Landscape, travel and adventure photographer Chris Burkard won Red Bull Illume back in 2010 with his beautiful sun-drenched photo of Peter Mendia surfing in Chile. The experience rightfully catapulted Chris into the spotlight and he hasn’t stopped since.
At 29 years old, Chris has been published in every surf magazine worth mentioning and has shot for an impressive list of clients, including The North Face, Apple, ESPN, Toyota and Patagonia.
Over the years, Chris has also fully embraced mobile photography and Instagram to share his work. In our latest resource, The Guide to Action & Adventure Sports Photography, we caught up with Chris to learn more about how he felt winning the big award, plus and out what he’s up to today.
How did you feel about winning the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2016?
I was overjoyed, it’s hard to put into words what it felt like to win this award in front of all your peers and people I respect, I was truly blessed. When I submitted my image, my expectations was just to hope that a few editors would see it!
More than anything I’m grateful to Peter Mendia, the surfer in the image who made the shot possible. And to the landscape around us: we live in such a beautiful place and my main goal in photography has always been to inspire people to see and seek out the world around them.
What’s the story behind your winning shot?
We went to Chile and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We sat in the rain for weeks and it was terrible. We woke up one morning and it was bluebird skies and the waves were the best I’d ever seen.
We went down to check all these spots and this was the last place we went. This was the last session of the day and I hiked up to a sand dune so I could get a pulled back shot to capture the whole landscape and environment that the surfer was in. This image was the outcome. For me it was scary. Photographers usually want to get up close to the action but in this case I went further away. I’m lucky I did because the shot came of it.
For me it’s all about light or the absence of light, dark clouds or a moving storm: the simple moments. Or the most beautiful evening you have ever seen. By shooting a silhouette like in this image it makes them timeless. I want to capture moments on earth like this in their natural state, as if (humans) were not even there.
It’s been a few years since that great moment. Fast forward to today: What’s the most exciting client project you’ve worked on recently?
I recently got to do a job with Swissair and Switzerland Tourism. I’d never been to the Swiss Alps before and getting to spend several days exploring Switzerland was amazing! The Matterhorn is of course the most iconic symbol of Switzerland’s natural beauty, but there were so many other places that we visited that were equally stunning. I could have spent weeks there. Lauterbrunnen Valley was a personal favorite of mine with their giant rock cliffs that resemble Yosemite Valley.
You’ve truly embraced mobile photography over the years. What do you enjoy about it and what challenges does it present?
Mobile photography has certainly come a long way in the past several years! Mobile phone cameras these days have the ability to make images that are as sharp and detailed as professional digital cameras from 7 years ago. It’s been a real game changer to have such a powerful tool in your pocket at all times.
There are a lot of moments on the road when the closest camera is the one in your pocket, and you’ll manage to get a shot with your mobile device that you would not have gotten with your pro bodies and lenses because they weren’t around your neck at that moment. Mobile camera phones also have their own challenges in that they don’t have interchangeable lenses or batteries, so you essentially get one perspective, and once you run out of power that’s it (although I always have a GoalZero Venture 30 with me to extend the life of my phone).
You have a very large Instagram following. What’s your goal using the platform?
I was lucky to have a successful career before Instagram, but it has definitely changed a lot for me (and for many other photographers). I think my favorite aspect of Instagram is that it allows me to share with people my latest work very soon after it is created. With professional websites, even the top photographers don’t have people returning to their sites every day to look at new work or projects. And, the formality of the sites tends to detract from showcasing new work quickly. Instagram is a great way to show people what you’re up to on a day to day basis, instead of only through curated selections on a formal site.
Do you have a social media strategy? Explain.
My strategy is to post work that I’m really stoked on! I’ve been lucky that people seem to be excited about the same things that I am, and my goal is to post work from my trips that motivates people to go out and explore the world for themselves!
Have you ever gotten a job inquiry as a result of a post on Instagram?
I definitely get jobs through Instagram. You really never know who is going to be scrolling through their Instagram feed and come across one of your images. Brands now have managed accounts that they use to network with photographers and other creatives, but there are also art directors, creative directors, designers, account executives, etc., who all have their own accounts, and are always looking for new and exciting work to collaborate with.
Can you recall one of your most popular posts on Instagram? Why do you think it did so well?
About a year ago I posted an image from a trip to Spirit Island in British Columbia (below), and it got almost double the likes of all of the other images I was posting at the time! I’m still not sure why it did so well, but it was really cool to have such a strong response to new work that I was excited to share.
What would you advise photographer not to do on Instagram?
I don’t really give advice about what not to do. I think that Instagram is an avenue that allows people to express themselves how they see it, and while some people have more followers than others, I don’t think that the point of Instagram is to get as many followers as you can. I always encourage people to create work that they are stoked about and proud of, and share it with the world. I can’t predict what will be popular, or why, but I can say that being able to have anyone on the planet review your work and give you feedback at any given moment is an incredible opportunity for young artists.
What else do you do to market your photography and get your work out there?
I have a rep, Jonathan Feldman at Massif Management, and I also have a licensing agent, Kimberly Ayl (also with Massif ). They work to establish contact with various clients (commercial or editorial) and handle a lot of the requests that come through. When I was getting started, I would take portfolios to meetings with anybody who would give me a minute of their time. From what I’ve seen, and from my own experience, it can take years of pounding the pavement before you get enough clients to stabilize your business.
Taking meetings, sending out promos, and reaching out to anyone and everyone that you have a connection to are always a part of the business it never stops. Now that I’ve been doing it for ten years, I’m able to team up with people like Jonathan and Kimberly who can help me do some of that, but the work is the same.
What other tips would you give aspiring adventure photographers looking to grow their network and reach potential clients online?
The main thing is to create good work. A great marketing plan might get people to see your photos, but if the pictures don’t stand out, none of that marketing effort will matter. If you really want to be an adventure photographer, grab your cameras and go have some adventures! And don’t come home until you’ve got some work that you’re proud of.
What’s next for you in 2016? Share with us any exciting client assignments or personal projects you have coming up.
Well, unfortunately, many of my client assignments have to be kept secret, as the images and locations are key to campaigns that are waiting to be launched. That being said, I have a few ski trips lined up for January that will take me to some of the most rugged ski locations I’ve ever been, and I’ve been working on pulling together an epic surf trip that will be one for the books. Keep tabs on my Instagram account and you’ll get to see for yourself!
For more great inspiration from award-winning photographers who have turned their love for adventure into a career, check out our latest resource, The Guide to Action & Adventure Sports Photography.