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!

© Ben Thouard :

© Ben Thouard / Red Bull Illume

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?

That’s tough, but I’d say be unique!


You can find more of Ben’s work on his website and on his 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.

Red Bull Illume 2021 Christian Pondella 1

© 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.

RBIL21 Lenovo judging thumbnail

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!

Red Bull Illume 2021 Photo Story Thumnbnail

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.

Red Bull Illume 2021 Gallery Black Diamond 1

© 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.

MO16 011359 012424 reg mag

© 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.