Almost a visual Q&A with Kamil Sustiak

We planned a traditional Visual Q&A with Kamil Sustiak, winner of Best Mountain Sports Image by Salewa and Red Bull Illume 2019 finalist, but the stories behind each of his jaw-dropping images were too interesting not to be told. That's why we made a little exception to the rule!

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Kamil Sustiak's shot that made it to the final stage of the Image Quest 2019 and took away the Best Mountain Sports by Salewa Award, shows the impact light can have on scenery. It highlights the human capabilities and willpower in a truly unique way. Find out what inspires Kamil, what's his favorite style of photography and what challenges he has to overcome when shooting.

How would you describe yourself?

I'm a Czech climber who spent a season in New Zealand with no rope, no climbing gear and no climbing shoes. But what I did have with me was a camera. That season I fell in love for the third time (first was when as a boy I went climbing for the first time, the second time was when I met my now-wife) and I have been obsessed with taking photos ever since. The most natural thing for me to do was to point my camera at my climbing mates but with time I also focused on highlining, trail running and BASE jumping. Basically, if it's adventurous and takes place in nature, I'm shooting it. With my wife and two dogs I'm building a live in the Blue Mountains, Australia, it's like living the dream for me!

Why are you passionate about photography?

There are so many things I love about photography. The creative aspect of conceiving a shot, pushing the technology to its limits, immersing myself in adventures, travelling to beautiful and often unknown places. The more passion I put into my projects the more amazed I am of the results, it's quite addictive.

What inspires you the most?

Landscapes fire my imagination, I'm in awe of the mountains, afraid of raging rivers, transfixed by the swell and retreat of the ocean, humbled by ancient forests, but without the people nothing I do would make sense. They are the beating heart of all my photos. Without people there is no adventure, I get my drive from the people around me. When they push their limits and throw themselves at the impossible so that they burst with effort and emotion that is what inspires me to ensure my work does justice to their dreams.

What's your favourite photography style?

I try to find the strong and powerful human in beautiful natural landscapes, chasing that fleeting perfect light that only comes at the end of the day or at the beginning of a storm. But I also show up when I don't get perfect light conditions. I get out of bed when the forecast is grim, I rap over the cliff edge even when I’m not sure it’s worth it because you can still tell a powerful story in the contrast of the middle of the day or when the rain is smashing down. What I love is that when you get it right, photography can freeze these moments of pain and fear, elation and grandeur in a way that it can tell a story of place and people that is so much bigger than that single frame.

What captures your attention immediately?

Natural, sculptured shapes daubed with swirls of colour draw my eye, add in the changing play of the light illuminating a human doing something incredible and my eyes bulge. Other than that, I am attracted to human faces charged with emotion, be that elation, frustration or insufferable pain – that really gets my shutter pressing.

What was the most challenging shot for you?

Remote location, a brutal walk, a lonely mountain, unpredictable weather and having no second chances to capture both climbing up and BASE jumping off – shooting on Frenchmans Cap in Tasmania’s Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park was tough. But we were a team of six and collective suffering does wonders to lessen your own – it also helps when you’re in paradise.
The six of us were there to make a feature film of the whole trip but it is shooting the jumping that I remember most clearly, back then I had never even seen a BASE jump before, let alone photographed one. The first time I was terrified, hardly able to think. ’Five. Four. Three...’ just stick to the pre-composed frame “...Two. One. See ya!” They jumped, the camera fired, the whistling of the tracking suits faded, I could not breathe then relief flooded in as I heard the bang of the canopy opening far below.

And what was the most rewarding one?

Reward is a strange thing; is it nailing the perfect shot? Is it getting paid back for dragging yourself out of bed? Is it realizing that just turning up is half the game? I woke up and the first thought that came to my mind was this morning was going to be special – to be fair I always say that as it makes hitting the snooze button way harder. When we arrived to the line though it was surrounded by fog so thick you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. An hour passed and still the magical sunrise I had envisaged hadn’t materialized. I thought, “Well, not today mate. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again... the world is not turning around your camera lens.” I was ready to bail when in a dramatic whoosh the fog dropped a tiny bit down into the valley leaving us in an otherworldly middle space between the surging cloud above and the roiling fog below. It lasted no more than an hour before the sun burnt everything off and the world turned normal again.

What do you look for in a picture?

I look for natural wonder and human drama. For me, a good adventure photo will usually have one or the other but great photos – the kind that make you stop and say “wow”, that make your palms itch with the desire to get out there – must have both. It’s hard to get it right but when you do, actually taking the photos is completely intoxicating. Increasingly for me the magical element is the light and one of my favorite kinds is storm-light. There are seconds when the clouds part or just as the storm eases when the fight between colour and shadow can be at its most intense, then you just have to be lucky enough to be looking at someone doing something awesome.

Where's your favourite location to shoot?

I feel so lucky to live right in the middle of the place that is my favorite to shoot – the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. Within fifteen minutes of my house there are deep, forested valleys out of which rise huge sandstone cliffs, cliffs that contain literally thousands of climbing routes. The surrounding bush is riddled with hundreds of kilometres of trails to run and hike and bike. The promise of living in an adventure playground attracts runners, climbers, BASE jumpers, flyers, highliners, oddballs and nutjobs – the perfect community to photograph – all of whom are not only pushing themselves but also supporting each other to achieve wild and audacious goals. The Blue Mountains and the unique community that lives there constantly amaze me.

Find more of Kamil's work on his website or follow him on Instagram!

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.