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.

The next generation is here - Introducing the Emerging by Black Diamond semi-finalists!

This round of semi-finalists is bursting with new talent in the category reserved for photographers 25 years and younger.

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© Kristiyan Dimitrov Markov / Red Bull Illume

The Emerging by Black Diamond category is specifically created to shine a light on the youngsters, the newbies, the fresh talent, and essentially the next generation of adventure and action sports photographers. This is a category that levels the playing field, giving everyone 25 years and younger an opportunity to compete at the same level as the pros and they did not disappoint!

We are super stoked to finally share the unbelievable creativity coming out of these photographers who made it to the semi-final stage:

Moritz Ablinger
Chris Anderson
Keiron Berndt
Andrew Dixon
Nick Green
Ian Harland
Nick James
Peter Kaiser
Manuel Kokseder
Pablo León
Jb Liautard
Kristiyan Dimitrov Markov
Thomas Meurot
Marco Müller
Aarón Sio Pretel
Patricio José Díaz Rios
Scott Robb
Gonzalo Robert
Anna Rossini
Mathieu Ruffray

Our partner and sponsor of this category, Black Diamond, is all about climbing and skiing and is known for engineering the best gear possible. Everyone was super stoked to have them on board, especially the young photographers. Why? Well, because the category winner of Emerging by Black Diamond wins a three-day photoshoot with the equipment and apparel manufacturer. On top of that, they’re rewarding a prize for the Best Mountain Photo with a product deal worth up to $5,000 which will be shared with the public at the winner’s unveiling at the end of the year.

A new collection of semi-finalists will be announced every week, so make sure you follow us on social media and visit our website to stay up to date.

Looking back: Emerging by Black Diamond

We wanted to kickstart Emerging by Black Diamond week the right way, by taking a look back and reminiscing on some of the semi-finalists from 2019. We’ve selected eight of the most noteworthy images, shot by up-and-coming talents, so check them out while you get ready for the big semi-finalist announcement coming on Thursday!

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© Brodie Hood / Red Bull Illume

Light up your imagination with the Creative by Skylum semi-finalists!

Starting today, we are sharing the semi-finalists from this year's Red Bull Illume Image Quest on a weekly basis. You can expect a great new collection of mind-blowing images each Thursday, so get ready for your dose of inspiring content coming in 3...2...1!

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© Jason Colledge / Red Bull Illume

This is the moment we have all been waiting for! Here are the first semi-finalists of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021, which were selected by our official jury. Let's start with Creative by Skylum, the category where anything goes because images can be enhanced digitally or altered in the darkroom to bring an idea to life. It’s the category with the most freedom, giving photographers the opportunity to let their imagination run wild.

Of course, we’d like to say a huge round of congratulations to everyone who brought their ideas to life and pushed the boundaries of creativity in adventure and action sports photography. These photos will be printed in the limited-edition Red Bull Illume Photobook, to be released towards the end of the year with the unveiling of the final Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 winners.

Creative by Skylum semi-finalists:

Didier Barontini
Jan Burkert
Jason Colledge
Marco Dullnig
Oskar Enander
Nejc Ferjan
Ryan Fernette
Enric Adrian Gener
Denis Klero
Kuba Konwent
Marcelo Maragni
Yuya Matsui
Kevin Molano
Andrew Soria
Daniel Stewart
Mikołaj Walczewski
Mitch Winton

It’s no wonder that Skylum is the perfect partner for this category with their award-winning image enhancement software, especially in a category that encourages editing and changing the original photo. You can see the photographers took full advantage this edition bringing across crazy scenes in all of these unbelievable images.

This is just the first category of semi-finalists to be announced, so make sure you stay up to date on our website and our social media channels for even more semi-finalists next week!

The picture is the reward

We talked with surf photographer Fred Pompermayer about what sparked his love for big waves, where he finds inspiration, and which equipment he relies on.

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© Fred Pompermayer

Where does your passion for photography come from? 
I think my passion for photography was cultivated within my artistic family. My father had a picture frame shop and a lot of artistic friends. My sister is an amazing artist. I have always felt confident behind the lens.

You left Brazil to pursue photography - what are some of your favorite locations to see big waves? 
What drove me to pursue big waves was Mavericks. I remember one day in 1993, at my friend’s house, I saw a photo of Jay Moriarity on the cover of a magazine. He was on a giant wave at Mavericks - it did not look real! That image embedded in my mind and was when my pursuit for big waves actually started. Finally, in 2001, I got to see Mavericks with my own eyes, luckily for me, it was the biggest and baddest day ever.  

In what way do you think growing up in Brazil has influenced you? Do you find yourself returning there frequently? 
Growing up in Brazil was challenging, you have to constantly adapt to new situations. There was not a lot of support and information about becoming a photographer. After moving to California, I continued to visit Brazil every year.  

Where do you spend most of your time these days? What made you choose that country? Does it inspire you? 
California is the mecca of the surfing industry. In Los Angeles, you can find a flight to anywhere in the world. For big wave surfing I am always flying last minute because it's hard to anticipate the conditions, so I have to wait until the very last minute to make my final decision.

You’re well-known for surf photography, but also shoot extreme action sports like base jumping or mountain climbing. What makes extreme action sports interesting for you? 
Outdoor adventure has always been my passion. Extreme sports are interesting to me because of the amount of dedication athletes put into challenging themselves, it’s not only physical, but also mental and spiritual. I also love the community. Plus, to capture these sports you have to be exposed to the elements and this challenge drives me. The picture is the reward.  

What's important regarding equipment?
Throughout my career I’ve always believed it's important to experiment with a variety of cameras and lenses so that you can understand the possibilities and perspectives. For some of my ideas I’ve had to adapt. I’ve had to create my own water housing for big waves and flash photography because I didn't find what I wanted on the market at that time. Doing that expanded my horizons. The important thing about shooting extreme sports is trusting your equipment. Most moments can never be recreated, so you have to capture the shot in the moment. I chose SanDisk for all my memory cards after a really bad experience with another company, I lost all of my data and after that, I only use SanDisk. 

Did Red Bull Illume have an impact on your professional career? 
By far, Red Bull Illume is the best adventure and action sports photography contest in the world and it has inspired me a lot. Seeing all of these talented photographers pushing themselves to capture incredible moments is very motivating to me.

Do you have any projects planned for the coming months? 
I have just finished an incredible climbing documentary in Yosemite. I am still working on that.

You can find more of Fred’s work on Instagram, @fred_pompermayer, or on his website.

Looking back: Creative by Skylum

We wanted to kickstart Creative by Skylum week the right way, by taking a look back and reminiscing on some of those from the previous editions. We’ve selected eight of the most noteworthy images, shot by the semi-finalists of recent years, so check them out while you get ready for the big semi-finalist announcement coming later this week!

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© Leo Francis / Red Bull Illume

WhiteWall joins the team for Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021

The Playground category is officially brought to you by WhiteWall, the photo lab for everyone who loves photography.

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© WhiteWall

Every photographer knows the importance of teamwork, especially when your subject matter is adventure and action sports. Red Bull Illume is all about working together, which is why we’re super excited to have WhiteWall on our team for the Image Quest 2021 and as an official partner of the Playground category: for images that showcase the landscapes, locations, platforms, and environments in which athletes play.

WhiteWall is a leading photo lab in Germany with fourteen years of experience, run by a team of passionate experts. They have a global presence with stores in thirteen countries which ship to the professional photography industry all around the world. Their award-winning photo printing uses high-quality prints under acrylic glass, premium backing materials, and handcrafted frames. The trick is their combination of traditional development methods with state-of-the-art technology, and you want to know what’s really awesome? WhiteWall is giving all category winners of the Image Quest 2021 their very own winning image, printed and framed!

When you think about it, the partnership with WhiteWall is a natural fit in the Red Bull Illume journey; from discovering the world’s greatest adventure and action sports images to honoring the art with premium printing. We just can’t wait to find out whose images are going to win! Stay tuned to our website and social media to find out all the latest news.

Gallery: In the spotlight

We’re shining a light on all the women who are out there shooting adventure and action sports, a male-dominated field, even to this day. Here’s a collection filled with some of the amazing shots that were shared with us over the years. Check it out and get your daily fix of inspiration!

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© Claudia Ziegler / Red Bull Illume

The one-man army whose playground is the French Alps

French photographer, Tristan Lebeschu, tells us about his favorite adventure sports, finding inspiration in the Alps, and how his love of photography began.

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© Tristan Lebeschu

What sparked your passion for photography?
When I did my first winter snowboarding season in 1999 in Tignes, French Alps, I felt the need to keep memories of all the good times with my friends up the hills - so I started with disposable cameras.
Digital photography started growing rapidly and I loved it straight away. The very first digital camera I was using was a Kodak 2MP camera. At the time, I was passionate about panoramas and I was always capturing and stitching together photos.

What impact does living in the French Alps have on your work?
I chose that place for the winter sports and have completely fallen in love with it, all year long. I love to shoot outdoor sports, so I got the perfect playground and backdrops right by my doorstep.

Your work is quite diverse, from real estate to landscape to adventure. Is there something specific you like about photographing adventure sports?
I really don’t like routine, and I love photography as it always provides renewed intellectual challenges - it’s never the same. Especially with outdoor sports, with the variety of sports, the everchanging light and weather conditions you can never shoot the same thing twice.

Which adventure sport is your favorite to shoot and why?
A hard question! I love to shoot all of them, I especially love to shoot activities I’ve never shot before because you’re outside your comfort zone which means your mind is running at 120%. But, if I had to choose only one, it probably would be paragliding / paramotoring or air activities in general because there is so much that hasn’t been done yet, due to complexity of shooting in the air.
The most difficult sport I’ve had to capture is Wingsuit / BASE jumping. Hands down! The action is happening so fast and you can’t repeat it every 5 minutes.

How did you develop your signature style?
I’ve always loved photography with impact, stuff that you stop and look at when you’re scrolling through your social media feed, for instance. So, I’ve always been on the lookout for contrast, color, light, and impactful composition. I also like to use ambient light, flash, or even a mix of both.
My recipe for years has been very simple: Give the best possible justice to the athlete’s performance with the most impactful composition, light and background / backdrop.

Has Red Bull Illume had an impact on your career?
For sure, I love the extra motivation to shoot more personal projects, and I love meeting other photographers and talking with them about our craft and our common issues / ideas.

Did you submit a picture to the Image Quest 2021?
Of course, just like every edition since I first entered 3 editions ago.

You mentioned you were on a photoshoot in Iceland, can you tell us more about it?
Well, yes and no. We often shoot for commercial projects like this one that won’t be released for several months or a year. However, I can tell you about Iceland and how much I love that place. It was my second time there and I fell in love with this incredibly beautiful place all over again. It has one of the most stunning and varied landscapes on the planet with outstanding and welcoming people that keep it clean and protected. I’m a huge fan of New Zealand, I’ve been there 10 times in my life. For me, Iceland is like the New Zealand of the Northern Hemisphere, or the closest thing I’ve found to it!

Are there any other countries you would like to travel to for photography?
Of course, so many of them, even though local travel is what I’ve got my eyes on at the moment. I think I’m going to explore Europe and the Alps more.

Do you have any tips for aspiring/fellow photographers?
Be passionate and ready to work very hard. Talent is not enough, you are going to need to be a skilled one-man army; marketing yourself, negotiating, doing your accounting, and always improving your skills in areas where you not necessarily at the most ease. But if you’re motivated enough, no mountain is too big for you to climb and it’ll be a beautiful journey to embark on.


You can find more of Tristan's work on his website and on Instagram @tristanshu.

The perfect office is the ocean

Russell Ord, "Energy" category finalist of 2016, talks about the moment his perception of photography shifted, as well as his connection to the ocean.

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© Russell Ord / Red Bull Illume

What made you fall in love with surf photography?
I injured my knee surfing (1999), and instead of just sitting in the lounge, I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my mates surfing. My passion for taking photos grew from there. The learning curve was steep at the start, being self-taught and using film, but I gradually progressed the camera skills. I was also lucky enough to have 20 years of ocean experience to call upon, which is the most complex skill to learn regarding surf photography. 

What’s your favorite thing about photographing surfers and the sea?
I love the ocean's connection with people from all walks of life; it's a real sense of community and coming from a surfing background and working in that type of environment feels surreal. The most complex decisions I have made have been effortless when surrounded by saltwater; it's the perfect office.

What are some challenges you face when photographing surfers?
The ocean itself is the biggest challenge when it comes to taking photos from within the water. The ocean forces me to question my fears and limitations; is it too big for my skill level, am I mentally/physically prepared, what are the risks? All the work/experience required to take these types of images happen many years prior.

Can you share a memory about your career that really stands out for you?
The way I look at my photography completely changed ten years ago, all from an accident. Taking my eyes off the sea resulted in a broken leg in two places, a dislocated knee and a seven-hour drive back to my local hospital. 

While waiting for the surgeon I picked up a leading photography magazine, "Top ten wildlife images of the year". Each photographer was interviewed on the backstory behind their images and how they went about capturing their award-winning photos. 

The number one image, according to the judges, was a photo of a Bengal Tiger dispersing water as it majestically left the pond. The photographer had captured it with a slow shutter, creating a perfect ring of water around the tiger while keeping the big cat in focus. Like many of the other photos, it was breathtaking.

Interested in finding out more, I began to read the backstory of the image and instantly felt disappointed, and somewhat offended, for every other photographer in that competition. How do you award first place to a wildlife photo that was captured in a zoo? 

That article changed the way I look at and contemplate my photography – in reality, 99% of my work is purely just moments in time. Right place at the right time, so to speak, they lacked a story behind the image, no other adversity or skills beyond the camera and pressing the trigger. 

What’s your goal as a surf photographer?
I want to experience all the elements of the ocean and start to push my boundaries. "How did you do that" and "what position are you in to take the image" are essential questions and factors far more critical than the image itself.

What impact did Red Bull Illume have on your career?
Red Bull Illume is pure inspiration for me. I look at the images and imagine the photographer's journey to capture each image; the more adversity I imagine, the greater the image becomes in my mind. 

Is there something photography related you’d like to try for the first time? 
I have been injured for close to 18 months now, but before that, I was training and focusing on a couple of surf spots around the world that I wanted to shoot up close and personal with different angles, which has now been put on hold. Those types of images require peak performance, and I am far from that. I will have a good look within throughout the rest of the year, set goals, and come back better than ever when the time is right.

Is there a location you would like to visit for a shooting one day?
I would love to hang out in Ireland for an extended period of time. The country looks impressive and knowing quite a few Irish people; it would be a great time.

Do you have any tips for aspiring/fellow photographers?
I love this quote: Life is about the journey, not the destination.
Be patient, learn your craft and don't get caught up in the perception of the photography world; it's not all bells and whistles, it can be a challenging journey but certainly, one worth travelling.


You can find more of Russell’s work on his website and on Instagram @russellordphoto.

EyeEm Awards Winner becomes Red Bull Illume Finalist

The next official Red Bull Illume finalist is revealed as the winners of EyeEm Awards 2021 are announced!

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© Song Gang / EyeEm

EyeEm is the global marketplace for premium stock photography and the creators of the EyeEm Awards, a photography contest intended to recognize and honor those who push creative visual boundaries. The winners of this years' contest were recently announced at the Berlin Photoweek on August 29, which also means that we can share one more official Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 finalist!

The contest is comprised of six categories, one of which is ‘Great Outdoors by Red Bull Illume’, which celebrates the unique beauty found in adventures- a philosophy we connect with on many levels. It made sense for us to partner up with EyeEm and give photographers even more opportunity to be honored, which is why this year, the best adventure and action sports image of this category automatically became a Red Bull Illume finalist.

A huge congratulations to Song Gang, winner of the Great Outdoors by Red Bull Illume category, for their mesmerizing image of the gigantic manta ray and diver dancing the ocean. Song Gang said he was surprised and thrilled about winning and describes how lucky he was to capture this magical moment; particularly because when you’re underwater, it’s difficult to talk to the free diver and you can’t really communicate with fish either.

 “We came across the ocean to see the giant oceanic manta rays, the largest type of ray in the world. They can grow up to 7 meters, with a weight of about 3000 kg. However, they are always graceful, like an elegant dancer in the water. Sometimes they liked to dance with each other, and sometimes came to the divers to play with the bubbles. This time, the giant swam to free diver, Aolin, dancing with him and I captured this magical moment.” – Song Gang
 
A host of great prizes awaits Song Gang, as well as all the global exposure and prestige earned by being part of the Red Bull Illume Exhibition Tour and Limited Edition Photobook. All of this, on top being an EyeEm Awards winner too.

We are super excited to share our next official finalist of Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 and would also like to say well done to all the winners of the EyeEm Awards for their absolutely jaw-dropping photography. Discover the world of EyeEm and check out Song Gang’s Red Bull Illume finalist photo here. Remember to stay up to date with all the latest news about Red Bull Illume on our website and our social channels!