Jan Kozak proves that anything is possible!

How does a self-taught, ‘hobby’ photographer make it to the Top 260 of the world’s greatest action and adventure sports imagery contest? Read our interview with Creative by Skylum category semi-finalist Jan Kozak to find out!

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© Jan Kozak / Red Bull Illume

Everybody loves an overnight success story, and this one definitely falls into that category. The purchase of a new camera just over a year ago was the catalyst for Jan Kozak to start taking his photography more seriously. Days watching YouTube tutorials, and nights out shooting with friends paid off big time as his image will now be seen across the world as part of the Image Quest 2019.

To call his success ‘overnight’ should not take away from the perseverance, courage and willingness to take risks that landed him this shot. The only person that can tell the full story properly is Jan, so check out the interview below!

How does it feel to be a semi-finalist of the ‘Creative by Skylum’ category?

It’s absolutely amazing, if somebody had told me I would get this far when I first started considering entering the competition, I would have thought they are crazy. I’m happy to be a semi-finalist in the Creative by Skylum category. This alone is a huge success!

Did you have this composition in mind before shooting? Or did you see the frames and think of the idea afterwards?

I had the composition in my mind before shooting and I wanted to make a sequence photo but a little differently. When I saw this place for the first time I knew it was the right spot. The only time-consuming part was to set up the lights and flashes, everything else was relatively easy thanks to my friends’ help.

Did you climb the tree yourself to set up the camera?

Yes, I used a big ladder, and fixed the camera at about 7-meters high. When I went up the first time I couldn’t believe what I got myself into, but at the end of the shoot and after multiple trips up and down the ladder, it had become routine.

It was really tricky to fix the camera, I had to use a ratchet strap and attached a monopod to the tree. Once the camera was mounted on the monopod, I could no longer move it. In the end it was worth it, I got a nice view of all the jumps and the photo has a nice perspective.

I couldn't use the camera viewfinder, but from this high vantage point it wasn’t really needed. It was very easy to catch the right moment and some tricks we even shot on the first attempt. Out of 20 photos from the shoot I really only used 6 of them, which is nice for post-production.

How long does the editing process take for a shot like this?

Haha, it takes about half a day in the parking lot at Fort William! After a morning riding in the bike park I started editing. Why did I edit in a car-park? The photoshoot took place shortly before my vacation, so short on time I used the only location available… retrospectively it is a funny memory that only adds more to the photo. 

Are you trained in post-production, or did you teach yourself?

Absolutely not. Everything I know about post production is self-taught, mostly from YouTube videos. Using editing software is nice but for me it's more important to do as much in-camera as possible during the shoot; nailing the lighting, using only necessary flash and hitting the right spots… without a good base there is no point in post-production.

How did you discover Red Bull Illume?

The first time I came across Red Bull Illume was on Instagram, I don’t know exactly when but it was a couple of years ago. I loved the photos I saw, but that’s about it. I never imagined being a part of that. Last year I bought my first camera – a Sony a7 III - and began shooting more. That autumn me and my friend Dan, a rider, made our first night photo shoot. When I read that the Image Quest 2019 was starting, I knew I wanted to participate. 

You made it into the Top 25 of the Best of Instagram by SanDisk category, did this give you confidence to enter the main contest?

The Best of Instagram by SanDisk nomination happened unexpectedly, it was both surprising and very exciting! However, I knew long before that I wanted to enter the main contest. 

What’s next for you, and where can we find more of your work?

I want to make some more night projects, find new locations give the photos a new perspective. For a long time now, I have been thinking about trying winter project but so far, I haven’t found the right opportunity. I’d like to travel more, especially with my camera.

To see more of Jan's work, check out his website and 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.