Red Bull Illume winners share the stories behind their shots

Some say that teamwork brings out the best in us. But sometimes it's competition that yields the greatness--as evidenced by the winning photos from Red Bull's Illume Image Quest 2013, an international photography competition spanning action and adventure sports. When facing a pool of tens of thousands of entries and a judging panel that includes photo editors from renowned publications, photographers have no choice but to bring their A games.

The contest winners were announced back in August, but the artists are still touring the world as part of a traveling, stand-alone photo exhibition, where their winning shots can be admired inside of light boxes after the sun sets (a conscious tie to the illumination theme). We caught up with five of the winning photographers on the eve of their newest Scottsdale, Arizona, gallery opening, to find out how they got their winning shot.

Zak Noyle

Red Bull Illume

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Zak Noyle

"As a surf photographer, my specialty is in water action photos. On this day, the waves were not that great for shooting from the water so I decided to wander along the sand and see what I could find. Many surf photographers who shoot from land have these giant tripods and even bigger zoom lenses they use--positioning themselves far back from the water’s edge. Being as how I love being right up in the action and as close to the water as possible I walked along the water’s edge with my camera in hand, no tripod and a 70-200mm lens. I wanted to create the feel of [being] just about to paddle into the water and looking up to see the spectacle of a giant back flip being done. I think with the sand and water and the pulled back [angle] of the photo, I was able to achieve a sense of being there, not just another in-your-face action image."

Dave Lehl

Red Bull Illume winning photo

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Dave Lehl

"I was on a road trip with my two best friends through the Southwest in an ’84 VW camper van. We’d previously been to Goblin Valley, Bryce Canyon, and had spent the night in Monument Valley the night before. I’d driven past this spot a few times and always love to stop and get a couple of pictures. This time, however, I had the idea to get a shot of my buddies pushing down the road on skateboards. In between passing cars, we’d run out into the middle of the road, and I’d get down and shoot photos as they came pushing past me. They weren’t pushing very hard, and the shot didn’t look very good, so I had them both push really hard for one of the passes. On one of his hard pushes, Andy (the guy on the right), hit his pushing foot on the back of his skateboard, which sent him flying. He smashed down on the pavement hard and rolled around for a second in pain, but he was alright. After he got up and we knew that all he got was some scrapes, we took a look at the photo and all busted out laughing. I knew I’d gotten something great, but had absolutely no idea how popular it’d ultimately be!"

Morgan Maassen

Red Bull Illume winning photo

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Morgan Maassen

"Late one fall, I gathered a group of America’s next generation young surfers, and we departed for Fiji to try our hand at an impressive south swell. Arriving at Cloudbreak to perfect conditions and an empty beach, we had an absolute blast enjoying the dreamy scenario. The young surfers handled the size and intensity of the menacing reef break well, and we truly had an amazing trip of waves and weather. The kids [included] Jake Marshall, Taylor Clark, Frankie Harrer, Colt Ward, Thelen Whorrell, Nolan Rapoza, and Dryden Brown, all young stand-outs with promising futures. They surfed for 10 hours a day, coming in only for food or sunscreen. I captured them one morning in this shot, discussing in the crystalline water anything from the surf they were enjoying to homework they forgot at home. Reflecting on the trip after we had gone our separate ways, it was not the performance of the children or the caliber of surf that made our adventure memorable; it was their social dynamic. I was fascinated by their camaraderie in the intense surf and realized that while the atmosphere was thick with competition, their friendship had them trading waves with nothing but smiles, laughing, and hollering at each other’s successes and misfortunes with pure glee."

Jimmy Wilson

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Jimmy Wilson

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Jimmy Wilson

"Working for Surfing magazine, I end up shooting a ton of contests over the course of the year.  The U.S. Open is one of those weeks that just seems never ending, and it can be really hard to get your brain to function when it’s hangover after hangover and crappy waves. But still, the best surfers in the world do that competition because $100,000 is at stake. Anytime you can get a classic photo of Kelly Slater, that’s a big deal because he’s the greatest ever and that’s history. I love shooting photos to get this kind of image. A photo that just makes people go ‘wow’ and stop for more than a second is hard to accomplish these days. Hopefully that happens here. This photo was me just trying to capture the madness of that event. It’s the one place pro surfers go and really feel like celebrities."

Christian Pondella

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Christian Pondella

Red Bull Illume winning photo by Christian Pondella

"Helmcken Falls, located in Wells Grey Provincial Park in British Columbia, is the fourth-highest waterfall in Canada with a height of 141 meters. The water cascades over a natural amphitheater where the mist from the waterfall freezes to the overhanging and horizontal rock, creating a recent discovery for the world's elite ice climbers. Will Gadd and Tim Emmett were the first to discover and climb this severely overhanging cave. Due to the unique way the ice clings to the rock and the ability to place bolts into the rock, Will and Tim were able to scale the frozen walls with the safety of knowing their gear would not fail. The climbing here is the first of its kind and very cutting edge, as it is several grades harder than traditional ice routes. Tim Emmett is on the second pitch of "Spray On," where the route is perfectly horizontal for about 20 meters. The climbers have cleared a path between the hanging ice daggers that encompass the cave and create a huge threat, as many of them have the mass of an automobile and are extremely unstable and can randomly drop from above. When shooting this photo, I had to take extreme caution while standing underneath these free-hanging ice daggers. I wanted to show the strength required by Tim as he scaled across the roof and freeze the moment where he is hanging side by side with the ice daggers in this very unique and surreal part of the world."

You can check out the winning images now through November 24 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily at the Scottsdale Waterfront, Scottsdale, Arizona (free admission). The exhibit will then head to British Colombia and then Atlanta in March.

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