Almost a visual Q&A: Geoff Coombs

The underwater images of Red Bull Illume 2019 finalist Geoff Coombs give you goosebumps and not just because they are shot in freezing cold Canadian lakes. But because his work perfectly captures that eerie and mysterious underwater-feeling. Being an experienced freediver himself, Geoff knows best what to consider when shooting in (and under) water.

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© Geoff Coombs / Red Bull Illume

In this Viusal Q&A Geoff shares a few of his incredible images (including personal favorites) and the story behind each one. He also talks us through his most challenging shot so far!

What's your style of photography and how did it develop?

 

My style is constantly evolving and I would describe it with words like surreal, dark, and imaginative. My photos from five years ago look vastly different than they do now as my skills have improved and my style has changed. Over time I naturally gravitated to creating photos that evoke emotion, surreality, and mystery – photos that have a “wow”-factor and make people take a second look.

Why are you passionate about photography?

 

I love photography because of the challenges and creative expression it brings. Creating images that stand out from the crowd is hard but rewarding. The constant desire to improve and perfect my craft is something that keeps me moving forward. That desire for perfection, while unattainable, motivates me to think of new ways of capturing the world. Creating images to not just satisfy me, but also to help brands communicate their product and mission in a surreal and inspiring way is a unique approach that I strive to take on every production.

What inspires you?

 

I love seeing other photographers’ work and creativity. Seeing what they create inspires me to constantly improve my own work and never settle. Discovering new locations or seeing how light can make a familiar place look new is also inspiring.

What captures your attention immediately?

 

Seeing something new for the first time - whether it's through another photographer's work or when I'm out in the field and come across something special and unique.

What's your motivation to dive in freezing cold water and how did your relationship with the sport begin?

 

I live central to the majority of the Great Lakes and smaller lakes in the Muskoka region of Ontario. I have always loved the underwater world. As a kid at my family cottage I would copy the big wave surfers of Hawaii by rock running on the bottom of the lake (holding a rock underwater and running along the bottom on one breath). I would swim and wakeboard as much as I could, so I was always comfortable around the water.

I dreamt of diving in the Caribbean often when I grew up, and when I was 22, I finally did. After that trip to the Bahamas I was obsessed with learning how to freedive. Little did I know, some of the most beautiful freshwater diving in the world was only a few hours away from my hometown. When I started freediving in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, I knew the potential of winter images could be one of a kind. I knew it could provide the potential for my own unique voice in a world full of repetitive content. So, my best friend Andrew and I gave it a try and the images that we created were game changing in my career.

After five years of ice diving, I am still motivated by the physical challenge, the raw beauty, and the simple tones that lie beneath the frozen surface. The ice is always changing, and every dive is different, which adds to the allure. I am always wondering what we might see under there, and how I can create even more impactful images.

 

What are the biggest challenges when shooting underwater? Any tips?

 

One of the biggest challenges of shooting underwater is finding the right angles to shoot from. When you're on land you are essentially working in two planes of motion. When you're underwater the game changes and you're free to move in all sorts of ways. I photograph everything underwater on one breath while freediving as well, which is another challenge. Maneuvering the camera while holding your breath and swimming under a frozen surface requires a lot of practice, mental calm and physical skill.

As for tips - it's important to be comfortable underwater without a camera before you try to go underwater with one. Once you're comfortable and confident, bring the camera under and try to find new angles and experiment with different focal lengths. On land the best times to shoot are obviously when the sun is lower in the sky. But underwater, it's generally the opposite as the higher the sun is the more it will penetrate the water and create more light to work with.

Where's your favorite location to shoot?

 

My favorite location is Tobermory in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, which is where I shoot most of my underwater images. The water is clear, blue, and cold. Exploring the vast amount of wrecks and frozen icebergs in winter is an adventure. A very close tie would be Exuma, Bahamas. The water is the same clarity and almost the same colour as the lake, but it also offers abundant sea life, warmth and unique beauty.

What's the most rewarding image you took and why?

 

That is a tough one, but I think one of the most rewarding images I took was this image of my friend Andrew as it allowed me to make it to the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2019. The conditions were also beautiful this day - the water was incredibly clear, and the sun was setting over the thin ice which made the purple hues come to life. Combining the low light, the shipwreck, the ice, and a freediver into the frame made it a compelling and interesting shot that I'll always remember.

And what was the most challenging one?

 

The most challenging image I have ever shot would have to be this one. It is a shot of my two friends holding hands floating in the ice hole and looking down. While the image shows a surreal world and beautiful textures, it doesn't show the raging snowstorm that was taking place above the surface. The wind chill and whiteout conditions were making it very difficult to stay warm, and water would quickly freeze over our masks in between dives. But despite the discomfort it was worth it. It's one of those situations where you look back on and have fond memories of, but in the moment it is a tough grind and you just want to get warm.

Favorite image you took this year?

 

This image would have to be my favourite from the year because of the simplicity, color, and what it means to me. This image was shot in April during lockdown, and it summed up what I was feeling, and I'm sure what most were feeling at that moment. When I view this image themes and words come to mind like isolation, uncertainty, and hope for the future. It also gives feelings of wonder and mystery, which tie in to the reason why I started underwater photography.

Find more of Geoff's work on his Instagram account or on his website!

Get some RAW by Leica inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Raw 1

© Ben Thouard / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the RAW by Leica gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.


Leica offers several prizes for the overall as well as the category winners, including an SL2 camera with three premium lenses or the Q2 camera.

When you have to descend a mine shaft to get the shot

We talk to Red Bull Illume photographer Christian Pondella about shooting extreme athletes, and why less is more when it comes to equipment, and why lens caps should be left at home.

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© Christian Pondella

How did you get into photography?

I have been a professional photographer for over 25 years now. I got hooked on photography in my freshman year in college and fell in love with the process of developing and printing my black and white film. This went alongside with my passion for the mountains, skiing, climbing, mountain biking and naturally these passions merged together.

What motivates you to keep creating?

My number one motivation to keep creating is getting outdoors into the mountains and firsthand experiencing the beauty of Mother Nature. Then of course combining some type of sport or activity in this beautiful environment.

Are you planning to submit to the Image Quest 2021?

Of course! I am always hoping to get an image displayed in one of those magical cubes!

Could you tell us why other photographers should enter Red Bull Illume? Was entering a good move for you?

It’s an amazing opportunity for any adventure photographer with the chance that your image might make it to the final round. It’s the ultimate showcase to have your image displayed and exhibited around the world.

How did you decide on what image(s) to submit in the end?

As far as images to submit I try to find one that are unique and hopefully have some ethereal mood to them. For me, this is generally something where the forces of nature and human activity merge together.

Any tips for aspiring photographers who also want to submit this year?

Red Bull Illume has so many amazing images submitted, I think your best odds is to have something pretty unique.

What equipment do you trust in when shooting?

Honestly, the top camera manufactures all make amazing equipment, but the one constant that I always use are SanDisk memory cards and an F-Stop pack.

What features are particularly important for your equipment?

I try to keep things simple, less is more especially when it comes to adventure sports. Lens hoods and lens caps usually stay in my closet and I try to stay away from miscellaneous gadgets. When it comes to camera equipment for me it is important to buy the flagship cameras and lenses as they have the best weather sealing which is important for the environments I shoot in.

What are some stand out memories or moments from your career?

Certainly, some of the most unique images I have captured have been with Will Gadd particularly where we have descended into glaciers, moulins, and mine shafts to capture ice climbing. Also, some of my ski mountaineering adventures with Chris Davenport are particularly memorable.

How would you describe your style of photography?

I think I have a hard time describing my style of photography as I feel it changes and evolves. But I guess I have a certain style as I often have people tell me when they see a picture they know I took it before they see the photo credit. I guess the one constant is a small person in a unique environment which gives the viewer something to contemplate when looking at an image.

What makes your images unique?

I think a big part of it is the unique environments I have been fortunate to photograph. Not many people have descended two hundred feet into a glacier to capture photos so these types of images will resonate with people.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I find a lot of inspiration by following my peers on Instagram, but the biggest inspiration for me is Mother Nature and the spectacular beauty the outdoors has to offer.

Check out more of Christian's work on his website and Instagram @christianpondella.

 

Get some Innovation by EyeEm inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Innovation 1

© Vegard Breie / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Innovation by EyeEm gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading!

What are judges looking for?

Red Bull Illume's founder Ulrich Grill and judges explain what makes a great shot and how the judging process works.

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Are there certain characteristics that define a winning shot? In this video Red Bull Illume's founder Ulrich Grill talks about some of the defining qualities that make an Overall Winner. 

He discusses why technical brilliance isn't enough and how composition, creativitiy and artistic flair all help to make an amazing shot. 

“If we look at some of the winning images of the past editions, one thing connects them all and that’s true excellence,” he says, as he flicks through previous winning shots on Lenovo's Yoga 9i 2-in-1 laptop.

Grill explains how the judging process works, how thousands of images are whittled down to 276 semi-finalist images and how a strong judging panel of 50 international and renowned photo editors and photo experts then choose the finalists, category winners and the overall winner. 

The video also contains some top tips from some of this year’s judges, including Laura Stanley, Pexels editor, Ray Bisschop, publisher of Surfing Life and Theo Acworth, an editor at Method Mag. 

Adds Grill: “Red Bull Illume is all about the unsung heroes of adventure and action sports, the photographers behind the lens. It’s about you.”

Get some Playground inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Playground 1

© Rein Rijke / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Playground gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Get some Lifestyle by COOPH inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Lifestyle 1

© Corey Rich / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Lifestyle by COOPH gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Improve your chances with the Photo Story category

Explore the category where you can submit multiple images!

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Entering images into one of the new categories like Photo Story is a good way to boost your odds as it is not as well known as other categories. It takes a bit of effort but the good part is that you don’t necessarily need to go out and shoot something fresh. You can use multiple images that you didn´t previously use to tell the full story behind the action. With only a few days to go, this could be an option worth looking at. To get you inspired, watch the video below, then check your own files and see if you’ve got a story worth sharing.

Who's got the best Mountain Photo

There is an additional prize this year for the Best Mountain Photo.

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© Alexander Wick / Red Bull Illume

Here are some great shots from the Red Bull Illume archives to get you inspired for the Best Mountain Photo. Black Diamond is going to select the winner, and the prize is a generous product deal worth up to $5,000. Shots can belong to any category – it’s just a bonus prize for the best mountain image. So while there’s still time, head to the hills and nail that shot. 

10 days to go!

Only 10 days left to enter the world’s greatest adventure and action sports imagery contest – and achieve your break-out moment.

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© Simone di Mondino / Red Bull Illume

When it comes to planning and executing the perfect Red Bull Illume-winning shot, there are still quite a few things you can do in ten days; you can go on a roadtrip; head backcountry with some athlete friends or organize a last-minute shoot on your doorstep.

You could also create a reportage collection of images for the newest Red Bull Illume category – Photo Story. As one of the lesser known of Red Bull Illume’s ten categories, any entries stand a higher chance of going through to the next round.

Struggling for reasons on why you should submit? We say two words – prestige and prizes. Get an image selected into Red Bull Illume and you’ll receive lots of kudos. It’s a badge of honor that marks you out as a photographer that can open doors for your photography career.

Prizes include computers and tablets from Lenovo, workflow bundles from SanDisk Professional, a Leica SL2 for the winner and a paid photoshoot with Black Diamond for the winner of the Emerging category.  

Says Ulrich Grill, founder of Red Bull Illume: “Red Bull Illume is really the most prestigious photo contest in adventure and action sports and has been the spark that ignited many photographers’ careers. It’s also totally unbiased. If you have one great shot you could win. What unites previous winners Fred Mortagne, Chris Burkard, Lorenz Holder and Ben Thouard is photographic excellence. We look forward to seeing your images in the contest. Just think, this year it could be you!”

For your chance to enter and win great prizes and the prestige of being a Red Bull Illume winner, get shooting and submit your work here – there’s still time, but only just!

Get some Masterpiece by SanDisk Professional inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Masterpiece 1

© Ydwer van der Heide / Red Bull Illume

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to give you a better idea of where your winning shot should go. Scroll through the Masterpiece gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.