How Chris Burkard Took the Photo of His Life

Underwater. In a monsoon. Under the Northern Lights.

By The Editors
February 17, 2017 9:00 am

Photography is easy, right? You just point and click?

Wrong, even in the age of 12MP smartphone cameras. Doubly so if you’re trying to capture a guy surfing under the Northern Lights during the storm of the century.

That takes something else. And surf photographer extraordinaire Chris Burkard has it.

So we asked the California native to give us some insights into how he nailed exactly that shot for his upcoming movie, Under An Arctic Sky, out Spring 2017.

“[The storm} snapped 128 telephone poles and all the roads were closed,” he says. “And there was an avalanche level 4 or 5. No rescue was available. It’s hard to really relate that the size and the scope of it because you’re just stuck indoors, sitting here and listening to these scary sounds.”

But Burkard pressed on, eventually nailing what has become an iconic shot of a surfer riding waves under the Northern Lights.

Here’s how he did it.

Great photographers adapt to their environment — not vice versa
“The plan wasn’t to go shoot under the Northern Lights. That’s something that occurred sort of organically as the trip went on. It was a really eye-opening experience, to be like now all of a sudden you add this extra challenge [Iceland’s worst storm in 25 years]. Now you’re surfing in the Arctic in the winter at night. It’s -10 degrees, the wind’s blowing, it’s hard to see and we’re trying to make our cameras function. But we made it work.”

Go outside of your discipline for inspiration
“I look at architecture a lot. I love good design. We built our office space last year and we used a lot of shipping containers that we cut up, a lot of recycled wood. It’s not necessarily the type of thing that makes me want to go out and shoot, but it makes me want to go create work.”

Consider the offseason
“Every couple months I’ll do a trip to Joshua Tree. I like the winter because there are no people. It’s a little colder, but the light is just incredible. Short days, but you get that gorgeous winter sun that doesn’t really rise very high. It’s insane. I was just there twice these last couple of months, and I love the solitude of the desert.”

Live a great story. Great photos will follow.
“It’s not so much a technical thing: it’s more about the approach you take. There’s a difference between social media and photographs for books, prints for your wall or fine art. When it comes to social media, it’s all about storytelling. The photograph that’s going to be the most important is the one that’s the most important to you … I think the key thing is to start to try to live the stories that you’re photographing, to have something to talk about, not just shooting a picture. Spraying a thousand images, hoping to get one good one.”

Note bene: To all you would-be photographers and “influencers,” Burkhard runs photography workshops in California and beyond.

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