© Christian Pondella
Photo Stories From Red Bull Rampage
Meet the only staff photographer to shoot every single event in Red Bull Rampage history.
Photographer Christian Pondella is one of the top action and adventure sports photographers in the world. His work has graced the covers and pages of illustrious media outlets such as Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic, along with dozens of other skiing, snowboard, mountain bike, climbing, and photography publications. An accomplished cyclist, skier, and climber in his own right, Pondella can put himself right where he needs to be for the shot, giving him a unique and intimate perspective to get up-close and personal with his subjects. When he’s not sleeping in airports or hanging from 3,000-foot granite walls, Pondella spends his time at home in Mammoth Lakes, California. We caught up with the only staff photographer to shoot every single Rampage since 2001 to learn about how he got started and reminisce about some of his favorite moments at Red Bull Rampage.
How did you get started shooting for Red Bull?
My first job for Red Bull was in the summer of 2000 in Aspen, Colorado. It was an event called Wings Over Aspen and it was a paragliding and hang-gliding competition. The event went on for a week and by 11am every day it would get too windy for the competitors to fly, so we would go golfing every afternoon. By the end of the week I was like, “this is the greatest job and client ever!” Fortunately, 21 years later, I still say the same thing about Red Bull. However, most jobs these days don’t end at 11am!
So, you’ve shot every single Red Bull Rampage since 2001. Tell us, what was the event like back then?
I remember the first Rampage very well. It’s pretty nostalgic when I think about it now. Guess you could say it was just so raw compared to today. There might have been six filmers, all shooting on 16mm Arriflex cameras, and maybe six still photographers. At the base area we had an easy-up tent and a little trailer, quite the disparity to today’s Rampage. And there was so little manicuring done to the course. Some of the lines and cliff drops would get ridden for the first time on event day without any prepping of the lines.
What’s one of your most memorable Rampage moments?
That’s a hard one to pinpoint, there have been so many memorable moments. Kelly McGarry’s huge gap jumps, Cam Zink’s massive backflip on the Oakley Icon Sender, and Brandon Semenuk’s crazy technical canyon gap drop to almost no tranny on the landing are certainly some highlights and were pretty mind-blowing to witness firsthand.
What’s a crazy story or experience that’s happened to you at the event over the years?
Fortunately, nothing too crazy has happened over the years aside from having a front-row seat to the most insane mountain biking of all time. I do remember once back in 2002 or 2003 having a rider land on my foot after a pretty big air. I was tucked away in some bushes, and he drifted off from his landing and his rear tire came down on my foot. It didn’t hurt or anything, but I remember thinking that could have been way worse. Also, back in 2004, the drummer from Jane’s Addiction played at the after-party on Halloween night. That was an amazing after-party!
What are the differences in shooting Rampage back in 2001 versus shooting Rampage now?
At the first few Rampages, digital photography was in its infancy and the quality wasn’t quite there yet. Red Bull wanted to have images distributed the day of the event for web content, but also wanted the quality of film for magazines, so I had to shoot both film and digital. In order to get the shot on both cameras, I mounted a bracket connecting them and would shoot both film and digital cameras side by side. The digital cameras back then were less than 3MB per file and around four frames per second. Now my camera is 50MB and can shoot up to 30 frames per second.
What are some of the biggest challenges of shooting an event like this?
I think the biggest challenge is the same every year. It’s getting into position to get the shot on the key features. It’s pretty paramount to spend the practice days out there to see where everyone is riding and then come up with a game plan for the finals. Then run around like a madman on event day!
What tips do you have for someone looking to get into action/adventure sports photography?
It certainly helps to be a practitioner of the sport(s) you want to shoot. For instance, I shoot a lot of skiing, but I love to ski for fun. So while skiing I’m always looking around and visualizing when and where the good photo opportunities are. Then these same principles of action photography cross over to all sports. Capturing the peak action, incorporating light, shadows, and some depth to an image.
What are a couple photo recommendations when shooting this style of freeride mountain biking?
Over the years I think my style and approach has changed a lot. In the early days I shot more wide angle, and now I tend to gravitate towards using longer telephoto lenses in order to try to and compress the foreground and background. Incorporate depth in an image through a longer lens if possible. And ultimately, you are going to use your entire arsenal of lenses and techniques and have to be willing to blow a shot while also attempting to do something unique and different.
What is your favorite image ever shot at Red Bull Rampage?
One of my most memorable moments was in 2014 after the qualifiers were over. The guys started sessioning this jump for over an hour that had the perfect backdrop as the sun was setting on the high peaks of Zion. There were so many photographers running around shooting this hit as the guys were sending it every few minutes. It was one of the rare moments as a photographer that you could get really creative and try all different kinds of things. Andreu Lacondeguy was sending these huge off axis backflips and the image I got of Andreu might be my all-time favorite Rampage image.
Where do you think the event and photography will go in the next 20 years?
I look back at the photos I took twenty years ago and compare them to the photos I take now and its crazy how much better they are now. I also look back at the riding in those images from 20 years ago to now and it’s crazy how much better the riding is too. The parallels are pretty much the same, camera technology has drastically progressed in that time as well as the bikes and riders. The improvement of technology for both cameras and bikes and the twenty years of experience to go with it has allowed photography and riding to reach the level it is at now.
How will it go in another 20 years? It’s hard to imagine camera technology, photography, bike technology and riding will progress as much as it has in the past 20 years, but I look forward to seeing what the answer to this question is in another 20 years!