Chris Burkard: Timeless landscapes and untamed nature

The Californian photographer, Chris Burkard, was the overall winner of the second ever Red Bull Illume Image Quest back in 2010. Since then, Chris has become one of the most famous photographers in the adventure and action sports scene. We (virtually) sat down with him and talked about stand out moments of his career and how the current situation has affected it.

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© Chris Burkard / Red Bull Illume

Chris Burkard is a world-renowned photographer, filmmaker and storyteller. In his images, he captures nature and its many wonders in a spectacular and truly authentic way, which could be due to the fact that he approaches his subjects with caution and humility. Chris is very committed to his work and it seems like nothing can stop him from getting that perfect shot.

Thanks for taking the time Chris! How are you and what’s been going on lately?

I am good! Most of all I am thankful to be healthy and busy through these crazy times we are living in. COVID-19 and the travel restrictions it caused changed my life greatly over the past year, but in some ways it was actually really nice for me to have some time away from traveling to spend quality time at home with my family. Right now I am back in Iceland, I just finished up a surf trip and happened to get extremely lucky and be here for a volcanic eruption. I documented this both personally and for Nat Geo which was a huge honor. And right now I am prepping for another bike trip, this is a fat bike expedition in which I will traverse Iceland from North to South. Long story short, there’s a lot going on but life is good!

How has it affected your work?

The past year certainly brought its challenges and changed the way I work and run my business. Most of all it was a challenge to continue running my studio and making sure I could employ my team, but I am grateful to have adapted and been able to keep everything running as usual. The projects and work I took on certainly changed but I believe that is all part of being a photographer these days.

How would you describe your style of photography?

I would say overall, I have distinguished myself by shooting untamed, powerful landscapes that are layered with outdoor, travel, adventure, surf, and lifestyle subjects. One of the defining elements of my style of photography is instilling a sense of scale and timelessness within a landscape. That is done many times by including a person within the image but I’ve also used planes, boats, etc. By adding this human element it immediately gives a viewer a context to latch onto of how large a landscape or scene is while making it much more relatable. By seeing a human form within a scene it makes it much easier to imagine that person is you. I also utilize a lot of silhouette lighting in order to make my images more timeless. I try and avoid including details like a big branded shirt or anything that will allow you to tell when an image was taken.

How do you get your final images to look so consistent?

I think in some ways this happens naturally, by following the stylistic elements I mentioned above. I tend to stick to these because they’re what I instinctively like and have always gravitated towards which helps keep my portfolio cohesive. I also try not to rely heavily on editing which helps keep things consistent as well.

How did your relationship with action and adventure sports photography develop?

I started shooting photos when I was 19 years old after experimenting with drawing and art in high school. I realized that it enabled me to do art in a mobile state, to explore and adventure, and show people the beauty in the world around me. As a kid growing up on the Central Coast, I was always really into surfing and bodyboarding. As I began shooting photos, I gravitated towards these and was always out shooting photos with my friends doing these things. I would go and shoot surfers at the local beach and try to sell them pictures on DVDs. I shot weddings and senior pictures and interiors store photos. That obviously wasn't my end goal, but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to learn more about action sports and landscapes photography which is what I was excited about but didn't know where to turn so I started applying for internships. I finally got an opportunity to intern with Michael Fatali, a large format landscape photographer, and I got an internship at Transworld Surf magazine which was an incredibly valuable experience and pushed me further into the action sports world.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

It’s pretty simple, I guess. I find my inspiration in nature. Heading out and spending days off the grid and away from the civilization is where I feel most relaxed and can really see things in a different light. I used to draw a ton of inspiration from magazines and photo books but now it’s more in music, architecture, paintings, poetry, and really anything that opens up my senses in new and interesting ways. I have always tried to approach subjects with caution and humility. I never want to be running around taking photos without a clear purpose. So, I try to really take in the places I go and make sure that I am feeling some connection with them before I get to work. It’s an important part of my photographic process.

You often work under difficult and extraordinary conditions. What motivates you to go the extra mile for your work?

I always like to say the best image is the image people haven’t seen before. To be honest, it’s really hard to take a picture of a place or activity people have seen a bunch of times before. But, if you go the extra mile and take a photo of something people have never seen before, all the sudden that image stands out. I think about this a lot and it always pushes me to go further and work harder than most, because the result is always worth it.

Can you share stand out moments/memories of your career (positive and negative) with us?

There have definitely been lots of ups and downs over the years. Getting my first internship at Transworld Surf was a stand out moment for real because it was something I wanted so bad. Scoring waves under the Northern Lights was definitely an all-time positive moment for me, sitting in a jail cell in Russia was definitely an all-time negative stand out for me! There are almost too many ups and downs to list them, I’m just grateful for all the moments I’ve gotten to experience whether good or bad. Winning the Red Bull Illume Contest in 2010 was definitely a stand out moment for my career as well.

You’ve travelled to a lot of awesome spots all over the world. Do you have favorite places/locations to shoot in and why?

By far my favorite place in the world is Iceland. It holds so much opportunity for adventure and surf. Everytime I shoot here it is like walking on another planet. The geography along with the people of Iceland keep you coming back. Breanne (my wife) and I joke about living in Iceland when our boys get a little older for six-months at a time. I’ve been 40+ times and have no intentions of stopping.

What are the three most important things aspiring photographers should keep in mind?

The best thing that you can do as an aspiring photographer is to identify a style that represents you well, develop within that style, and keep shooting to perfect it. It’s super important to have your images be recognizable by editors and others who are looking at your work. With the large number of photographers that are out there now you must find ways to stand out. The best compliment I can ever receive is when people know my photography work instantly when they see it. I would also say persistence and willingness to learn.

What’s important when taking images for Red Bull Illume? Any tips?

I think similar to what I answered before, it’s really important and helpful to develop your own style and take images that are unique. There are so many amazing photographers out there today it’s absolutely mind-blowing, you need to do something that makes your photos stand out in a consistent way.

What’s the most valuable thing you learnt from taking part in Red Bull Illume?

Mostly the value of community within the creative industry and the opportunities there are to connect with people. Illume really fostered some amazing relationships with other photographers that I still value and hold dearly today. That is honestly the most important part of the whole thing.

What do you try to capture for the Image Quest 2021? Have you already shot something?

To be honest I have been really enjoying mentoring photographers and focusing on my own expeditions as an athlete. It’s been challenging to give as much focus as it takes to create an image for Illume so if something happens I’ll be excited to share it.. but it’s not as much of a focus for me now as it was years ago.

Where can we find more of your work?

You can find more of my work on my website or on my Instagram.

Thanks for your submissions!

Submissions have now closed. We’d like to thank everyone who has uploaded and shared their images with us – let the judging phase now begin.

Red Bull Illume 2021 Thank You

© Nathan Starzynski / Red Bull Illume

To all content creators who submitted to this year’s Red Bull Illume Image Quest we would like to say thank you and good luck! 

With travel restrictions, it’s been a lot more difficult for photographers to get THE shot. So, it’s been really great to receive so many submissions this year. We’ve only had a sneak peek at the images so far but what we can say is that the astounding level of creativity is mind-blowing and we are really stoked to see all of your work.  

What happens now? Well, we move to the judging phase. To learn more about that, watch this video as Red Bull Illume’s founder Ulrich Grill explains how the judging works. 

It’s like this. A judging panel of five go through thousands of entries and selects the top 25 images per category. These become the ‘semi-finalists’ and we will reach out to those successful photographers and content creators in the coming weeks. An international judging panel of around 50 photo editors and experts then choose the Finalists, Category Winners and the Overall Winner in three voting rounds.  

Stay tuned on all our channels for updates during the judging process. 

You also have a chance to be a judge, because from August 6 to 10, the July selection for Best of Instagram by Lenovo will be online for the monthly community vote. These finalists will be revealed mid-August and then all of the monthly finalists for this category will be put together for another round of community voting from August 25 to 29. This year, you get to decide who will be crowned as the winners of this category! 

Ultimately, all 2021 winners will be revealed at the end of the year. It’s going to be a blast and we can’t wait to see, who will carry home the trophies. 

Thank you once again for submitting. We hope it’s given you some inspiration to get out there again and shoot breathtaking adventure and action sports images.  

Get some RAW by Leica inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

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© Ben Thouard / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the RAW by Leica gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.


Leica offers several prizes for the overall as well as the category winners, including an SL2 camera with three premium lenses or the Q2 camera.

When you have to descend a mine shaft to get the shot

We talk to Red Bull Illume photographer Christian Pondella about shooting extreme athletes, and why less is more when it comes to equipment, and why lens caps should be left at home.

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© Christian Pondella

How did you get into photography?

I have been a professional photographer for over 25 years now. I got hooked on photography in my freshman year in college and fell in love with the process of developing and printing my black and white film. This went alongside with my passion for the mountains, skiing, climbing, mountain biking and naturally these passions merged together.

What motivates you to keep creating?

My number one motivation to keep creating is getting outdoors into the mountains and firsthand experiencing the beauty of Mother Nature. Then of course combining some type of sport or activity in this beautiful environment.

Are you planning to submit to the Image Quest 2021?

Of course! I am always hoping to get an image displayed in one of those magical cubes!

Could you tell us why other photographers should enter Red Bull Illume? Was entering a good move for you?

It’s an amazing opportunity for any adventure photographer with the chance that your image might make it to the final round. It’s the ultimate showcase to have your image displayed and exhibited around the world.

How did you decide on what image(s) to submit in the end?

As far as images to submit I try to find one that are unique and hopefully have some ethereal mood to them. For me, this is generally something where the forces of nature and human activity merge together.

Any tips for aspiring photographers who also want to submit this year?

Red Bull Illume has so many amazing images submitted, I think your best odds is to have something pretty unique.

What equipment do you trust in when shooting?

Honestly, the top camera manufactures all make amazing equipment, but the one constant that I always use are SanDisk memory cards and an F-Stop pack.

What features are particularly important for your equipment?

I try to keep things simple, less is more especially when it comes to adventure sports. Lens hoods and lens caps usually stay in my closet and I try to stay away from miscellaneous gadgets. When it comes to camera equipment for me it is important to buy the flagship cameras and lenses as they have the best weather sealing which is important for the environments I shoot in.

What are some stand out memories or moments from your career?

Certainly, some of the most unique images I have captured have been with Will Gadd particularly where we have descended into glaciers, moulins, and mine shafts to capture ice climbing. Also, some of my ski mountaineering adventures with Chris Davenport are particularly memorable.

How would you describe your style of photography?

I think I have a hard time describing my style of photography as I feel it changes and evolves. But I guess I have a certain style as I often have people tell me when they see a picture they know I took it before they see the photo credit. I guess the one constant is a small person in a unique environment which gives the viewer something to contemplate when looking at an image.

What makes your images unique?

I think a big part of it is the unique environments I have been fortunate to photograph. Not many people have descended two hundred feet into a glacier to capture photos so these types of images will resonate with people.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I find a lot of inspiration by following my peers on Instagram, but the biggest inspiration for me is Mother Nature and the spectacular beauty the outdoors has to offer.

Check out more of Christian's work on his website and Instagram @christianpondella.

 

Get some Innovation by EyeEm inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Innovation 1

© Vegard Breie / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Innovation by EyeEm gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading!

What are judges looking for?

Red Bull Illume's founder Ulrich Grill and judges explain what makes a great shot and how the judging process works.

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Are there certain characteristics that define a winning shot? In this video Red Bull Illume's founder Ulrich Grill talks about some of the defining qualities that make an Overall Winner. 

He discusses why technical brilliance isn't enough and how composition, creativitiy and artistic flair all help to make an amazing shot. 

“If we look at some of the winning images of the past editions, one thing connects them all and that’s true excellence,” he says, as he flicks through previous winning shots on Lenovo's Yoga 9i 2-in-1 laptop.

Grill explains how the judging process works, how thousands of images are whittled down to 276 semi-finalist images and how a strong judging panel of 50 international and renowned photo editors and photo experts then choose the finalists, category winners and the overall winner. 

The video also contains some top tips from some of this year’s judges, including Laura Stanley, Pexels editor, Ray Bisschop, publisher of Surfing Life and Theo Acworth, an editor at Method Mag. 

Adds Grill: “Red Bull Illume is all about the unsung heroes of adventure and action sports, the photographers behind the lens. It’s about you.”

Get some Playground inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Playground 1

© Rein Rijke / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Playground gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Get some Lifestyle by COOPH inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Lifestyle 1

© Corey Rich / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Lifestyle by COOPH gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Improve your chances with the Photo Story category

Explore the category where you can submit multiple images!

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Entering images into one of the new categories like Photo Story is a good way to boost your odds as it is not as well known as other categories. It takes a bit of effort but the good part is that you don’t necessarily need to go out and shoot something fresh. You can use multiple images that you didn´t previously use to tell the full story behind the action. With only a few days to go, this could be an option worth looking at. To get you inspired, watch the video below, then check your own files and see if you’ve got a story worth sharing.

Who's got the best Mountain Photo

There is an additional prize this year for the Best Mountain Photo.

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© Alexander Wick / Red Bull Illume

Here are some great shots from the Red Bull Illume archives to get you inspired for the Best Mountain Photo. Black Diamond is going to select the winner, and the prize is a generous product deal worth up to $5,000. Shots can belong to any category – it’s just a bonus prize for the best mountain image. So while there’s still time, head to the hills and nail that shot. 

10 days to go!

Only 10 days left to enter the world’s greatest adventure and action sports imagery contest – and achieve your break-out moment.

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© Simone di Mondino / Red Bull Illume

When it comes to planning and executing the perfect Red Bull Illume-winning shot, there are still quite a few things you can do in ten days; you can go on a roadtrip; head backcountry with some athlete friends or organize a last-minute shoot on your doorstep.

You could also create a reportage collection of images for the newest Red Bull Illume category – Photo Story. As one of the lesser known of Red Bull Illume’s ten categories, any entries stand a higher chance of going through to the next round.

Struggling for reasons on why you should submit? We say two words – prestige and prizes. Get an image selected into Red Bull Illume and you’ll receive lots of kudos. It’s a badge of honor that marks you out as a photographer that can open doors for your photography career.

Prizes include computers and tablets from Lenovo, workflow bundles from SanDisk Professional, a Leica SL2 for the winner and a paid photoshoot with Black Diamond for the winner of the Emerging category.  

Says Ulrich Grill, founder of Red Bull Illume: “Red Bull Illume is really the most prestigious photo contest in adventure and action sports and has been the spark that ignited many photographers’ careers. It’s also totally unbiased. If you have one great shot you could win. What unites previous winners Fred Mortagne, Chris Burkard, Lorenz Holder and Ben Thouard is photographic excellence. We look forward to seeing your images in the contest. Just think, this year it could be you!”

For your chance to enter and win great prizes and the prestige of being a Red Bull Illume winner, get shooting and submit your work here – there’s still time, but only just!