How far do you go for your passions? While that seems like a cheesy question that might be posed in a Nike commercial, this article about surf photographer Ray Collins illustrates that for a few special and talented people, there’s really no limit to the will to capture the most unique and beautiful parts of this world. What’s particularly interesting about Collins is that he’s doing it in extreme conditions, on very little sleep and fueled by only the “shittiest gas station coffee.” But he manages to survive, or perhaps this is how he survives, by plunging into deep dark waters at times of the day when most other people in the world have forgotten they exist.
On a recent [very early] morning, filmmaker Chris Duczynski and his son went out with Collins and his photography assistant to film Collins shooting the waves. Watch the video and then get some context on the conditions and the process in our interview with Duczynski below.
So you’re shooting Ray shooting waves. That’s kind of meta. Where did this idea come from?
Ray would post these impossibly beautiful peaks captured in perfect moments and I would think: How does he do that? Where does he do that? I’ve never seen a wave behave that way, so I thought, I’ll get in contact with him and ask if he’s interested in me shooting the shoot that makes up those moments. Once the idea was there it just fell together.
What was the actual process like? Was this shoot more complicated than others you’ve done?
Ray works as a miner and finishes his shift at 1:30 a.m. If the swell is doing its thing and the weather looks right, it’s going to be a 4:30 a.m. start time. We met one morning at a gas station, in pouring rain, and stocked up on breakfast and coffee. Ray has a camera assistant with him when he shoots as the wave can be really tricky and unpredictable. I had my son Jake shoot water shots with a GoPro while I shot from land on two cameras — one for slo-mo and one for standard speed.
The rain bucketed down as we headed to the not-so-secret spot. It’s a shoal where the waves break at all angles at once, it’s incredibly gnarly and when it’s dark and raining, it’s one of the least camera-friendly places I’ve seen. But the four guys went in, the sun came out, the light was magic and the four to six-foot swell was surging from black water onto an ankle deep shoal. It was kicking up and showing off for us. Every wave was completely different in pitch, throw, rise, power and luminescent backlit peak. You need to know what you’re doing out there. For me, it was easy. I stood on a rock platform 50 metres away and shot the action. All the footage came from that one morning.
What kinds of shots are you looking for with a film like this?
I wanted to see what Ray saw, that’s why I tried the slo-mo — it shows the power, the energy that Ray captures. You’re always looking for something different that people haven’t seen before. I wanted to show the guys in the water as the wave surges in and up and out. The light was perfect — really horizontal and busting through the greeny-black peaks. I didn’t want to lose the raw beauty and intensity of the place and I think the added GoPro water shots really capture what Ray goes through out there — it’s one of the best filming sequences I’ve shot and the edit was a question of what to leave out, rather than what to put in. We just got so much in three-four hours, it was the full-on all dancing show.
Did you change any colors in post-production or is the water just that beautiful?
The footage was graded to an extent to bring out the colour as I always shoot flat and then push a few “make this better” buttons. But all the elements were there — you can’t fake that. You can see in the opening shots the sun poking through a blanket grey sky and grey green ocean. Then, as the wave rises from the ocean, the sun hits the peak, lights it up and depending on what else is happening you get this twisted, beautiful, split second of never-to-be-repeated amazement. That’s what Ray’s after and on this morning he nailed it.
What makes Ray’s approach to photography so unique?
Ray’s the only one doing it with that dogged determination to get out of bed after two-three hours sleep, drink shitty gas-station coffee at 4:30 a.m. and drive for an hour on the off-chance he’ll get one or two great shots that morning. The location is cold, dark, shallow, deep, dangerous and unpredictable, but the reward for putting yourself out there is a split-second of abstract, sculpted perfection. That’s what he gets that no one else does.
Is there anything you learned from him while shooting this?
Yeah, it’s dark at 4:30 a.m. and will be for a long time still. Everyone is still asleep….everyone.
I learned how hard it is to be a good surf photographer. Anyone who thinks they can buy a housing and a decent camera and make a shot that others can’t get is kidding himself. It is incredibly difficult to position yourself, set apertures and shutter speed and fire off a couple of near-decent snaps in ever, let alone in these conditions. Ray is super-experienced in that type of water and he was getting caught out, but that’s what you need to do — put yourself where others can’t or won’t go. It’s also about those words we all hear all the time — passion, determination, belief and hard work.
How many “keepers” did he get in that one shoot?
Ray’s got a book coming out sometime soon and he was saying he got a couple that will make the cut. We shot for three hours in perfect light and swell, he filled up a card and got a couple he was stoked about — and that was a good morning.