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?
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!
Illuminate your space with the incredible winning images
Red Bull Illume is all about the art of adventure and action sports photography and now you can experience these images like never before!
2021 was an edition like no other, with the one-of-a-kind Winners’ Unveiling Week from November 29 to December 4, in which all of the finalists and winning images were revealed on Instagram Live. The overall winner, Will Saunders, received his trophy on the final night on the snow-covered mountains in Aspen Snowmass, CO, USA.
Visiting a tour stop is just one of the ways you can experience these incredible images, or you could buy your very own. What are we talking about? Well, for the first time ever, you can own a high-end print and turn your home into an art gallery. Check out all the limited-edition prints that are available to order on COOPH, including Will Saunders' winning shot. It's a totally new way to experience these incredible images, thanks to our partners WhiteWall and COOPH.
Can't choose which winning image you love the most? The limited-edition Red Bull Illume Photobook contains the top 256 images from the contest, all within the pages of this high-quality hardcover book. There are only 3,000 copies available, each individually numbered and stamped. It's the ultimate collector's item and makes an incredible gift for any photography lover. Order your very own copy here.
The art of kayak photography
Persistence pays off when it comes to shooting action on a river, says Rod Hill, winner of Energy by Red Bull Photography.
I wouldn’t actually say I'm a photographer, it's more of a lifelong passion for me. My mother always had a camera ready when we were growing up. Then my brother studied photography at secondary school but stopped after a year. I picked up his camera and started to play around a bit. We did a lot of surf adventures around the North Island of New Zealand and I thought it would be good to get some photos from that. Then the travel bug really kicked in and 46 countries later I still absolutely love travel photography. I started with print film then progressed to slide film mostly in Europe and Africa, then finally digital.
You’re a teacher, do your students know about your second life?
Absolutely not! 99% of students are convinced teachers do not have lives. They assume we are born teachers. I bumped into two students who were swimming at a local river. I was abseiling down the side of the waterfall. Needless to say, they were quite surprised.
What sports do you focus on and why?
I would love to shoot more sports but access is not that easy. I have no press credentials and turning up to photograph kids playing soccer or something could be misconstrued! So, focusing on kayaking has allowed me to shoot as much and as often as I like. Kayakers are very photogenic too. Also, I can try my hand at bird and nature photography while I wait for kayakers. The rivers are exceptionally beautiful. I would like to get more mountain bike photos because that was a sport I was heavily involved in for quite a long time but for the foreseeable future, rivers, birds and kayakers fill the day!
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is an interesting concept. I don’t really get inspiration to shoot photos as such. I get inspired to live life as best as I can. Getting photos I'm proud of just happens to be part of that.
What makes a ‘good’ image in your opinion?
Aside from the technical aspects such as composition and the rule of thirds, I think a good photograph starts and finishes with interesting light. I try to avoid cropping so everything in the photograph should be there for a reason. I really like Michael Clark’s and Lorenz Holder’s images. They always have lots of layers to them.
How has winning the Energy by Red Bull Photography category changed things?
I'm still the same person – wet and often freezing cold on the side of a river waiting for kayakers to go by. On a personal level, I am super proud of my achievement. Being only the second Kiwi to win a category behind the legend Dean Treml is also quite humbling too. It has legitimized my passion but I still have so much more to learn.
I am in the early stages of sorting a trip to Mexico with George Snook and hopefully Rafa Ortiz with the help of Red Bull Photography. It was part of the prize from Red Bull Illume. I am also working on a new project closer to home, Tree Trunk Gorge to be exact. I have some ideas for there. It's quite steep and sketchy but nothing a couple of ascenders, harness, a really long rope and maybe a drone wouldn’t fix.
Any tips for up-and-coming photographers?
There is always someone better than you. Guaranteed. You need thick skin, persistence and YouTube. I have found the better the photographer the more likely they are to help with advice. Although he wouldn’t remember, Michael Clark was very helpful several years ago and also a pro sports photographer from Napier, New Zealand - Alphapix - he has been really helpful. Really getting to know athletes is also another area often overlooked. Not being a dick also goes a long way.
The Energy category is one of our favorites. It's all about capturing the energy, speed and strength of an athlete in action. The category always attracts an incredibly high standard of entries and the winners consistently take our breath away – which is why we're sharing them below. These are the six Energy winners from the Image Quests 2007 to 2021. As you can see, they've lost none of their power to inspire and awe.
Professional snowboarding photographer Thomas Stöckli became the first ever Energy category winner in 2007 with this shot of Reto Kestenholz in St. Christoph, Austria. He was subsequently a finalist in the 2010 edition.
This epic shot of cliff diver Todor Spasov was taken by Swiss photographer Romina Amato, who got this unique angle from a boat. “I like pictures where it leaves the viewer asking, where is he coming from? Will he survive this? Does that guy seriously think he can fly?”
Ben Thouard didn't just win the Energy category with this shot of Ace Buchan in Tahiti. It went on to be crowned Red Bull Illume Overall Winner. “Shooting surfing from underwater is a whole new world and I love it,” he said at the time.
An image just as powerful today as it was 12 years ago. Taken by legendary Aussie lensman Stuart Gibson, it shows Ryan Hipwood big wave surfing in Tasmania. “The day I got that photo was a really special day in my career,” Gibson recalled.
“A salute to the power and randomness of the ocean, or a mocking attempt at some kind of manipulated sorcery, showing man’s unending quest to control nature.” That was photographer Luke Shadbolt’s take on this 2016 winning shot. Inside info? He didn’t spot surfer Renan Faccini was in the shot until afterwards.
“This shot was not supposed to happen,” recalls Rod Hill, an unassuming chemistry teacher from New Zealand. Kayaker River Mutton was about to go home but decided on one last run. Then the sun suddenly came out. “Straight away I knew this was going to work," Rod said.
Looking for more inspiration or want to see the incredible images other photographers submitted? Then check out our gallery here which features the top images of each edition!
Red Bull Illume is coming to Slovenia
The next SES Exhibit Tour Stops will light up Maribor and Ljubljana!
The next Red Bull Illume Exhibitions will be in EUROPARK, Maribor and ALEJA, Ljubljana in Slovenia. Both tour stops are part of our partnership with SES Spar European Shopping Centers which displays the 56 finalist images inside their premium shopping destinations across Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy. All exhibitions are completely free to visit and can be combined with a shopping trip.
EUROPARK in Maribor – June 23 to July 3
Nestled between the Drava River and the green embrace of the Pohorje forests lies Maribor, the starting point for all kinds of adventures – from skiing to hiking and climbing. It’s the perfect location to host the next Red Bull Illume Tour Stop. The top 56 images will go on display at Maribor’s EUROPARK, from June 23 to July 3, 2022.
For more than 22 years the 2-level and light-flooded EUROPARK with around 120 different stores offers a variety of international and national brands and now, for the first time ever, the Red Bull Illume Exhibition.
Since the shopping mall is located right in the center of Maribor, it can be easily reached by any means of transport and it is the perfect place to meet with family and friends to discover the illuminated images. The exhibition is totally free to view during the centers’ regular hours from 9am to 9pm weekdays and 8am to 9pm on Saturdays.
ALEJA in Ljubljana – July 5 to July 16
The exhibition will then move to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, gateway to the Julian Alps. Once again, the images will be displayed on 2x2 meter lightboxes and showcased from July 5 to July 16 at ALEJA in the heart of Šiška, just to the north of downtown Ljubljana.
The modern shopping mall is located in one of the most popular districts of Ljubljana and has been constructed from 2017 to 2020. It impresses with its mixed-use structure and combines shopping, culinary delights as well as leisure facilities. With 80 different brands, a fitness park, a running track and several relaxing areas ALEJA offers a great variety for every interest and age and goes far beyond the usual shopping trip. It is open Mondays to Saturdays 8am to 9pm.
Both venues are ideal places to check out the incredible winning images of Red Bull Illume and be awe inspired by the world’s greatest adventure and action sports photography. If you happen to be in either of the two cities be sure to explore the exhibits.
Here are the upcoming tour stops throughout the SES Spar European Shopping Centers if you can't make it to Slovenia.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Ice
Red Bull Illume Category Winner Thomas Monsorno captivated the judges with his shot of a climber on Lake Baikal. He’s been back on ice for his latest shoot and explains why.
Tell us about Iceland After our Baikal project, we planned a new one for the following year, which unfortunately we had to cancel due to the pandemic. We had already defined some new locations, but these were not feasible due to travel restrictions. It was supposed to be the follow-up project to Baikal, a mixture of road movie and climbing story. In autumn 2021 we decided to fly to Iceland to look for new ice climbing spots. The team consisted of Dani Arnold, Martin Echser, Lukas Kusstatscher and Davide Guzzardi. The aim was to produce photos and video. As is well known, the landscape in Iceland is spectacular, but the constantly changing, sometimes extreme weather conditions in winter made the project even more special.
Which equipment did you take with you?
In addition to my camera equipment and my drone, I also had my new Leica Q2 (category winner prize) with me, which I had received from Red Bull Illume a few days before starting the trip. The Iceland project was of course the perfect playground to test this 47mp camera. I always had it with me at every location because it is very light and compact. The low weight was a great advantage on the sometimes long ascents. I also didn’t have to worry about the constantly changing weather conditions (snow, wind, rain, cold) due to the robustness of the camera. The 28mm lens was a great focal length for me, although there is also a 35mm, 50mm and 75mm crops mode. For me it is a perfect allround camera, which I will always have with me for future projects!
What’s important to consider when shooting in such extremes?
When shooting in such extreme conditions, planning and equipment is of course very important. This certainly begins in advance, when you study the weather forecast through to choosing the right clothing and equipment. Some of the climbs are long, and the weight of the equipment means you have to be in good physical shape to keep up with the pro athletes. In most cases, the equipment is reduced to the essentials, so you can save a few kilos in weight. I always carry the batteries directly on my body to protect them from the cold.
Walk us through the creative process
The first step is always the selection of the location. If I find an inspiring location, then I think about what activity could be combined with a shoot here. The next step is then to contact an athlete to discuss the feasibility of the project. Then a team is put together (usually with a filmmaker, etc.) and the project is put on paper. At the end, the partners/brands will be contacted. The process of planning is always teamwork. It has happened that a global campaign has emerged from an initially free project when the brands have recognized the potential.
Why ice climbing?
There is something very fascinating about watching Dani Arnold ice climbing. Every movement is very considered, you have to be very strong mentally and physically to climb at this high level. In addition, there is always the cold, which certainly doesn't make it any easier to call up the full performance. Compared to other sports, the movements are relatively slow, which is often an advantage when taking photos, as the photographer has time to move and can shoot a route from many different angles and perspectives. I also find the element of ice very fascinating, as it is constantly changing. There are beautiful ice structures, the nature is just fantastic!
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I usually find the inspiration for my work in nature and when researching on the internet. There are also numerous artists who I find very inspiring.
What was the reaction to being a Red Bull Illume category winner?
The feedback was really overwhelming. So many people have congratulated me, written to me and sometimes simply approached me, even if I thought they wouldn’t be that interested in photography. Personally, it was a very nice experience and in some way a confirmation that the path I had taken was the right one and that the work of the last few years had paid off. I noticed that Red Bull Illume has a very high status in the scene, which is noticeable on a professional level.
Anything else coming up?
After Iceland we flew almost immediately afterwards for a five-week project to the Maldives. At the moment I am at home in South Tyrol, where I will also spend the summer. A few local projects are planned here. We don't have any concrete plans for next winter, but in all probability there will be a new project with Dani Arnold and co.
Take a dive below the waterline and prepare to be amazed by these incredible underwater photos. We've pulled together some of the most impressive Red Bull Illume images taken below the surface – of surfers, kayakers, freedivers, even an underwater skateboarder and a biker. We think these photos are amazing and the photographers who captured them incredible. We hope you do too.
From May 11 to 29, 2022, the 56 finalist images from the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 will be exhibited in Padua, Italy, at the modern and fashionable shopping malls of IPERCITY and LE BRENTELLE. Both shopping malls are characterized by their bright ambiance and open architecture, and are well known for attracting locals and tourists alike thanks to the variety of Italian and international brands on offer. These exhibit tour stops in IPERCITY and LE BRENTELLE are part of our partnership with SES Spar European Shopping Centers which displays the winning images inside their premium shopping destinations across Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy.
The images are displayed on innovative 2x2 meter lightboxes provided by the German based manufacturer CCS Fabric Frame. This allows the outstanding quality of the images to be appreciated in a new way by audiences more used to seeing the images on a smartphone or computer screen. It also celebrates and honors the hard work and dedication of the photographers.
For your chance to view and appreciate the very best in adventure and action sports photography, head to IPERCITY and LE BRENTELLE shopping malls in Padua. The 56 images are shared across the two venues meaning you need to go to both to see every shot. The exhibitions are free to view and everyone is welcome during the centers’ regular opening hours. IPERCITY and LE BRENTELLE are easy to reach and are located off main roads, accessible by all means of transport.
Mondays to Saturdays 8:30AM – 9PM
Sundays 9AM – 9PM
So grab a gelato and enjoy a stroll through the impressive display of talent at the Red Bull Illume Exhibition while also taking in the great shopping to be had at that IPERCITY and LE BRENTELLE in Padua, Italy. The exhibition runs until May 29, 2022.
Here are the upcoming tour stops throughout the SES Spar European Shopping Centers if you can't make it to Padua.
Red Bull Illume photographer Benny Marr gives the lowdown on kayaking with crocs, big rivers and why he’d rather be athlete than photographer.
I am not a technically skilled photographer. I’m a kayaker completely focused on kayaking and I accept that I will make mistakes and miss a lot of shots and opportunities. There is a lot I don't understand about the craft. I research and buy equipment and ultimately I am around a combination of skilled athletes and incredible whitewater fairly often which makes things a little easier for me. When I want to shoot, I try to make as few mistakes as possible. Find a frame, try to get everything in focus...
What is the most difficult thing about shooting whitewater?
Having wet hands all the time in a wet environment.
Talk us through your prep?
I bring my camera with me when I go to the river. I try to make sure my shit is charged and the cards are formatted but I am usually forgetting something. Kayakers are often bringing cameras down the river with them in waterproof bags which provide a bit of protection for the gear. Sometimes we are running waterfalls and the cameras take the same hits that our bodies do so we need to protect them. I love a great photo and I try to observe and learn from the elements of how other people work so I will be motivated to move around on the river more to capture something that I and the kayaker will be happy to have to post, share, or sell – or have a memory of a cool moment.
Do you prefer being behind the lens or in front of it?
I am way better at whitewater kayaking than I am at whitewater photography! It is better for me, career-wise, to be in the photo than to take the photo. We can make some extra cash selling photos but I am more stoked to be in a photo in the Red Bull Illume book than to have taken a photo which made it into the book. Nice for the ego either way!
You’ve kayaked the Zambezi. Why’s it special?
The Zambezi river is a live winding border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The river falls around 100 metres over Victoria Falls and into the Batoka Gorge. As kayakers we have all known about and planned trips to the Zambezi for years. Just to be able to travel to Africa is an incredible privilege and experience. Too often taken for granted. Sitting underneath Victoria Falls every day for a month and running some of the baddest rapids on the planet, I understand that privilege differently because I've worked hard on the skillsets required specifically to spend time beneath the falls. It is unique to paddle through a canyon or gorge like the Batoka with such easy access. River Right and River Left provide ample opportunities for a kayaker with a camera to hop out to shoot photos or film something. While there are no hippos in the classic whitewater section because they don't survive falling off Victoria Falls, there are many crocodiles who have done just that. Small baby crocs survive the plunge and grow up in the gorge adding elements of curiosity and danger to the kayaker's journey every day.
Steve Fisher was the best all-around kayaker on the planet when I was growing up. His career is still very relevant and impressive. When he was in his late teens or early twenties he went to the Zambezi River to work as a guide and video/photo kayaker. He and a group of kayakers living on the Zambezi started making videos and as a kid I devoured them. It influenced how I kayak, how I navigate rivers and how I see high volume whitewater and big lines.
Scott Lindgren was also an influence?
Years after the Wicked Liquid movies by Steve Fisher and Alex Nicks were out, Steve started shooting with Scott Lindgren. Scott brought together footage from around the world for the Burning Time movies and created some really beautiful work on the Zambezi River. It was a lot higher quality than anything we had seen from the area so we could understand the river better. Steve was peaking in his skill and sendinees in the big water as well. Excellent combination. Steve’s big water style affected me for sure and Scott being willing to invest time and money into quality equipment and kayaking movies was great for the sport.
When are the perfect conditions for shooting the Zambezi?
It is always good, rain or shine.
Check out the incredible behind-the-scenes video here!