Q&A: Challenges, Benefits and Photos from a Top Surf Photographer

Red Bull Illume winner Chris Burkard shares the story behind his award-winning photo

Chris Burkard/ Red Bull Illume

Burkard's winning photo 2013

For those of us that have a divine love for the extreme sports, but aren’t quite good enough to hang with the pros, action and adventure photography is the next best thing. Red Bull Illume is an international contest and tour that celebrates the energy, creativity and vision of the best action photographers in the world.

One such photographer, Chris Burkard, won a spot in Red Bull Illume’s coveted top 10 for the second time; in 2010 he was the overall winner. Burkard is the Senior Staff Photographer for Surfer Magazine, a Patagonia clothing project photographer and has an endless list of independent projects with high profile clients. He is based in California and travels frequently, but we were able to catch up with him this week.

The Active Times: What is it about the outdoors, travel, surf and the like, that has inspired you as an artist?

Chris Burkard: I have such a passion for the outdoors, particularly traveling, and surfing.  The natural beauty that's out there inspires me and remains the focal point of most of my imagery. I find a lot of my inspiration as an artist is built around traveling and seeing the world. Being able to share that experience with people who might not otherwise have exposure to it is super rewarding. I'm constantly drawn to new locations—they bring this new excitement that gets my blood pumping as an artist.  

What elements, if you can name a few, make a great action shot?

Above all else, it’s light. If the light isn't good then it changes the entire scene and makes for a less dynamic shot. Composition is also important; it helps create balance in the frame. In terms of actual action, it’s that pivotal moment that speaks to me as a photographer and hopefully, in turn, evokes an emotion from the viewer when they see the image.  

Do you ever get the chance to go out and be active without a camera? If so, is it a different experience?

It's such a different feeling to be without a camera when I’m so used to having it. It’s an extension of me now. With that said, there are times that I’m without one. When I see something beautiful in those uncaptured moments, it is sometimes more personal than when I’m shooting. Those moments serve as positive influences that fuel me when I'm back behind the lens. 

While working in different places and with different subjects, do you have any rules of thumb or any methods that you use every time?

When I'm traveling somewhere for the first time research is helpful. Knowing the lay of the land is useful for taking photos. On the flipside, I appreciate going to a place I know little about as it helps my creative mind and allows me to be open to new experiences.  As far as my methods of shooting, I try not to capture an image like it’s a caged animal. I work to compose photos with the same skill and quality a conductor might direct an orchestra. I like to shoot images that are easily digestible, simple, and uncluttered. It allows the brain to really see the image and gives the viewer the sense of being there—right there, in that place—rather than trying to figure out what it is.The location should always speak first. I aim to shoot images that are timeless.   

I’ve read that you taught yourself, could you tell us a bit about that? Do you think it’s given you an advantage or a more unique perspective?

I took some art classes at a local college out here in Central California, Cuesta College. But I found more luck actually working with professionals and apprenticing under landscape photographer, Michael Fatali. I think the advantage has come from my commitment to photography from an early age. I dove in headfirst and stuck to my guns in terms of constantly shooting and aiming to grow my business. My perspective is a product of learning from many different photographers, photo editors, and artists along the way that have helped shaped who I am today.  

How do you feel about your work placing in Red Bull Illume’s top ten?

Red Bull Illume connects so many different photographers which is super rewarding. To be recognized by accomplished peers and share with them stories and tips is super fun. The response has been incredibly positive, and I've found this broadening community of photographers and fans. It's always an honor to have your work judged and recognized—it's a great feeling.  

Could you give us a bit of context behind the award-winning photo?

This year’s entry won the Spirit award and is from a trip with surfers Dane Gudauskas and Keith Malloy to Norway. We woke at dawn to what appeared to be clear skies, and we immediately scrambled to get our things together. Clear blue skies are rare in that part of Norway. Each passing minute seemed twice as long.

Jumping into the truck, we drove the cold icy roads looking for peaks on the horizon. Then just over the frozen hillside the top of a wave could be seen. Our excitement grew as we saw the mist of the offshore wave. So focused on the offshore waves ahead of us, we failed to see the looming clouds behind them. We ran to the shoreline and paddled straight out. The waves seemed perfect, and we thought it would be a long session of the best Arctic waves any of us had ever scored. Suddenly the winds changed and a looming cloud on the horizon snuck up and was almost upon us. With little regard for what was in front of it, the rain began to pour. Within minutes it began to snow. Suddenly caught in a blizzard, we did what we could to paddle in. We finally made it back to the truck, took shelter, and tried to wait out the storm.  Weather is constantly changing in the Arctic and sometimes all it takes is a little patience.

On this day, the weather got the best of us. The time we spent sitting in the truck ended up being our downfall. The snow had piled high around us, and soon it was pretty clear that our truck was not going anywhere soon. Dane and Keith knew another surf session was nowhere in sight and decided to head back into town.  As the storm continued to brew, the pair made their way home, and I took the shot.

What an incredible story. What would you say is the biggest challenge you face on a more typical day?

Growth as a photographer is a daily challenge in an industry where staying fresh is so important. Photographers are judged by their last photograph. Being consistent is important to staying relevant and getting good feedback. With more and more photographers and surf photographers emerging it’s just as tough as ever to stand out amongst the rest. Our world is now pretty saturated with photographers and imagery. Social media has made everything so accessible that it's important to stay true to one’s style and hopefully remain unique from what else is out there.  

What would you say is the greatest reward?

Being able to bring these harsh and faraway—usually unreachable—places to a person’s computer screen and through the pages of magazines makes me feel accomplished. One of the biggest rewards is when someone says, "Your photo made me feel like I was there." That's a feeling that never gets old.  

What’s next for you?

I just got back from Iceland. I’m working with those images right now. I'm excited about the film from our surf trip to the Aleutians titled "Cradle of the Storms” and I’m always looking forward to the next exciting location.


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