Talking surf photography in Sweden with Sophie Zander

"The surf is best during the fall and winter, but it’s the worst for photographers. When it rains, it rains horizontally into the lens because of the wind!"

Sophie Zander 2012 10 30 1

© Sophie Zander / Red Bull Illume

What are your basic stats?

I’m Sophie Zander, born in 1993 and raised in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. I work full time in a warehouse but photography is one of my biggest interests, so sometimes I get photography work too.

How did you first get into photography?

I was pretty much born into photography. When I was a kid, my father and his best friend had a small studio and dark room just for fun. As I got older, my dad and I would go on trips each year, stopping every time he saw a photo opportunity. Instead of complaining and being a pain in the ass, I thought I would try take some photos too. My parents got me a small compact camera as a summer gift and later I got my dad’s old Canon 10D. I went from hanging around in the studio, to studying media in high school with a focus on photography. That’s how I got to where I am now.

What’s in your camera bag?

In my camera bag you’ll find two camera bodies and a bunch of lenses; 24-70mm 2.8, 70-200mm 2.8, 50mm 1.8 and sometimes I’ll steal my dad’s 16-35mm 2.8. I take batteries, memory cards, rain covers for the cameras, reusable hand warmers for both me, the surfers and other photographers. You might find some candy in there too.

Why surf photography?

It all started 10 years ago with what I thought was a lie. My dad told me it was possible to surf in Sweden and I said; “No you can’t, liar!”. However, he kept telling me it was true so I told him we had to go shoot some surfing the next time the forecast looked good. Turned out he wasn’t lying! I fell deeply in love with it and became obsessed with the weather forecasts so I wouldn’t miss the next session. 

I honestly don’t know what the appeal is! If I lived somewhere warmer and more tropical I would understand, but I live in Sweden and it’s the complete opposite!

What are the challenges of shooting surfers in Sweden?   

The surf is best during the fall and winter, but it’s the worst for photographers. When it rains, it rains horizontally into the lens because of the wind! It’s snowing, it’s windy, it’s stormy and it’s so cold that your fingers and toes hurt. You wear so many layers of clothing that you look like you’re going to hunt polar bears! I’ve often questioned myself why we do this to ourselves over and over again. Why do we go outside when there are storm warnings on the news? 

I guess it’s a mix of things I love about it - and it gets better and better each time I go. The first time I went to the surf spot, I didn’t know a single person. Now I have an extra family which means a lot to me in so many ways; I’m forever thankful for everything they’ve done for me. 

How did it feel to be a Red Bull Illume semi finalist? 

It felt so surreal! I’ve been following Red Bull Illume since it all started and I’ve been amazed by every photo. Many of my favorite photographers have done really well in the competition; I never thought I’d stand a chance, but I guess I was wrong.  

Talk us through your semi final photo…

My semi final photo was taken in Unstad, Lofoten Islands, Norway! I went there for the yearly father-daughter trip, my dad is more of a landscape photographer and I’m obviously into extreme sports. Norway has a great mix of both and it’s not too far away from where we live. Unfortunately, the sea decided to be flat the whole week and the day the photo was taken was the only day with some kind of waves, more like surf school kind of waves. I was slightly disappointed in both the weather and the waves. Parts of the mountains were covered by fog, then these three random surfers showed up. It looked really cool so I had to take a photo. When I saw the shot on the camera I was like; “this will be one of my Red Bull Illume photos”.

Are there any other adventure and action sports you like to shoot?

I’ve shot motocross and fmx a few times, once in a while I’ll end up in a skatepark. Last summer a few friends went wake surfing, me and my camera joined them and it was so much fun. If I had to choose one sport to shoot for the rest of my life it would be surfing for sure, but it’s fun to add variety.

What other things do you shoot?

Since I’m a music nerd I love to shoot concerts as well. I’ve also found out how fun it is to shoot portraits, simple portraits, nothing too fancy. When there’s no action sports or concerts there’s always different landscapes to explore, Mother Nature sure knows how to blow our minds.

What lessons has photography taught you?

Photography made me more confident, maybe not in life general, but it’s easier for me to make contact with strangers than it was before. If I have my camera with me and I see someone who will be a perfect model for my kind of portraits I will walk up to them and ask if I can take a photo. It’s almost as if I can hide behind my camera and skills.

Photography has also taught me that there’s no “next time”, the light, the composition, nothing will be the same next time. If you want that specific photo, you have pick up the camera and press the shutter button NOW! Not tomorrow or next month. One thing I know for sure is that it sucks to regret things like that. I guess it’s the same in real life too. I’m still kind of bad at it but I’m always trying to learn by mistakes and regrets!

Any upcoming photography projects?

There are a lot of things I’d like to shoot but I’m trying to focus on photos for Red Bull Illume 2019, it’s getting closer! 

What are your plans for the future?

I try to not have too big plans because life never turns out the way you plan it. I’m just going to see what life has to offer and take it from there! 

But I’d love to travel, both to new places and to revisit some old places. 

Thanks to Sophie for this amazing interview! Check out more of her work on her website and on Instagram.

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.

Get creative with Skylum & Luminar AI

Meet the photo-editing tool that lets you get creative with your images.

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© Markus Berger / Red Bull Illume

Some images require no editing and are best left alone – and they’re a rarity. Then there are other images that cry out for you to let rip with the creativity. Red Bull Illume has categories for both kinds of images but it’s Creative by Skylum that is tailor made for images that require digital enhancement during the editing process. It allows photographers and image creators free rein to be as creative as they like and recognizes that the talent and skill that go into post-production are as important as the skill in taking the image in the first place.

With Skylum and LuminarAI, the Creative category has the perfect partner. Luminar’s revolutionary tools and AI technologies give superpowers for creative photo editing, letting photographers transform their images into incredible works of art, with simplicity and ease.  

LuminarAI gives you smart tools to fix any issue during post-processing. It operates on artificial intelligence, automating even the most complicated tasks like sky replacement and figure shaping. The final result? The exact image you envisioned, even if the weather or light didn’t cooperate when you captured the shot. Adding clouds to the sky? One click. Perfectly balancing contrast and lighting and revealing details? All done with one smart slider.

No tutorials are needed — just go to their website, get LuminarAI at $20 off using the code REDBULL, and have an edited image in the next five minutes. Give it a try with your images, then don’t forget to enter them into the Creative by Skylum category before July 31. It’s an open category, so anything goes!

We pulled together some of the most inspiring shots from previous editions of Red Bull Illume to get you into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Act like a pro, says Will Gadd

Adventure legend Will Gadd has come on board as a judge for the Image Quest 2021. The Red Bull and Black Diamond athlete explains why pros get the results first before getting experimental, why posing is bad and why if you want to work with athletes, you should never, ever behave like a dick.

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© Christian Pondella / Red Bull Illume

How important has the photography been in your career?

My sports are not spectator friendly, so I count on photographers to bring my world to the public. Without photography my world is invisible, and I can’t have the career I’ve had. It’s that simple: I don’t have a job without both the pro photographers I work with.

What does it take to be an adventure photographer?

My expeditions are normally cold, remote, and dangerous. There are sleeping bags, cameras and fingers that freeze solid, and there’s always the chance of the mountain doing something we don’t expect. So to even go on these trips you have to be a little bit special, and then to capture any images takes extraordinary hard work. But to produce images that grab the world’s attention with their raw visual power takes an incredible set of both survival and art skills that’s very rare. My favorite story is of Christian Pondella making sandwiches every morning on an expedition in -30º temps. That’s how he could help us move forward, and while the images he shot were incredible it’s his constant work ethic that I respect the most. Talent is nothing without working to move the team forward.

“Pros get results first, then take chances to get the mind-blowing shot second"

Is the athlete-photographer relationship important? Do you work together on the creative vision?

Yes and yes! Often, I have to trust what the photographer is seeing in his head, even if I can’t see it. Some of the most amazing images I’ve worked on came about even though I honestly thought the idea was stupid. But I don’t say that, I get out and do my job as an athlete, and over the years I’ve learned to really trust the photographers I work with regularly. And the opposite applies – I often have ideas about what will work well with the light or the feature, and the photographer sometimes doesn’t see it until we’re in it. But the best is when we work together, talk about what needs to happen, and then make some world-class images together. That’s as satisfying to me as doing the climb or flight sometimes.

What makes a great adventure photo?
This is a question with as many answers as shutter clicks on a pro’s camera! In a word, I love images that amaze me, rock me back on my heels and make me forget about anything else for that moment After that immediate emotion I look deeper for a few things: Unique so it grabs my eye, layers to discover, solid craft and composition, integrity, and then sometimes 200 other qualities after those first few that contradict them.

In more detail: It’s a unique view. A totally different moment, perspective, composition, something that grabs my eye from a distance and says, ‘Hey, this is different!’ Maybe it’s the composition, and I ask, ‘How did they get into that position or find that light?’ Or, more simply, ‘WTF!’ The second is that the photo holds my attention in a process of discovery. Maybe a shot with some wild sports action, but also a facial expression that says more about the situation than just the wave or rock or sky alone.

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© Christian Pondella

“If you’re a pain in the ass to be around then you’ll go nowhere.”


If a photographer has used their deep understanding of light and action to make something amazing then I respect that craft and vision a lot. I also respect the amateur who is in a once-in-a-lifetime position and points his phone and nails the image of a lifetime simply because they are there—being in the right place counts for a lot, sometimes more than craft.

Are there particular sports that you like to see?

Whether it’s paragliding or paddling or climbing or biking, [I like] shots that I want to be in; where I can say, ‘Damn, I wish I were there!’ Even if I lack the skills to be there, good shots make me want to be there. That’s why so many BASE images resonate – almost no one looking at them will ever BASE, but they are so out there that it twists our minds and amazes us that a human can do something so wild!

How important is it that an image is legit from an athlete’s perspective?

The image has to ring true to me as an athlete, an athlete with good form, doing something logical for where she or he is. The most perfectly envisioned, composed and timed image of a surfer on dead water is still dead. A climber looking like he or she is bored stupid says a photographer is driving the shoot past where it should have ended.
A perfectly placed paddle into the sun but held in a way no athlete ever would tells me the shot lacks credibility. As athletes we pose, that’s our job, but the pose better be real to our friends and colleagues. Legitimacy is very important. The public may not pick up on the subtleties of what’s going on as an athlete, but over time those athletes who are legit in their sports and their images earn respect from their peers, industry and public. That matters more than people might think.


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© Klaus Fengler / Red Bull Illume

“Every successful photographer is always a businessperson.”


Any tips for aspiring adventure and action sports photographers?#

Don’t be a dick. You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you’re a PITA (pain in the ass) to be around then you’ll go nowhere. Once you’re a mega famous director then you can be a dick maybe, but not today.

Any other advice?

Get ahead of the day’s curve. Think where things are going and why, and be there before it happens. Friends and I joke about photographers we work with who are either ahead of the curve or behind. The really good ones are one step ahead of us all day. The BTC photographers rarely get invited back.

Shoot. Get out and shoot until the craft is second nature. I can tell within a few seconds on a shoot where someone is in their image career by how fast they think and execute, their packing system, their vision. That just takes repetition and critique from both your own eye and hopefully some mentors or at least friends who will be honest. Then try to sell your work, or at least place it. Images without homes are nice, but you’re going to run out of space on your own walls pretty quick. Every successful person learns how to make a living off their work or they don’t become successful. The business of sports photography takes as much creativity, vision, and desire as shooting, so act like a pro and try to sell or place your work. Hustle for the shot, hustle for the sale, hustle for the job, and always work harder than anyone else on the scene. Every successful photographer is always a businessperson.


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© Christian Pondella

“Shoot. Get out and shoot until the craft is second nature.”


Keep going, give us more advice!

Failure is over-rated. Try different things, be inventive, take risks, yes, but get the job done first so you know you’ve got decent results. Don’t get all tricky without having a result on the card. Pros get results first, then take chances to get the mind-blowing shot second. I’ve been on some shoots where I get the selects and think, ‘OK, neat idea with the funky repurposed 1950s Hasselblad lens, but for fuck’s sake where are the super clean action images for the people who paid for all of us to be there?’ Lastly, keep trying. Nobody is all that special, but the people who keep trying make it happen, and that is special.

What kind of images are you looking for?

Yours. It’s an honor to look at other people’s work, and while I can’t promise I’ll see it the same way you do, I know you sent your best stuff in, and I respect the hell out of that.

Black Diamond is a partner of Red Bull Illume, awarding more than $10,000 worth of prizes to the winners.

Create an awesome last-minute shoot

You don’t need months of planning, a massive budget nor international flights to pull off a cool shoot. All that’s required is a bit of imagination.

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OK, so your dream shoot wingsuit flying over the Galapagos islands didn’t come off, nor the surf trip to Hawaii, nor that brilliant night-time slacklining idea you had in mind in Tokyo. But that’s no excuse for not executing a brilliant creative shoot on your doorstep.

In this video, we show that a cool location, a great athlete and some unique light is all you need to create a potentially winning shot for Red Bull Illume and some great gear from Lenovo. As always planning and preparation is key. If you have an idea, map it out at home or your office, spend some time thinking about what equipment you need. Share your vision with your athlete – they will either think it’s a crazy idea but trust you or have some creative inputs themselves. Then it’s a case of …, well – watch this short video to find out.  

Once you’ve created a great shot simply submit it to Red Bull Illume here. We can’t wait to see your entry. Good luck!

Get some Emerging by Black Diamond inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

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© Satchel Cronk / 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 Emerging gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading.

Black Diamond is offering the winner of their Emerging category a 3 Day Photoshoot worth 5,000$! So that's's another reason to enter images into this category.

Get some Energy by Red Bull Photography inspiration

Wondering which category to enter?

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© 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 Energy gallery to get into the category’s vibe, then head over to the submit page and start uploading!

Red Bull Photography is offering the winner of the Energy by Red Bull Photography category support for the photoshoot that you've always wanted to execute! So that's's another reason to enter images into the this category.