Red Bull Illume is the premiere action and adventure sports photography contest in the world. In fact, it’s one of the premiere photography contests in the world, full stop. It takes place every three years, and in 2013 I joined 26,000 other people in entering. My image “50 Skiers” was selected as one of 50 finalists that would go on a world tour of major cities as part of an outdoor illuminated gallery. The unveiling of the first stop in the tour took place in the stunning setting of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Red Bull gathered the 50 finalists for a fun-packed week of entertainment and exploration in Hong Kong, that culminated in an incredible night at the harbour to see our images in their lightboxes for the first time.
The Story Behind The Image
This type of photography is known as a sequence, and it’s created by taking many consecutive photos and then layering them into one image in Photoshop, or other similar editing software. Once you get the hang of the editing process, it actually doesn’t take that long and this one probably only took me about an hour to piece together. It’s definitely the longest one I’ve ever created and in fact, to this day, I’ve not seen any that are longer than this due to technical camera limitations.
Firstly, to answer a popular question about this: yes, the photos were all taken from one single run. Whilst the skier did hit the jumps multiple times, all the photos used in this sequence come from his first run through the jumps.
Sammy Carlson had just come off the back of a gold medal win at X-Games and he was keen to show people that his skills transferred from the on-mountain obstacles of a normal snow park, to the backcountry. The key for his was that he wanted to hit multiple jumps in a single line. That’s actually a very hard thing to do because the terrain needs to have exactly the right elevation changes to give the skier speed for the jump, and a good angle for the landing. Sammy was in British Columbia for a few months of filming for a ski movie, but it took us some time until we actually found the perfect spot. I remember seeing it towards the end of the day, and there was a big discussion as to whether we should build it that day, or leave it for another one.
In the end, we decided to go for it but there wasn’t much time left in the day. Construction of the jumps was pretty frantic and light levels were getting low when it was time to hit it. As you can see in the photo, there’s very little direct light left on the snow. The sun had actually gone down behind the mountains and what light you do see, is reflected light from surrounding clouds and mountains. It means the levels are low, but what light you do have, is very soft and flattering. Immediately, I knew I had to shoot a sequence of this because a single image from one of the jumps would never tell the whole story. That’s when I use a sequence, when there is more of a story to be told! I set my camera to JPEG mode, instead of Raw, which is something I almost never do. Taking this many consecutive images is tough for the camera though because it can’t save the photos as fast as you created them. The smaller file size of a JPEG helps this problem, but I still knew I ran the risk of my camera locking up at some point during the run. Every time Sammy ducked behind a hill of snow, I let off the camera trigger for a split second, in the hope that it would help the camera catch up with saving the images just a fraction.
The last photo you see in the sequence, is the last photo the camera took before it locked up to take a “breather”. Boy was I lucky! If it had stopped a second earlier, the sequence would have been a failure. Thankfully, Sammy is the consummate professional as well and despite not being able to practice the jumps at all, he landed them all and rode it out like the X-Games champ that he is. As soon as I got home and loaded up the images onto my computer, I knew I had created something that was going to live with me for my whole career. It’s in interesting image for people that know the sport, but it’s a totally fascinating one for people that don’t, and people that can’t quite figure out how it was created. It even reached the coveted #1 position on the photo sharing network 500PX, which resulted in a media frenzy from the UK where all the newspapers were fascinated by how an Englishman had found his way to living in the mountains of Canada…