Surfing photographer Chris Burkard spends his days traveling to some of the planet’s most magnificent beaches, where he navigates all sorts of technical complications in search of the perfect surfing shot. Despite obstacles such as drunk Chilean boat captains, salt water corrosion, and even being thrown in a Russian prison, Burkard continually manages to capture the moment, the beauty of the landscape, and create timeless photographs. The Surfer magazine staff photographer has traveled the globe, won the Red Bull illume photo competition, and released photo book The California Surf Project... and he’s only 25 years old. Fstoppers catches up with the globe-trotting youngster to ask about his gear, craziest stories, and the technical aspects of shooting in the water. Hear Chris talk about his work in the video below, and then read the full FS Spotlight interview.
Fstoppers: Tell me a little bit about how photography and surfing first intersected for you.
Chris Burkard: It’s funny, for most people it usually comes one at a time, but for me it wasn’t that way. I was doing a lot of 2-dimensional art in high school, more for creative purposes to stay busy. I found photography after I graduated, when I was just surfing with my friends and really enjoying waking up super early and going out. It felt like a really natural progression from working with art to picking up a camera, because it felt like finally I had found a medium I could take everywhere. With art you’re restricted to your easel or wherever you are, but with photography you can take it into social settings, to the mountains or the water, anywhere you want. For me it was the perfect medium for expression. Being able to shoot in the water was one of my first passions. I got a water housing, and it really kind of escalated into landscape photography.
Fstoppers: You’re currently on staff with Surfer magazine. What is that like? What is your day to day?
Chris Burkard: I’ve been working with Surfer magazine for about 6 years, and I’ve been on retainer for about 2 and a half. It’s interesting, there have been a lot of different photographers that have worked for the magazine over the years, and every photographer is hired for their strength. Certain photographers are amazing contest photographers, certain guys are great in the water, and certain guys are great at shooting portraits. The cool thing about Surfer is that they hired me for my strengths, which are planning trips to off-the-beaten-path places and travel pieces. I do a lot of travel pieces for the magazine, and I do trips to Iceland and India and obscure places, and that’s sort of my forte. Luckily, they just allow me to do that. For half the year, about February through October, I’m just traveling. I try to plan like 3 or 4 trips for them, and I’m trying to plan trips for some other clients that I work for, Patagonia or whatever. Usually the pieces I do for Surfer are a feature, a travel article or a profile, there’s some sort of purpose for it. The rest of the year I’m home, working in California just because it’s the place I know super well and it’s easy to get great stuff that time of year. Normally it’s 9 months on the road, off and on, and three months or so at home.Fstoppers: Where have you traveled to shoot?
Chris Burkard: The list is long! Indonesia a couple times, Russia, Iceland three times, Ireland...
Fstoppers: What? You shot surfing in Russia?
Chris Burkard: Yeah! I went to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, about a year ago. It was crazy. It was a really amazing, interesting trip. I’ve also been to Canada, Alaska, all through Central America, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Thailand, Chile, Maine, Northern California, the list goes on and on!
Fstoppers: You’re only 25! You’re on staff with Surfer, you’ve won multiple awards, and you’ve already released a book. What would you say is the secret of your success?
Chris Burkard: Early on I decided rather than label myself as a surfing photographer, I tried to be a photographer first and decided to shoot surfing. What I did, and still do to this day, is whatever format or style is mine, I try to apply that to everything I do. I don’t really enjoy shooting things that aren’t going to mean anything a couple years down the road, I want to shoot images that are timeless, that are going to be wall hangers forever, that people are going to appreciate in any era. I’ve tried to consciously to do that, and that’s been done by shooting silhouettes or using really good lighting that evokes emotion out of the viewer. To me, that’s been the key to my success, because what you’re doing is you’re not dating your images, so they’re worth more. Because they’re worth more, hopefully they get run more often and publishers like them because they apply to everyone and people will want to buy them because they do speak volumes to everybody, not just surfers. For me, that’s the key and that’s something that I’ve worked consciously on for the last couple years.
Fstoppers: The thing you love most about photography is...
Chris Burkard: How it teaches me patience.
Fstoppers: The thing that you love the least is...
Chris Burkard: Long flights. And early mornings, getting up at 5AM isn’t fun at all!
Chris Burkard: You usually have some sort of a telephoto, whether it’s a 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm. You have your basic lenses: your portrait lens, and a 70-200 f2.8, which is what you use for lineups and things like that, and that’s the lens that I use the most. You also have your water housings. I have a fisheye housing, a flash housing, a long lens housing; you have a myriad of housings to put your gear inside so they stay safe. Transportation’s also really key, and you have a Pelican case. You can be on a boat or a Jet Ski, swimming, or on land. Water resistant enclosures are important as well, especially if you’re in the rain or there’s a lot of spray coming off the wave. With surfing you’re harder on your equipment than you are with any other sport, I’d say. The ocean and corrosion from salt water is so bad, and at the same time you need some of the best equipment because you’re shooting super fast and you need big, big telephoto lenses. It’s a total nightmare!
Chris Burkard: Yeah! We use flash quite a bit. We do a couple different types. We’ll do flash housing, where we’re swimming with the athlete in the waves and we have a flash on our housing; we’ll do remote flash, where someone has the flash in the water and will be strobed or Pocket Wizard-activated by someone shooting in a boat or on land, and you can light up the surfer from a distance. It can get crazy. We’ve had like 3 or 4 flashes in the water before.
Fstoppers: When you’re in the middle of all the action and in the ocean, how do you stay focused on the moment?
Chris Burkard: It can be a little tricky sometimes when you’re shooting really big surf and you’re driving a Jet Ski or someone else is driving the Jet Ski. There are people zipping all around and waves, and you’re worrying about your camera getting wet and you’re trying to focus and shoot the person that’s surfing. That can get hectic, there’s no doubt about it. The key is really just to familiarize yourself with your surroundings so that you can take out some of the variables. Also trusting the people that you’re with, that’s super important obviously. You don’t want to be in a situation that could get really bad really quickly, because it can. The ocean can be a really unruly subject, and you never want to turn your back on it.
Fstoppers: Where are you when most of these shots are taken? I know you mentioned being on a Jet Ski.
Chris Burkard: Sometimes I’m in the water, sometimes I’m on land, sometimes I’m on a Jet Ski. It all depends on the situation. If it’s a wave that’s way out at sea, usually we’re on a Jet Ski. If it’s close to shore we could be swimming, if it’s big, barreling close outs I’m usually in the water. If it’s a long point break, I’m shooting from land. It all depends on the situation, and a lot of times you’re trying to show the place from several different angles so you spend time on all three.
Chris Burkard: There’s a really crazy place in the Caribbean that I went to last year that not a lot of people know about, and it was one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever been on. There’s no tourism on the island whatsoever, you have to know the local people, and that’s probably where I would go. I’ve told everybody, if I could ever do a surf trip by myself, that’s probably where I’d go. It’s amazing, and it’s a secret... that’s one of the perks of the job.
Fstoppers: What’s the most difficult part of surf photography?
Chris Burkard: That would be conditions. It’s not like skateboarding or snowboarding, where you have a lot of days out of the year where you just have to set up your lights and set up your shot. Every moment’s changing. You can never create a scenario over. You’re dealing with uncontrolled scenarios, you’re dealing with uncontrolled weather, tide, and swell, and your surfer, so there are about five different factors every single time that you’re hoping will come together. Even when everything goes right, something still goes wrong! That’s the trickiest part.
Chris Burkard: Whenever I go somewhere, especially traveling, I never want to be the guy that just has the straight on photo from land. That’s the least thing I want. I want something that always shows a bit of the place or it gives an air of secrecy or gives the viewer a sense of putting the pieces together. I’m always looking for landmarks or something that will really tie into the surroundings, hopefully something that will make the wave and the surfer come together in a little bit more of a landscape orientation. Surfing happens in such beautiful arenas, I want to make the surroundings the star of the image and have everything in line with nature a little more.
Chris Burkard: I was in Chile and we had a drunk boat captain that was driving us next to this wave that we were shooting, and a big set came and he drove us right into the set, and the whole thing washed over the boat. All my camera gear was soaked, totally toasted, done, gone. It was a total nightmare. I’m lucky I didn’t fly off the boat. I felt like I was at SeaWorld or something. And then in Russia, I got put into jail because of passport issues. My passport wasn’t stamped correctly, and that was really gnarly. I got deported through Korea, that was pretty crazy. I did a lot of praying in that moment! You go on a lot of trips and nothing goes wrong, and then something happens that really makes you appreciate where you live.
Fstoppers: What is the next piece of gear on your wish list?
Chris Burkard: Probably the Sony NEX-7, a little compact camera. I’m always searching for something small but powerful because from the water it’s nice to have something lightweight. I’m looking forward getting that and taking it out on the water and seeing what it can do as a nice little back up body.
Chris Burkard: Create your own style and stick with it. People don’t really hire photographers because they’re average at a bunch of different things, they hire them because they’re really, really good at one thing and they show a willingness to excel at everything else. Don’t spread yourself too thin, focus on what you’re good at, and hone those skills.