• When art appears effortless it's easy for the mug punter to think the artist isn't trying, that they fell off the back of the truck with their talent fully formed. It's sleight of hand, of course, the genius in good art is making something that's difficult to create accessible to the rest of us.

    And so it is with Ray Collins' photography. How he came to pick up a camera is a story that's been well told. In short, while working as a coal miner Ray suffered an injury, and during his convalescence he bought a camera and took the first photos of his life. Realising he had a talent, Ray pursued photography, juggling life down a mine with life in the ocean.

    Driven by both brazen imitators and creative restlessness - a native desire to explore new territory - Ray's talent evolved from classic surf photography into something else entirely.

    With his second book about to launch, Ray sat down with Swellnet and talked us through seven photos that trace his photographic journey.

  • This photo is Pipe, obviously, and it was taken on 13th of February, 2008. I got my first camera in June of 2007, so it was about eight months after I started experimenting with photos.

    I was staying with a friend called Daniel Russo - a really good photographer from Hawaii. He lives up at Pupukea Heights, so when I saw the conditions I had to ride my pushbike back up the hill, get my housing, and ride back down, then when I swam out there were a over a hundred people in the water, plus twenty or thirty photographers.

    However, when that wave came through there was not a single person in the frame. For me, that gives it a real sense of timelessness, and it's what I then set out to capture with my photography.

    This moment happened in front of me and I simply documented it. That photo made me realise the wave is the star of the show, that the wave should be the focal point. In my work, if there is a surfer in frame, it's usually an unknown surfer, or a shadow, or a silhouette, or someone there just to comple the composition.

  • This photo, along with the first one, were really pivotal because they were part of my portfolio for a competition called Follow The Light. That competition was run for Larry 'Flame' Moore in America.

    For this shot I remember being scared, not knowing whether to swim out to get under it or swim in and let it break outside of me. There were a couple of seconds where I just didn't know what to do, and in that time Dylan Longbottom paddled into one of the best waves I've ever seen.

    To this day it's the best surfing shot I've taken, and it also opened so many doors: it was my introduction to the American market, it was used by Apple on their iMacs, and during the trip to the Follow The Light awards I met my wife.

    I feel like I got a friendly push from behind with this photo. It set the wheels rolling for bigger things.

    I even got out of the situation relatively unscathed. It pulled me back onto the reef and the next one got me but not too bad. Dylan got compressed though, he had his feet on the board when the shockwave hit and he popped up way over the other side of the reef, on the lagoon side.

  • This is Mark Mathews at The Right - a big kind of hideous close-out at The Right. There are two stories here: there's the shot itself, and then there's what the shot led to.

    I'd never hung out with Mark but he texted me out of the blue and said, "Hey, do you want to come to The Right for a swell? We're leaving in a few hours."

    I was getting my coal mining gear ready for a weekend at work, because I worked Friday-Saturday-Sunday. And I just looked at the text, looked at my wife Amber, showed her, and we sat there weighing it all up. It's a wave I'd always wanted to go to.

    Twenty minutes later I rang work and said I've come down with some kind of mysterious illness and I won't be in all weekend. Next thing I was on a flight. I told Mark on the way over that I wanted to try and shoot an angle that no-one else has shot.

    He was stoked, and he made it happen, too. One of the teams stopped towing for about twenty minutes so he zoomed in on a ski and said, "Ray, jump on the back of this ski and try and get that shot you wanted to get." So I did.

    I've seen photos of this wave shot from the channel and they don't look anything like my photo. They miss so much because the small closeout to the left - small as in twelve foot! - blocks the view. They couldn't see what happened to him. As it was, I only had about half a second where he was in my line of sight.

    This is one of those instances where the human being gives the wave scale, just shows the awesome height and thickness of it.

    This shot led to me becoming involved with Nikon Australia, because it won Surf Photo of the Year in 2012, so that introduced me to all the people I work with now. After that I showed it to my boss, the one I called in sick to. He said, "Coal mining's gonna be here forever. I don't want to block you."

  • I shot the Mark Matthews photo in 2011, and in 2012 I felt like I hit a dead-end for creativity, and also trying to rustle up surfers to help complete shots that I had in my mind. So I just surfed for about a year.

    But then I thought, 'No, I really want to give photography a go.' And I started shooting waves more, which was my first love. I went to places I wanted to go to anyway and just shot the water and light.

    This shot is from that period when I was transitioning from being a surf photographer - someone who shoots surfing - to an ocean photographer.

    I remember this shot happening in front of my eyes and I couldn't believe that a wave would break like that. It's one of the very few times where, in the water, I've looked at the back of my camera, and gone, 'That's the shot. That's it.' Then I quickly said, 'Gee, I hope it's sharp!' I've done that maybe three times in my whole life.

    This was the cover of my first book, Found At Sea, and it's a photo that I don't think I'll ever be able to replicate. I couldn't even try.

    This is also when my fan base began to broaden. Strangely, I started selling work to landlocked states in the US, and Germany too. It led me to a worldwide audience that weren't bound by any culture, or industry, or activity.


  • Unlike the last shot, I didn't immediately know I had something special here. It wasn't until that night, or maybe the next day when I looked at it on a screen, that I realised it was a good shot.

    Other people seemed to know because the photo went viral. It was on Buzzfeed and the front page of Reddit, plus a whole host of news channels, websites, and corporations picked it up. I think it just made people question what they were looking at, because as a thumbnail a lot of people thought it was a mountain, a landscape shot, until they realised that it's actually a wave.

    I don't even think that wave broke. It was two waves, they went up and went back down. It's definitely hard to envision riding it, but I like the lack of scale, and the rule of thirds, highlights, the centre point.

    It's definitely in my top three most popular photos - if not number one. It's hanging in offices in Wall Street, it's hanging in the foyers of international NGOs, it's a photo that showed my work to a lot of people, and because of that it's the photo that's had the most reaction, the most people talking about it.

    And on a personal level, I can see how my past was responsible for this photo: I can see my history of coal mining, my history of growing up in the ocean, and all the decisions I made that led to this point. None of that will translate to the general public, but when I look at it, I think of all those things.

  • You can feel gravity in this photo. You feel the physics of it. It was taken in May 2014. It was the biggest south swell I'd seen in my life. It was almost 20 feet at 20 seconds, which is what Jaws or the Eddie would run in.

    I swam for about five hours and it was absolutely terrifying - just massive walls of water with a lot of wind, a lot of current. Then I shot from a helicopter with a 70-200 at about 135, that's why it's so isolated, and that's why you can see so much detail and movement and energy.

    The surfers had stopped surfing for a little while, there was a short break in the action, so I told the pilot I wanted to get a photo on top of the wave, looking down into the trough, and I wanted to show the water pulling down.

    The pilot was world class - he fights fires and he can turn on a dime. He just got me to direct him and change angles. I would be on the headpiece saying, "Oh, just turn to the left ten degrees, and tilt the nose down."

    And while he was doing that I was hanging out of the door, harnessed in with spray coming into the cabin. We were probably 20 feet above the water, so close we could feel the currents and the updrafts off the top of the waves.

    Surfer ran the shot as a cover and it was the first time they'd run a cover without a surfer or a ridable wave. It kinda felt like things went full circle, lots of magazines started running empty wave shots. It also won Nikon Surf Photo of the Year in 2015, so it was the Surf Photo of the Year without a surfer as well. For me, personally, it was pretty monumental and it means a lot to me, or used to mean a lot to me.

  • This photo was taken down in the Great Australian Bight, and it's just as nightfall is approaching. Once again, I'd set off on the trip to shoot something that I personally had never seen before.

    I had a few things in mind, and this was pretty high on my priority list. I'd been mapping where the sun would be at certain times of the day, what angle it will be, and I tried to wait for the right time to position ourselves, to get this kind of shot. I felt like I spent two or three weeks trying to get exactly the spot, the dot on the coastline, where certain things would be, where the tide was gonna be, and it all came together for for one 1000th of a second.

    I did everything I could to improve my chances of getting the shot that I had in my mind. And to be honest, this exceeded what I had in my mind, so I was really fortunate.

    It's a recent shot and the response has been good. I don't know if they get it...I don't know if I get it - it's ghostly and it's white.

    I've used it on the cover of my latest book and that was a gamble, because it's not a wholly pleasing image - it's dark, there's no blue sky, swaying palms, or whatever. But it's where I'm at right now and because of that alone I had to put it on the cover.

  • To order a copy of Ray's latest book, Water & Light, just follow this link. It's guaranteed to arrive as a stocking stuffer.


Cacadajy's picture
Cacadajy's picture
Cacadajy Monday, 13 Nov 2017 at 12:39pm

More please!

Love to hear more about Ray's back story. Where he grew up surfing etc. just to try to get an understanding of what he sees in his head to be able to go out and plan and capture a shot that he has already imagined in his mind. Amazing.
Another Swellnet gem. Thanks.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 16 Nov 2017 at 4:08pm

Yo Cacadajy, bit of a delay, but here's some info on Ray's entry into the photographic world. It's like one of those "everybody has a hidden talent" stories your parents used to tell you.


neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha Monday, 13 Nov 2017 at 3:10pm

That was an enjoyable read Swellnet. The last photo is astonishing.

mredhill's picture
mredhill's picture
mredhill Tuesday, 14 Nov 2017 at 9:57am

Great article. I'm not sure which is my favourite..maybe they all are! The one of Mark Mathews just sends a shiver up my spine though..what's going through his head at that precise moment. It beggars belief.

Sprout's picture
Sprout's picture
Sprout Tuesday, 14 Nov 2017 at 4:30pm

I love Rays work; own the first book, will own the second. This isn't a shit stirrer comment in any way. I often wonder how much post is done on his photos, purely as they're so amazing.

batfink's picture
batfink's picture
batfink Friday, 17 Nov 2017 at 4:20pm

His first book was wondrous, these are just mesmerising. I like the aesthetic, mostly waves without the surfer, capturing a moment of art in nature.