These breathtaking adventurous photos from this year’s Red Bull Illume Image Quest will get your blood pumping just by looking at them.
More than 5,600 photographers around the world participated in the company’s fourth edition of its international photography competition focused on action and adventure sports.
A panel of judges spent months sifting through nearly 35,000 submissions from 120 countries to ultimately select one extraordinary winning image for each of the 11 categories. They chose Lorenz Holder, a professional photographer from Germany, as the overall winner.
“In my photos, I like to show the viewers the beauty of the environment where athletes perform,” said Holder, whose photos won both the Masterpiece and Playground categories. “I’m a huge fan of landscape and architectural photography and I try to combine those genres with action sport,” he added.
Take a look at some of the best shots from the contest, as the talented photographers reveal the behind-the scenes stories in their own words.
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.
Lorenz Holder/Red Bull lllume
Senad Grosic rides his bike over a bridge in Gablenz, Germany.
Lorenz Holder: Senad and I were on the way to a different location early in the morning, when we passed this scenic spot. We saw a sign from the street and I had some pictures in mind that I’d seen from this bridge on the internet. When we got there the sun was just above the trees and it was lighting up the full color-spectrum of the autumn leaves in a very soft way.
One thing that was a little annoying was that the lake was covered with leaves which had fallen from trees, so the reflection of the bridge in the lake was just not there. But sometimes you just need a bit of luck – I had been on a fishing trip some days before and still had my fishing-boots and a net in the car. So got the stuff and tried to clean the lake by hand. It took a while until it was almost perfectly clean – at least where it was relevant for the picture. Luckily the sun was still very soft, so we had good light for the shot.
I’d chosen a very low camera position to get an almost perfect mirrored scene on the water surface. The bridge looked like a perfect circle and the light was still very good. When Senad was on the bridge, it took us two or three tries to get the shot. There was also no more time for another try because the wind came up and the perfect reflection on the water was gone.
We jumped back to the car and drove towards our originally planned spot. It was an awesome feeling to have shot this picture with more or less pure luck. Without the sign next to the road, we would have passed one of the nicest photo scenes.
Ale Di Lullo/Red Bull lllume
Extreme sports in downtown Brooklyn, New York City.
Ale Di Lullo: I’d been working on shots through transparent surfaces for a few years but it was during a long drive across Europe that I had this idea. I was forcing myself to think of new angles and nothing really came to mind. But when I said to myself that the best ideas are the simplest ones, that usually you have the answer in front of you, I realized the shot was actually in front of me. It was right there, where most people spend a lot of time everyday – cars!
Nobody had done an extreme sport shot from inside the car having the rider riding on the windshield. I understood that a shot like this had to be made in an iconic spot and the spot had to be in a city so it was clear that New York City with all its bridges was the place. And what could have been better than a NYC cab to shoot from?
Choosing Aaron Chase as the rider was natural. He has been a friend for a long time and happened to be a pioneer of street riding in our sport and is almost a local in New York. It took us one year of preparation, one full day of work, involved a few people and a bit of money. But I kept shooting, all the while fearing I would break the windscreen, and 12 attempts later I nailed this shot.
Micky Wiswedel/Red Bull lllume
Climber Jamie Smith tackles Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.
Micky Wiswedel: My buddy Jimbo had been opening new hard routes in the area and we wanted to try and capture some of the climbs. With climbing photography it’s not often you can just walk somewhere to get a good angle – most good shots require some form of rigging. The angle of this image happened by chance. We were setting up for another shot but when I looked back I knew we had to change plans and grab the shot with the sea and horizon in the background, framed by this huge rock roof.
Lighting is also difficult, as climbers prefer to climb in the shade as cooler temperatures provide more friction between skin and rock. This often means overexposed backgrounds and underexposed foregrounds. The best I could do in this situation was to shoot somewhere in the middle.
The route is one of the hardest on Table Mountain. The last 'crux' section is near the top – you have a few pieces of protection below but there’s a final jump, or ‘dyno' for the last hold. The image captures what happens if you don't manage to stick that hold!
There was always a chance that Jimbo would fall, so I was ready for it. For the couple of seconds leading up to the big move I was holding my breath and ready to fire. I could definitely feel the adrenaline pumping! It’s a pretty big and impressive fall, but luckily far from the ground – that doesn't make it any less terrifying.
We had planned to grab some cool climbing shots, but in the end this image of Jimbo mid-air was the shot we felt captured the intensity of the climb. Jimbo did send the route that day – after a few more falls.
Dean Treml/Red Bull lllume
Jonathan Paredes dives from the platform on Copenhagen Opera House's roof at a practice session of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Denmark in 2013.
Dean Treml: I remember while I was originally scoping out the location for this event thinking how surreal images could look without the diving platform jutting out, and just the small form of the diver, and the huge cantilevered roof dominating the frame, and even discussed it at the time with my wife (the photographer Romina Amato) who was also there.
As I am editorially focused the integrity of the image is paramount so the platform stayed, but while reading the categories of Red Bull Illume this image jumped into my mind and I figured a quick ‘fix’ to one of my shots couldn’t hurt, so this version of the image really came about thanks to the 'Enhance' category.
Daniel Vojtech/Red Bull lllume
The Flying Bulls aerobatic team take to the air in style in Czech Republic.
Daniel Vojtech: Red Bull asked me to do some portraits and action photos of the Flying Bulls. We had an air to air photoshoot and I knew it would be great for a sequence. An airplane is the only place from where you can see something like this. I did one fast attempt. After I stitched the sequence it was great, but I could still be a little bit closer.
We had another photoshoot on another day so we tried it again but I was much closer to the planes in front. It was cloudy so the final image looks very dramatic. The pilot also turned on the smoke so you can see the trail behind.
The camera I used for this photo was Nikon D5 and Nikkor 16/2.8 fisheye because there was almost no space and I wanted to show inside the part of the airplane I was sitting to show the pilot’s POV.
Lorenz Holder/Red Bull lllume
BMX rider Senad Grosic takes on a rusted viewing platform in Senftenberg, Germany.
Lorenz Holder: I shot this unique location a couple months before this action shoot as a landscape picture because I just liked the whole structure and the way it was integrated into the landscape. It’s a viewing platform made of steel that has rusted over the years. You can walk up the stairs to enjoy the view over the lakes that surround the area.
I knew somehow, that there was the potential for it to be a location for an action photo. My first idea was to shoot snowboarding in it, but that was just impossible because of the limited space. I almost gave up on the idea, but then I bumped into Senad Grosic in Berlin one day and we talked a bit about spots and stuff. I showed him the landscape picture and he told me that we need to go back there to see what’s possible.
So Senad and I took a road trip and drove all the way to Senftenberg. We discussed and fine-tuned a plan that would look rad on photo. Senad had the idea to be dressed all white to give it more contrast, because I didn’t want to use flashes to keep the structure as evenly lit as possible. The angle is almost the same angle I chose for the landscape picture. It’s actually an architectural picture with the spice of action sports in it.
Denis Klero/Red Bull Illume
Climber Rustam Gelmanov shows his chalk-covered hands in Fontainebleu, France.
Denis Klero: In 2014, I got the brief to update the profile of Rustam Gelmanov. We decided to do the shoot in Fontainebleau, France, a well-known bouldering venue. I had the idea for this image in my head beforehand and it turned out exactly as I imagined.
The main instruments in rock climbing are your hands and arms. It was a deal – we’d shoot a close-up of his hands. With the help of two medium soft box sets on both sides I focused on the hands and fingers, their owner hiding in the shade. I wanted the viewer to see more than just the hands of the athlete.
In this picture color is not important, the contrast is. This is why the photo is in black and white. Curiously, the frame was shot in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying.
Jody MacDonald/Red Bull lllume
Ken MacDonald takes in the views of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, northwest Africa, from the top of a train.
Jody MacDonald: When I was young, I used to look through National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like this; train hopping through the Sahara on one of the world’s longest trains. I had dreamt of the oceans of sand, the loud noises of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun, the unknown smells and sounds of the desert and the discomfort that goes with it. So when I was asked to dream up and photograph a trip in harsh conditions, a 700-kilometer journey through the Sahara desert in Mauritania came to mind.
After weeks of planning, our journey began in the capital of Nouakchott, from there my brother and I moved north through the interior to board the Mauritania Railway. Our risky rail journey started from the iron-mining center of Zouérat in the Sahara, and snaked through the barren desert toward the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic. We wanted to get to the coast to try to find some unexplored surf breaks and capture the spirit of adventure and exploration through this incredible landscape. Having only a few minutes to hop on the train in the middle of the night, we spent 15 long hours slithering through the desert on the three kilometer train that transports approximately 84 tons of iron ore across a country crippled by terrorism, slavery, and poverty.
I photographed this image with Leica’s new X-U all weather camera with a fixed 23mm lens. I used a shutter speed of 1/500 to stop the motion of the train and an f-stop of 7.1 at ISO 100.
Vegard Aasen/Red Bull lllume
Mountaineering in Hakuba, Japan.
Vegard Aasen: This winter some friends and I went to Hakuba in Japan to ski some deep powder and big mountains. The day this shot was taken was a really windy one but the snow was still really good, so we went out into the backcountry. One of my friends brought his DSLR camera, so I decided to not bring my camera because I wanted to ski instead of taking photos.
We hiked for a while, and discovered a group hiking across the ridge above us. The wind and the clouds looked amazing, so my friend took out his camera and started shooting. I hated myself for not bringing my camera. Luckily I had my mobile phone in my pocket. I could not see anything on the screen, but obviously managed to aim pretty well.
A week later, I scrolled through my phone, while waiting for sushi at a restaurant. I had completely forgotten about the shot, so I was pretty stoked when I found it. I edited it to black and white in Photoshop Express on my phone, and was really happy with the result.
Luke Shadbolt/Red Bull lllume
Surfer Renan Faccini feels the power of nature, amid a huge swell in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Luke Shadbolt: I was traveling with a group of Brazilian bodyboarders shooting a feature for Le Boogie Bodyboarding Magazine, as well as stills for a book project. Having their local knowledge proved invaluable, with the minimal swell and chaotic city traffic in Rio, we really only had a chance to look at one or two different options for waves before the winds would come up.
Jaotinga became our favorite option. With rarely more than a handful of other riders around, we had the break almost to ourselves. At each end of the beach were sheer cliffs that would refract the swell causing crossed-over peaks, perfect for bodyboarding.
The swell seemed to line up directly into this small crevice in the southern cliff and plumes of spray would catapult out at varying angles. Shooting from down the beach trying to capture some of these abstract formations I didn't even notice Renan in the shot until afterwards. It’s got a kind of duality to the meaning; it could be seen as a salute to the power and randomness of the ocean, or it could be seen as a mocking attempt at some kind of manipulated sorcery, showing man’s unending quest to control nature.
Dean Treml/Red Bull Illume
"In this image Josh Neilson of New Zealand is supported by fellow paddlers (L-R) Barnaby Prees, Sam Sutton, Tim Pickering, Ben Brown, Jamie Sutton and Jared Seiler as he waits for a helicopter evacuation after a bad landing off Matze's Drop, Storulfossen, Norway on July 7th 2014. It left him with a broken L1 vertebrae.
I traveled to kayaking mecca Norway for a few days to shoot and hang with my Kiwi mate Ben Brown, one of the world’s most prodigious adventure kayakers. As fate would have it he dislocated his shoulder the day I arrived, but luckily he was traveling with some brilliant paddlers so I still had subjects to shoot.
On the last day we found ourselves at this spectacular waterfall, where five others made the run, then Josh went off. After a good entry the nose of his kayak was thrust up and he flat landed at the bottom, the impact breaking his back. His colleagues were immediately on hand to assist and stabilize Josh, and Ben, who had previously suffered a similar injury, was able to reassure Josh while a helicopter was summoned. Josh was flown to Lillehammer hospital and then on to Elverum for successful surgery. With determined rehabilitation in New Zealand, Neilson was back in a kayak one year later and subsequently traveled back to Norway to paddle their rivers again."