Surfing the Great Lakes in the fall / Photo by author

What It Takes to Become a Professional Photographer

Student Work
by Nat Kuleba Sep 17, 2014
Check out Matador Ambassador Chris Burkard’s latest film project, Arctic Swell.

I discovered a love for photography not too long ago — landscapes and surf are my favorite subject matters. When an interview assignment came up at MatadorU, I immediately knew that I wanted to interview renowned surf photographer Chris Burkard to learn how he captures such mind-blowing work and about his life as a successful photographer.

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NK: How and when did you discover photography as a passion of yours?

CB: When I found that the camera was a creative outlet for me I got hooked trying to learn as much as I could. I combined this with my passion for being in the water and started shooting surf images of my friends. This helped me land an internship at TransWorld Surf and I kept growing from there.

How did your niche evolve and did you know your niche right from the beginning?

Growing up in central California I believe I was brought up around a slightly different environment than a typical surf photographer. It’s not as sunny as Southern California and I grew to love colder more remote locations. I wasn’t as interested in the tropical, white sand beach settings I saw in a lot of magazines and I was drawn to different environments. I took a cold water trip to Canada then I went to Iceland in 2008 and I was hooked. I loved the beauty and mystery and contrast of surfing in such a harsh environment.

What tips would you give someone who has newly discovered photography as a passion?

Shoot what you love. Whether you are working for hire or just shooting for yourself it’s important to shoot subjects and activities that capture your interest. It’s going to really come through in your photography when you are actually interested in what you are capturing. I think another piece of sound advice is the best camera is the one that’s with you. Chase Jarvis said that and it speaks to keeping photography simple and remember what’s important isn’t how expensive your camera setup is.

What photography tips do you have for someone who is self-taught?

I guess a personal mantra I try to follow is the more you know, the less you need. I’ve always been a big proponent of traveling with less and not being the person who has the biggest, most expensive camera. It’s not that I can’t afford it, I just like to experience moments personally as well as through my camera. If you walk away from any trip and it’s a complete blur because you were shooting the whole time, then you weren’t really experiencing it. Look for unique lighting situations. Go out in storms and go out at a time when no one else is. That’s when you’re going to capture something unique.

What top skills does a successful adventure, travel, and landscape photographer needs?

Knowing how to promote yourself is a huge skill. They should really understand the hustle it takes to do what you do. Being personable. Driven. Being able to tell good stories and do that using a camera.

What does your typical day look like?

At home I’m working in my office managing a staff of assistants who help gather images and deal with magazine articles, book orders, prints, and other requests. Out in the field I’m coordinating shoots that incorporate my creative vision as well as the client or assignments needs.

How often are you actually on assignment taking photos?

I travel about 6-8 months of the year.

How do you choose your destinations — are they chosen by assignments?

Sometimes I’m brainstorming ideas surf trips with friends or contacts to explore untouched corners of the globe. Other times I’m approached to visit and capture somewhere and then I’ll decide if that place speaks to me and my style. I look at assignments that suit my passion for the outdoors and foreign lands.

What tips would you give someone who is pursuing a photography career?

A big part of photography more so than education is experiencing things. Learn from a magazine setting or an editorial conference. Study a photographer you like and really understand the hustle it takes to do what they do. Understand what it’s like to be in those commercial and editorial situations where you’re trying to make it all work for a client.

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