Chris Burkard is one of the best and most inspiring surf and adventure travel photographers in the game, as his near three million followers on Instagram would surely attest to. Following the release of his seminal short film, Under an Arctic Sky, which features some mind-blowing sequences of surfing under the northern lights, we caught up with Chris to ask him how it's all done.
I started shooting photos when I was 19 years old after experimenting with drawing and art in high school. I realised it enabled me to do art in a mobile state, to explore and adventure, and show people the beauty in the world around me. The first camera that I bought was a 35mm Pentax MEF.
"For the first part of my career I slept in my car a lot. Nothing happens quickly."
I realised I enjoyed photography but the idea of turning it into career was overwhelming. I knew I had to give it 100 per cent if I wanted to make it into something, so without any formal training I quit my job (at a magazine store) and started shooting anything for anyone.
I would go and shoot surfers at the local beach and try to sell them pictures on DVDs... I shot weddings and senior pictures and photos of interiors stores. That obviously wasn't my end goal but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to learn more about action sports and landscape photography which is what I was excited about but didn't know where to turn so I started applying for internships. I finally got an opportunity to intern with Michael Fatali, a large format landscape photographer, and I got an internship at Transworld Surf magazine which was an incredibly valuable experience.
Hard work, persistence, and having passion for what I do has taken me a long way. Through trial and error, I taught myself and began to develop a style. For the first part of my career I slept in my car a lot, so nothing happens quickly. I would say it was about four years until I really started making an income. During my Transworld internship I commuted five plus hours every week and lived in my car. I really look back fondly at those more challenging times though because it makes you appreciate having to work for what you have and giving something of yourself for your career.
I mostly shoot landscape, adventure and commercial photography. I love combining my love for wild places with people or athletes or some sort of subject.
I am inspired by my mom who raised me by herself. I am also inspired by all forms of artists, musicians, painters, and videographers. Nowadays I find more inspiration from places outside photography, although I am inspired by Ansel Adams, Michael Fatali and Ragnar Axelsson. These are three masters who I really look up to. But there are a lot of modern day photographers whom I really love as well. I’ve never wanted to take a photo that someone else has already taken.
After looking at maps for years studying waves, it seemed that many of the possible waves in Iceland aren't reachable by car. So we set out by boat to swing around these fjords only to notice that a heavy storm was rolling in. We saw waves in the distance and went for a strike mission to shore. Shortly after we jumped in, we got called back by our boat captain Siggi to hurry back as the storm was coming in faster than he'd thought.
We got back around the fjords with the biggest storm in 25 years chasing right behind us. If it was not for Siggi’s sea knowledge and in-tune decisions with mother nature we might have been stuck out at sea for good. To me, a good photo is always a mixture of collaboration with athlete and nature itself.
Surfing under the northern lights was always just a dream of mine. After 27 trips to Iceland we finally made it come true. Justin Quintal pictured here after his first surf under the northern lights. I think the unique part was seeing something that years prior wasn’t even possible due to the technology, and now it's something that anyone can do if they dream big enough.
I love the idea of patience in photography. That is truly one of the coolest things since it forces us to earn it. The reason why no one is on this wave is because everyone surfing was caught on the inside as the huge set rolled in. Sometimes the only way to be ready to capture a shot like this is to keep your camera pointing at the surf waiting for the one to roll in.
This photo is from northern Iceland – a wave that was hard to photograph and surf. No other wave broke like this one in the photo, and it’s these one time photos that really start to pull together the story. The strong current was pushing the boat around which made it difficult to line up a shot with this ocean slab. I really can’t explain how hard it can be to sit in a small dingy with large swell and try to photograph a moving wave and subject. The surfer is Timmy Reyes.
This photo was from the final scene in my film Under an Arctic Sky. Late in the night I saw that the northern lights were starting to show some early signs of exposure. I called up the boys on my radio since they were still back at the cabin, and told them it was time to suit up. We lit the backside of the wave with a flood light flashlight to elevate the shot. This photo sums up the entire Under An Arctic Sky film for me. The feeling that completes a project. This photo felt in many ways like a total improbability. To see it all come to life was surreal, beautiful, and challenging. I dreamt of this shot before i took it. Again the surfer is Timmy Reyes.
I shot almost exclusively with the Sony A7SII because of its low light sensitivity. Often shooting between ISO 3200 - 40,000. Yes that's correct, 40,000. When paired with the right lenses you can literally see in darkness. It’s mind blowing what you can do with cameras these days and a big imagination.