Frozen in action: 5 thrilling images from Red Bull Illume finalists

Discover some of the best-in-class images from the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2023 competition and what it takes to master the art of action sports photography.
A kayaker speeds down a gushing canyon in low light. Shot on Canon. 

Hurtling down a winding road at 100km speeds to capture a skateboarder's daring manoeuvres; submerging into choppy water to capture the moment a surfer conquers the crest; maintaining unwavering focus as temperatures plunge into negative figures.

Action sports photography is an art that demands a unique blend of skill, courage, and precision. The Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2023, open to both amateur enthusiasts and seasoned pros, is a platform dedicated to honouring these courageous artists and acknowledging the extraordinary lengths they go to immortalise athletic prowess.

In 2023, the contest welcomed Canon as its official sponsor of the Emerging with Canon category, and Canon Ambassador Richard Walch joined the team of judges to review submissions.

"I've done many roles in photography, but I've never been a judge, and it was really a thrill to be a part of it," says Richard.

Richard says he and the judges identified the most imaginative and enthralling images from each category by critical consensus. During the first stage, which took place in September 2023, each photo was considered on its own, without any details on the photographer, the location, or anything else.

After much deliberation, the judges selected 50 finalists, an overall winner, and a winner for each category. The top 50 images, featured within the Red Bull Illume Photobook, are now being showcased across Europe as part of the Red Bull Illume Exhibit Tour.

"It's refreshing that, with every generation, there's new creativity, and new technology to put that creativity to work," says Richard.

"There's so much playfulness and new thinking. But that also made it very difficult to select a winner."

After the finalists had been announced in November 2023 the judges, including Richard, faced the daunting task of crowning each Red Bull Illume Category Winner. In the Emerging with Canon category the award went to Chilean photographer, Gonzalo Robert Parraguez, for his image of a torrential current bursting through a canyon (seen at the top of this article).

"To win, you need to come up with something new. And you need to go for it. You should be pushing yourself to be as extreme as the athletes you’re filming and photographing,” says Richard. “You can see from the setting of this vigorous scene that it’s not an easy place to access, especially with your camera kit.” (Gonzalo did in fact rappel down and take this shot whilst suspended by hooks and rope above the gushing waters).

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.

There's a lot to take away from these photos, especially for those interested in shooting striking sports photography. Here's a selection of Richard's favourite finalists, and the invaluable tips to take away from them.

In a photo taken by Luca Salisbury, a surfer in a wetsuit rides the tube as a muddy brown coloured wave breaks over him, creating a huge plume of spray.

Taken on a Canon EOS 80D with a Canon EF 50mm lens at 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 800. © Luca Salisbury / Red Bull Illume

1. Luca Salisbury (Emerging with Canon finalist)

This surfing image captures a violent, surreal, and foamy tube off the coast of Cape Solander, Australia. The muddy tones in the water are due to pollution runoff, which meant no one else was in the usually bright blue breakers.

Richard says the strong qualities of this photograph are not from its classical composition. "If this were a typical commercial surf shot, you'd edit it out, as you can't see the board, the body position of the surfer is relatively upright, and the wave is largely cropped out of frame."

"In many ways, he's going against what you'd consider a 'classic surf shot'. But on the other hand, he was able to capture the power of this wave in a very unique way. The power of the wave, seen as the backfire of the water as it kicks back, is incredible and explosive," says Richard.

Everything about this photo, he says, is daring.

"You can tell he snapped this photograph with his arm dangling above the water line. This is just before he was submerged. He's taking it as far as he can. He's going for it."

THE PRO TIP: In action sports, the energy is as important as anything else. To capture this energy, you need to expend energy. Pushing yourself to physical extremes is often necessary to get the sort of original photography shown here.

In a long exposure image taken by Lucas Tiefenthaler, a skier is captured in mid-turn, with a light trail of previous turns zig-zagging across the frame.

Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF-EOS-R Mount Adapter and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens, 1/71 sec, f/4 and ISO 100. © Lucas Tiefenthaler / Red Bull Illume

2. Lucas Tiefenthaler (Creative finalist)

"This is a famous location, but not easy to reach," says Richard.

Lucas' submission, a photo taken in Zürs am Arlberg, Austria, took him hours to capture in the freezing cold. But it was worth the effort.

"I think the way this is executed is next level. OK, first you have the long exposure – that's how you get those two colours. But what's unique about it is the way he used the flash. The flash is somewhere very close to the athlete. It's creating a spotlight effect, with darkness surrounding him."

The image shown here is a 'slash shot', where the skier is captured at the end phase of a turn, kicking up powder on the swivel. These are often shown pivoting on a peak, as in this instance.

But here, Lucas has mastered this classic picture with a fresh take.

"The way he put the rider in the frame is very classic. But it gets a new twist with this new way of flashing – and it's just executed beautifully. It creates a very nice atmosphere and I think that's why it made it into the top 50 – by creating this exceptional ambience."

THE PRO TIP: To stand out in sports photography, you often want to play with classic framing techniques – such as a 'slash shot', shown here – but then add a new twist. Master the formula but then inject some new flourish.

In a composite image by Delphin Montessuit, a cave climber is seen in silhouette apparently within a jagged block of ice.

Taken on a Canon EOS 77D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO 400. © Delphin Montessuit / Red Bull Illume

3. Delphin Montessuit (Creative finalist)

Delphin's digital collage stands out in Richard's memory. The shot of the climber was captured at L'Usine, a cave situated over an old factory near Grenoble, France. Delphin says that the bright light coming out of this cave, casting the climber in silhouette, inspired him to create a minimalist collage.

"He's basically created two photographs. One is backlit, featuring the cave climber in a classic pose, and then he's stitched the climber onto this jagged block of ice," says Richard.

To his eye, this piece pushes a lot of boundaries. One of the ways it does this is by merging photography and editing skills, blending an exquisite climbing shot with a digitally generated image.

THE PRO TIP: Modern technological advancements have unlocked new ways to be creative. Explore these and take advantage – because shooting a great photograph can now be just the beginning of a beautiful idea.

A black and white photo taken from under the water by Todd Glasser, showing a surfer with just his board and his hand making contact with the water.

Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF-EOS-R Mount Adapter  and a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 400. © Todd Glasser / Red Bull Illume

4. Todd Glasser (Creative finalist)

Captured underwater in black and white, Tod Glasser's photograph shows the precise moment at which professional surfer Kelly Slater makes contact with the water.

"What makes this so special is the hand," says Richard.

The surfer's hand pressed into the wave is a seemingly small touch that demands a lot of consideration.

"First, you must set the technical parameters. Then, you must be there, you need to go underwater, and be ready to press the button the moment Kelly's hand meets the wave."

Knowing the right moment, according to Richard, means knowing your subject.

"I've shot Kelly before, and I always need to up the shutter speed an extra third or 2/3 of a stop to freeze the action – compared to most other surfers. He's just that fast."

THE PRO TIP: Richard says one of the most important things to learn as a sports photographer is how to establish synchronicity between yourself and your subject. You need to know the sport, and the athlete, well enough to predict each move, and to time the perfect moment.

In a photo taken by Felix Pirker, a skateboarder viewed from behind speeds down a steep mountain road, with rugged alpine scenery in the background.

Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 1/50 sec, f/16 and ISO 50. © Felix Pirker / Red Bull Illume

5. Felix Pirker (Energy finalist)

Richard says that this shot of a skateboarder cruising some bumpy downhill asphalt in Kaunertal, Austria, exhibits photographic and athletic prowess.

"You need a slow shutter speed to show the momentum of this sport, as they reach speeds between 60 and 100kph. I've never skateboarded down this road, but I've driven down it. And even if there is no traffic, no cows, if you hit a small bump, you're done, you're off the mountain."

What stands out to Richard is not only the bravery of the skater, but that of the photographer – for shooting into the sun and keeping in the lens flare, a slight imperfection.

Another nice choice, says Richard, is to shoot in black and white.

"I don't think colour would add anything to this shot. The white is stark, and the dark is a strong contrast. It's harsher – more intense. And it boils the image down to what's really important, which here is the speed. It just sucks you into it."

THE PRO TIP: A little imperfection can add character to a shot. And sometimes colour doesn't add anything. Make sure to decide what the essence of your photograph is – and then build the composition around this main thrust.

Now that you're equipped with the ins and outs of action photography, why not put Richard's expertise into motion and dive into the next Red Bull Illume with an action shot of your own?

But it's not just about winning; Richard encourages everyone to sign up for the next Red Bull Illume in 2025 for an opportunity to engage with people who share the same passion – photography.

John Marshall

Related article

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro