“We wanted to experience winter at its fullest,” recalls photographer and surfer Chris Burkard on shooting in Iceland and Norway’s bitter, icy conditions. “We thought spring was the coldest time of year, and we were right. It was brutal, but it also meant perfect surf.” In the spring of 2012, Burkhard found what he was looking for–snow covered beaches, freezing ocean waters, and a landscape that allowed him to make striking surfing photos. Along for the ride were surfers Philip Goold, Alek Parker, and Brett Barley in Iceland. Later, Burkard and Parker explored Norway with surfers Peter Mendia, Sam Hammer, and Keith Malloy.
Adventure: How was photographing in Iceland and Norway different than other locations?
Chris Burkard: Iceland is becoming a somewhat familiar place; I’ve traveled there five times so far. I know the best spots and have been able to experiment with shooting there. The weather is cold, but not nearly as cold as Norway in spring. Norway was a whole new experience. We were surfing and shooting in much harsher conditions, in areas I knew little about. As a photographer, whenever you travel to a place for the first time, there is an entire different excitement and wonder that comes into play while shooting.
A: You shot great frames that capture the stark and beautiful landscape, as well as the surfing. Is this your typical style or did the unique conditions inspire you to shoot the environment heavily?
C.B.: I always highlight the wave in context to its surroundings. The pulled back shots really give the viewer and idea of the region and what it’s like to see the place for the first time. The landscapes in Iceland and Norway are so breathtaking; it was hard not to be constantly shooting everything in front of me. In a place with such a unique environment, I felt it was important to incorporate the land into the surfing images.
A: What was the most unusual moment during this trip?
C.B.: The weather was in constant flux and definitely the most unusual component of the trip. It was surreal to be in such cold weather, when most surf trips are in warm water regions. Waking up in the morning with your wetsuit almost frozen, to the point of it breaking into pieces, is an interesting experience.
A: Did you and your camera gear freeze? What was the coldest moment that paid off the biggest, with an awesome photo?
C.B.: That is an understatement. I have never been so cold in my life. Some of the best sessions were literally dumping down snow. It was intense. One day, I decided to swim out and shoot water shots. I have never swum in such cold water. I remember feeling like my vital organs were shutting down and my fingers began to numb, even with gloves. At times it was hell.
Sitting in the lineup with snow capped mountains looming overhead, was an image I will never forget. To cap it off, at the next moment Keith Malloy came flying down the line, pulling into a wave, as the mountains disappeared from the water barreling overhead.
A: Where are you shooting next?
C.B.: Since the trip to Iceland and Norway, I went to Panama, but now am going straight to more cold-water destinations. The cold-water destinations are like a beacon to me and Russia is calling me next.
A: It’s striking to see Alek Parker standing under an aurora in Iceland. Tell us how this shot came together. Your ISO isn’t cranked too high, was the sky pretty bright?
C.B.: We were lucky enough to see the auroras during a time when they were extremely bright. With water and ice surrounding the landscape it allowed the light to reflect off everything and brighten the entire landscape. This is a photo that I had envisioned long ago and was excited to see it come together.
A: The hazy, orange sky in this photo sets the late day mood and you caught the Brett Barley at the right moment. How long did you have to work with the light? What is the rock formation in the background? Were you set on up on the beach for a while for a wider frame?
C.B.: As the sun sets, you are hoping one of the surfers’ pulls something that will look amazing against the landscape. Lucky for me, Brett Barley came through on this one and I had framed him with the Reynisdrangar rock formations in the background. It’s something special to be able to show such an amazing surfer doing what he does, in such a foreign surf environment.￼
A: The snow covered beach and dramatic cliffs juxtaposed against Philip Goold, Alek Parker, and Brett Barley breaks from a typical surf scene. How fresh was the snow on the ground? Did the guys stand there for long deciding on their next move?
C.B.: It had just snowed that morning and clouds began to clear, allowing the guys to head out to surf. When the ocean looks as hectic as it was that day it takes a few moments of preparation before paddling out. The guys were deciding where the safest spot was to paddle out was; the surf was cold and relentless.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: This shot of Alex Parker riding against the snowy mountains makes us cold just looking at it. How was it in the water to get this shot?
C.B.: Many times when shooting in cold water you are in remote places dealing with harsh weather conditions. Norway had all of these elements, but seemed to be much harsher and remote than any place I have traveled. There were moments when we really had to be careful, as the weather got dangerously cold and storms would build extremely fast. The cold water made it so much more difficult in the water and the last thing any surfer wanted to do is be held under the freezing water. If you get stuck in a place you shouldn’t be there were much more real consequences and risks involved.
A: Did you end up with silhouetted surfers more often due to the dry suits and stormy lighting? How were the waves breaking this day?
C.B.: The waves were barreling a few feet overhead and there were some waves that rolled through much larger than the wave in this shot. The lighting was odd due to storm clouds, but pockets of light would illuminate the icy blue water. You can feel the frigid temperatures when looking at this shot.