FAQ – Chris Burkard
Is photography the right career for me?
Remember the camera is just a tool. What is more important is how you look at the world. Curiosity and a desire to explore, as well as passion are huge necessities when it comes to photography. If you start off with a basic camera that doesn’t have too many controls or functions, you can focus on light and composition. Once you get to the point where you’ve mastered your camera as a tool, and want more control, then it’s a good time to upgrade. If you start off with lots of complex gear, it can be overwhelming. Trial and error is your best friend when you are teaching yourself. Try different angles and different lighting. Most importantly, get out there and take photos. Keep an open mind, explore, and be willing to put yourself in lots of different situations. There are a few aspects to photography as a career, some which are often neglected. Light is crucial, and good lighting usually happens around sunrise and sunset. Learn to disassociate the visual aspects of an environment from how you feel. For example, when it’s nice and sunny out, you feel great, but the bright sun will often wash out the colors. When the weather is cold and miserable, a storm is forming, and you want to call it a day, the lighting and colors are often the best.
If you decide to pursue it as a career, know that 50% of photography is the business side of things. Emails, outreach, marketing, etc. are absolute necessities that can be tough to begin with, but will enable you to do what you love. Keep exploring, follow your passions and photograph what you love. In the beginning you may need to also photograph things that don’t particularly interest you in order to fund what you want to shoot, but eventually you’ll be able to focus in on your passions. Be good to people, make connections, be honest and work hard. Promote yourself, and share your work.
Can I make a living as a photographer?
This all depends on how hard you want to work and how much energy you want to put into this as a career. Many photographers in the field easily make a 6 figure income. You can make much more or less depending on what you shoot. For example , commercial photography for brands/ clients pay much more than editorial photography for magazines/ website (typically) . There are many wedding and portrait photographers which will make much more than I ever will. Every type of photography is different. Some require you to hustle more. The most important things is to diversify yourself; don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Never rely on just one thing. For myself, my income comes from many sources.
– commercial photography
– editorial photography
– prints and books
– image licensing
– appearance and speaking
– social influencer work.
How did you get started?
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. At that point I realized that I enjoyed photography but the idea of turning it into career was overwhelming. I knew I had to give it 100% if I wanted to make it into something so without any formal training I quit my job (at a magazine store) and started shooting anything for anyone. I would go and shoot surfers at the local beach and try to sell them pictures on dvd’s… 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. Through trial and error, I taught myself and began to develop a style. Hard work, persistence, and having passion for what I do has taken me a long way. For the first part of my career I slept in my car a lot, so nothing happens quickly. I would say it was about 4 years until I really started making an income. During my transworld internship I commuted 5 + hours every week and lived in my car. I really look back fondly at those more challenging times because it makes you appreciate having to work for what you have and giving something of yourself for your career.
Should I go to college to become a photographer?
I simply can’t express the importance of being educated in your field or your craft. First off let’s just take everything I say with a grain of salt and remember I am mainly talking about adventure photography here. I am not the biggest fan of college for certain types of photography. But I do support education. In this day and age the way in which you educate yourself is so much bigger than just one school or one type of education. I didn’t attend college besides a few courses at a community college. My parents wanted me to go really badly because I had some good opportunities and scholarships but I knew that what I wanted to learn couldnt be taught in school and what I was paying for was basically a bunch of general ed with a little bit of photography. I chose to pursue internships, online courses, workshops and just about everything else I could. I lived and breathed photography and pretty soon I started to figure things out. Most of the information you need to know nowadays is offered for free online. The best education tool you will ever gain is how to be a good researcher. Most your answers are already out there you just need to go and find them.
What I would urge is that if you want to attend school for photography you are better off getting a journalism degree or marketing or business and applying that to photography. You don’t need to sit in a classroom to be creative.. You need the open road and the ability to create work without criticism. When you feel ready and confident then you can start to seek opportunities for critiques. Now as for the technical side of things, you can learn that on the internet. Nobody needs a classroom to learn how to operate a camera these days. My only drawback would be if you want to be a fashion photographer or want to work with professional lighting. Art or photography school can be really valuable for learning and honing those skills. But we are talking about adventure photography here.
How to use social media as a marketing tool?
Social media is crucial in today’s world. Whether we want to embrace it or not it is going to be a part of our lives for a very long time. I think the way in which we embrace social media is really the important thing. If you simply see it as a way to build your name and grow your “following” then you might be setting yourself up for a letdown. You need to do much more than just use social media to get your name out there. For me I see it as a storytelling tool. A way to let people know about the work I am doing, the important things in my life and how I see and view the world. I try to be honest and constantly spur conversation on my channels. I try to be consistent and really understand the analytics behind my channels. Analytics allow you to see the age, location, etc etc of the people you engage with. This is helpful to know who you are actually speaking to. Getting to know the people that follow you is crucial. If you get on social media simply to plaster the internet with beautiful images but put none of your own thoughts or stories out there then it’s hard to identify with what you stand for or get to know you as a person. The more of yourself you apply to your work the more success you usually find.
How I got my name out there.
As far as getting your name out there the best thing you can do is promote your work through as many various channels as you can. Don’t limit yourself to social media. Try and submit images to as many publications/blogs/websites as possible. The best way to gather larger clients is for them to see your work in publications or online sources, books, prints, zines.. Etc etc. Often as a younger or emerging photographer there are opportunities to contribute work for exposure instead of money. This is something that each person has to weigh out for themselves. I have done that and still do it occasionally today. I think it’s a crucial part of growing your awareness as a photographer and a brand. But at some point you have to make sure that the exposure is actually turning itself into dollars. You can’t put food on the table with followers. .
What tips do you have for those wanting to shoot in the water?
Water photography can take years to master.. And even then you still aren’t going to have success every time. My top tips for water photography would be to make sure you know your equipment like the back of your hand. You don’t want your equipment to distract you in the water. Also, to be effective in the water you need to train for swimming in the ocean. It’s a fun place to be but it can also be very dangerous. Staying in shape as well as being comfortable in the ocean is vital to getting successful photographs in the water. The hardest part of water photography is learning how to keep the ports clear of water drops. For more info you can read some online article or see the section in my creative live class. The most valuable piece of advice I would give a budding photographer would be to keep shooting and creating a large body of work. You’re not improving and developing if you aren’t shooting!
What one piece of advice do you have for an emerging photographer?
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.
What is the biggest mistake you see young photographers make?
There are many mistakes but the most common one, and the one I have made myself, is when you try to convince yourself or someone else that you can shoot everything well. Diversification in your work is great, but it’s important to remember that often you are hired by a client or a magazine because you are a specialist at something. That is a good thing! It’s good to be known very distinctively for something and it’s a great way to get your name out there. Start with what you know and only put the work out there you are truly proud of and willing to show the world. Then work on the other aspects and over time they will be at the same quality. If you are great at one thing and mediocre at many others it often drags down the great work in your portfolio. I have spoke to many editors about this and it’s one of the things that I have heard over and over again.
Would you describe yourself as a photographer or an artist? Do you create artwork in other mediums besides photography?
I used to describe myself primarily as a photographer, but nowadays I consider myself more as an artists since the work I do is multifaceted. I direct video, speak about photography, consult, teach, and I used to paint, draw and do charcoal. but my main focus now is on photography. As for inspiration it comes in many forms.. It used to be mainly from other peoples photography but I now I find it almost anywhere. In music, architecture, drawing, and so so many other places.
Could you describe one of your typical workdays for me? How many hours do you work in a typical week?
I work anywhere between 6-18 hours a day depending whether or not I’m on a job. When I’m in the office, it’s a lot of research, packing, preparation, emails etc. When I’m out in the field, it really depends on the job, but visualizing a shot, assessing the idea from all angles and then executing it in a way to achieve my goal. My office hours are usually 9-6 most days. I don’t really ever take vacation unless it’s with my family.
Considering all the people you’ve met with while working, what personal attributes are essential for success?
Hard work and passion, curiosity and a willingness to explore and be open to opportunities.
What type of preparation would you recommend for someone who wants to enter this field?
Find your style, and dial in on it. Practice it and perfect it so that you become recognizable for it. Learn the business side of things. Be good to people. Be honest and work hard.
How did you learn what you know about photography? Do you have a mentor or someone who helped you throughout your start?
Being self taught, I learned almost entirely through trial and error. Practice and working at what I loved to shoot was a big part of it. I interned at Transworld Surf under Pete Tares which was a great opportunity that furthered my career. I also interned with landscape photographer Michael Fatali which really influenced how a look at my own work. But these guys never picked up my camera and showed me how to shoot. They just led by example. The goal was that nobody every told me, “ you have to do it this way”. I was able to experiment and able to just learn in an openly creative state, which I think is really important for an emerging creative. It’s good to have criticism when you are ready for it but I urge people to always go and just enjoy shooting first. Shoot even without a memory card or film in your camera so you can just enjoy the simple act of shooting.
What drew you to shoot these colder and remote locations?
I was just never interested in being surrounded by people. That’s not what made me want to pick up a camera. I grew up on the central coast of California, Big Sur, and remote beaches where solitude is your best friend. You learn to be comfortable roaming alone on the beach and it was those experience that brought me close to nature, instead of being surrounded by tons of people on a beach, all seeking the same thing. Since I started my career, all I have wanted is to go to more and more remote places. What started as just a fun experience has turned into a full blown obsession. I have found that for me, and maybe this applies to everyone, if we are living too far inside our comfort zone then we aren’t really living. Living right on the edge is where we learn the most about ourselves.
What are the challenges of shooting in these cold and remote places?
It’s freaking cold. Frostbite cold! And I’m speaking from experience; I’ve had it! Additionally, logistics are a nightmare! It takes 2-3 years to plan some of these trips, and absolutely nothing comes easy. People see the images and they don’t understand the time and energy that goes into creating those moments. You have to really give something of yourself to make this stuff happen. I guess that’s why I feel so emotionally invested. Passion is what drives us, nothing else! If you want to hear more about cold water photography and my thoughts about it, check out the TED talk I did!
The hardest aspect is always access. Seeing something on the computer and actually going there is very different. Careful planning from who you go with to what you are going to eat is required. Being prepared is the most important thing because the more you know the less you need. The goal isn’t just to get there.. But to get there and get the job done. A big part of being prepared is dealing with camera gear and your own body in a cold environment. You need to always do your research and make sure you are taking care of yourself and have the right equipment. Self reliance is key whether it’s charging your batteries through solar power or just simply packing enough hand warmers and energy bars to stay alive.
When comparing your commercial work to your personal work, what are some advantages and disadvantages?
The advantages with personal work is that I have full control to shoot exactly what I want and what I’m passionate about. Commercial work has the advantage of immediate financial benefit that allows you to continue shooting personal work. The goal is to mend the two together so the commercial work lines up with what you want to shoot in your personal work. Ideally the personal work should fuel you creatively and the commercial or “work for clients” should fuel you financially. Ideally in a dream world you blend the two together and make sure the commercial work you are doing is something you care about personally. That is my goal always.
What is your favorite place that you’ve traveled to?
Iceland! No doubt. It’s such a magical place and no matter how many times I go there I keep getting drawn back. I’m about to go back for my 29th trip and am just as excited as I was on my first trip. The key is to go where people aren’t, which is pretty easy. You just venture to the locations that aren’t on the tourist trail. It’s an amazingly diverse country but I cringe when people just stay in Reykjavik and only explore a couple hours from the main city. The country has so much to offer if you just get out there and explore!
Can you share with me one of your proudest moments at work?
Proud moments are hard to define. The ones that I am truly proud of are the moments when my sons were born or the day I married my best friend. But as far as photography related goals my TED talk was probably the proudest moment I have ever had. I stood on that stage after 6 month of preparation and 17 revisions and delivered what I thought was the most important kernel of truth I had to offer in my life. It was a stellar moment and I was super nervous. If you have 9 minutes to share (Check it out here)
Source: FAQ – Chris Burkard
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