The Secrets of Surf Photography —- Chris Burkard Shares His Craft

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At 26 years old, Chris Burkard is living the dream of traveling around the world to shoot surfers in exotic places.  He’s been recognized for his work with some prestigious awards including a first place spot in the Red Bull Illume competition.  His images are a complementary mix of being right in the action and being removed from it.  At times the subject is a tiny speck in the grander landscape.  Other times the camera is enveloped in a wave.  I caught up with Chris to get some insight to what he’s doing and how he got there.

Could you describe your process? How do you end up with the striking images we see here?

CB: I guess my process has a lot to do with luck and preparation. I like to research and prepare as much as possible so when those unique unexpected moments happen, I’m ready. I also like to keep in perspective the work and the passion. To never let the assignment become more important than my photographic voice. My process seems to always involve a little bit of introspection. Am I just taking pictures to take pictures?  Or are these actually moments that mean something?
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How did you get your start in photography? How did you get to where you are now?

CB: I started taking photographs around the age of 19. I did a lot of art in high school and it seemed like a natural departure from painting, pen or ink. Photography for me was the perfect medium for expression. It was ideal for how I wanted to experience and document because I could take my art into any situation. The mountains, the ocean, social settings.

When I started getting serious about photography, I would shoot surfing locally, just friends. But my passion was for landscapes.  I would spend summers exploring the desert southwest and looking for a chance to expand my photographic eye. I sought out internships and shadowing opportunities and from there. Things just evolved and I’d like to think even though I have a distinct style now, that I’m still seeking to change and grow in my art.

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Do you have other influences outside of surfing and action sports? Whose work inspires you?

CB: So much of my work is based in action sports and outdoor lifestyle, but in fact the majority of my inspiration comes from landscape photographers and portrait work. I’m really drawn toward the work of William Albert Allard, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Edward S Curtis. I have such a strong admiration for people that really connected with there subject, whether a landscape or a culture. I have always aimed to have the same kind of connection with my subject. In the surf world and action sports realm I also have a lot of influences. Ron Stoner, Craig Peterson, Jimmy Chin, Ted Grambeau.

Ultimately I think I am the most inlfluenced by nature and the outdoors.

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You clearly have influences outside of the action sport world. Do you also work outside of the surf world?

CB: Yes.  I shoot a lot of outdoor lifestyle, music, wine, automobile. I love to branch out and shoot everything, and I love the challenge of new assignments. I’m usually pretty specific and only work with brands or companies that I feel are going to help promote my personal aesthetic or natural light and editorial style photography.

People always want to know about the gear we use – so I gotta ask – what’s in the bag?

CB: Nowadays mostly using Nikon, and occasionally some sony nex mirrorless cams.

70-200 and 16-35mm are in my usual lens kit. Also a 50mm and 400mm telephoto. And always a fisheye for work in the water.

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Where do you like to haul all that gear? What’s your favorite location?

CB: I love Iceland. I have been 7 times and already planning my 8th trip. Can’t wait. The place has a really unique type of light. It’s almost tangible. Like surreal beauty that seems to fill you. For me it’s the type of place I could move to someday.

Where do you want to go that you haven’t been?
CB: I would love to spend some time in Alaska. Really excited to explore some of the islands off the coast, especially Kodiak. For me, the more remote, the better. That’s where the adventure lies.

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Advice for aspiring surf photogs?

CB: My advice would be always aim to create a style that is recognizable. Something the viewer will know is your image without seeing the photo credit. I think it’s so important these days, especially with how many people are out shooting surf and action sports images to create work that is meant to last. Dont be so focused on logos or how good the action is, but more on the emotion in the image.

Anything else?

CB: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Check out more of Chris’s work here.

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74 Responses to The Secrets of Surf Photography —- Chris Burkard Shares His Craft

  1. Frewuill March 21, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Inspiring! Thank you!

    • MikeKodiak April 29, 2013 at 10:24 am #

      Chris, it’s awesome you mention Kodiak, Alaska because thats where I live. I’ve been getting into photography recently and one of my favorite subjects to practice on is my friends surfing here.

  2. Ronnie March 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    Great pictures by what seems to be a great, knowledgeable guy. Been following his work for a while now!

  3. Ian Pack March 22, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    Chas, thank you for introducing Chris to us, and Chris thank you for sharing these awesome images. Your passion for surfing shows through in your work. Keep it up and don’t let the passion leave you!

  4. faisal March 22, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    Its no secret, its a craft, not easy to master.

  5. Tates March 22, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    awesome photos. love the third shot with the waves and a tiny tiny surfer. only thing I wish these shots(and his website shots) had more well known surfers in them. Granted access is a major issue but where is slater, reynolds, parkinson, fanning etc. When I think surf photography and surfing in general I think of the pros. I just think to be a surf photographer you should be at least photographing the boys/girls who are pros. Still amazing photos none the less.

    • Faz March 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

      Go to disagree there Tates. surfing to the mass population might be about the Pro’s, but there’s way more to surfing than just a handful of pro riders riding 3 or 4 known exotic locations. Surf photography is about location and the wave – I’m willing to admit a rider is an optional item if the other 2 elements are strong enough. Surf photography shouldn’t just be about the name of the rider riding the wave – that’s where surfing has become too commercial and not what its traditions are.

      • Tim Roper March 23, 2013 at 8:20 am #

        I don’t know much about surfing, and couldn’t name any pro ones. And yet, I think these are some of the most beautiful and deep photos I’ve seen in awhile. I think they capture the essence of surfing, and a glimpse of what it’s like emotionally to be out there on a wave. And capturing those feelings has nothing to do with what society thinks of the person (in the form of superficial prizes, titles, and sponsorships)—that’s a world that doesn’t exist in these photos.

      • Tates March 23, 2013 at 9:46 am #

        I disagree. As i said this photos are def amazing and I wasn’t really saying that you had to have big names to take surf photos but people like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning are what make surfing exciting. I’ve been surfing for about 10 years now and would have never gotten into had I not seen Kelly slater surf. There’s something magical about watching a guy like him surf. So yes I think pros are part of the essence of surfing. They are the living breathing examples of people who love to surf. It’s not like pro hockey or basketball. These guys dont get paid to compete. They have to compete to get paid.These guys just love to surf plain and simple.

        I also don’t agree that a rider is an optional part of surf photography. without a rider where is the surfing?

        I’m not saying you can’t be a surf photographer without shooting the pros but to be featured on a website like this i’d want to see a few more amazing shots of amazing surfers. That’s all I was really trying to say.

        • CHRIS BURKARD March 25, 2013 at 11:47 am #

          hi tates

          just a quick note as i see where your coming from.. but obviously you dont really understand the reasoning behind the craft/ passion/ or purpose for shooting the way i do. I want to shoot images that are TIMELESS, not dates by logos or someone like yourself s opinion of what is cool in this very moment or year.. the truth is, if you knew anything about my work or surfing, you would know i have had covers of dane and kelly and a plethora of world tour surfers.. i shoot with them all the time, but could honestly care less if that is what people remember me for.. The images i want to compose are supposed to mean much more than that, and in fact every single image on my website is of a professional surfer, or at least someone who makes there living from it.

          PS- there is a couple images of the guys you mentioned on the site as well, but they are shot in silhouette so maybe you just cant recognize them as wel as you figured.

          • Patrick Rebstock April 7, 2013 at 8:31 am #

            Chris,
            Boom, straight up, epic images,
            when are you going to come shoot some kiting this spring?
            This weekend is pumping!
            Pat

    • Dave March 23, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

      It sounds like you need to open you mind about what surfing means, ’cause the pro circuit represents only a small portion of it. There are already a tonne of photographers in the industry shooting the pros. Burkards photos are a breath of fresh air to the millions of free surfers out there who ride not for points, but for the pure stoke of it. To me they represent to the true essence of what surfing is about.

  6. Faz March 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    You might want to look into surfing a little more if you think Slater and Fanning have to compete to make a living out of the sport. Winning is a nice little bonus for some of those guys. Sure there are guys who don’t get paid (but they aren’t the “named” pros) and need the wins to make a living but these aren’t the guys you want in these types of photos from what you’ve described.

    This probably sparks the debate as to whether you need a recognisable figure in a much broader image for it to be given any more credit and than an unknown doing the same thing. Provided the creative elements are the same does it matter? It shouldn’t, is my opinion.

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