Surfing Photographer Chris Burkard on Capturing That Incredible Shot (Photos)

By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photographs courtesy of Chris Burkhard

What were you doing when you were 24 years old? While most people are entering the work force or moving into their first apartments, photographer Chris Burkard is winning the Red Bull Illume contest. The Illume is a yearly competition that endeavors to choose the best action sports photos from around the world. It doesn’t matter what sport is being practiced so long as someone’s well-being hangs in the balance. This year, Burkard took top honors with a pulled-back shot of a surfer in Chile that, true to his signature style, evokes a beautiful and haunting sense of place.

Considering that Burkard didn’t become a full-time shooter until he was 19, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his rise has been meteoric. While many photographers who concentrate on surfing tend to take tight action shots that emphasise the athletic over the aesthetic, Burkard has set himself apart from the crowd by focusing more on presenting scenes that draw his viewers in and allow them to imagine themselves gliding across the water in far-flung places like Iceland, Russia, Chile, and his native California. It’s escapist art at its best, and Adventure got him on the phone just before he took off to Dallas to give the keynote address at a Red Bull Conference.

Where are you from?

I’m from central California, in between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is sort of a strange place given my career path. It’s a long way from any airports and the coastline is cold and rugged. It lends itself to sleeping in instead of waking up early to shoot photos.

How did you get into photography?

In high school, I was interested in a lot of different artistic mediums like drawing and painting. I got into photography when I was about 19 and it felt like an extension of that. It let me take my art with me when I went outdoors or into the ocean.

Did you ever get a formal photography education?

No formal education, just taught myself really. It was definitely slow going in the beginning. But I think that it really helped me to not be swayed by some teacher’s style. I was able to develop my own personal set of skills all on my own.

Can you talk a little about your style of of photography?

Sure. I didn’t set out to shoot great surfing photos. Instead, I wanted to inspire people like other photrographers (eg: Ansel Adams and Gaylen Rowell) had inspired me. As photography formed into something I enjoyed doing, I took to landscape photography. I had always been into nature—camping and surfing—so landscapes felt like a natural extension of that. Instead of focusing on the action, I want to give the viewer a sense of place, a sense of scale, what it was like to be there. I don’t want famous surfers or big flashy logos, because keeping it non-commercial helps viewers relate to the scene. I also like using morning and late afternoon light because I think silhouhettes catapult viewers into the picture. One of the greatest honors for me is to have someone say "I recognized your photo before I looked at your credit."

What’s the worst part of your job?

Anyone who travels enough starts to realize that the glamour and glitz of it all are only an outsider's perspective. What kills me are long layovers and hauling equipment. Traveling with pelican cases [waterproof cases for camera equipment that you can take on boats] is especially a nightmare. People love to hassle you if you have camera gear.

Have you had any bad traveling experiences lately?

I went on a work trip to Russia in 2009. We were standing in customs and one by one everyone goes through. I'm the last and it turns out the date was wrong on passport because the person who had stamped it in the embassy just messed it up. So they shoved me in a jail cell for 24 hours with a—no joke—one-eyed guard, shut the door, and left. I had runs for day after eating the food.

I got deported to Korea and flew back to Russia the next day. We spent the next fifteen days looking for waves and in that time we were able to surf for about two hours. Ironically I got more press for that trip than for any other I’ve ever done.

What’s the best part of you job?

Bringing images back and sharing them with people. Every photo is like a big fish on the wall. It's a story. It evokes all the emotion of when and where. Photos are like the best journal you could ever have of your life. That's what pushes me to work hard, the idea that photos allow people to escape.

How much do you plan your shots?

The answer is two-fold. When you are on location, there are moments that just happen out of the blue, then moments that you plan for and research. As far as the Redbull Illume photo is concerned, I had envisioned a certain image: coastline, cliffs, trees, etc. So when I went to Chile, I knew I wanted to shoot it, and I actually shot the same photo a couple more times from different angles, it just happened to be this one that came together.

What other work goes on behind the scenes?

Well, out of the 20,000 photos I shot on that particular trip, there were only two I put into my portfolio. That's sort of the way it goes and that is the work ethic that people have to realize—not every photo is going to be an amazing one. You work your butt off and leave yourself open to both types of images — the planned and the un-planned—then you go home and spend about a week color correcting and editing. Then you send stuff to a mag, and they decided where to put it. If a writer is with you he is drafting something, then the editor is choosing which shots he likes, and so on and so forth. So it's sort of a tedious, long process. I had a cover on a Surf magazine this year that I actually took a year ago.

Is that pretty common?

Yea. You start to lose faith in yourself, waiting. You wonder, Man, does this photo just suck?

What do you aways have in your suitcase?

I always carry an i-pod. I always try to download new songs before a trip.

What’s on there right now?

Let’s see… Local Natives, John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show…mostly indie music and country western.

What else is in the suitcase?

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I’m a super clean freak so I always have baby wipes on me. Yep, I’m that guy who brings baby wipes on the trip. I like to have a hand exerciser, too—something to help my mind keep working as I’m sitting down for long periods of time. Finally, I bring a journal that I use to write down a few thoughts on where I’ve been. I also use to to take a few notes on how to travel better. I’m a perfectionist on how to travel light and how to travel neat.

It must be a pretty important part of your job.

Absolutely. I travel with everything I need to shoot on my back. That’s my water housing, flash, big lens, and backup body. I bring it all on the plane, even if it comes to kicking and screaming. I’ve never gotten to a place and not had what I needed, but sometimes it means I’m the lame looking guy with the fanny pack and 80 pounds on my back. Oh, I always bring a book as well.

What are some of your favorite books?

I like anything by John Krakauer; I just finished reading Eiger Dreams. I love Jack Kerouac, too, The Dharma Bums, and On the Road, especially. Another, less-involved read that I really enjoyed was a book called The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

I read to get inspired so the naturalist writers are some of my favorites. My most coveted possession is a first edition of Steep Trails, which is a compilation of travel writings by John Muir first published in 1918. My wife gave it to me for my birthday. I love how expressive and how passionate they are and I try to translate that into photography.

What does adventure “mean” to you?

Adventure starts when you start to get out of your comfort zone. You kind of search for those opportunities because they give you a different perspective or angle, and you need to allow yourself to be open to experiencing those things.

How do you apply that to your work?

In the world of surfing, the adventure has been lost a bit. Places like Indonesia and Sumatra are dominated by high profile surf tours. I've got no interest in warm-water surfing. I prefer places like New Zealand, Iceland, Canada, and Norway. I would rather go somewhere cold than somewhere warm any day of the year. When I go on trips, I set out to go with a group that seeks out adventure. There is such a different between the tropical, high-profile trip and the cold, rugged one. When you really put effort into your art it is so much more rewarding. It gives you a heightened sense of awareness that makes it better. It's all about going to these places where it's bleak and rugged and then finding these moments of brilliance.

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