Chris Burkard Made The Switch

For nature and travel photographer Chris Burkard, surfing and climbing and kayaking are more than just the subjects he photographs. They’re integral to the life he lives. In fact, he says, it’s by incorporating the outdoors into his daily life he’s able to make photographs from the perspective of a participant rather than an outsider. His passion for the outdoors, as well as how far he will go to get a great shot, is evident in every frame.

“I’ve found that if you’re able to live that lifestyle,” Burkard says, “rather than just be like, ‘this is what I want to shoot for work and this is what I want to shoot for myself and this is what I want to put out in the world…’ Well if you just decide to live it, I think that benefits a lot. When you’re there, when you try to put yourself in these situations with the right equipment, you have to be willing to have the experience yourself. If you’re not having the experience yourself then it’s not really going to come through in the imagery no matter how hard you try. And I find that most of the big projects that have come about for me are directly because of the choices I’ve made in my own life. I’ve chosen to go seek out these things on a personal level through personal projects, and all of a sudden we’re getting commercial jobs to do the same stuff.”

In order to live the life of a globetrotting adventure and landscape photographer, Burkard learned long ago that he needed a compact and convenient camera—one that literally wouldn’t weigh him down. Five years ago he selected a Sony NEX-7 for a trip to remote northern Norway. Little did he know it was the beginning of a sea change.

“I knew I was going to be traveling to super-remote places on snowmobiles,” Burkard says, “and I was going to be bounced around. I couldn’t bring a big, heavy DSLR around my neck. I needed to bring something that would be pocketable but powerful. The NEX-7 had just come out, and I had it in to supplement my Nikon. I started using it and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing is game changing.’ Everything from how the screen articulated to how wide it was, I could put it in my pocket, I didn’t have to look in the viewfinder, when I was bouncing around I was able to get these really cool off-the-cuff moments on that trip. I shot a lot with it, it was really fast, it had great autofocus…”

It wasn’t until the A7 series came out that I became a full convert. I had been shooting half Nikon and half Sony, and I just became super impressed in the 70-400, version 2 came out, and that’s when I got really excited because finally there was a big telephoto lens I could use that really spoke to what I needed to shoot.

Burkard worried that his retoucher would complain about the new files. Instead he was thrilled.“He was like, ‘Man, these are great,’” Burkard says. “He was actually extremely impressed by the quality and the ability of what the camera could do. That was huge, because it was being compared to all my Nikon D700 stuff. What I found was because of this 14 stops of dynamic range, it was really able to bring out a lot of detail and a lot of color and a lot of light in a situation that was pretty much crap. It wasn’t really optimal; it was dark and dreary. So I was really impressed.”

The NEX-7 tagged along on Burkard’s next shoot, a commercial assignment for a big car company. He planned to use the small camera almost like a sketchbook—a quick and easy way to check compositions and test ideas before pulling out the medium format camera for the hero shots. When he turned over the images, the client preferred the Sony files.

I shoot a lot of aerial stuff. And aerial photography is usually the best if there’s something as a point of reference. So I find it’s the same approach that I take for really anything I’m shooting. I love the idea of giving people something they can relate to. Giving them something they can grasp on to and understand and know what it’s like to be there and the warmth and the feeling and the mood and everything that went into creating that moment. There’s a lot to be said for landscapes. But the thing is, I never aimed to shoot photos to sell images or to get, like… I just shot photos that I enjoy, that I like being in those moments. And for me these are the most important moments and I feel like if people are shooting stuff for other purposes than they might want to reconsider why they’re doing it.

Dynamic range is everything,” Burkard says. “I shot with a Phase One and I shot my small NEX-7. When I gave them all the images I hadn’t organized them, and every file they liked happened to be from the Sony. Obviously there are limitations if I was going to blow them up massively, but since most of it was going to be used for the web anyway, they liked those files and I could pull more detail out of them. That dynamic range has been probably one of the greatest assets.”

I grew up by the ocean, and it just made sense. It was easy for me to go to the beach, I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to go there. It was a part of my life growing up, so it was an easy transition in terms of how I could experience it and it was a great source for me to experience photography as well. It was a geographical thing; if I’d grown up by the mountains I’d have skied.

For a few years, Burkard went back and forth between a Nikon system and various Sony mirrorless cameras. It wasn’t until the introduction of the A7 series in 2014 that he fully converted.

“The A7s is absolutely my go-to camera for nighttime and high ISO stuff,” he says. “In the day it’s the A7II, and soon it will probably be the A7rII. I’ve always put the emphasis on speed and agility and getting the shot. I’ve shot Phase One, I’ve shot a lot of cameras, and I’m not a fan of the non-agile stuff. It’s super crucial.”

“Every single time I pick up my camera,” Burkard continues, “the quality just blows my mind. That’s been everything to me. I feel like I’m constantly blowing people’s minds in terms of, like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re shooting this on this tiny little camera.’ But I do. In fact, I still shoot the A6000 a lot. I’ve shot a bunch of books and covers on the A6000 that people are constantly blown away by. And it’s just because the quality of the camera is so good.”

Burkard is the kind of photographer who carefully selects the right camera for every shoot based on its specific ability to serve the subject and his vision. Always it’s a Sony; sometimes it’s still a surprising choice. Case in point: his shot of a surfer in the Aleutian Islands.

We’re born to be storytellers, right? That’s why you become a photographer in the first place. So if you can’t tell a story from your experience, then there’s really no point in doing it. I’ve gotten back from a lot of projects and trips, and been like oh my gosh, what an amazing trip. It’s such a whirlwind that I have no stories to tell and I can’
t even remember barely anything that happened because I was so overwhelmed by hauling my gear here and hauling my gear there. So to simplify, when you simplify it really makes life so much different, so much better.

“That photo’s special in particular,” he says. “I have a lot of people ask, ‘How is everything in focus? How is the volcano in focus and the wave in focus and the background hills.’ People have this idea that to create great imagery you have to have a full-frame camera and this and that. I actually shot that on a Sony A99 that I purposely put into crop mode. Not because I wanted to get a longer lens, but because when you’re shooting in APS-C you’re actually bringing more of your image into focus. It’s not as shallow depth of field. That was a conscious decision I made because I wanted the image to turn out how it did. And the result was that amazing background, foreground and middle ground focus that turned out to be really cool. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, this is Photoshopped. There’s no way it looks like that, blah, blah, blah.’ I always tell them you have to understand your equipment, understand its ins and outs, how it works, how it functions the best for you. That’s a huge thing.”

“The other thing people always ask,” Burkard says, “is, ‘Are you using Nikon lenses on the Sony with an adapter?’ No, I’m not, because what’s the point of having a small camera and then putting an adapter and a big lens on it? It’s pointless. I’ve always put less emphasis on, ‘Oh, I need this shallow lens and yadda, yadda, yadda.’ For me, the smaller a system is, the more personal and intimate it feels. So I really try to keep my system as tight and functioning as fast as I can. And that’s why I like to use the native lenses. The Leica glass is amazing, and nowadays you can get amazing shallow depth of field lenses.”

Nothing is ever going to be as beautiful as nature by itself, from my perspective, absolutely. But I definitely find with photography, I’m usually at these places with my friends, or with someone, and so I feel like in terms of relatability and in terms of inspiring people to actually want to go there, it does a lot for an image to give you some perspective on a couple of things. First of all, how somebody could enjoy that place. You see a kayaker there. Also a big part of me likes to disrupt the status quo. Oh, I’m just gonna go stand here behind the car rail. No! I want to be kayaking in the Merced River. I want to be skateboarding down this long stretch of road. And I’m not out there saying that everybody should be doing what I’m doing, because sometimes it can be dangerous. But I do think that there’s a lot that can be said for appreciating these places in a new way and a new format. That’s really, honestly, when it comes down to it, that’s all I really need to do. Just give people a new way to appreciate these places.

Small lenses on a small camera that produces huge dynamic range allow Burkard to really live the lifestyle he showcases in his work. He wants viewers to feel like the adventures he depicts are attainable, though he still has to work hard to produce them. Take the photograph of a kayaker on Alberta’s Lake Maligne. He went the extra mile to get the shot, and he was only able to do so because of his compact camera.

“There’s really nothing special about it,” he says of the stunning image. “It’s great light, and it’s a great scene, but what makes it unique is the fact that I had to kayak four-and-a-half hours to get there. Because the tour bus leaves before sunset, if you want to stay for sunset you have to go by your own means. And I think the key was that I wouldn’t have gotten that shot if I hadn’t brought my Sony. I wouldn’t have been able to bring as many lenses and as much gear with a Nikon system. It just wouldn’t have been as feasible. To me, that just speaks to the lightness of this system.”

Ten years ago I would definitely have called myself a surf photographer. That was my main source of income and so I knew that, you have to embrace whatever your income really. If you want to call yourself an adventure photographer but you make all of your money shooting weddings, you’re a wedding photographer, you know? So I feel like you have to be honest and true to yourself. For me, I’ve found that in the last five years especially my work’s really gravitated more from shooting surfing and more toward landscape and nature. I always like to tell people I like to shoot attainable adventures. Ones that feel like they’re in reach. I could care less about this idea of planting flags on Everest. That does more to stroke people’s ego than anything else. It’s not as inspirational as people think. It’s just been a brand cliché for ten years. So really this idea of rafting down the Grand Canyon or climbing up some big peak that’s actually within reach. That’s the message that I aim to put out to people because I want people to look at my images and feel like they could put themselves in my shoes. That’s really important to me.

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