Overall winner Ben Thouard and his tips for unique images
What do you need to make it to the top in the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021? What images work best and why is originality so important? We talked to Ben Thouard, overall winner of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2019 and asked him all of these questions and more!
The submission phase for Red Bull Illume 2021 is just around the corner (starting on March 1!) and that's why we decided to talk to the overall winner and category winner of the previous edition. Ben Thouard not only tells us his tips for up and coming photographers but also shares his own plans for the submission phase!
Since your win at Red Bull Illume 2019 a lot has happened. How has the last year been for you?
Yeah, the last year… pretty special, right? I’m lucky enough to be living in Tahiti in front of the ocean and far away from any virus but the last year has not been the best for projects. Unfortunately, this year came right after my win at the Image Quest 2019 so it has been really frustrating, because a lot of projects got cancelled and COVID kind of swallowed it. Fortunately though, I’m able to produce a lot of photos in front of my home, so on a positive note, I’ve been working hard on personal projects and somehow managed to be productive.
Anything exciting planned for this year?
I’m still working on my personal work, which I can hopefully release in a new book soon! Hopefully it’ll happen this year, but we’ll see how it goes, I’m excited to produce photos for it anyway.
You mostly shoot water sports, why do you stick to that sport and how has it all started?
I was raised close to the ocean, what with my dad being a sailor and my brothers surfers. I started surfing at a young age and always loved it, so it was natural to start shooting water sports too. Today I mostly shoot just water; shooting waves and the ocean rather than water sports. My career took a turn a couple of years ago, and even though I still shoot surfing sometimes and love to do so, I mostly focus on my books and exhibitions.
Let’s talk Red Bull Illume 2021, are you planning to submit?
Yes, absolutely! But I’m not sure if I can keep up with the quality of the other submissions. It’s only just over a year ago since the last Image Quest and we have not been able to travel, so I’m not sure if I’ll have enough material, but I will definitely start thinking about it!
What can we expect from you?
Not sure yet, I used to shoot a lot of surfing and then choose my best shot and submit it. I think this time I will especially shoot for Red Bull Illume and pick an idea.
Does your submission have to fulfill any specific criteria?
I used to select my very best work, for the 2013 edition, for example, I submitted 10 images. For the Image Quest 2016 I did a thorough selection process and at the contest itself I saw the most amazing submissions, which was when I realized how hard it must be to be a judge. That’s why I think the only way to make it to the top is to submit an image that is different to what we are used to seeing.
The main criteria that an image has to fulfill is its uniqueness. If it’s just another good shot it has very few chances to make it to the top. There is also no need to submit when the image is not technically perfect because the competition is really tough. Another important point for me personally is how hard it would be to re-make the image. If anybody can go and do the same shot tomorrow, I don’t think it deserves to win, it just has to be unique.
Red Bull Illume is about the moment of action, how do you make sure to capture the moment of action, that’s often very unexpected?
Perseverance is key! I think you need to know what shot you want to capture and remain fully open to what’s happening in each moment. It’s also a question of time, you have to be at the right place at the right time. That being said, it could take months or years to eventually capture something unique, but if you have an idea of what you’re looking for and you put time and energy into it you’ll succeed!
What’s one thing you learned from the contest and the people you met because of it?
It allows you to get feedback on your work and see where you stand amongst the outstanding work of other great photographers. I think it’s a really good exercise because it forces you to create more and it pushes you to the next level and that’s good for your creativity!
Any tips for upcoming photographers who want to take part in Red Bull Illume 2021?
What was the inspiration behind your winning image? My own dreams were my inspiration for this shoot, I’ve been dreaming of moon shots and epic action sports shots since I started in photography and those dreams have been getting bigger and bigger, resulting in this image.
How did the idea come to life? I guess it’s all about the natural evolution of my photography and the constant need of improving and getting to the next level. It’s also about the concept of the brotherhood between skiers and snowboarders, we always shred together and we never understood that rivalry that some people have, we are all into this because we love the sports, the mountains, the snow, and this lifestyle, and I wanted to create an image that represented this brotherhood. Two weeks before, I got together with the boys and we talked about the shot we wanted and how we could achieve it, drawing some sketches that resulted in the final shot. Also, since I first heard of Red Bull Illume I set it as a goal and personal challenge in my photography and if you really want to have your work recognized in this awesome contest you need to explore and innovate as much as you can, that also helped me to come up with the idea for the photo.
How important was the relationship with the athlete? I’d say it is essential but not only for this image, but for my whole portfolio. It’s mandatory to have an intense rapport with the athlete, when that feeling exists, difficult things seem to be easier, you feel safer, we both have confidence in each other. The relationship with the athlete has a tremendous effect. But also their attitude, for me to go on a shooting with someone, there are some things I need beyond friendship and that person’s quality as an athlete, such as patience and passion.
Good athletes are good photographers, even without realizing it, we often study the locations together and we dream together about the perfect conditions. That is when I realize that they also have a photographic eye, they help a lot in terms of framing, composition, interpretation of light.
Great photos are rarely a coincidence, they are the result of teamwork and I have the privilege that my friends are very good at the sports we practice and they are always willing to get the shot.
Did the shooting process go smoothly? Were there any difficulties? Getting to take this type of photo demands a lot of previous experience. I put a huge amount of hours into it, I’d say that this is the most difficult shot I’ve ever planned. It’s also a challenge to get both the riders and the moon decently in focus. I wanted to have them creating that precise composition inside the moon and calculating that took a lot of time. There´s nothing random in this shot. We worked for a week preparing the terrain, we had to carry a lot of photographic gear and the specific mountain gear we needed to work on the features and to be safe up there.
Once we got to the place we had to build two kickers and two starters since the location was a high mountain ridge with limited room to get the speed we needed, and this is maybe the hardest part of the planning, if you fail in the exact location of the kickers you miss the shot. Once you have the scenery ready you just have to wait for the moment and pray for a bluebird sky that day, along with being confident in the riders to synchronize the jump and the handplant. That’s the real challenge.
On the day, we went for an epic sunset session, testing the kickers and training for the moon shot. When the moon was rising I went to my place 300m away, communicating via walkie talkies. Once in position I had trouble finding the exact point where I was supposed to be and I became very nervous, I wandered around for 10 minutes with the snow almost around my waist and thinking that we would miss the photo but at last I found the place I was looking for.
How did you find the location for this image? The shot was taken on our home mountain, the Malacara Peak in the Spanish Pyrenees next to Villanúa, the village where I live. I know this terrain very well, I’ve always seen the moon rising behind that mountain. This shot is the result of chasing the moon for seven years. I first planned a Moon Shot in 2015 and after that I’ve been working to keep on improving and innovating and always trying to include action sports in the final image.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video from Yhabril below!
Red Bull Illume Category Winner heads to India
The main prize for the category, Energy by Red Bull Photography, was a dream shoot. Rod Hill made the most of his victory with a trip to India.
The Energy category came with the prize of a trip sponsored by Red Bull Photography, and was won by the New Zealand photographer Rod Hill for his shot of a whitewater kayaker. In October he got the chance to claim the main prize – an all-expensed trip to northeast India to shoot the Megha Kayak Festival, a four-day international event on the Umtrew river.
Rod said it was an incredible experience and opportunity – made possible by Red Bull Illume. “India is a one-stop shop for light, colour, sound, festivals, food and total chaos,” he said. “It’s definitely a bucket list country for anyone with a camera. It's not a relaxing holiday though – it's a total body experience!” But he added it was real fun. “You've got 100 kayakers there – it was some really picturesque stuff.”
Amazingly, Rod is not a professional photographer but a chemistry teacher in Rotorua, New Zealand. But he has had a passion for photography for many years, in particular, whitewater kayaking photography.
Rod didn’t just win the sponsored trip. He also took home a Leica Q2 camera which he absolutely loves, a Yoga 9i PC from Lenovo, a Workflow Bundle from SanDisk Professional, and his winning shot printed and framed by WhiteWall and outdoor gear from Black Diamond.
But the best part was the trip to India. As well as the festival, he also spent a week travelling around Kolkata, visiting a mangrove forest which he says was amazing. “I've been photographing for a really long time. I like to get that one shot that explains everything,” he told his local paper, the New Zealand Herald. “It's like hunting and trying to chase to get that one photo where everything lines up.” Check out the images Rod’s captured in India below!
If you haven’t seen Rod’s Red Bull Illume winning shot and the story behind it, check it out here!
Psyched for climbing photography
Art needs space to be appreciated fully, says Emerging by Black Diamond category winner Victoria Kohner-Flanagan. And that’s what Red Bull Illume does.
Where are you now and what are you up to? I’m currently in Lander, Wyoming, USA, soaking up the fall colors of the Aspens and enjoying some fun limestone sport climbing. I’ll be here for a little bit longer before heading back to Oregon to spend the rest of the fall at Smith Rock.
What have you been doing since winning last December? This past year has been filled with loads of traveling, climbing, and my best attempt to capture it all. I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue my tour around the western United States, climbing in some rad spots with some lovely folks. Living on the road makes life simple for me, I get to hone in on creating images I’m proud of and climb as much as possible.
Has your life or work changed since? Well, I don’t think I’ll stop living in a van for a while, though maybe I’ll upgrade to one I can stand up in eventually! On a more serious note, winning has definitely opened up some doors. In such a competitive industry with so many talented photographers, the exposure from being a part of Red Bull Illume has been really impactful.
How was it to see your shot illuminated at the exhibition in Aspen? It was surreal to see one of my images displayed at an exhibition. My family always prioritized visiting art museums when I was little, and I think it was always impressed upon me that art deserves to be viewed in a way that forces you to slow down and really look. Even the simple act of walking a few steps between images gives each the space it deserves to be appreciated more fully.
What did you make of the other images? This year’s contest has so many incredible images, it’s inspiring to see the level that so many photographers are operating at. The standard is so high, which makes me so stoked to get out and shoot more.
Any shots in particular that stood out for you? I really loved Carolin Unrath’s photo of the surfer catching the train. The concept is clever and I really enjoy the composition.
Did you deliberately shoot a climber whose hair color perfectly matched the rock? A lot of photographers are smart enough to think of details like that, I’m just lucky.
Is it important to capture a real moment? I think it’s situational, a lot of incredible climbing photos take a vision from the photographer and willingness from the climbers to capture. Light that makes a great photograph isn’t usually the conditions that makes for great climbing, and it’s not often that the photographer just happens to be in the most epic position to get the perfect photo. But the images where I’m lucky, where I happen to be in the right place at the right time, are the images that I generally love the most. When a genuine moment aligns with the opportunity for an epic photo, that is what I am always seeking.
What makes a great climbing photo? I tend to look for a photo that captures interesting movement, the expression of the climber, and an angle that represents the line of the climb itself. Climbing photography is interesting because of all the moving parts: the climber, the landscape, and the climb. The best climbing images in my opinion find a way to showcase those elements.
Which photographers or images inspire you? Tara Kerzhner’s images of Smith Rock continually inspire me. The way she sees and captures light is something I aspire to.
How has the athlete Jack responded to winning? Jack gives me a lot of sh*t for the exposure he has gotten, but I think he secretly likes it. What he might not absolutely love is the nickname “BD Jack” that our friends have fondly bestowed on him since the photo was posted on Black Diamond’s Instagram [offical partner of the Emerging category, Ed.]. After the post went viral he got a lot of attention.
Where do you want to go with your photography? My current goal with photography is to create images that get people really psyched for rock climbing, and hopefully that will eventually lead to opportunities to work with athletes that are on the cutting edge of the sport. I think the eventual goal is to lean into editorial photography in the realm of adventure sports and the outdoor industry. But mainly I just want to continue to seek opportunities to learn and push myself to grow as a photographer.
Climbing Photography Tips with Will Saunders
How do you take great climbing shots? We invited Red Bull Illume Overall Winner Will Saunders to show us how he does it.
Climbing photography is a specialist art. Of all the genres of action sports photography there is something especially challenging about it. For one thing photographers can’t move around and change positions like they can with both feet on solid ground. Getting into position means being able to haul themselves up a rope. And then there’s the small matter of vertigo. Clearly, this is a genre for those with a good head for heights – and personal safety.
Since he won Red Bull Illume with his spectacular climbing shot, we thought it would be fun to invite US-based Will Saunders over to the Austrian mountains to show us how he works. We also invited the Austrian freeskier and climber Nadine Wallner to be his model.
As he explains in the video, Will says a great climbing shot begins behind a screen. “I did a lot of research, seeing where the sun is going to be,” he says. “Another thing that’s super important is working with the athlete, making sure they’re comfortable and they’re climbing something within their grade. Nadine has climbed this before a bunch of times so it was the perfect opportunity for me to go up and find the best angle and have her work it a few times.”
Going up involved ascending a fixed rope set up by another climber. But once in position – Will was able to work his magic in the evening light. Because you can’t move around, he says it’s a good idea to focus on nailing one climbing shot, then think about the portraits and lifestyle shots when you’re back on the ground.
After putting the camera down, it was time to pick up the laptop and download the shots. For this, Will used Lenovo’s Yoga 9i Gen 7 (14”) flagship convertible laptop. Thanks to its up to 4K OLED touchscreen display, colors come out more vivid and the blacks also come out more inky for a life-like resemblance which is so important for photographers.
Conveniently for the kinds of places Will works, its curved comfort design makes it easier to carry and use for longer periods. Its 360-degree multi-mode hinge also makes the Yoga 9i Gen 7 super versatile for people who are on the road, whether tapping away on their lap or using it like a tablet.
For great deals on the Lenovo Yoga 9i Gen 7 laptop, head over here.
If you haven’t seen Will’s Red Bull Illume winning shot and the story behind it, check it out here and get more inspiration for your climbing photography. We look forward to seeing the results.
The art of climbing photography
These are some of the best climbing images submitted to Red Bull Illume 2021
There is something special about climbing photography. It shows us perspectives and vantage points that few, if any of us, are brave enough to reach. It calls on us to admire not only the climber and the physical strength and poise required to move in this vertical terrain – but the photographer too. Not only have they shared the suffering to get into position, they’ve also held their nerve to frame, compose and get the shot – often with few options to move around, or change a battery. That takes something. To celebrate this unique art form, we went through submissions to bring you the best climbing photography from Red Bull Illume 2021. Sit back and enjoy.
KTM Motohall to host Red Bull Illume Tour Stop
The exhibition will go on display at KTM’s famous museum that celebrates motorcycle history from October 1 to November 1, 2022.
The Red Bull Illume Exhibition, which showcases the world’s greatest adventure and action sports imagery, is to be displayed at the KTM Motohall, Mattighofen, Upper Austria, from October 1 to November 1, 2022. The opening night is timed to coincide with Austria’s “ORF-Long Night of Museums”, when hundreds of museums open their doors until 1AM, and can all be visited with a single ticket. The event has been taking place for 22 years and the KTM Motohall is one of the museums taking part.
The KTM Motohall is located in the center of Mattighofen. The museum, spread over an area of around 10,000 square meters, provides visitors with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of KTM. The imposing building architecture symbolizes the impressive dynamics of the now world-famous motorcycle company. In an interactive exhibition over three floors, visitors can learn all about the history and design processes of KTM motorcycles and get a good look at all the technical details. Special highlights include the KTM motorcycles exhibited on a recreated banked curve and the Heroes floor – an exhibition showcasing the most successful KTM riders of all time and their bikes including a 360-degree video installation. In addition to a varied range of activities for children, classic motorcycles are given a new lease of life in the living workshop in the basement of the KTM Motohall, as well as a fan store. The KTM Motohall is also the ideal location for corporate events with up to 350 people.
From October 1, there’s another reason to visit, and that’s the chance to see the 56 winning images of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest. With its high-octane heritage, the KTM Motohall is the perfect venue to showcase all the action from Red Bull Illume.
Since the Exhibit Tour kicked off in the US, it has traveled across Europe, thanks to a long-term partnership between Red Bull Illume and SES Spar European Shopping Centers, visiting various cities across Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy. In September, the Red Bull Illume Exhibition was presented during Berlin Photo Week. Eight more tour stops are planned between now and the beginning of 2023 with the exhibition set to come to MURPARK, Graz, Austria, and HUMA ELEVEN in Vienna, Austria.
Can't make it to Mattighofen? Here's the full list of the upcoming tour stops!
From dusk till dawn
In this gallery we share some of the most stunning Red Bull Illume shots that either happened at sunset or sunrise.
The action doesn't stop at sunset – it continues throughout the night until the sun eventually appears in the morning. The best photographers will be there waiting for the moment. In this gallery we've pulled together some of the best Red Bull Illume shots taken between dusk and dawn from Wayne Reiche's shot of BMX rider Murray Loubser in Cape Town to Daniel Rönnbäck's shot of Tof Henry jumping a gap on a Norwegian peak. There are nighttime long exposures, dawn climbs under headlamp and surfers relaxing at the end of the day. The one constant? Somebody with a camera thinking, this would make a great shot. And you know what? They were right.
Inside the mind of a creative master
Few photographers are as original and creative as Czech pro Dan Vojtech. He tells us the inside story behind his Innovation by EyeEm shot.
I love combining different things together and this time it was skateboarding and video mapping. I had this idea in my head for quite a long time. I did one small successful test but I was busy with commercial projects and traveling to make it on a bigger scale. In 2021 I contacted Maxim Habanec and my friends from Lunchmeat studio (the video mapping company) and explained them my idea and they were happy to cooperate with me. Most of the jobs were canceled because of COVID so it was great opportunity to spend some extra free time.
What was the most difficult part?
There were several challenges during this project. The first one was how to build a set with 8 big beamers. We had to mount them under the ceiling to keep space free without any cables (hundreds of meters) or stands. Beamers are quite heavy, ceiling-high and we had no heavy machines, only ladders. This took us two nights. The second challenge was how to light up Max with strobes while not disturbing the projection in the background. I had to be very precise with strobes and use grids and reflectors.
And the most rewarding part?
The best part was when we turned off all the lights in the Maxspace and turned on the projectors. We felt like we were in a video game. It was crazy!
What equipment did you use?
I was shooting with lenses from 16mm to 200mm and I used external battery powered flashes with reflectors and grids. These were important so I only lit the skaters and didn't interfere with the video mapping.
How did you work the light?
Light played a very important role. It was necessary to find the ideal ratio of light between projections and flashes. There must have been very little light in the hall because of the projection. It made skateboarding very difficult.
How did you explain your vision with the athlete?
I think it's very important to explain to skateboarders exactly what you intend to do. It's always good to be familiar with the sport, then you understand what is possible. First we always agree on what obstacle we are going to shoot on. I then choose a suitable angle and light the place. The skateboarders then ride and I try to capture the best moments. I always consult with them on the final photos.
How did you get the idea for the image?
I love video mapping and have had a similar idea in my head for a long time. When the opportunity came up to use it for the Maxspace it was only a matter of time.
Any other exciting projects you can tell us about?
I definitely plan to continue similar projects. Now I'm experimenting with using a drone for light-painting and Infrared photography, so stay tuned!
Check out the behind-the-scenes video of Dan's awesome project here!
My first image in Red Bull Illume in 2013 still gets brought up by people today almost ten years later. It left a mark and I’m pretty fortunate to be able to share such a special image.
How did you get into photography?
My parents had a bluegrass band growing up and my mom would hand me her 35mm camera while they played shows and I ran around taking pictures at a pretty young age. I guess that would be the start, but years later I took a photography class in high school and was pretty hooked on it. My teacher gave me a lot of flexibility to go shoot the team sports. I was also into mountain biking at that time and just put it together one day to shoot mountain bike. That's when it really all came together and could see that it was something I was really interested in doing. By the time I was headed to college, I realized I could possibly make a career out of photography so I went to photo school in Seattle. Now, 12 years later, it's the only job I've held.
How do you build important relationships that help you professionally?
I treat everyone with respect and make no judgements of someone; they could be your next client. I've been great friends with one of my biggest clients for nearly ten years and had some great times together. Just being a fun person and a quality human goes a long way in the professional world.
How do you reach out to potential new clients?
I've tried most of the methods, I’m not really sure what works the best, but I really believe in more of an in-person approach. I just get a lot more done out of a conversation than sending emails into space that someone might never see. I've had good luck going to trade shows and chatting up potential companies I would want to work with.
What sets your images apart?
I like to shoot big scenes and show nature, elements, scenery around the action. I don't think it sets me apart from anyone else, but I just like to convey the feeling of where I'm at and hope that someone can feel like they are right there experiencing the moment.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
From the other photographers that I've looked up to for years and new ones. It just puts the fire in me to do better and get out of my comfort zone.
What tips do you have for young photographers?
Photography will evolve with experience, so just keep shooting what you like to shoot and the rest will follow. Put yourself out there, meet new people, athletes, industry marketing folks, be apart and stick out in your community, be humble and don't get dejected. It takes a long time to make it happen but it's sure worth it in the long run.
Check out Paris' website and follow him on Instagram to see more of his professional work.
Show me the light
Red Bull Illume semi-finalist Toby Cowley tells us why happiness involves shooting riders in great light with great composition.
Where does your photography passion come from? I don’t think it can be summed up as one thing, there’s a lot to be inspired by everyday (light, color, people, nature) that makes me want to pick up a camera and take a photo. And there’s always more to learn and improve on that keeps me intrigued.
Why do you focus on biking? It’s just what I know, I’ve followed and been around two wheels for as long as I can remember and it’s how my career as a photographer began. As much as I love shooting biking, I definitely try to spend time photographing outside of my niche.
How do you capture the perfect moment? These days with cameras that shoot 30fps it has become a lot easier to get the timing right on a shot. Unless I’m shooting film, and then it’s a combination of knowing the sport/trick and luck.
Tell us a little bit more about the image you submitted to the Image Quest 2021. How did it come about? Was it spontaneous or planned in detail? One of my favorite things about photography is playing with light and shadows, so when I noticed the shadow spilling onto the sphere it seemed like a good opportunity to get some separation between Brandon and the feature.
How long did it take you to get the shot? It only took a few takes, there was a pretty small window where there was just the right ratio of shadow to light. So fortunately Brandon was able to ride the sphere pretty consistently every time and everything came together relatively quick.
Check out how this incredible image came together and watch the behind-the-scenes video featuring athlete Brandon Semenuk here!
How important is the relationship between athlete and photographer? Communication is key for both the athlete and the photographer, if the rider is planning to do a trick only once, it’s important for me to make sure I know what trick they’re doing and then figure out which angle shows that trick the best. If I have an idea for a shot, I’ll run it by the athlete so that we’re on the same page before they drop in.
When are you happy with your images? When light, riding, composition all comes together, that’s definitely when I’m the happiest.
What’s up next for you? Any exciting projects you can share with us? I can’t give away too much but I’m just finishing up a bigger project that will hopefully be released next month. And then a couple smaller shoots in the next couple weeks, I’m excited for a busy summer!
If you want to see more of Toby's work follow him on Instagram @tobycowley or check out his website!