Interview: Free Solo Speed Climbing with Christian Gisi

Born and grown up in Switzerland Christian Gisi is a true expert when it comes to extraordinary vertical adventures. In this interview the RAW Category finalist talks us through what it means to document the most thrilling projects mountaineers and climbers can encounter - speed climbing and especially free solo speed climbing ascents of some of the wildest peaks in the Alps.

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What fascinates you about photography and why have you chosen to take part in the Image Quest 2019? 

Anyone who is active in the outdoor and action sports scene can hardly get past Red Bull Illume. I was thrilled by the pictures of the past editions. The level is incredibly high - all the more I feel honored to be a small part of it in the 2019 edition. 
The combination of aesthetics and athletics is what makes it special for me. We see athletes at great performances in beautifully composed images. This is also part of the answer to what fascinates me about photography in general. Despite an epochal overload of images in the digital age, photography has lost nothing of its magic for me. However, with the incredible quantity of pictures, it has become more of an art not to press the shutter button or to take a picture only when I am convinced that I have something as unseen and valuable as possible in front of my lens. 
Ideally you then make the difference between a good and a very good picture... 

Your image of the athletes Caro North and Steph Davis on the famous Mittellegi ridge on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps made it to the final stage of the Image Quest 2019. Can you tell us a little bit about the shot? How did it come about? 

As a mountain, the Eiger is simply an absolute knockout. The visual and historical dominance of its world-famous north face makes you shudder every time you approach it. 
The impressive east ridge that is visible in the photo is probably one of the most beautiful ridge tours of the Alps. With regards to the ambiance, the shot is actually quite a "no brainer". 
The photo was taken during a shooting for a Swiss mountaineering equipment supplier. We installed two camera teams to accompany Caro and Steph - one with the photographer Thomas Senf directly on the mountain, a filmmaker and myself for the aerial shots. On this second day of shooting everything was just right: We waited until late afternoon to get the perfect lighting conditions. That the fog in the south wall added to the drama was the icing on the cake. Such impressions stay with you - not only in the camera. 

You worked with exceptionally talented athletes over the years. Have you learned something from them that also comes in handy for your work as a photographer? 

To be in the terrain with such athletes is of course impressive at first: Their way of understanding what is going on in the mountains, their way of assessing the dangers but most of all their incredible athletic abilities to move on rock and ice leaves me speechless even after many years. Although it may sound trite, the respect they show towards the mountain is impressive. 
In addition, professionals like Dani Arnold, Steph Davis or Jérémie Heitz know exactly what is important when it comes to illustrating their sport. It is therefore worthwhile to listen. 
But what really impresses me is the modesty of these athletes: Someone who pursues a sport at the highest possible level in the world, gives everything for his passion and still never gives his environment the feeling of being too good for anything. 
These are perhaps less the central skills that influenced me as a photographer, but as a human being I have really taken a lot of such personalities with me on my way. 

What’s the biggest challenge when shooting free solo and speed climbing records? 

You have to make a difference: Usually such pictures are re-enacted after a record. This applies to most of the famous records on the Eiger, Matterhorn, El Cap etc. For example, we also did it this way with Dani Arnold on the Matterhorn.
However, during his speed ascent of the Cassin Route on Piz Badile in 2016, we went a new way and made a documentation of Dani live during his record. This changes the situation for both, the athlete and the photographer, completely. 
There is an aesthetic-planning dimension: What does the shooting process look like? In which passages do you absolutely want to have pictures? What possibilities for spectacular angles do we have, how quickly can we change from one position to another, etc.? 
Then there's a technical one: Basically you have exactly one shot. During a speed ascent, the athlete cannot just turn around and climb a passage again. So you better make sure that you have the camera under control. 
Finally, there is a personal level: Someone close to you is climbing and risks his life. If he makes even a small mistake, you will be watching him fall to certain death. I don't think that this can be answered conclusively, but you must ask yourself if and how you could live with it. 
So it takes an enormous amount of trust on both sides. The athlete has to know that we do not put additional pressure on him in any way. He has to be able to rely on it, that everything works out and that we capture his exploit as professionally as possible.
I, on the other hand, must be able to rely 100% on him not taking the slightest unnecessary risk because of the camera.
That's where the dilemma comes from: Do you shoot during the ascent and risk putting the athlete under additional pressure - or do you shoot afterwards and expose the athlete again to an extremely risky situation, just to have nice pictures? 

Can you explain how a shoot like this usually works? Do you climb next to the athlete(s) or do you use drones?

Without (massive) technical aids, it is usually not possible, because climbing along is definitely not an option. You can recreate scenes in the wall from fixed positions, but this is not really possible when shooting live. For this you would need a very large crew with many different teams in the wall. At best, you can do this in Yosemite in stable weather, but in an exposed wall in the Alps at 4000m above sea level, it's a logistical nightmare. As a lay person you can hardly imagine the enormous climbing speed - but in many places it is actually more of a running than a climbing. The whole thing advances so fast that you always have to be fully concentrated. 

Drones are ingenious - of course I use them too. But with large walls there are still limits. For really good pictures, I'm afraid the helicopter is (still) irreplaceable in such terrain. The interaction with the pilot is then crucial, he must know the site very well, understand where the most important passages are and from which positions the view of the route is best. During the record attempt itself, communication with the athlete is not possible - so good planning is essential. 

What equipment do you use when you shoot free solo or speed climbers? One would imagine it has to be rather light?
 
No, lightness is not the most important thing. Of course, I only take to the mountain what fits in a backpack and I can carry around with me without any problems. But absolute reliability, speed (like a fast, precise focus) and a certain redundancy are the most important things. Basically, I always work with two cameras with different lenses more or less parallel in such projects. It would really be most unfortunate if an athlete would make a phenomenal exploit and I would mess it up... 

What are your goals as a photographer? Anything specific for 2020? 

Photography is only one of my activities and passions - I fear that 2020 will be more about other tasks. Nevertheless: Some projects are definitely on the agenda this summer in the mountains.
And of course: Slowly I will start to develop first ideas for the next Red Bull Illume Image Quest... 

Where can we find more of your work? 

Best is to visit my website atlense.com I'm afraid I'm a little too lazy to maintain social media channels - but sure, you can find me on Instagram @atlense_photography. Ok, with the latter, a few more followers would probably be nice...

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.