understanding and a direction I already liked, which is why I like to use the same people, to get them on the same kind of page. We supply the retoucher with tons of notes, and I have some basic, decent skills to mock things up, and an understanding of what will work the best for her. I’m obsessed with trying to make it as not-Photoshopped as possible, so the biggest compliment is when someone doesn’t realize we weren’t actually there shooting it… when it doesn’t look like it’s totally composited.

Seckler: Do you know what the color palette’s going to look like before you start shooting? Or does it change on set or afterward?

Image from Carlos Serrao’s portfolio

Serrao: I have a pre-visualized idea of what I want it to be, and for the most part it ends up being that way. For a job like this I pulled enough reference material, whether it be stills from movies or whatever, to have a general palette that I like. And it’s just a matter of, from the very first shot, working on it.

Seckler: Your lighting has a distinct look as well. Where does the inspiration for your lighting come from?

Serrao: This is maybe something dumb that I got to get over, but I even want the pieces (of each composite) to look like decent, finished shots. I’m getting over it a little bit, but if I’m doing, say, the shot of the athletes against black, if that black isn’t completely clean, the background, if there’s part of the frame being folded down, you see half the studio or whatever, it drives me crazy.

Whenever I go to a location I try to imagine where the light would really be falling because I don’t want to feel the strobes in the room. But there are strobes because for whatever reason we have to freeze the action. Recently we’ve been doing a lot of work with 18ks and hot lights, trying out new things as well. But that comes from trying to make it look as real as possible, but in a hyper-real way.

Seckler: Tell me how you got your start as a photographer.

Serrao: I used to do, as a kid, little Super 8s, and then moved to video. A lot of skateboard stuff in high school. When I graduated I started shooting for the local weekly paper, like the Village Voice of Miami. It wasn’t necessarily chasing ambulances or reportage. It was more like spending three or four days with a family that got flooded out of the Everglades, or a portrait of this politician. It was pretty cool because I’d run out and spend days shooting the stuff, which taught me how to be fast. And since it was a weekly paper, I could be a little bit more illustrative. I remember some politician guy who happened to be in a wheelchair who was being charged with sexual harassment or something. So the art directors and I would work on it together. “OK, let’s make this shot a little more moody. Take it back to the darkroom, and maybe do some stuff. Make it darker around the edges, or vignette it, or whatever.” So I bought that mindset.

Seckler: How did your career progress after your experience at the paper?

Image from Carlos Serrao’s portfolio

Serrao: I essentially moved out to Los Angeles and started working for the papers here…(shooting) mostly celebrities. So all of that technical know-how I’d picked up at the paper translated to shooting celebrities and actors and famous people, and still working very fast to do it. I started shooting an ad, and of course that brought in bigger magazines because they would say, “Oh, you shot this person? It came out really cool. Well, here.” So it went from there, jumped to national magazines, and then it was just a progression into fashion shoots that were a bit more conceptual. I never really assisted; I always just shot. One thing always led to another. You know, we’re just making this stuff up as we go along. We’re learning as we go, so that’s kind of the fun part.

Seckler: What separates the visual style of your photography from other people? What’s the Carlos Serrao look?

Serrao: I always revert back to the cinema quality. I want the photographs, technical or not, to convey a feeling or a story. So I just try to do that by … whatever I get out of a subject. But sometimes these subjects aren’t really actors or models or whatever, so I try to convey that through the look of the atmosphere.

Seckler: So what is it about the film look that interests you? Why do you gravitate toward that?

Serrao: The films that I’m drawn to — by the lighting and the atmosphere and the look — can emote a feeling… I just like that when you look at these things they really put thought into the overall aspect.

Image from Carlos Serrao’s portfolio

Seckler: You’ve been doing some motion work as well, haven’t you?

Serrao: One of the photographers who assists me and I decided to do this (project) just for fun. Opened up Final Cut for the first time. Edited it together and sent it to him. All these magazines were like, “We need online content! We need stuff for the iPad!” They had very small budgets but enough to make it fun for us. We try to marry the two things (stills and film) so it feels like it’s all from the same voice. I always think it’s strange to send someone to film a photo shoot, and it looks nothing like the stills you see in the magazine. So we try to give it the same type of quality. We can’t compete with, like, a $1 million Nike spot with all the CGI and everything, so we try to make things have a point of view and be creative and clever. We’re almost saying, let’s pretend there is no such thing as CGI or any kind of crazy after effects. Let’s just try to make fun little things, and work our way up from there.

Seckler: Are you interested in doing more motion work?

Image from Carlos Serrao’s portfolio

Serrao: Yeah! I mean, if someone wants to hire us to do what we do, that would be the goal. But we don’t want to do anything that we don’t normally do.

Seckler: So you don’t want to do a spot for something that’s not representative of your style.

Serrao: Right. If someone asks, “Hey, Carlos, could you shoot an advertisement for this technical underwear for Nike?” I’d be like, cool, yeah, because all of the things involved with it are cool to me. But to do the same rap for the film stuff, we’re not really jumping at the chance to do that unless it could be done in the style or in the voice that we want to be in.

Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Rebecca Breeden

This piece was originally published 7/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.

Zack Seckler

12 thoughts on “Carlos Serrao

  1. I’m a beginning photographer about 3-3-1/2 years. My equipment consist of the Canon 7D & 5D. Lenses are the 50mm f/1.4,24-70mm f/2.8,105mm, & 70-200mm f/2.8.
    Flash is the Canon 550EX.
    Any tips you can afford me,would be most helpful.Will be doing the 4th of July hopefully.
    ……………message ends……………………………


  2. Must say the original “hero” and background plate images are horribly lit. He goes on about the elaborate lighting set up and it looks like sh**?? The shot was saved in post. It is like Auto-tune in the music industry. Can Carlos shoot a good clean image without the aid of hours of post work?..


  3. today photographers are not able to shoot anymore. @Anthony said it right about the autotune… Carlos suks as 90% of the comemrcial photgraphers today, because they are not able to set up the lights and they rely ont he post production… i know, that is the final image that counts and sells, but please dont celebrate this crap.

    I had been assisting so many retarted photographers during last years, pepl who didnt even know what optics means…

    I’m not saying to keep on the altair just Adams but jeez…please…


  4. Frank,
    I agree with your sentiment but the reality is the big guys want results and don’t care about the purity of the craft.

    Looking at the image, it’s unreal but not unatainable. The difference in the budget between recreating the final look on analogue colour plate versus digital environment informs the final decision.

    Carlos’s images meets a particular need and he gives them what they want. Advertising photography is skilled hype.

    90% of todays commercial photographer’s sucks is a tad unfair. Horses for courses …..

    Carlos impressive images and output.

    Frank does however have a point about the originals, but credit to you to have the courage to say.. look this waht I shot and this is what I ended up with. There is a honesty that is often missing in theses interviews.

    I like to shot one or one and half stops down and often get dumped on by collegues, but when it comes to output, my images can and do often have an edge that their’s do not.

    I think the pie is bigger enough for all of us, wherever we operate. The good un’ always get the jobs anyway. It’s a results orientated industry, so Carlos thanks for a decent interview.

    Best regards

    South Africa.


  5. You guys think the lighting sucks? it is dark because the final image is dark… the lighting on the soccer player did not change… just the sharpness and curves. Why is it that people feel the need to cut down the work of those who are more successful than themselves… if people are not buying your work it means you are not providing them with what they want… jealousy will not make you more successful! Try tweaking what you do instead! This type of work requires a different skill set than traditional photography, and yes, the lighting is different… but you still need skill to create the specific type of image that you need for you final product… you just need to remember that the initial photo is not the final product, and was never intended to look like it was.


  6. I really dont understand why theres negative comments. I really admire Carlos’ work and think his images are outstanding. I enjoyed reading the article and am glad he was so kind to share some insights.


  7. I agree with Jason. While it’s cool that you guys had the guff to speak your mind. Why do it with such negativity as “90% of commercial photographers suck”. Did that really make you feel better? or did it make your photos look better? No. It is truly a completely different skill set that is required to do commercial work these days, and traditionalists need to respect that. Why not appreciate the image as ART? Why try to bring it down because it’s outside your box, or it conflicts with your principles of how YOU define “photography”.



  8. I agree with the comments about negative comments. There is no need. What makes a photographer “suck”? And comments from Frank who, as an assistant, just stabbed the people who pay his bills in the back. As we are all allowed to offer an opinion here, mine would be that Frank “sucks” as a human being. There are a lot of sucky ones…and Frank is no exception. He could also work on his grammar.

    Most of Carlos Serrao’s images were conceived in the minds of art and creative directors. It is his professionalism that allows him the privilege and challenge of getting to work with these people and the opportunity to interpret their ideas. That said, I highly doubt that openly criticizing other’s work on the internet got him where he is today.

    I really like his work and, from what I have heard and read, believe he does a great job of being professional. Thanks for the great interview.

    And Frank, wtf does “I’m not saying to keep on the altair just Adams but jeez…please…” mean?


  9. I work with Photographers and Production companies on a daily basis. From the outside looking in, I see each individual as an artist that freely expresses themselves as they please which in turn leads to success in whatever medium of creativity you choose. I can appreciate an open, honest perspective but that being said, a rebuttal is in line. I just want to say that negative criticism, to me, is a lack of focus on your own craft. People that make it in this industry don’t go around hating others. They what they do with passion and pride and don’t look back.


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