The perfect office is the ocean

Russell Ord, "Energy" category finalist of 2016, talks about the moment his perception of photography shifted, as well as his connection to the ocean.

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© Russell Ord / Red Bull Illume

What made you fall in love with surf photography?
I injured my knee surfing (1999), and instead of just sitting in the lounge, I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my mates surfing. My passion for taking photos grew from there. The learning curve was steep at the start, being self-taught and using film, but I gradually progressed the camera skills. I was also lucky enough to have 20 years of ocean experience to call upon, which is the most complex skill to learn regarding surf photography. 

What’s your favorite thing about photographing surfers and the sea?
I love the ocean's connection with people from all walks of life; it's a real sense of community and coming from a surfing background and working in that type of environment feels surreal. The most complex decisions I have made have been effortless when surrounded by saltwater; it's the perfect office.

What are some challenges you face when photographing surfers?
The ocean itself is the biggest challenge when it comes to taking photos from within the water. The ocean forces me to question my fears and limitations; is it too big for my skill level, am I mentally/physically prepared, what are the risks? All the work/experience required to take these types of images happen many years prior.

Can you share a memory about your career that really stands out for you?
The way I look at my photography completely changed ten years ago, all from an accident. Taking my eyes off the sea resulted in a broken leg in two places, a dislocated knee and a seven-hour drive back to my local hospital. 

While waiting for the surgeon I picked up a leading photography magazine, "Top ten wildlife images of the year". Each photographer was interviewed on the backstory behind their images and how they went about capturing their award-winning photos. 

The number one image, according to the judges, was a photo of a Bengal Tiger dispersing water as it majestically left the pond. The photographer had captured it with a slow shutter, creating a perfect ring of water around the tiger while keeping the big cat in focus. Like many of the other photos, it was breathtaking.

Interested in finding out more, I began to read the backstory of the image and instantly felt disappointed, and somewhat offended, for every other photographer in that competition. How do you award first place to a wildlife photo that was captured in a zoo? 

That article changed the way I look at and contemplate my photography – in reality, 99% of my work is purely just moments in time. Right place at the right time, so to speak, they lacked a story behind the image, no other adversity or skills beyond the camera and pressing the trigger. 

What’s your goal as a surf photographer?
I want to experience all the elements of the ocean and start to push my boundaries. "How did you do that" and "what position are you in to take the image" are essential questions and factors far more critical than the image itself.

What impact did Red Bull Illume have on your career?
Red Bull Illume is pure inspiration for me. I look at the images and imagine the photographer's journey to capture each image; the more adversity I imagine, the greater the image becomes in my mind. 

Is there something photography related you’d like to try for the first time? 
I have been injured for close to 18 months now, but before that, I was training and focusing on a couple of surf spots around the world that I wanted to shoot up close and personal with different angles, which has now been put on hold. Those types of images require peak performance, and I am far from that. I will have a good look within throughout the rest of the year, set goals, and come back better than ever when the time is right.

Is there a location you would like to visit for a shooting one day?
I would love to hang out in Ireland for an extended period of time. The country looks impressive and knowing quite a few Irish people; it would be a great time.

Do you have any tips for aspiring/fellow photographers?
I love this quote: Life is about the journey, not the destination.
Be patient, learn your craft and don't get caught up in the perception of the photography world; it's not all bells and whistles, it can be a challenging journey but certainly, one worth travelling.

You can find more of Russell’s work on his website and on Instagram @russellordphoto.

The countdown for the winners' unveiling is on

The winners of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 are about to be revealed. Over five days beginning November 29, we shall start announcing the names of the eleven category winners and their remarkable shots on Instagram Live and on the website.

Red Bull Illume 2021 Photobook - Limited Edition

This limited-edition photobook features the top 256 images of the Image Quest 2021.
Be the first to see those inspiring images printed and pre-order your exclusive copy now! 

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Creative by Skylum Winner

Jan Kasl (Czech Republic) wins the Creative by Skylum category for his surreal shot of a skater inside a spiral.

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© Jan Kasl / Red Bull Illume

Kasl explains how he created the shot: “The idea snuck into my mind as a side effect from a campaign I produced based on an optical illusion called ‘forced perspective’. It sounds like a pretty sophisticated technique, but it’s basically exactly what thousands of tourists do when holding the leaning Tower of Pisa, hoping to get a unique photo of their holiday in Italy. 

“It’s very similar for most adventure and action sports photographers,” he adds. “It doesn’t really matter if we’re on vacation, on a shoot, or just going on a random walk through the city – our imagination recreates interesting pieces of architecture into an action sports playground. With a tool like forced perspective, I felt like I could push it a little further, bending reality and bringing the athlete into an absolutely surreal environment.”

The other category finalists were Luis Alejandro Arriaga Osorio, for his photo of a skateboarder superimposed above a building in Mexico City, Marc Daviet for his nighttime image of a frozen bivouac, Nejc Ferjan for his black and white drone shot of a kayaker and Chris Garrison for an image featuring BMX rider Broc Raiford inside a hexagonal garage. 

If you missed this announcement and want to see Jan’s first reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Emerging by Black Diamond Winner

Victoria Kohner-Flanagan (USA) wins the Emerging by Black Diamond category for her strong shot of a resting climber.

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© Victoria Kohner-Flanagan / Red Bull Illume

Emerging by Black Diamond is the category for up and coming photographers under the age of 25. This year saw an incredible number of inspiring images submitted. But only one photographer can take the category winner crown – and that is Victoria Kohner-Flanagan.

She stunned the jury with her image of climber Jack Nugent stretching out his arms behind his back on a virtually featureless wall of blank rock. 

She explains how she got the shot: “My friends and I spent the winter of 2021 living communally in an assortment of vans and cars amidst the Buttermilk’s monstrous granite boulders in Bishop, California. Our days looked like this: wake up, drink coffee, go climb. Jack grew eager to test his fitness on ‘Queen of Heartbreaks’ in Pine Creek Canyon. Before tying into the sharp end he was clearly nervous. 

“From the ground, the route’s 39 meters were daunting and blank. The holds remained obscured to me even as I ascended the fixed line to find the best position to shoot from. Questing up the blank face, Jack found a cheeky no hands rest. Doubt cleared from his face as I snapped the shot.”

The three other finalists were Caleb Ely for his shot of a mountain biker in a misty forest, Monica Dinh for her image of a surfer shooting into the air and Cody Hammer for his shot of a winter surfer inside a barrel.

If you missed this announcement and want to see Victoria’s first reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Masterpiece by SanDisk Professional Winner

Will Saunders (USA) wins the Masterpiece by SanDisk Professional category for his shot of a climber taking a fall in Utah.

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© Will Saunders / Red Bull Illume

Masterpiece is the category where photographers give us their best shot. This year, there were no shortage of contenders but after the judges’ votes were counted – it goes to Will Saunders. The American photographer wins the Masterpiece by SanDisk Professional category with his shot of climber Jake Talley striking a pose as he takes a lead fall on a spectacular rock tower in Indian Creek, Utah. 
Saunders tells the story behind the image. “I've shot many whippers but this time I wanted to try something a little different. A group of us rallied out to my favorite place in the desert to get some climbing in and make some imagery along the way. I asked Jake to really shape his body into more of a powerful movement rather than the classic falling position. With grace and style, Jake pulled this shape out of the air, allowing me to capture an image that is unique compared to most of the literal climbing imagery we see.” 

He adds: “His body reminded me of a superhero, which is fitting to me because most of my friends in this action sports world are my heroes. The ticket here was to just push the conceptual idea enough while also grounding the image in reality.”

The other category finalists were Rein Rijke for his drone shot of a kitesurfer negotiating bergs in Iceland, Petr Polách for his image of a diver in the caves of Yucatan, Gerald Situ for a shot of a highliner midway across the Great Arch of Getu, China and Karim Iliya for his shot of an ‘aquanaut’ standing on an underwater ledge. As the winner of the Great Outdoors category of the EyeEm Awards, Song Gang becomes an additional finalist for his shot of a freediver and manta ray. 

If you missed this announcement and want to see Will’s reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Lifestyle by COOPH Winner

Carolin Unrath (Germany) wins the Lifestyle by COOPH category for her shot of an urban surfer.

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© Carolin Unrath / Red Bull Illume

The Lifestyle category is one that always produces some of the most imaginative and varied shots in Red Bull Illume, and this year’s edition proves no exception.

The category winner is Carolin Unrath’s black and white shot of a surfer about to board a train in Munich. 

“The shot ‘Surfmask’ is part of a series I created with Peter Scherb in Munich in May 2020,” she says. “I’ve always loved seeing Munich's Eisbach river wave surfers all over the city. That's why we joined Andi Müllner on one of his first sessions when the river wave reopened after lockdown in 2020. The shot shows him on his way to the Eisbach.” 

The photographer is a freelancer based in the southern German city.  “I started as a musician, taking pictures on international concert tours, and used photography as a medium of art to make my memories tangible. This passion continued to consolidate through my fine arts and multimedia studies in Munich.” 

She adds: “The artist's world is limitless. I love to fill up and create a room of energy, emotions, moments, and discovery, leave enough space for someone else to get there, show people around and let them dive deeper into different worlds they've never been to before.”

The other category finalists were Mark Mackay’s shot of naked mountain bikers in Squamish, Canada,  Roman Neimann’s image of BMX riders exploring an Estonian ‘jungle’, Nicolas Jacquemin’s photo of a family of surfers in the Philippines and an incredible night shot of a hiker watching a comet in Yosemite, USA by Priscilla Mewborne

If you missed this announcement and want to see Carolin’s reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Playground by WhiteWall Winner

Markus Berger (Austria) wins the Playground by WhiteWall category for his shot of a wake boarder in action inside a glacier.

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© Markus Berger / Red Bull Illume

The Playground by WhiteWall category is all about celebrating some of the incredible locations and environments where athletes get to play. Few are quite so remarkable or hostile as the glacier ice cave where photographer Markus Berger struggled to capture Dominik Hernler in action, riding a meltwater stream inside the Hintertux glacier. He got the shot, and it has become the winner of the Playground by WhiteWall category. 

But it could easily have gone the other way, Berger explains. Such was the cold and the wet conditions, he battled to keep his cameras – and himself – alive and functioning. 

‘It was a crazy location,” he recalls. “In terms of photography, this was an extreme challenge, as we were facing intense cold, moisture and also very cold water. After more than three hours in the water I didn't feel anything below my waist and one of my cameras failed as well. When Dominik finally arrived and pulled the action it was also a matter of luck if I got the camera to trigger at the right moment. It was such a relief to see the image pop up on my screen and get the shot. Right after this shot the camera shut down and didn't work for three days until it dried up completely!”

The other category finalists were Federico Ravassard for his shot of a Marzio Nardi climbing marble quarries in Italy, Andreas Busslinger for his shot of paragliders above a frozen lake, Bruno Long’s unique image of a ski tourers on a glacier and Ebrahim Adam, for a shot he captured inside a production facility for prefabricated homes in Singapore. 

If you missed this announcement and want to see Markus’ reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Photo Story Winner

Philipp Klein Herrero (Spain) wins the Photo Story category for his creative stop-motion lockdown story.

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© Philipp Klein Herrero / Red Bull Illume

Covid lockdown was the inspiration for many creative ideas, as photographers sought imaginative ways to fill the long hours of boredom behind closed doors.

For Spanish photographer Philipp Klein Herrero, it gave birth to a unique idea, to somehow capture a day in the mountains, at home. The result is the winner of this year’s Photo Story category.

He explains the concept behind the home shoot: “I was sick of the sad news on TV and wanted to spread out a positive message to cheer up my family and friends, who I couldn’t visit at the time. A few days later, the idea of creating a stop-motion, skiing on the floor of my living room, came to my mind. It seemed brilliant; it was funny, cheerful, simple and with the right message – stay positive, stay home.”

But could it work? “I spent a few days getting the story right, figuring out if it was even possible. (How do you make a mountain out of bed sheets?) Finally, I taped my GoPro to the ceiling, put on ski gear and started shooting, one shot at a time. Once posted, it went viral in a matter of hours, something I never expected but showed me how much the world needed something positive.”

The other category finalists were Satchel Cronk for his series riding in a burnt-out forest, Maxime Ramoul for his black and white film shots, Adi Geisegger for a light-painting shoot with paragliders and Silvano Marino Zeiter for his nighttime snowboarding shoot.

If you missed this announcement and want to see Philipp’s reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, CO, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

RAW by Leica Winner

Bruno Long (Canada) wins the RAW by Leica category for his shot of a mountain bike rider descending through a cloud of dust. 

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© Bruno Long / Red Bull Illume

RAW by Leica is the category for images straight out of the camera – un-cropped, untouched and with no filter. It’s all about nailing the shot the first time. This year’s category winner goes to Canadian photographer Bruno Long for a shot of a mountain bike rider perfectly silhouetted in a beam of forest light.

He says: “Playing with dust and light has always been one of my favorite ways to shoot mountain biking. It's such a random process, with the dust and light different in every situation. This particular section of trail was super steep and local rider, Dylan Siggers, was in his element. This was his second or third time through this section and by this try, I had figured out exactly where he would be in the frame and captured the moment as he emerged from the dust perfectly.”

The RAW by Leica category really appeals to his style. He adds: “Capturing real moments is my ethos and I spend a fair amount of my time exploring the far reaches of the world or my backyard to find them.”

The other category finalists were Roman Neimann for his shot of skaters inside an old milk factory, Denis Klero for his shot of freerider Pavel Alekhin seeming to hang from a clothes peg, Andrew Chad for an image of skier at night and Dean Treml for his shot of a cliff diver.

If you missed this announcement and want to see Bruno’s reaction then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Best of Instagram by Lenovo Winners

Yhabril (Spain) wins the Best of Instagram by Lenovo photo category while Bruno Diego Cavalcante (Brazil) wins the best moving image.

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© Yhabril / Red Bull Illume

Best of Instagram by Lenovo is the category that ran alongside the main contest, taking place exclusively on our Instagram channel. Photographers could submit not only their most gramworthy action shots, but also moving images up to 60 seconds.

With his shot of a silhouetted skier and snowboarder in front of the moon, Yhabril wins the photo category. He says it took a week of planning to nail the shot and is the result of great teamwork.

“What's particularly difficult to achieve in a shot like this one is to place the two kickers in the right place. Even more tough is that it needs to be taken at 3,000m high with the heavy gear you need to take 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. When the moon was rising I went to my place 300m away, communicating via walkie-talkies. What's really amazing is that we took the shot on the second try.”

The winning moving image was shot by video maker Bruno Diego Cavalcante in Rio de Janeiro and shows skateboarder Sara Watanabe along the sea front. “Aterro do Flamengo is a wonderful place, it was where I made my first video with a camera in 2013,” he says. “This place shows one of the natural beauties of Rio de Janeiro, it’s a great place to practice outdoor sports,” he adds.

The other photo category finalists were Leo Zhukov for his ‘moonshot’ of a climber, Antoine Mesnage for his shot of a highliner disappearing into cloud, Wang Wei Chih, for an underwater image of a freediver and Adrien Petit for a photo of a skateboarder in a dry riverbed.

The other finalists in the moving image category were Patrick Conroy, for his video of a slo-mo skier, Adriano Tanaka, for a skydiving action sequence, Gabriel Marwein for his clip of a forest skateboarder and Philipp Freybott for his video of a motorcross rider jumping a massive kicker in downtown Frankfurt.

If you missed this announcement and want to see Yhabril’s and Bruno’s reactions then you can rewatch it on our Instagram channel.

The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, December 4 during the opening of the Red Bull Illume Exhibition in Aspen Snowmass, USA. Stay tuned to our channels for the latest updates.

Untouched and unfiltered - the last round of semi-finalists is announced for the RAW by Leica category

The RAW by Leica category finalists are revealed, which means there’s only one week until the finalists and winners are announced during the Unveiling Week from November 29 to December 04, 2021.

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© Wayne Reiche / Red Bull Illume

The past few weeks have been overflowing with absolutely mind-blowing imagery with the last set of semi-finalists for the RAW by Leica category announced today. But don’t worry, that means there’s even more to be excited about because in a few days the Unveiling Week begins, from November 29 to December 04, 2021, where we find out all the finalists, category winners, and the one-and-only overall winner!

The RAW by Leica category celebrates the fundamentals of photography, calling for images straight out of camera. These images didn’t rely on photo editing or enhancements which make them the most difficult to achieve, making the reward even greater. A feeling semi-finalist, Nicolas Brizin, knows all about, “I remember when I saw the shot on the screen, the sharpness, the colors, the action... I was filled. Photography is magic when it works like this. Pushing a button and time is stopped.”

We’re proud to say a massive congratulations to every single semi-finalist for their technicality and creativity!

Nicolas Brizin
Lukas Cairns
Ian Collins
Jan Kasl
Dan Krauss
Jean-Baptiste Liautard
Sterling Lorence
Marcelo Maragni
André Maurer
Roman Neimann
Tommy Pyatt
Wayne Reiche
Satoshi Saijo
Steve Shannon
Noah Wetzel
Colin Wiseman

Every photographer in the world knows about Leica. The brand’s German craftmanship and attention to detail has earned the brand its legendary reputation. It’s an honor to have them on board as a partner for the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 and we’re pretty sure the winners will feel the same way. Why? Well, every category winner will take home a state-of-the-art Leica Q2 camera, with the overall winner earning a Leica SL2 with three premium lenses!

That’s all the semi-finalists for this edition, which means that next week you will find out who the finalists, category winners, and ultimately, the overall winner of the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 is. Stay tuned, as the Unveiling Week starts on November 29, where we will reveal two winners every day via a livestream, building up to the overall winner announcement on December 4, in Aspen Snowmass, USA. To discover all the details and times click here!


Looking back: RAW by Leica

The last semi-finalists will be unveiled this week, and they are from the RAW by Leica category! To make the wait shorter, we’ve selected eight of the most noteworthy images of the last edition. All of them are the best semi-finalists, coming straight out of the camera, so check them out while you get ready for the last semi-finalist announcement coming on Thursday!

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© Grant Gunderson / Red Bull Illume