Fighting fear and frostbite, Chris Burkard surfed Iceland and captured it all

With equal parts excitement and exhaustion, famous surf, lifestyle, and adventure photographer Chris Burkard took time out of his insane promotional tour to speak with Digital Trends about his new surfing film, “Under An Arctic Sky.” The 40-minute film — directed by Burkard and produced by Sweat Pants Media — follows four surfers on their journey to Iceland’s brutal north coast. The reason for the trip? To comb remote regions of Iceland for surf. To the crew’s dismay, however, the area also experienced an unexpected storm — its largest in 25 years — which threatened to derail the shoot altogether.

Burkard, a self-taught director, speaker, and author, is also one of the most followed adventure photographers who boasts 2.6 million followers on Instagram alone. However, even with his years of experience, nothing prepared Burkard — or his crew — for the epic challenges of making a surfing film in the world’s harshest weather conditions. With the grueling project in the rear view, Burkard shared with us his reasoning behind switching gears to shoot in some of the coldest places on earth, the backstory of Under An Arctic Sky, and what he truly hopes the film will inspire in others.

Just a kid from Pismo Beach, California

From his teenage years in Pismo Beach, California to his current life as a world-class photographer, Burkard has been surfing swells, chasing light, and seeking epic adventures, often pursuing the farthest expanses of the globe. His fascination for photography began when he realized this medium would allow him creative freedom and the chance to leave his small town.

“[Photography] wasn’t something I initially sought out, I just loved art and being creative.”

“It [photography] wasn’t something I initially sought out, I just loved art and being creative,” Burkard told Digital Trends. “But when I picked up a camera for the first time, I saw how it gave me a really cool first person experience where I could actually ‘be’ in the ocean while having this extremely visceral moment.”

While developing his craft, Burkard traveled to stunning tropical locations capturing some of the world’s most famous surfers in action — he was living the dream. But ultimately, it wasn’t his dream. Burkard wanted to go deeper and explore more.

“I felt even though places like Bali were gorgeous, the promise of adventure wasn’t there and I was traveling for someone else,” he added. “I decided to work for myself and explore colder regions, especially since there’s more coastline. This shift was also the best thing I could’ve done from a business perspective as no one was shooting surfers in these frigid, remote locales.”

Out of his comfort zone and into the Arctic Circle

The California native quickly realized he wasn’t built for sub-zero climates but at the same time, this enticed him.

“Anything that’s worth pursuing is going to require you to suffer, just a little bit,” he pointed out. “And for these type of photo shoots, you have to fully immerse yourself in every aspect of the experience from what cameras and gear you’ll need to if it’s even possible to get to these remote locations.”

Preparation — as well as serious trial and error — made the adventures attractive to Burkard, even inspiring him to collaborate with backpack manufacturer Mountainsmith to design a new series of packs. Dubbed the T.A.N. collection (Tough As Nails), the line aims to keep photography gear safe in hostile conditions, with the modular system featuring five new bags in total.

“This backpack’s ability to stand upright is crucial,” Burkard explained. “I didn’t like it when I was shooting in the snow and the bag would fall over and I’d have to put the bag down to get my equipment. Having it upright allows me to get to my gear quicker and prevents dirt and other things from getting inside.”

Burkard’s work took him to the most breathtaking coastlines in countries like Russia, Norway, and Iceland. He acknowledged that “exploring the unknown” pushes anyone to be wholly in the moment, allowing them to create a special connection to the locale, the crew, and ultimately pushing someone out of their comfort zone — to “embrace the uncertain,” as he puts it. For Burkard, it was Iceland that kept calling him back after these experiences.

“I researched this one logistically challenging location in Hornstrandir National Park and found a bad ass boat captain who was willing to take us there,” he said. “He warned the weather conditions may be too hazardous to even get to the area, never mind surf — we went anyway.”

Entering the eye of storm “Diddu”

“We finally arrived at the national park by boat and the surfers (in thick seven-millimeter neoprene wetsuits) started paddling out into frigid waters,” Burkard added regarding the genesis of Under An Arctic Sky. “Then the boat captain told us a storm was approaching — and fast. We reluctantly turned the boat around and headed back to the harbor. I felt super guilty as I was the one who promised adventure, epic waves, and I put their lives on the line. Ultimately I felt I let everyone down. It was overwhelming.”

While monitoring the weather, the crew saw this wasn’t just a snowstorm — it was a full-blown tempest named “Diddu.” A storm larger than anything Iceland’s seen in the last 25 years, weather predictions put maximum wind speeds at an astounding 160 miles per hour along with the potential for category four avalanches. Completely disheartened and at the risk of disappointing sponsors and spending more money, the crew decided to leave — until an odd feeling told them not to give up.

“I felt super guilty as I was the one who promised adventure, epic waves, and I put their lives on the line.”

“Even though our decision to ride out the storm probably wasn’t the safest idea, we also realized that as the conditions grew worse, it brought the most incredible swells we’ve ever seen,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘if the weather could hold out — this shoot still might happen.’”

After 18 hours of treacherous driving on the edge of cliffs in total darkness and digging their truck out of road slides, they finally became stranded in a cabin near the coastline. Despite mounting exhaustion and disappointment, the crew couldn’t stand to stay cooped up in the small home. When they walked outside, the storm finally broke. What happened next was one for the history books.

“The surf swells were incredible and then these swirls of neon green, orange, red and yellow light started to appear — it was the Northern Lights,” Burkard remembered. “Then the moon came out and the Northern lights grew more intense in color. I can’t even describe the amount of luck that went into this or the transcendence of that moment. We grabbed our gear, got the surfers in the water and started shooting. We were all caught between the overwhelming beauty surrounding us and trying to remain focused and professional. The surfers and Ben would be yelling, ‘Chris – now!’ and I’d have to snap out of my trance and start shooting. From that point on — it was run and gun time.”

Shooting “Run And Gun” style and making history

Chris recalled a flurry of questions that spun through his head, such as “what cameras or lenses should we use when trying to capture surfers in little to no light? Should we use 20K, 30K, or 40K for ISO?” He pointed out that determining the proper ISO was like figuring out a complex algorithm. To top it off, the crew had to figure out the correct settings with nothing to look at but a tiny screen, each hoping what they were seeing would translate into quality footage.

surfer standing under aurora borealis

Keeping the surfers from hypothermia and the cameras and gear warm between takes also posed challenges. Heating packs were thrown in gear bags, thermoses, or inside jackets to solve these issues but frostbite still occurred and equipment malfunctioned. It was “run and gun” all the way — as Burkard put it — but the crew combined their training, grit, and skills for that very moment. With years of experience filming in tough climates, Burkard and his crew felt lucky to have endured major mistakes, as those moments ultimately prepared them for the historic photo shoot.

Packing the right gear was key

“After learning from the errors made over the years, I knew the Sony A7S II was the best camera for the job as it has different ISO levels to freeze the surfer’s action but it’s still sensitive enough to capture the Northern Lights,” he told us. “In terms of lenses, you need ones that are wide enough to capture the surfer’s surroundings but still be focused on the action. What worked for us was the Sony Zeiss 20, 24, and 35-millimmeter, f1.2 and f1.4. In terms of stability, I was shooting around 1/100th of a second, so tripods worked best, as handhelds can miss crucial waves. For even more stability, I pushed the three legs together to form a monopod.”

Ben Weiland — the film’s Director of Photography and Burkard’s long-time friend and colleague — also shared his tips and gear choices with DT. Unsurprisingly, the crew leaned on a wide range of gear to assure they captured the best possible final product.

“Our team shot with a number of systems including RED drone footage,” Weiland told Digital Trends. “We used housings for all water shots and rain flies during heavy storms. No matter how much you try to protect your gear, sacrifices will be made in the process. I’ve found that when you place too much emphasis on keeping gear pristine, you won’t put yourself in the right places while shooting.”

The crew also used powerful flashlights to highlight the tips of the waves for greater contrast and visibility, especially of the surfers. While talking to Burkard about the process, he let us in on a bit of behind-the-scenes information, admitting that the crew needed to make a return trip to Iceland to capture some much-needed b-roll. Though they had enough raw footage of the journey, the spectacular storm, and the waves themselves, they lacked representation of the nearby area and landscape. Burkard said that footage was vital to “bring the film to fruition.”

When the impossible becomes possible

When asked the biggest takeaway while making Under An Arctic Sky, Burkard admitted that it “changed everything” he thought possible.

“You have to embrace situations you don’t know the outcome to and seek experiences that make you feel so infinitely small,” he added toward the end of our conversation. “Everyone who suffered in this process is what made the film possible and the bonds that were formed made it all that much more special. It was the perfect marriage of creating something no one else has ever seen before and being able to surf under the Northern Lights — it was a dream project come true.”

Along with his team, Burkard is now touring the country bringing Under An Arctic Sky to cities, towns, and theaters both big and small. Burkard’s website features more about the photographer himself and also has information on where to buy tickets for upcoming screenings.