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.
And just like that a new routine was formed. We’d hunt waves by day and the northern lights by night. Scouring the coast to find where the two would coincide. It was by no means an easy task. We had one rule, and that was to never sleep. Ever. If there were clear skies, somebody was always standing watch. I've never been so stressed out and excited at the same time trying to document something. It was a long week, but to see waves roll into the secluded bay just south of the Arctic Circle, and my good friend Justin Quintal surfing it all while under the Northern Lights. I couldn't help but holler as I clicked the shutter. A lot of cold sleepless nights went into making that singular session come to being, but like most things a little suffering is what makes them worthwhile.
Sony A7sii - I knew it was the only camera for the job. The reality was we were shooting something that was on the fringe of what’s possible to capture in a single still image. Shooting moving surfers with minimal light is incredibly difficult and we needed a camera that had the ISO capabilities to freeze their action but still be sensitive enough to capture the Northern Lights.
Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 - I wanted something that was wide enough to capture the surfers surroundings but still be focused on the action that was occurring. It was also absolutely necessary to have a lens that could let in as much light as possible so I could still shoot fast enough to freeze the action of the surfers and shoot as low of an ISO as possible.
Tripod - While I was generally shooting around 1/80 - 1/100th of a second I knew that if I relied on shooting handheld I could miss the best wave of the session. I instead opted to shoot from a tripod and oftentimes I would opt to keep all the legs together and utilize it as a monopod.
Looking back just how many things had to come together to make this photo a reality is mind boggling. The tide. The swell. The wind. The weather. The northern lights. And the biggest factor: the moon. We ended up staying longer to wait for the full moon, it may not seem like it would be a factor but having moonlight to help illuminate the surfers and the waves turned out to be the biggest factor in documenting it.
For the last year I’ve been working on a feature length film from the trip. I released a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a world tour of the film so I can bring it to as many people as I can. The more support we get the more places I hope to take it. To support us bringing this movie to a town near you, check out the kickstarter here
- Chris Burkard