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March 13, 2019

If you're working towards being a better adventure/landscape/travel photographer, there's a good chance you know who Chris Burkard is. At the very least, you've surely seen his work on the internet and in magazines all over the world. As a self-taught photographer, Burkard has managed to make himself a household name in the world of photography all before the young age of 35.

So how does he do it? Well, we'll never really know but we have gleaned some tips for Burkard on how he manages to set himself apart from the crowd to get his million dollar shots.

How to take photos like Chris Burkard

Take time to form relationships with your subjects:

Cuban boys jumping off wall

Travel photography poses a unique challenge in ethics. Is it okay to photograph locals as your subject? If so, how do you approach such a delicate situation? No doubt Chris Burkard has had tackle this issue more than a few times and he handles it with class. His tips? Don’t just shove a camera in a person’s face. Spend the time to get to know them and the rest will fall into place.

“Cuba really taught me a lot about street photography & the importance of forming relationships with your subjects. I watched these kids jump into the small cracks of the reef of the Ocean Road in Havana. I stood back and observed as other photographers quickly approached wielding large cameras to take a photo.. at which point the kids would usually stop & ask for money. I really wanted to photograph them but knew I needed a different approach.. so I put my camera down, took off my shoes & shirt and stood on the cement wall... I jumped in. It was a terrifying leap into a small opening. The kids clapped & any lasting tension faded away. I swam around watching as one by one they jumped in, often hooting to show my support. It was obvious my presence had become less of a nuisance and I may have even earned a small sliver of their respect. I grabbed my camera and starting making pictures.. all the while making sure that they knew my first priority was just being an observer. This resulted in not only my favorite Cuba image but also my favorite experience."

Always have your camera with you

Iceland horses on the beach

As photographers, we know how precious and fleeting that “perfect” shot can be, sometimes even lasting only a fraction of a second. Chris’s advice? Always have your camera and if you can, keep the settings dialed so you don’t need to fumble to get the shot.

"Lesson: Always have your camera on you.The story behind the photo is pretty simple... It was February on the southeast coast of Iceland & I had returned to try and photograph a wave that had always been lacking swell during my summer trips. Winter seemed like the best option. We parked, hike up over the frozen dunes and made our way toward the beach. The surf was high & the sound of the sea was a continuous roar. We finally got a view of the beach and just at the high tide line two Icelandic horses were making their way in unison toward the surf. I fumbled to grab my small camera out of my jacket and take a photo. They marched toward the water. Stopped and turned around for home. The moment happened so fast.. no time to adjust settings or do “another take” the moment was there and gone. Yelling over the sound of the waves was impossible. I later learned they were the landowner Omar’s horses and I made a big print for his house.

This photo has always been a good lesson that when I’m working I never leave without the camera, and more importantly it should be preset & ready to actually take a photo, not tucked away in a backpack in need of a settings adjustment."

Don’t over think it

California mountains and shoreline

As one of the most prominent photographers of the last 10 years, Chris keeps it humble by reminding us that sometimes photography is as easy as not overthinking your shot. When you’re in a beautiful location, sometimes it’s enough to point and shoot and hope for the best.

"Honestly 90% of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. I just point and shoot at whatever looks beautiful, whatever moves me. I hope it stays that way. Figure the rest out later I guess."

Never stop learning

Great sand dune national park on horesback

Even as one of the most accomplished photographers, Burkard knows that even he will forever be a student of photography. Learning to work with and be flexible with the conditions and light is crucial.

"Learning to accept that you will forever be a student of Light, in constant study of its many moods, patterns & shapes, is maybe the most important step in becoming a professional photographer."

You don’t have to shoot everything

It can be overwhelming deciding on what to shoot. Landscape? Wildlife? Photojournalism? Urban photography? When you’re just starting out, the options are endless and all too often new photographers find themselves trying to do it all. Burkard advises taking time to figure out your niche and what really makes you tick and spend time exploring that. It doesn’t mean you have to do it forever but being all in on one type of photography is infinitely better than spreading yourself thin.

 Norway fjords

It can be overwhelming deciding on what to shoot. Landscape? Wildlife? Photojournalism? Urban photography? When you’re just starting out, the options are endless and all too often new photographers find themselves trying to do it all. Burkard advises taking time to figure out your niche and what really makes you tick and spend time exploring that. It doesn’t mean you have to do it forever but being all in on one type of photography is infinitely better than spreading yourself thin.

"What is the most common mistake young photographers make?

In my opinion most photographers at a certain point convince themselves they have to shoot ‘everything’ to be successful. This couldn’t be further from the truth... Every talented photographer that I know has become successful because they have learned to specialize in something. In essence they try & become the best at what they do.. Not ‘decent’ at a lot of things. Ultimately you are hired & sought after by clients, magazines etc because you bring something to that table that nobody else does. You never want to be sought out simply because you have a camera & can do the job. When I talk to magazine editors the feeling is the same.... Every time we look through a photographers portfolio who hasn’t found their style they often try to convince themselves & everyone else they can do it all. In the long run it dilutes their best work."

The most valuable asset you have is your own curiosity

Aleutian Islands snowcapped mountain

As a society who values extensive C.V.s and practical experience, it’s important to remember that the most valuable trait you can possess is your own curiosity. The difference between taking a photo and taking a photo and wanting to learn all about the photo you took is immense.

"I’ll take Curiosity over natural talent any day. I think curiosity might be the most valuable skill we can develop during our lives. The ability to have something hold our attention & drive us to learn more about it. Photographs should in many ways just perpetuate & stoke the fire of curiosity.

You may see a perfect volcano in this image, but all I see is that crater, middle right of the frame, i can’t stop thinking about it. We didn’t have the time explore it & drawn to know and understand how it got there... these are the healthy obsessions I live for."

Sometimes the beauty is in the tiny details 

small wave with pine tree reflection

Sometimes the shots you least expect to be amazing are the ones who steal the show and often, these showstoppers are of unexpected details. Don’t be afraid to get macro and find beauty in the small things.

"While crossing a rushing river in remote Canada I looked down & saw this tiny 1 inch wave being formed by the fast moving water flowing over the large smooth rocks. Every so often a tiny barrel would form giving off the reflections of evergreens & coastal pines. I slowed the shutter down to 1/15th of a second to exaggerate the shape & color. The 50mm lens was set to f1.8 to give the depth of field a shallow feel. This image was my favorite from the whole trip, possibly because it was a good reminder to always look down. :)"

Don’t get stuck with one perspective 

It’s tempting going to the same popular photo locations as every other photographer, I know. So when you’ve got an epic location dialed in, how do you get a unique shot of something that is so overshot? Don’t get stuck in one spot and don’t be afraid to explore other perspectives. 

"It may seem obvious but I always felt like I did a place a disservice if I shot from the same perspective the entire time. Years ago it was common for me to set a tripod down, big lens & never move from that location for hours on end. It felt monotonous and at times we would even refer to the tripod/ telephoto as a ball and chain. I remember being taught this lesson in southern Mexico years ago, being frustrated after shooting for hours in the location that I thought was the best, and getting nothing, I finally began the long walk back only to turn around & realize the view I had been missing. I think the issue is that typically when we find success shooting one perspective, it becomes hard to ever see anything else. Bringing a fresh set of eyes to a place you have been many times is maybe the hardest for a creative to ever do."

Don’t let social media set your expectations

arches national park at sunset

Sometimes living in the digital era can be discouraging. We all too often take the manicured lives we see on Instagram at face value without realizing that behind that perfect shot is 10, 20, maybe even 100 throw away shots the world will never see. With Instagram providing more knowledge and access to some of the greatest wild treasures on the planet, it can be easy to fall into the trap of carrying high exceptions when visiting these magnificent places. Burkard's advice is simple, if it’s not what you imaged, no problem. Try to enjoy the fact you’re there at all and work with what you’ve got.

"I was hoping for clear skies... you know.. the classic Milky Way through the arch shot (we have all seen it) Instead we had rain, wind and about 100 people photographing the arch with the same idea in mind. It’s easy to leave a location we have seen so photographed so often feeling like we missed out on the pinnacle experience. That is probably the greatest downfall of Social Media. The unrealistic expectations it creates for places we have never been before. I decided to embrace the flashlights, headlamps, people walking in and out of frame & light pollution from the small town of Moab in the background.. somehow trying to blur it all together with a 30 second exposure.

The night was spent laughing with @renan_ozturk @snackfarmer , all in all an experience that still felt rich & vibrant because of the people you surround yourself with in nature. Better than any preconceived photo I had in my head."

All images by Chris Burkard.

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