The Awesome Power of Waves Captured at the Brink of Breaking

It rolls through the air, gradually building height and power until it peaks; then, with a thunderous roar, the blue-green ocean wave comes crashing down toward the shore. Its strength is almost unimaginable, its majesty virtually unparalleled in nature.

Indeed, few things on Earth can match the raw power and energy of the ocean and its roiling waves. At its most formidable, it can cause untold destruction and devastation, yet – as these photos show – it takes on an almost ethereal quality when stopped dead in time.

Australian photographer Ray Collins has captured these images of the sea that seemingly turn rearing waves into imposing great peaks, frozen still before they break – like mighty mountain ranges of water.

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And the results are truly spectacular, encouraging those who encounter Collins’ work to look at the sea in a completely different light.

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Collins is a coal miner from Thirroul, a modest seaside town not far from Sydney, Australia. He works late shifts so that when he has finished both his work and a spot of image editing the sun is ready to come up – the perfect time to venture into the ocean, bring out his surf-friendly camera and take some shots.

The miner-cum-photographer has always lived by the sea, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s admitted to “feel[ing] more at home floating in saltwater with his camera than anywhere on land.”

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Moreover, Collins knows from experience what it’s like to come face-to-face with the might of the ocean. After all, he has surfed since childhood as well as having previously been a body boarder.

However, it was only after sustaining a serious knee injury at work in 2007 that Collins began to take up photography in earnest. During his rehabilitation, he purchased a camera, using his free time to get to grips with it – and even reading its instructions from cover to cover several times over.

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And what started as a casual pastime – used on the whole to capture friends surfing – soon became a total passion. Even so, Collins eventually moved away from taking photographs of surfers to favoring their chosen medium – the water itself.

In his shots of the sea, Collins expertly captures the waves’ rich blue tones, the sun’s golden rays against translucent sea spray, and the moody, intense grays of the skies overhead – all this, moreover, despite him being color blind. Plus, such spectacular tones are enhanced by each photo being perfectly exposed and perfectly timed.

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Indeed, it’s timing that makes Collins’ images really stand out, capturing as they do everything from a wave at its imposing apex to the precise moment at which it starts to break. There’s an undeniable sense of expectancy in his work: while the viewer knows that a momentous watery crash is just moments away, they also know that they’ll never see it.

When snapped like this, the waves resemble spectacular mountains of the sea, rising magnificently into the air and appropriately capped by spray that resembles snow. It’s this rawness and frozen-in-time aspect that helps inspire responses charged with feeling that Collins hopes for in the viewer.

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Collins’ unique watery perspectives allow him to get where other surf photographers don’t – whether in the middle of a wave’s barrel or just feet from an impending crash. And more often than not there isn’t a surfer to be seen in shot.

What’s more, Collins is certainly committed to his craft. As he reveals, “Sometimes there is months of planning, watching storms in distant lands turn into big swells. Booking flights, hire cars, accommodation and pushing the green button hoping that it will all align on your arrival.”

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It’s an art that’s also very physically demanding. Weighing approximately 20 pounds, Collins’ camera is pretty hefty and must be carried the whole time he is in the sea – an impressive feat considering the fact that he is swimming the vast majority of the time. And when he’s not, the photographer is usually getting into position on a surfboard or jet ski.

Furthermore, if the task weren’t already strenuous enough, Collins explains that taking that perfect shot is never easy. “Nothing is static,” he says. “Your studio is constantly moving, you are constantly moving. Your zoom is in your swim fins. The waves – your subject, your surroundings, are landing on and around you. Imagine all of that going on… while… getting things in focus and exposed correctly.”

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He adds, “Judgement and experience are two massive things needed, but eventually you will make a bad decision and things can get a little scary. You have to be prepared for that.”

For example, the fins that Collins uses to make swimming a bit easier are sometimes ripped from his feet by the strength of the swell. As a result, he usually has a second person coming along for the ride – not just for safety, but also in case a lens change is required, or to help spot that perfect wave that might otherwise have been missed.

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Patience is another key ingredient to capturing these amazing images. Sometimes Collins will swim for hours at a time to get the ideal shot. Moreover, owing to the ephemeral nature of waves, the photographer believes that getting the best picture is largely about being in the right place at the right time.

It’s not always the case, though, that Collins has to spend the best part of a day traveling or in the water. “[Sometimes] I sleep in my bed at home, wake before the sun and walk across the road, jump into the ocean and get totally blown away by the curves and the curls and the light,” he says. “Sometimes it’s best to have no expectations.”

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After all, the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of the sea means that beautiful images like Collins’ can perhaps be captured at virtually any time of day.

Collins’ homeland also provides him with plentiful stretches of sea to explore. Australia has miles of iconic surf-friendly beaches famed the world over for their fabulous wave breaks; New South Wales’ Byron Bay and Victoria’s Bells Beach, in particular, are havens for surfers.

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Some of the planet’s lengthiest waves, meanwhile, are found off the Gold Coast’s Snapper Rocks, while Bruny Island, Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania offer perfect Southern Ocean waves for the most intrepid surfing fanatics.

Waves of all shapes and sizes crash along Australia’s countless beaches, making its coast the ideal canvas for photographers like this one. And Collins’ work has not gone without its fair share of admirers, either, seeing him pick up several prestigious prizes during his relatively short photography career.

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In 2012 he made an impressive clean sweep at the Australian Surf Photo of the Year awards, taking first, second and third places for his shots. Meanwhile, during that period Australian photography magazine Capture named Collins as its emerging sport photographer of the year.

Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength, securing the runner-up spot in the Ocean Geographic Society’s Pictures of the Year 2013 competition and also getting shortlisted for Smithsonian.com’s much-respected 2015 Annual Photo Contest. The year 2015 additionally saw him take first prize in the American Aperture Awards’ nature, landscape and seascape category.

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It’s the thrill of the challenge, though, that really drives Collins. Indeed, his photography has taken him to such far-flung climes as Hawaii, Indonesia, the remote South Pacific and the freezing waters surrounding Iceland. Always in tow are his trusty D4 and D810 Nikon cameras, both of which are protected by specialist waterproof casing. And for those keen to know, he shoots primarily with fixed-focal-length lenses measuring from 14 mm to 400 mm.

Despite this expert having traveled the world, though, Collins’ heart will always be in Australia. After all, living next to New South Wales’ Royal National Park – a surfers’ paradise just an hour from Sydney – means almost limitless photographic opportunities.

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In sum, it’s Collins’ passion for the “empty wave” that has given rise to him creating some of the most spectacular ocean photography around today. As the man himself explains, “It’s hard, and it’s not for everyone, but when everything comes together it’s a feeling of elation.”

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