Following Chris Burkard on Instagram is like watching a nature documentary unfold in real-time. Yosemite’s firefall phenomenon? He shot it. A volcano’s erupting in Iceland? He’s there.
The California-based photographer has a passion for adventure travel and exploring the natural world that shines through in everything he does, from his coveted prints to his books for both children and adults, to his aerial photography workshops, and even his new national park-inspired collection for iconic surf brand Billabong.
Burkard took time out of his latest Icelandic adventure to talk to Travel + Leisure about America’s best national parks, give us his best photography tips, share his park packing list, and show us his favorite item from his new collection.
Travel + Leisure: How many U.S. national parks have you shot and do you have a favorite?
Chris Burkard: “In my lifetime I have probably visited at least 20 to 30 and photographed at least 15. Although it sounds cheesy, I still love Yosemite the most, mostly because of all the experiences I have fostered there over the years. It’s become a place I have escaped to since I was a kid and I still seek solace in it.”
Is there one U.S. park you think is the most beautiful/photogenic?
“Wrangell St-Elias [in Alaska] is by far the one I am drawn to the most in terms of photography because it’s impossible to see it all and it has so many different unique sides to it. My love for aerial photography brought me here and it’s probably the best way to really document the park.”
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What’s your No. 1 tip for people hoping to take great national park photos?
“Well I think the common thing is to go during the peak season, but I find the off-season to be the best, most unique time of year. It’s crucial to find those rare, quiet moments that only come when you travel during the times that are rarely visited. I would also say look for unique weather, storms, sun, wind… those elements create drama and that is the main ingredient for a good image.”
You shot the Yosemite Firefall this year — what was that like? Did you learn anything new from the experience?
“It definitely lived up to the hype. It was pretty crazy to be honest, something I never expected I would really enjoy but it really was a spectacle. I ski toured in and tried to shoot it from a different and unique perspective which really paid off. I guess if I learned anything it’s that the extra effort to find a unique angle is always worth it. I would have anxiety if I was standing shoulder to shoulder with people watching from the valley floor.”
Are there any other natural “events,” and/or U.S. parks, topping your photo bucket list?
“I guess any full moon, or eclipse, or natural celestial event is worthy of a trip and exploration. Often these parks change so much season to season that you really gotta know them well and intimately to know the many sides to them. Each has that ‘special time of year’ or ‘event’ and you just gotta do your homework.”
Is there a certain camera (or camera accessory) you always pack for a national park shoot?
“Tripod for sure, headlamp, but most importantly a circular polarizer is crucial for getting epic skies and bright clouds!”
How did national parks inspire your new collaboration with Billabong? Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?
“Well, starting out as a surf photographer and growing up near the ocean, I was always intrigued by the ocean and its swell patterns. When I document places where the same wind creates these monumental landscapes I get really inspired and it led me to want to create a collaboration with them — something inspired by surf but also showing an appreciation for the landscapes I love.
My favorite piece is easily the desert furnace fleece. The colors are brilliant and inspired by the Great Sand Dunes National Park that has always been a favorite location to photograph.”
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