Under an Arctic Sky - Chris Burkard’s Biggest Lesson Learned

Under an Arctic Sky - Chris Burkard’s Biggest Lesson Learned

Written by Chris Burkard on

Chris Burkard is an accomplished explorer, photographer, creative director, speaker, and author. Traveling throughout the year to pursue the farthest expanses of Earth, Burkard works to capture stories that inspire humans to consider their relationship with nature, while promoting the preservation of wild places everywhere.

Under an Arctic Sky - Chris Burkard’s Biggest Lesson Learned

Surfing under the northern lights. It all started with a wild dream that emerged on a trip for Surfer Magazine to the Faroe Islands over two years ago. I was with surfer Justin Quintal—the same surfer who would come to Iceland with me to try and make this dream a reality—and I told him of my pipe dream to photograph it. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible. In fact, at the time in 2014, I’m not entirely sure it was. The camera technology just wasn’t there yet.

Flash forward two years and I find myself with surfers Justin Quintal, Timmy Reyes, and Sam Hammer in Iceland during the middle of winter staring down the biggest storm to hit the island's shores in 25 years. With three hours of light each day, brutal winter storms and freezing temperatures, Iceland is far from the ideal surf trip. But winter provides the most ideal conditions for surf in the country, and our main goal for the trip was simple: to find world class surf. Not only did we find what could be the best cold water waves I've ever seen, but we began to realize that perfect waves would peel off after dark and the possibility of surfing them while the northern lights illuminated the arctic sky was a real possibility.

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We couldn’t have ever expected how intense the weather was going to get, but going to Iceland in the winter means you need to be very intentional with the type of gear you bring. In regards to camera gear, it’s a delicate balance between packing light and making sure you’re prepared for unforeseen circumstances. The biggest factor on this trip was how short the days were; in Iceland’s winter, there is 4-5 hours of effective daylight and the sun never comes over the horizon. From a photographic perspective, the lack of daylight meant limited opportunities to get the shot. When it came to packing for this mission, we started by laying out the most vital gear: camera equipment.

We structured our gear around a “surf” kit and a “night” kit.

Surf Kit:

Sony a7rii

Sony 70-400mm f4-5.6

Sony 24-70mm f2.8

Sony 16-35mm f4

Night Kit:

Sony a7sii

Sony 35mm f1.4

Sigma 20mm f1.4

Fotopro Carbon Tripod

It goes without saying that shooting at night means you’re shooting in the absence of light which translates to high ISO cameras and low aperture lenses. Once you add in the element of action sports and you’re required to push your camera to the limit in order to freeze action that is occurring in almost total darkness. The Sony a7sii is pretty much a purpose built night camera; they designed it with a full frame 12mp sensor with the idea that each pixel would have more surface area and therefore would be more sensitive to light.

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The most crucial step about shooting surfing under the northern lights was moonlight. We planned the trip around having a full moon which not only allowed the mountain and ocean to be illuminated, but allowed to surfers to see what they were doing! I was shooting on a tripod with my setting hovering around the following:

ISO: 20,000

F-stop: f1.4

Shutter speed: 1/25th

I still approached this situation like I was shooting the northern lights the only thing different is that I had a moving subject in the foreground. I was shooting manual focus and would use Sony’s focus assist to zoom in the stars to make sure my focus was tac – for most lenses this means setting the focus to infinity and then pulling it back a bit. Once the focus was set, I set my framing which had to be a bit wider to capture the northern lights, the mountains, and the breaking waves; I found the 35mm f1.4 was the best focal length for this scene. The hardest setting to dial in was the shutter speed to make sure the moving surfers weren’t too blurred. Just to put it in perspective, under normal circumstance, I never shoot surfing under 1/640th of a second to ensure there’s no motion blur. Shooting at shutter speeds that fast are a luxury at night and the fastest we could shoot was 1/25th - 1/40th which meant we had to hunt the moments where the surfers weren’t blurred.

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The coldest nights are not when it’s foggy, but when the sky is clear. This is actually because the clouds act as an insulation layer that holds the heat emitted from the earth’s surface; when it’s clear that heat is able to freely escape into the higher atmosphere. That meant that when we’d go out to check the waves the temperatures were hovering around -10 with 8-10 kt. Winds that cut right there any sort of insulation layer you have on. The last part of preparation involved what I would wear to be able to stand on the beach for an hour and a half in these conditions.

  • Insulated boots - Even if you have fully waterproof leather boots, they become problematic when standing in the snow due to the fact that the rubber sole and leather become extremely cold and transmit that straight through to your feet – that’s insulated boots.

  • Heated gloves - Wearing huge snow gloves work for keep your hands warm but hinder you from operating a camera efficiently. With battery heated gloves you can run thinner, tighter gloves while still keeping your hands from going completely numb.

  • Balaclava - Most of your heat is lost from your head (which is why surfers wear hooded wetsuits). A balaclava paired with a thick wool beanie insulated your head, neck, and face.

  • Hand warmers - You can always pair these with heated gloves but I use hand warmers for electronics. We were taping them to drone batteries and even to the bottom of cameras because the cold air can cut the capacity of lithium batteries in half.

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Walking away from the trip, there were a lot of lessons to be learned. With all the planning and gear preparation, the trip had many unforeseen circumstances and the only way I was able to make it happen was by being open to letting the trip deviate from the plan. The inconsistencies in weather, surf conditions, and accessibility can be extremely tough to deal with but they are what allow for my trips to be truly spontaneous; this can be lost when booking a flight to places where you can account for all of these variables. Traveling to north Iceland was simply another opportunity to push myself into a location that was more remote, more harsh, and more unpredictable than many of  the places I have been to. It's only when we are able to let go and truly act in the moment that we can come away with images that we didn't think we'd be able to get.

Related links (from Eagle Creek blog):

What To Pack: The Ultimate Travel Packing Checklist

Gadgets and Gear To Keep You Safe On Your Next Trip

Buying Guide: Luggage, Travel Packs, and Carry-Ons